Aug 05 2011

Altered Expectations – Sardine Run 2011 by Graham Fenwick

by Allen Walker in blog

The Sardine Run, visions fill my mind, sharks cruising through a concert of little silver fishes, dolphins stacked up into the light and gannets streaking past in a blur of white bubbles. Ah yes the Sardine Run.

2011 was never destined to be my year on the “Sardine Run” but a call from a friend to join him and a few others in Port St John’s for the Sardine Run sent my life into a rescheduling chaos. Objections from family, work and my wallet were crowded out by visions of millions of silver fishes turning as one in crystal blue water.  Pictures of dolphin super pods, the Agulas Clans banded together, hunting as one, had the car packed and ready to go. Bones and coins were mixed together and thrown out on the road, the signs, and a rumour of good surf, had us on our way and heading North to Port St John’s to the Sardine Run.

Port St John’s, filled with glorious childhood memories and more recent realizations that not all of Africa is destined for an economic and social renaissance.  Port St John’s, a place to access the offshore action and not much more. Port St John’s, a place to while away the hours when the ocean conspired with the weather to deny us access.  Port St John’s, a place to keep a really close eye on personal belongings.

Travel, no matter how far from home, nor for what length of time always gives you a new understanding of not only yourself and your surroundings, but more importantly how the two fit together. This trip was to be no different.

Arriving in Port St John’s after two days on the road, and quick surf in Jeffrey’s Bay, cannot be adequately described in words. The cliffs surrounding the ancient gorge as timeless as the idle river flowing the length of the valley floor. Green forests, white beaches and the ocean complete the picture of beauty and tranquility.  Over the second speed bump and fast forward into a kaleidoscope of blaring music, mixing colors, laughing children, jostling taxis, barking dogs and people and litter everywhere. Welcome to town! I could not decide whether I was looking at a decaying backwater or the future of Africa. What was undeniable was that one could spend a week just in town taking award winning photographs.

We took in the sights, soaked up the towns energy, laughed with the kids and headed out to the point to look at the ocean. Squadrons of Cape Gannets, streaked into the ocean at 140 km per hour, their heads protected from the impact by airbags in their skull, the bombardment constant and unrelenting., Despite the absence of visible blue water, tomorrow would be our day; it was clear that the action was on.

Five days, and over forty hours of total sea time later and the sardines in cathedrals of blue light remained a vision. We had given it our all, but the schools of fish had stubbornly stayed in the dirty inshore water.  We never deviated far from our quest; we had seen the pictures and we wanted to get ours, but almost imperceptibly more and more time was spent on the other things happening around the boat. The change in our expectations was gradual but it was happening.  We watched as the isolated clans of dolphins started to merge into the beginnings of a super pod. We followed them for hours as they hunted in the green water, tantalizingly close to the offshore blue which would have given us the underwater photo opportunity we so desperately wanted. We watched the Cape Gannets betraying the action below with their sometimes suicidal dives into the ocean. Ten meters below, in the dirty green water, everything we had come to see was happening, just not for our eyes nor our cameras. We went over the horizon and dived in purple blue water just to see if anything was there. We were distracted from our quest by thousands of Humpback Whales passing on their annual migration to the Equator to calve. Breaching and tailing, they were a constant presence. We were seeing the most amazing sights and were getting pictures but our expectations, the dream that had driven us to get here, was stubborn and it drove us on.

We took time out to swim under a waterfall that plunges directly into the sea, we chased the inshore game fish and molested the odd crayfish that happened across our path. We woke before dawn to watch the sun rise and we walked the hills with a dog that adopted us. We drank Tequila and laughed around the fire at night. We shared our stories, our knowledge and sometimes our poor humour. We went out to mix alcohol and competitive bravado with the travelling photographers that crowded the local pubs. And then, on the last evening we drove to the top of the mountain to bid the day farewell and watch the aerial acrobatics of the local flock of crows. We looked around at this beautiful place and realized that there was so much more to this experience, so much more to do, so much more to see. We had come to this place obsessed with a single jewel in its crown and almost missed the crown around us.

Next year I will go back, back for the Humpback Whales, back for the sunrises, the waterfalls, the forests, the mountains, the people, the river, the friendships, the dolphins, the gannets. Back for the total experience and if I do get to dive with the sardines, lucky me!