I came to the conclusion a long time ago that the best way to deal with a phobia is to tackle it head-on in the most extreme way possible. I countered my fear of heights by completing the world’s highest bungee jump and of snakes by trying to hunt down a mamba in Zambia. I’ve cage-dived with crocodiles, but this time, it was my shark phobia that I wanted to defeat.
The centre of great white shark activity, I discovered, was the town of Gansbaai a couple of hours drive up the Eastern Cape from Cape Town. Gansbaai is a quiet, windswept place. There’s a couple of small restaurants, a few guesthouses and a couple of smart B&Bs mainly catering to whale-watchers who like to observe the migration of the southern right whale away from the hustle and bustle of the holiday town of Hermanus.
Gansbaai is eerily like the fictional town of Amity in Jaws; full of grizzled fishermen who have long since given up fishing to ferry their daredevil charges out for close encounters with shark-kind, and their pragmatically strong womenfolk who hold the fabric of the town together. I negotiated with a larger-than-life woman called Shark Lady — a formidable, no-nonsense, straight-talking businesswoman — and before long I was heading off to meet my nemesis.
The kelp beds are full of plump seals and make fertile hunting grounds for the ocean’s greatest predator; especially if you add to that a chum of fish blood and entrails. We soon had a couple of underwhelming sharks circling the boat. I had always assumed that great whites were huge, the size of houses, not the size of a dolphin — I was expecting Jaws rearing out of the water like he did at Universal Studios.