Bay of Plenty
Words Jade Cooke
Whales just off shore, endemic fynbos as far as the eye can see and a pick-and-mix itinerary of adventure activities make a visit to Grootbos Private Nature Reserve in Walker Bay, frankly, mandatory.
He (or she – it’s not exactly easy to tell) surfaces not five metres from the boat, water streaming down the smooth skin of his (or, again, her) exposed back. Even the mild seasickness I’m inexplicably experiencing for the first time in my life can’t mar this astonishing moment: an adult southern right whale just popping over to say hi on a Saturday morning.
I’m clutching the metal railing of Whale Whisperer’s upper viewing deck, the rolling swell of Walker Bay making this higher vantage point an exercise in holding on and staying upright. We launched from Gansbaai harbour not 20 minutes ago and already we’re face to ... well ... back, with one of nature’s most wonderful creatures – all 11 or so metres of him making tight circles around our boat as if to magnanimously give everyone the best possible view.
One of the top 10 land-based whale-watching sites in the world, the sheltered cove of Walker Bay is something of a nursery and speed-dating hub for the southern rights who return here annually between June and December to calve and to mate. Us fragile humans may need a wetsuit to dive its waters, but compared to their icy Antarctic feeding grounds, this is a tropical paradise for the whales, with perfect conditions for rearing their young before heading back to the freezer.
If you’re going to set up base camp in Walker Bay for a spell of whale watching, there is no better place to do so than Grootbos Private Nature Reserve. Touted as a ‘five-star eco paradise’, this is one location that lives up to its marketing, and its name – ‘groot bos’ translates to ‘big forest’ in Afrikaans.
Forest Lodge (our decadent home for the weekend and one of three accommodation options on the reserve) is situated in an ancient milkwood forest, the gnarled, mossy trunks and yearning, intertwined branches of these trees lending a kind of magic to the shaded walk between the main building and our freestanding suite. And then there you are, standing on your private balcony with a forest at your back, a sea of fynbos in front of you and Walker Bay gilded by the setting sun in the distance. Paradise indeed.
If you can tear yourself away from that view, Grootbos has a large selection of activities that can be tailor-made into your perfect itinerary, whether you’re enjoying a family vacation, honeymoon or adventure-focused getaway. Many form part of the all-inclusive package, a select few (such as boat-based whale-watching and scenic flights over Walker Bay) are at an additional cost, but all can be arranged at a moment’s notice via the front desk.
Or after a spontaneous decision at dinner the night before, which is how we’ve ended up on Whale Whisperer this morning. It’s more than worth the 6 am wake-up call. The expedition (exclusive to Grootbos guests at this time) is led by a marine biologist and whale-crazy team of guides, including a spotter who explains to us what he calls the ‘footprint’; a smoothening of the water that helps him pick out a whale close to the surface from a distance. The boat keeps a minimum distance of 50m from these leviathans at all times, but their naturally curious nature means they’ll often swim up to it to investigate. And it doesn’t get any better than that – unless you spot dolphins and great whites on the same trip of course, a trifecta some guests have been lucky enough to experience.
Funnily enough considering all there is to do on the reserve, our next excursion also takes us out of its beautiful limits on a social responsibility tour to Masakhane. A neighbouring Gansbaai township, Masakhane was first built in the 1960s for men working in the fishing industry.
While marine creatures, relaxation and attentive service are all part of the Grootbos experience, its core focus is on conservation and social development. This it achieves through the non-profit Grootbos Foundation, which was established in 2003 to protect the biodiversity of the area and develop sustainable nature-based livelihoods for its people.
Seventy percent of the reserve’s staff complement of around 120 is from Masakhane, including our guide, Bongani Mjokweni. He paints a vivid picture of the area’s past and present, pointing out local landmarks and some personal ones as well, like the sand bowl of a soccer field where he first played the beautiful game as a child. It’s in stark contrast with the green, floodlit fields Masakhane’s kids now have access to, thanks to a R15 million fund injection raised by Grootbos owner Michael Lutzeyer in collaboration with Fifa and Barclays.
Next, Bongani takes us back on to the reserve to Green Futures, a horticultural school. Its aim is to help Masakhane’s youth find employment, which 90% of its graduates do. In addition to horticulture, students are taught computer skills, given lunch and breakfast daily and paid a stipend, and each year the three top students are given the opportunity to visit the Eden Project in Cornwall to further their studies.
After a tour that includes a somewhat surprise meeting with the resident baby boomslang, we purchase a gorgeous pincushion protea from the nursery attached to the school, happy in the knowledge that all proceeds are funnelled back into Grootbos Foundation projects.
The next time we see a pincushion, it’s from the back of an open Land Rover, the sort usually reserved for viewing the big five. This time we’re focusing our attention at grass-roots level – literally. Our flower safari guide, Jo de Villiers, is laying some serious knowledge on us about the 2 600ha paradise, the most alien-free reserve in the country. She stops the Landie every now and again to school us on the interesting flora, from the list of indicator species that classify something as a fynbos area (proteas, Ericas, restios and various bulbs, in case you were wondering) to the astounding endemism of the Cape Floral Kingdom (for example, of all the species of Erica irregularis worldwide, 98% are endemic to Grootbos). She’s threatened a test before we drive back to the lodge, too.
A short while later, the seven of us from the Landie are balancing on a rocky outcrop at Klipgat Cave, pretending to be a baobab in silhouette while Jo snaps away. We’ve gone from seeing the bush to this historical sea cave inhabited by bushmen 2 000 years ago. It’s the site of the earliest pottery unearthed in South Africa to date, and a goldmine of archeological discovery. But Jo’s informative talk of shell middens and the Ice Age nonetheless plays second fiddle to the beauty of this massive rocky shelter, the crashing waves just a stone’s throw away and, beyond that, presumably more whales.
Our presumptions are right, because half an hour later, as we’re sipping sparkling wine on the deck of Whale House, a Grootbos-owned property on the cliffs of De Kelders, the bay below us is full of flukes and flippers, waving lazily at the sky. Every now and again, there’s a burst of deep, throbbing whale song, and it occurs to me that the southern rights may be on to something...
If I had the opportunity to return to this paradise year on year, I’d be singing too.
HOW TO GET THERE
Grootbos is a scenic two-hour drive from Cape Town. Take the N2 over Sir Lowry’s Pass, heading through Hermanus and Stanford. Note, the turn-off to Grootbos is marked four kilometres prior, with no signage at the turn. Take the coastal road through Gordon’s Bay on your way home for a change of scenery.
RESERVATIONS 028 384 8008, www.grootbos.com
CHOOSE YOUR ACCOMMODATION
• Garden Lodge’s stone and thatch freestanding suites are warm and welcoming, with a modern African aesthetic. Perfect for families, the lodge has a children’s entertainment room and outdoor play area with rabbits to pet, and is in close proximity to the well-kept stables so little ones can visit the ponies.
• The high ceilings and large windows of Forest Lodge offer unrivalled views of Walker Bay and the surrounding fynbos, with cosy fireplaces and an infinity pool in which to cool off come summer. Suites are embedded in the ancient milkwood forest, and you can’t beat the private pool on the deck of the honeymoon cabin.
• Grootbos’s private villa sleeps up to 12 adults, with a private guide, chef and butler allocated to you during your stay. It’s 1 000m2 of ultimate luxury complete with a wine cellar, gym, pool and media room.
When you’ve ticked boat-based whale watching off your list, sign up for one of these adventurous activities, all offered by Grootbos
1. GO SHARK-CAGE DIVING
There are few thrills as intense as coming face to face with a great white shark in its natural habitat. Grootbos, in partnership with Marine Dynamics, will take you on a luxury boat tour of Shark Alley, the hunting ground of these fearsome marine predators. View them from the observation deck or get into the cage for a close encounter. All equipment (plus lunch!) is provided and a marine biologist accompanies the trips.
2. RIDE THE RESERVE
A horse-riding trail through the fynbos is a wonderful way to get back in touch with nature, and the views over Walker Bay are hard to beat. The Grootbos stable caters to everyone from absolute beginners and children, to experienced riders who prefer a canter up the mountainside. A three-hour beach ride in the Walker Bay Nature Reserve is offered to proficient riders – a blissful opportunity to spot whales in the bay.
3. TAKE TO THE SKIES
For a bird’s-eye view of this beautiful area, book one of the scenic flights that leave from the reserve’s private airstrip. Options include a flip over Grootbos and Walker Bay, a whale-watching flight, trips around Cape Point, Table Mountain and the Winelands, or a visit to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa.
4. HOP ON A QUAD
Go full throttle with a quad-biking adventure through forest, valleys and mountains. This fun, two-hour ride through designated trails in the fynbos includes lookout points over the bay and Dyer Island, famous for its seals and circling great whites. No previous quad-biking experience necessary.
5. RAISE A GLASS
If you need to steady your nerves after all that adventuring, a turn at a few Overberg tasting rooms should do the trick. The Standford, Elim and Hermanus wine routes are all within an easy drive of the reserve and can be explored on a Grootbos guided wine tour, so you can sample many of the bottles from your wine list the night before.
Source: Cape Etc