This town was built (arguably) around the diving community and still thanks its existence to those adventurers coming here for their open-ocean fix.

We spent a month here twenty years ago, diving every day to log upwards of sixty dives over a four-week period. We stayed at the (now-derelict) Umkomaas Hotel. And since we had moved in permanently, like the semi-locals we were, we had the run of the place, kitchen and all. There was easy walking access to the seaside Umkomaas Lodge and the river mouth that was the launching point (under the railway bridge) for the dive boats.

launch the boat!

And launching from here is quite the ride when the wind is up! Stow your dive tanks aboard the RIB, sit sideways on the rubber inflatable section and hang on as the skipper guns the twin Yamahas. A sprint out of the river mouth, from underneath the railway bridge, and into the surf is tempered only by the search for a break in the waves. Then it’s a full-speed scream out into the Indian Ocean. Miscalculate the sets and the boat goes vertical and nearly flips over backwards in the rather menacing waves (ask me how I know).

A twenty-minute boat ride due straight east into the blue water results in the skipper cutting the power, indicating that we can put on our BC (diving vests) and air tanks. We look around us quizzically in the rise and fall of the swell, and get a confirmatory nod from the captain: “Don’t worry, we’re right over the wreck”. No GPS, no depth sounder, no marker buoy. Just a heck of a lot of blind faith in this guy wearing flip-flops shooing us off the boat into the water!

We needn’t have worried. We’re exactly where we need to be. Sometimes there is a raging current blowing us off the reef, or dragging us on a highspeed tour of the seabed. But thanks to the buoy tied to your wrist in a death grip, the boat always manages to find you when you come back to the surface.

Interrogation of the boat captain reveals their intimate knowledge of the landmarks on the shore – which is over five miles away. They triangulate a church tower with a couple of tall trees using their vast experience and make it seem nearly effortless. And you thought you were cool! Humbling indeed.

Time has stood still

This time we weren’t here for an exhilarating ride into the big blue sea, but elected to spend a couple of days chilling in a time capsule. It seems that Umkomaas hasn’t changed in two decades, or not much anyway. The old hotel I was talking about has been gutted and is now a crumbling shell, doors and windows missing, seemingly abandoned mid-facelift.

The Winklespruit Road Bridge right at the waterfront, was damaged during a flood years ago but never repaired, the full extent of effort expended on a road sign indicating it is not fit for use. But this doesn’t deter the local taxi drivers, of course.

umkomaas lodge

The beachfront-hugging Umkomaas Lodge, an institution around here, with its great big tidal pool, stands a little worn, and a little neglected, as the waves relentlessly try to reach the lower terrace. It is still functioning as a hotel, lodge and dive centre, but looks to be sorely lacking in (preventative) maintenance. Perhaps as a function of the extreme environment, perhaps as an indication of reduced revenue. Possibly that blind eye that comes from familiarity.

I imagine the interior will be spotless, though, judging by the enthusiastic removal of seaspray from the windows and the numerous cleaning staff attacking the rooms. I suppose a sea view will, pretty much, forgive anything, and you won’t be able to view the weathered facade from your hotel room.

The bar is under new management though. Now called ‘Off The Hook‘, it offers a refreshing beer overlooking the tidal pool in breezy conditions. Luckily the sun was out. We spot a dive boat hundreds of metres offshore, heading back north to the river mouth. Memories return as we relive the smell of salty rubber wetsuits, and a sherbet lollypop given to us by the skipper to cleanse the saline palette after the dive and relieve the slight seasickness as we bounce our way back to dry land.

the old and the new

Across from the old derelict hotel is a new enterprise called Blue Ocean Dive Resort, and you can guess what they get up to here. A hotel and dive centre all rolled into one, it has a nice big wooden deck on which to have a pub lunch, or a cheeky cold one, with one eye on the rugby on the screen, and another searching for an ocean view – or the view of the building site across the street.

It is nice to know that African Watersports is still out there and operating. It is with these guys that we logged out numerous dives, to scope out the ‘raggies’ (ragged-toothed sharks), the Aliwal shoal and the wreck ‘Produce’. Old Walter really gave us the ultimate experience in the deep blue.

It wouldn’t be proper if we didn’t do our proper diligence and drop in at our old haunt, now called the ‘Farm at Sea’ pub, which is diagonally across from the Blue Ocean Resort, and looks onto… yep, the derelict old building site. Many years ago, we spent many post-dive afternoons here rehashing demanding drift dives and just how big that potato bass really was.

It is now owned by new management (like many things around here) and is a good place for lunch and a drink, although the old-school charm has been diluted. Just a bit. Or perhaps what’s been diluted are our pink-shaded memories.

Next door is the ‘Hope Shop’, a gift shop that hasn’t changed management, and retains every bit of the charm from twenty years ago. We spent quite a bit longer than planned in here, exchanging stories with the owner, and reminiscing about the ‘old’ Umkomaas. It’s a great place to score something local like arts and crafts, jewellery and curios as a souvenir.

Ocean Tribe Guesthouse

There are dozens of B&Bs, lodges and hotels to choose from in Umkomaas. But you have to choose one, right? Our lodging for this visit was Ocean Tribe Guesthouse. It’s a garden cottage (behind the main house) with some good old South Coast charm. There’s secure parking and everything you need from a braai to a full kitchen, lounge, comfy bed and a hint of a sea view. Our chilled host even invited us onto his main deck for some whale spotting right off the coast (what Hermanus?). It’s good value and everything is within walking distance, even a stroll down past the old railway station, along the river and through the ‘centre’ of town.

time capsule

It really does feel like a time capsule. There’s obviously still some business here catering to the diving community, judging by the numerous dive centres. But this is perhaps a seasonal thing, and the local town council doesn’t seem very interested in investing in the infrastructure.

There are some laidback surfer chill and scuba vibes (basically the same thing), and arguably the charm lies somewhere in the rustic veneer, and the casual approach to preservation. There’s also an appealing element of nostalgia and taking each day as it comes. A sense of we’ll tackle this tomorrow, in typical Durban fashion.