No woman in history has dived deeper than Verna van Schaik. In 2004 she broke her own record when she descended 221 metres below water in a South African cave. Verna’s thirst for adventure and her desire to discover uncharted water is legendary in the diving world. So the promise of German treasure, ‘bottomless’ lakes and fish found nowhere else on the planet, was too much for her to pass up.
Diving in Namibia? Surely not, it’s mostly a desert isn’t it?’ Well, it seems that Namibia is exactly the place you need to be if you want some exceptional diving. The combination of limestone and left-over pre-historic water is perfect for cave formation, and when these underground caves collapse they reveal perfectly dive-able water bodies. These ‘lakes’ (as they call them in Namibia) provide a combination of water, history and desert that creates a unique diving experience.
Our initial investigation into the diving opportunities Namibia offers revealed four options. As cave divers, we were keen to check out two of these: Dragon’s Breath and Harasib. As the world’s largest underground lake, Dragon’s Breath came with a formidable reputation and was definitely on my list of places to dive. However, I quickly found that access is difficult - involving climbing, ropes, narrow tunnels and ledges followed by a drop from the roof of a vast cavern in order to finally reach the water a full hundred metres below. Harasib fell into the same category of difficult access, so I regretfully focused on the two more accessible options, Lake Otjikoto and Lake Guinas (both but a short 450km drive from Windhoek). From a diver’s perspective these were indeed interesting. As the twelfth-largest underwater cave in the world, Lake Guinas offered an opportunity to explore where no other diver has been. The bottom is sub-100 metres and gets wider and deeper creating vast caverns full of opportunity. Otjikoto was equally interesting, coming as it did with rumoured World War One bullion yet to be found. Not too bad, I thought.
Before I knew it, I found myself arriving in the closest town to both sites, Tsumeb, eager to start my adventure. Driving through desert scrub had left me wondering if there was enough water to dive, so I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived at my first site, Lake Otjikoto. There was indeed water and it looked deep. Deep enough to hide a German safe filled with gold bullion? I certainly hoped so!
I think now would be a good time to explain the Namibian meaning of the word ‘lake’, which traditionally conjures up images of grand, flat water expanses with rolling beaches. This could not be further from the truth. Here the word lake means nothing more than a water mass that is open to the crystal blue sky. These water masses are in fact sinkholes which come with rocky, vertical sides that make access to the water a little tricky, especially with heavy diving gear. As one of the premier dive sites in Namibia, Otjikoto has taken pains to make the site accessible with stairs, a diving platform on the water’s edge and a winch to get gear in – all of which was very welcome on what was turning out to be a very, very warm day under a bright Namibian sun.
Sorting out dive gear in the dubious shade of a scrubby thorn tree, it was hard to believe that the fighting from World War One had extended this far south. I found myself imagining what it must have been like as a soldier of the South African Union … having to invade German South West Africa and liberate it. This innocuous lake had been the site of some of the most furious fighting and was now the final resting place of the German artillery (and yes, I do mean heavy guns and ammunition wagons). Glancing over to the water I could understand the urge to thwart an enemy. If I were a German about to surrender I would also choose to dump everything into a nearby ‘bottomless’ lake. Lucky for us, the lake turned out to be far from bottomless, and that last defiant act of the Germans created a unique diving opportunity. Under the dark water lay huge cannons and ammo boxes … and, if the rumours were true, enough silt to still be hiding that safe full of gold!
Diving was a welcome relief from the desert heat, and I started my descent in cool, if very murky water. The locals claim that the visibility can get up to fifteen metres, but I could barely see more than a metre. For my first dive I had chosen to explore the cannons rather than the general hole, as I figured I would leave the opportunity of experiencing the endemic fish life to my next dive at Lake Guinas. With the low visibility, each metre of the fifty-metre descent was an experience in itself and then, slowly, reluctantly almost, the cannons revealed themselves – majestic and impressive, surrounded by silt and silence, a far cry from their noisy and violent life on land. Because of the depth, I could not stay long and all too soon I was swimming away, past ammo boxes and silt that was sadly bereft of gold-bearing safes.
Our next stop was Lake Guinas. Here we did not have the luxury of prepared access. Instead, part of the diving experience was working out how to navigate the towering thirty-metre cliffs that protected a vivid mass of crystal blue and very inviting water. Undaunted, our team of divers set up pulleys to get kit down and a rather mobile rope ladder that would provide individual access. Now all that was left was diving. Did I mention it was hot (around forty degrees Celsius)? And that there was virtually no shade? And that it is hard work to move technical dive gear thirty vertical metres? But there is no holding passionate divers back from the lure of unexplored water and, before I knew it, I was on my way to the bottom, a mere one hundred and eight metres below me.
For the record, my dives in Guinas were some of the most stunning I have ever done. The walls of the lake are covered in multi-coloured fish, creating a jewelled and entertaining landscape. In fact, the fish were literally everywhere: even at one hundred and ten metres shoals of silver still accompanied me as I swam ever deeper into a huge unexplored and seemingly endless cavern. I found out later that these fish had actually evolved in Guinas. Misnamed the Otjikoto tilapia (Tilapia guinasana), they are specifically adapted to the sinkhole. Looking back on those dives I am not sure what I enjoyed most – the depth, the exploration or just sitting and watching the antics of those unique little fish.
It was with regret that I finally had to say goodbye to the crystal blue skies of Namibia and its fascinating lakes. I was left with endearing images of brilliant red sunsets, dusty white roads and some of the best diving I have ever done. Even more intriguing is the fact that I only scraped the surface of Namibia’s diving potential.