In the heart of a super pod

Land Rover recently invited Leisure Wheels to join marine biologist Monty Halls while he investigated the annual sardine run. What we encountered was beyond belief

What’s the most beautiful thing you have ever seen? Think about that for a few seconds and decide on a single moment that blew your mind – a moment that you’ll treasure and that will stick in your mind for the rest of your life.

That’s what we went in search of when Land Rover invited Leisure Wheels along on the Shoals of Agulhas expedition, hosted by a man called Monty Halls.

Most South Africans won’t recognise the name, but Monty has made a name for himself as a marine biologist and documentary film maker. His documentaries are spectacular. Do yourself a favour and Google his name.

The only issue for Leisure Wheels was the lack of a scuba diving qualification among the staff. None of us had done it before, but fortunately six weeks was more than enough time to get certified in time to join the expedition for a few days.

The invitation revealed that we would have the opportunity to sample the new Discovery Sport off-road, visit the Born Free Foundation near Port Elizabeth and see Monty’s specially built Defender called Marine One (see info box) up close, but the main mission was to experience the annual sardine run. This meant close encounters with seals, dolphins, whales and sharks. No cages — just there among the formidable sea creatures. What a prospect!

Day 1: Born Free Foundation

As an introduction to two days of pending adventure, we were treated to a quick visit to the Born Free Foundation near Port Elizabeth. Four Canadians who had won a global Land Rover competition and the adventure of a lifetime joined our excited group, and after a quick introduction, we sat down to a presentation on park safety.

We were expecting a quick tour through the large animal enclosures, but it soon became clear that our hosts had something special planned for us.

One of the lionesses had to be tranquilised for a medical procedure and we would be tagging along for the ride. After our interesting encounter with the lioness and her protective partner, we worked our way through the numerous enclosures to see the animals Born Free had saved over the last few years.

Our guide told us how the animals had ended up there. There were sad stories about all the animals, but there was a particular lion called Simba that stood out. His previous owners had kept him for entertainment purposes, and to ensure that he would not bite anyone, they removed most of his teeth. Born Free has to shred his meat for him – an indication of how far these kind people will go to save a single animal.

We also encountered an unfortunate rhino that had had its horns removed by poachers. Instead of simply cutting the horns and leaving the stump, they cut deep into the flesh, exposing a giant cavity underneath. The rhino survived, but the pain it endured was hard to imagine. Thanks to Born Free, it is slowly but surely recovering from its injury.

The overall picture on rhino poaching is bleak. If nothing drastic happens to improve things, there will be no rhinos left in SA by 2020. The problem has escalated to a point that we were asked not to reveal details of where we slept, or tag a rhino sighting on social media, out of fear that poachers will come across the information and go after the animals.

The message was clear. Human beings are predators. We like to think of sharks as nature’s ultimate killing machine, but the fact is that no animal is as good at killing as humans are.

Day 2: An encounter with a super pod

From the start, the expedition organisers made it clear that our chances of actually encountering the sardine run were slim. A storm had been brewing all around us the previous day and the rain finally came down hard that evening. Lying in bed that night, listening to the wind howling outside, we sensed that our small window of opportunity had closed.

Stepping outside on dive day was depressing. The weather hadn’t cleared and the conditions were about as bad as they could be for diving. But instead of giving up on the idea, we climbed into the Land Rovers and set off for Port Alfred, two hours’ drive away. Perhaps the weather would have improved by the time we got there.

There were spots of blue showing through the clouds for most of the drive. But even if the skies cleared, the sea would still be rough, and scuba diving would be out of the question.

The weather did clear in Port Alfred, but as expected the logistics team confirmed that we wouldn’t be diving that day. There was still a chance of some snorkel action, if the experienced local skippers gave the go-ahead.

Those first few minutes in Port Alfred were a strange time. We had put on our wetsuits, just in case the skippers gave the thumbs up. Monty was on the phone a lot, and plans seemed to changed every 30 seconds.

We finally received word that we’d be going out to explore, but there would be no diving. The swells were massive and the surges down below would be too dangerous.

The boats arrived, and we were given a skipper’s safety briefing on the go, to give you some idea of how small our weather gap was. We were lucky enough to ride in Monty’s own boat, Odyssey, which was shipped out to SA along with his once-off Defender, Marine One.

The skipper introduced himself as Louis and he gave us a quick briefing as we made our way down the lagoon towards the surf. His calm demeanour was reassuring, but tension rose when he asked for absolute silence as we approached the surf. Louis needed to concentrate 100% to get it right, and we were only too happy to oblige.

The surf was wild, but Louis didn’t show a hint of anxiety. Even when Odyssey ramped over one wave, hung in the air for a second and then came down hard, his expression remained stone cold – a real cool skipper!

Conditions weren’t much better out in the open sea. The waves were 10m high, and we couldn’t see a thing.

Monty made the call to split the three boats up to cover a bigger area. If one of the boats spotted anything interesting, it could radio the coordinates to the others.

The first hour passed with nothing but wave after wave to look at. We knew our chances were bleak, but we couldn’t help feeling despondent after the initial excitement of crashing through the surf.

Then there was a shout of, “Over there!” It was a pod of dolphins – wonderful to see in the open water. Dolphins are naturally inquisitive and soon they were breaching at speed next to the boat.

Louis decided to follow the dolphins, in the hope that they would lead us to something interesting, but it soon became apparent that we had started leading the dolphins. They were as interested in us as we were in them.

It was time for a quick snorkelling session, but I couldn’t join in because of a faulty snorkel. It was disappointing, but at that point we had no idea of the majestic sight that was waiting a mere 30 minutes away.

With my colleagues safely back on board, we waited for the other boats to arrive and then set off after the dolphins in the hope that we’d get another chance to snorkel with them.

The second time round the cameraman commented that the dolphins seemed more focused on something other than hanging out with us. More dolphins joined the pod, which was a good sign.

The silence was interrupted by a shout from a highly excited Louis: “It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen!”

We found ourselves in the middle of an open water frenzy. On one side of the boat we saw two humpback whales breaching. On the other side were hundreds of dolphins. Cape gannets were hovering above and Louis kept on telling us that it was “going to happen”.

We had stumbled across what was left of a “bait ball” – a massive cluster of sardines. There were now what seemed like thousands of dolphins and other sea creatures all around us. There was nothing left to do but jump in the water.

I jumped in, and within seconds was greeted by a friendly dolphin. For what felt like a minute, but was probably closer to 20 seconds, we stared at each other. There’s nothing more exciting than meeting a wild animal in its natural habitat, especially one as friendly as the average dolphin!

Unfortunately, I made a rookie snorkelling error. In the vertical position, my lungs were already a good 70cm under the water, which meant they were slightly compressed and my first breath struggled to make its way down the snorkel pipe. That’s all it took for panic to set in. I got back in the boat, defeated by the overwhelming event surrounding us.

Luckily, the view from the top was almost as good as the view down below.

To keep up with the frenzy, Louis kept on picking us up, speeding past the pod and dropping us back in the water around 300m in front of it.

That’s when I experienced the best moment ever. As the skipper overtook the pod and banked to the right for the last time, it was a perfect moment. The sun was setting behind the pod, a storm was brewing behind us, but all we could see was a super pod of 3000 to 4000 dolphins barrelling down on us. It was unlike anything I had seen before, and the chances are very slim that it will ever happen to me again. You could tell from the faces of the cameramen that it was a once in a lifetime thing. They had seen it all before, perhaps, but they were just as childishly excited as we were.

The only reason we stopped chasing the dolphins was the storm. It had caught up with us and we needed to get out of there.

Back on land, the occasion was celebrated with champagne. The team had been careful to manage our expectations because of the unpredictability of the sea, but Mother Nature ended up being kind enough to give us the show of a lifetime.

Strange, isn’t it? You travel the world to find the most beautiful thing you’ll ever see, and it turns out to be about a kilometre offshore from Port Alfred.

Driving the Discovery Sport

Due to a number of unforeseen circumstances over the last few months, I managed to miss every opportunity to drive the all-new Land Rover Discovery Sport. It is probably one of the most significant new models to reach SA in 2015, so when somebody asked me recently if I’d like to have a go, I was seated behind the wheel before he could finish the sentence!

The Discovery Sport is basically a new Freelander, ever though Land Rover says it isn’t. It’s more or less the same size, uses the same engine, and has the same off-road ability, but costs a little bit more than the now defunct Freelander.

But it’s now a Discovery — a badge that has done a lot for Land Rover over the past decade. And it’s proud of that, judging by the in-your-face lettering across the clamshell bonnet.

I really like the way it looks. It’s not as ostentatious as the Range Rover Sport, but it doesn’t exactly blend into a crowd, either. In my view, Land Rover’s current design ethos is spot on. It’s immediately recognisable, with its perfect blend of muscle and sophistication.

The interior is very well executed. There are many standard features, and the quality of the materials is superb. It’s also practical, which is something the people who use it for family holidays and off-road adventures will enjoy very much.

The highlight for me was the standard sound system. I wouldn’t even recommend the high-end system, as the standard one does a pretty good job of delivering outstanding sound quality at high volume.

On tar, the Sport was a masterpiece. The new nine-speed automatic gearbox does a stellar job in and around town. The steering is light when you are buzzing around at low speed, but it weighs up nicely as the pace increases.

I drove mostly on gravel, however, and that’s where the Disco really excels. I was following a Defender for the entire route and couldn’t help but notice how the passengers in that car were bouncing up and down on a few badly corrugated roads. In the Disco Sport we were perfectly comfortable. It’s like off-roading in a Lufthansa business class seat.

The Sport basically does all the work for you. It comes as standard with Land Rover’s Terrain Response system, so you just tell it about the type of surface you’re on and point it where you want to go.

The 2,2-litre turbocharged diesel engine feels a bit outdated, but power figures are still decent enough. It delivers 140kW and 420Nm of torque, and the fuel consumption on the trip averaged around 10l/100km.

It’s worth noting that the Disco Sport’s current engine line-up will soon be replaced by a host of all-new petrol and diesel offerings, so if you’re in the market, hold off until these models arrive. – Gerhard Horn