Awesome inland dive spots
Scuba-diving is all about coral reefs and colourful fish, right? Not always. South Africa is full of caves, caverns, sinkholes and quarries that are great fun to explore, whether you’re a snorkeller, an entry-level diver or a hardcore techie. Lynne Fraser lets you in on a few secrets.
Marico Oog, North West
Marico Oog is a surreal world of emerald plants and freshwater fish. Don’t crash-land on the bottom or the water will quickly turn murky.
Marico Oog is a series of pools of varying sizes, fed by a natural spring. Each pool is filled with plant life, including delicate water lilies with tendrils like beaded curtains. Bass and kurper hide in the greenery and I even saw an eel once, which I thought was a snake!
Access to the water is via a path cut through the reeds, ending at a ladder into the water. This prevents people from stomping around on the vegetation. The main pool is only 16m deep, so it’s accessible to recreational divers and snorkellers, but buoyancy control is essential – a beginner diver crashing around on the bottom will stir up the silt and turn the water to pea soup.
With this in mind, a training grid with surface marker buoys has been added to help keep students off the bottom. A night dive at Marico is something really special: the water is so clear that you can see the stars from the bottom of the pool.
Facilities: There are no dive facilities so you must take all your own gear, including dive cylinders. If you plan to do a series of dives you’ll need to take a compressor for air fills. Pitch a tent in the grassy, shaded campsite (with electricity and hot water), or stay in one of the three furnished chalets.
Location: On privately owned land between Zeerust and Lichtenburg.
For non-divers: Swim in the (man-made) pool, play paintball or challenge the divers to a game of volleyball when they’re done looking for eels.
Warning! It’s a small dive site so no big crowds are allowed. If you’re looking for an adrenalin rush, this spot is not for you.
Cost? From R40 per person per day plus R10 per tent, children under 10 stay free.
Contact: Willie and Annetjie Muller 084 512 9185 or 018 473 2021 (after hours).
Depth: Maximum 16m; shallower in the smaller pools.
Visibility: About 20m
Miracle Waters, North West
A group of trainee divers forms a “hot tub”before descending to a training grid to practise their skills. A circle formation makes it easier for the instructors to see and control the group.
How this spot got its name is a mystery, but like Bass Lake, it’s a kind of reclaimed oasis. I remember my first visit here with a group of students, soon after the site opened. We took everything with us and things were pretty rustic. But the great views of the Magaliesberg and the clear, warm water made the trip worthwhile.
We even saw black bass and kurper in the shallows. The mine is filled by an underwater spring; if you don’t disturb the silt on the bottom the visibility can reach 10m. Things have changed considerably since my first visit, and Miracle Waters is now a fully equipped facility geared up for dive schools.
Like at Bass Lake, they’ve added a few interesting wrecks for experienced divers: a helicopter, a bus, a plane, a yacht and a couple of small boats. This is a dive site with everything and the kitchen sink. Literally! Look for it on the bottom.
Facilities: A dive shop that does air fills and gear rental; a coffee shop that serves light take-away meals on weekends and a general shop for the things you might have forgotten – like a toothbrush. Stay over in the caravan-friendly campsite or in one of the furnished chalets.
Location: About 3km outside Brits – check the Miracle Waters website for detailed directions.
For non-divers: There’s a swimming pool and trampoline on site, as well as enclosures with ostrich and blesbok to keep the kids entertained.
Warning! Miracle Waters is an altitude dive, so make the necessary adjustments. If you want to venture into the “deep end” you need the right training and qualifications.
Cost: R50 entrance for day visitors; R50 per campsite per night.
Contact: 082 062 1717; www.miraclewaters.co.za
Visibility: Up to 10m
Temperature: Average 18°C, down to 10°C in winter or at depth.
Bass Lake, Gauteng
Visibility is compromised in Bass Lake when there are lots of groups in the water kicking up silt. Divers use the permanent buoy lines to stay together.
If you learnt to dive in Joburg or Pretoria, there’s a good chance the first entry in your logbook was Bass Lake. This abandoned dolomite mine, fed by spring water, is a bit like a quarry, with a wide shelf working its way around the edges, deeper and deeper as you go.
Because of the gradual slope it’s a good training spot, plus there are no currents and waves to deal with. Bass Lake has become an underwater amusement park over time.
Some “wrecks” have been added for advanced divers to explore, including a bus, a plane, cars and an old helicopter. They’re all marked on the surface with buoys, so finding them is relatively simple.
Facilities: There’s a coffee shop and a dive shop that offers gear rental, dive courses and air fills. There are ablution facilities and showers, plus a backpacker’s lodge and luxury tented accommodation. There are also lapas with braai areas at the water’s edge.
Location: Henley on Klip, about 40km south of Joburg on the R26.
Warning! Don’t expect to see tons of fish in crystal clear water. Get there early on weekends to avoid the crowds; visibility can drop considerably when all the dive groups hit the water. Bear in mind that you’re diving at altitude and adjust your dive computer and dive times accordingly.
For non-divers? Kayak, mountain bike or drive a 4x4 trail. The nearby Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve has some good hiking trails.
Cost: Entrance fee is R80 per person, plus R40 extra if you are camping. Accommodation at the backpacker’s lodge (price according to number of guests) and in the luxury tents (from R580 per person, breakfast included) must be booked in advance.
Contact: 016 366 1127; www.basslake.co.za
Visibility: 6–10m in summer; up to 20m in winter.
Temperature: The average is 18°C, but it gets really cold in winter.
Wondergat, North West
The water level at Wondergat is dependent on rainfall, but levels haven’t fluctuated much in the past 10 years. It’s a great venue to test diving equipment because it’s deep, the conditions are always the same, and stairs into the water make access easy.
I always hear the theme song of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in my head when I think of Wondergat. Clint Eastwood’s world is not a world for women and softies.
That’s pretty much how Wondergat was described to me when I started diving! I’d heard all the horror stories about gravestones and fatalities and I had no desire to dive there.
Eventually, I was sent there as part of a group of divers testing and reviewing the latest equipment available in South Africa. We needed a dive site that was deep, with no currents, and most importantly, with no underwater distractions or crowds.
Wondergat is a sinkhole, one of the deepest in South Africa, and became very popular with the “hard men” of scuba-diving in the 1970s, who wore rugby jerseys instead of wetsuits.
This was before regulated training agencies had started up in South Africa, and the sinkhole stacked up its fair share of fatalities – 13 in total. You need to be a particular kind of person to enjoy diving here.
I’m a visual person and I’ll dive deep to see something incredible – a wreck or a coelacanth – but not just for the sake of diving deep. That said, Wondergat is appealing in an extreme kind of way.
You might see some sharptooth catfish, freshwater shrimp or a banded tilapia endemic to the hole. There are also rare, wagon wheel-like rock formations called stromatolites on some of the walls.
Location: On a farm 30km from Mafikeng in the North West.
Facilities: There’s a campsite with power points and ablution facilities with hot water. Bring all your own camping equipment. There is a canteen and a dive centre for air fills and gear rental. Technical divers require special air mixes – book them in advance.
Warning! Don’t enter the cave without the necessary training, and dive here with someone who knows the hole well. The memorial stones at 43m are chilling reminders of what happens when things go wrong.
Cost: Contact Marchant for the latest camping fees.
Contact: 082 820 9362 (Marchant); firstname.lastname@example.org
Depth: The main hole is 40m deep; the back of the cave goes down to 58m.
Visibility: Good in the shallows, reducing to nil the deeper you go.
Komati Springs, Mpumalanga
There are training grids at5mand 10 m, which are suitable for beginners. Recreational divers are limited to 40 m; anything deeper is the realm of techies with additional equipment and training.
Mining operations ceased at the Badplaas asbestos mine in 1972. The site gained a new lease of life when it was flooded in 1985, providing a home to some bass and catfish – and a new dive site.
Don’t worry – the asbestos is long gone! These days Komati Springs, or Badgat as it was previously known, is run by well known cave diver and technical dive instructor Don Shirley and his wife Andre. It’s one of the best technical dive-training facilities in world.
The Shirleys offer dive courses from beginner level to the scary end of cave diving. Don is part of an exclusive group of divers who have dived deeper than 200m – and survived.
He has also provided back-up support for a number of divers who have broken world depth records, including the late Dave Shaw, whose freshwater rebreather record of 270m, set in Boesmansgat in the Northern Cape in 2004, still stands today.
The main hole at Komati Springs goes down to a depth of 53m, but there is a vast network of caves and old mineshafts going off in all directions, to a maximum depth of 186m. Yes, it’s a techie heaven.
Facilities: There’s a fully equipped dive centre with dormitory-style accommodation; a shop with gear rentals and air fills and a shaded campsite with braai areas and electricity.
Location: 25km from Badplaas (about an hour from Nelspruit).
For non-divers: The Nkomazi Game Reserve, the Kruger National Park and the Oshoek border into Swaziland are close by.
Warning! You’re allowed to swim freely at Komati Springs, but all diving access is controlled and must be booked in advance. No diving in the caves or shafts is allowed without the correct qualifications and experienced supervision.
Cost: Visit the website for a list of technical courses and prices.
Depth: 186m (53m in the main cavern)
Visibility: 10m average
Temperature: 18–24°C in summer, dropping to 10°C at depth in winter.
Meiringspoort, Western Cape
Climbing the steps with all your dive gear can be exhausting, but the rock formations, bird- and plant life are welcome distractions. Access to the water is relatively easy – you can choose where to jump in depending on how much water is flowing down the falls. There are nice, flat rocks where you can stash your kit, but take someone along to look after your things while you’re in the water.
Meiringspoort near De Rust is a 25km gorge in the Swartberg Mountains that follows the course of the Groot River. Cliffs lean over the road, blocking out the sun, and the rock faces are like weathered skin, contorted by geological torment over millennia.
Inside this magical passage through the mountains is a waterfall called Die Skelm, which falls 50m into a deep pool. During a flood in 1996, a story circulated that a mermaid was washed out of the pool, down the Groot and Olifants rivers, and out to sea, where she was caught in a fisherman’s net.
You have to climb about 60 steps to get to the waterfall, where you’ll find four natural pools. The biggest is the one that the waterfall plunges into, but you can swim in the others too. It’s a popular spot for teenage daredevils, who jump into the river off the high rocks.
Not many people scuba-dive here, but it’s great fun. I’ve been back twice. You won’t see much in the way of animal life (some frogs or crabs at most), but it’s a surreal experience to submerge yourself beneath the cliffs in a river pool of unknown depth.
See if you can spot the rock art on the inside of the lip leading into the second pool, and watch out for people jumping from above.
Facilities: Take all your kit with you – there are no diving facilities. Pack a picnic basket or some lamb chops and have a braai at one of the designated sites at the bottom of the steps.
Location: Access Meiringspoort from De Rust (470km from Cape Town) or from Prince Albert (390km from Cape Town). The N12 runs through the poort.
Warning! If you dive in winter, take appropriate cold-water gear. It’s freezing! Ask a non-diver to look after your kit while you’re in the pool.
Cost: Nature conservation permit is R30 per adult; R15 per child under 12. You don’t need a permit to access the pools, though.
Depth: The floor of the top pool hasn’t been properly mapped, but there’s no need to dive deep. Fiona logged a maximum depth of 5m.
Temperature: Cold, even in summer. Expect temperatures between 7–12°C.
Raising the Dead by Phillip Finch tells the harrowing story of Dave Shaw’s death in Boesmansgat in 2005 – on a mission to recover the body of fellow deep diver Deon Dreyer, who had perished in the sinkhole.
It’s the best book yet about the secretive world of cave diving. Hectic stuff! Get it for R163 from www.kalahari.com