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The Overberg region offers some of the best whale-watching in South Africa, if not the world. Right along its coastline, sightings are almost guaranteed during whale season, which runs roughly from June to December, peaking in September/October.
However, if there is one town here that has to be singled out as being the place to watch whales from the shore, it is Hermanus. It is reputed to offer the best land-based whale-watching in the world.
Here, these graceful giants frolic and calve in the protected waters of Walker Bay and often get to within metres of the rocky coastline. To show off its enviable reputation, the town holds an annual Whale Festival in late September.
Other than good sightings from the shore, whale-watching can be done in a number of other ways. For those who enjoy flying, a flip in a light aircraft offers a different perspective. However, the most popular option is on a boat trip. It is during these that visitors can get a very close sighting when, once a whale is spotted and the boats engines have been silenced, the creatures will often approach to get a closer look at you.
Whale cruises leave from the new harbour on the western side of town. There are several departures daily during peak season and booking is essential. A great way to get the low-down on whales is to visit the Whale Museum just west of the Village Square above the old harbour. It offers fascinating facts and an audio-visual whale show at 10am and 3pm, focusing on the southern right whales that visit the bay.
The Overberg is a region that’s easy on the senses and pleasing to the eye. Its landscape is a tapestry of colours and meandering patterns, both natural and manmade.
The region forms a relatively small part of the Western Cape; it is mostly rural, and is blessed with stunning scenery and unique highlights. Its largest town, Hermanus, is said to provide the best land-based whale watching in the world. It also has exquisite beaches, including the blue flag Grotto Beach, and the nearby Hemel-en-Aarde Valley epitomises the majestic beauty of the region.
Across Walker Bay, the towns of Gansbaai and Kleinbaai are best known for shark cage diving to see great whites at the hotspot near Dyer Island.
L’Agulhas stands at the southernmost point on the African continent, and is the meeting point of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.
The Overberg fauna and flora is protected in the Bontebok National Park, and its nature reserves include De Hoop, De Mond, Salmons Dam, Marloth, and the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve. Staying with wildlife, the penguin colony at Stony Point in Betty’s Bay is also a tourist favourite.
Swellendam and the small mission towns of Genadendal and Elim are amongst the Overberg’s historic icons. Others that are popular with visitors are Greyton, Stanford, and Napier.
In summer the farmlands are dominated by shimmering shades of brown, the fields stripped of their winter crops and the bare earth ploughed into meandering combed patterns dotted with tightly compressed wheels of straw awaiting collection. Labourers’ cottages hunker down beneath old blue gums and on a cold day smoke drifts from their chimneys.
Throughout the year the early morning and late afternoon sun accentuates the sensual curves of the ridges wreathed in fynbos. When the winter rains return, the undulating, sometimes tiered fields shrug off their brown and slip into the vibrant greens of wheat, barley, and oats, and the brilliant yellow of the iconic canola. On still, sultry mornings, blue cranes, South Africa’s national bird, float overhead craaaaaaking as they go.
The coastline is punctuated by long sweeping bays and rocky outcrops that fringe the southern boundary of this landscape. Here one can spend hours sitting on the white sand, being mesmerised by the eternal activity of the sea.
Add to this a scattering of charming inland villages; locally produced beer, cheese, and wine; lighthouses, bird watching, and wonderful food, and it becomes evident why one needs plenty of time here.
Look out for
Southern-most tip of Africa - at L’Agulhas, which is also the official meeting point of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.
Shark cage diving - near Gansbaai there are several operators who do trips daily out to the Great Whites’ favourite hunting grounds near Dyer Island.
Whale watching - the Overberg offers great land-based and boat-based whale watching (best between July and November).
Beaches - the Overberg beaches are amongst the finest in South Africa. They include the longest beach in the southern hemisphere - at 14km - which curves along the coast at Struisbaai.
Swellendam - is the third-oldest magisterial district in South Africa. At the base of the Langeberg Mountains on the N2 highway the town has an array of historic buildings including the Drostdy Museum.
Hermanus - On the coast in the west of the region. It is the largest town in the Overberg and popular with visitors all year round. It’s especially well known for its superb land-based whale watching.
Hemel-en-Aarde Valley - near Hermanus - this scenic area produces a range of wines and is known for its Pinot Noir.
Bontebok National Park - The smallest of South Africa’s National Parks, it not only protects the fauna within its boundaries but also endangered flora in the fynbos biome. In addition to the bontebok, the park is also home to Cape mountain zebra, red hartebeest, grey rhebuck, and Cape grysbok as well as 200 bird species. There are hiking and mountain-biking trails and fishing and swimming in the Breede River. The accommodation and campsite are situated at Lang Elsie’s Kraal amongst a riverine thicket of trees and aloes near the banks of the Breede River. This consists of 10 self-catering chalets with wheel chair access, and caravan and camping sites. There are also picnic spots with braai and ablution facilities for day visitors.
De Hoop Nature Reserve - Each year between June and November whales return to the rugged coastline of this 34 000 hectare reserve near Bredasdorp to breed. During this time the marine reserve supports 40% of the world’s Southern Right whale population. Although these may be the drawcard for many visitors there is much more in the line of nature-based activities for the visitor. Lowland fynbos is the dominant vegetation throughout the reserve and this supports bontebok, Cape mountain zebra, grey rhebuck, eland, and baboon, as well as many smaller mammals. It’s a great destination for ‘twitchers’, with the De Hoop vlei attracting a large number of water birds and pushing the recorded species to an impressive total of 260. Besides being able to walk anywhere in the reserve there are several day hikes and the popular 5-day whale trail. Accommodation options are varied from cottages and rondawels to restored houses and neat camping and caravan sites amongst the milkwood trees. Most accommodation is around what is known as Die Opstal near the fresh water vlei and park reception.
Wines - The region has some top class wineries that offer tasting and sales.