THE CAPE’S TOP WHALE WATCHING SPOTS
Think whale watching in the Cape and I’ll bet Hermanus is the first place that springs to mind. With its cliff-top path, enthusiastic Whale Crier and abundance of other attractions, Hermanus is quite rightly one of the most popular tourist destinations for whale watching. There is just one problem though: all the tourists. With a few thousand day trippers and overseas visitors per whale, chances are you’re not going to have those cetaceans all to yourself. So, where to then?
Luckily, it’s easy to watch whales without the crowds in the Cape. It just takes a little extra effort. Effort that is richly rewarded with deserted beaches, not a traffic jam in sight and so many whales you won’t know where to look next.
Hit the N2 out of Cape Town, ignore the turn-off to Hermanus, stop off at the Dassiesfontein farm stall (www.dassies.co.za) for some of their oven-fresh bread, and turn right at Caledon. Don’t stop until you hit the sea at Cape Agulhas, unless it’s to stock up on the excellent koeksisters at the Napier Farm Stall & Restaurant.
The rocky shores off Cape Agulhas (www.lagulhas.co.za) are the very definition of a wild coastline. It’s not for nothing that this area is known as ‘the graveyard of ships’. Dozens of vessels have foundered off these shores, despite the best efforts of the iconic lighthouse to warn them away. You can discover more at Bredasdorp’s Shipwreck Museum. The whales seem to manage just fine though, and the top of the lighthouse is a great place from which to spot them heading up and down the coast on their way to calmer seas.
A popular stop-off for both whales and tourists is the quaint seaside town of Arniston. Or Kassiesbaai. Or Waenhuiskrans. The name of this cosy seaside village depends on who you speak to. Regardless of what you call it, it is a town as famous for its turquoise water and family holidays as for its strong summer south-easter. Seeing as you won’t be hitting the beach, winter is the perfect time to spend a few days here.
There is loads to do in the area, but don’t leave without a low tide visit to the famous Waenhuiskrans cave and a wander through the fishing village of Kassiesbaai - a National Heritage site. The Kassiesbaai Craft Centre is one of the most popular stops, offering local crafts as well as delicious traditional meals with all the trimmings. For the latter, you have to book in advance.
There are numerous vacant holiday homes for rental, but the Arniston Hotel is far and away the best spot in town if you’re looking for a bit of pampering. Dating back to the 1930s, the hotel has evolved from being a rough and ready fisherman’s hangout to a boutique hotel beloved by visiting city slickers. Apart from comfy accommodation and gourmet meals that combine Cape Malay flavours with modern influences, the hotel also boasts the recently opened Gingko spa. Here you can ease away the stresses of all that whale watching. (www.arnistonhotel.com, www.arniston.net, www.arniston.co.za)
If you’d like a land-based wildlife with your whales, the 36 000ha De Hoop Nature Reserve is probably my favourite seaside spot on this stretch of coastline. Fifty kilometres east of Bredasdorp along a rough gravel road, this CapeNature reserve teems with pristine fynbos, endangered bontebok and deserted beaches. Here you can watch whales to your heart’s content.
The dunes near Koppie Alleen are a great spot to hang out, providing the perfect vantage point for watching the whales at play. If you don’t mind braving the chilly waters, the rock pools nearby also offer spectacular snorkelling, thanks to the Marine Protected Area that stretches for five kilometres offshore.
The reserve offers a range of accommodation - from self-catering cottages set near the office complex, to a luxurious house on an isolated beach at Lekkerwater. It doesn’t come cheap, but for a few grand a night you and 9 friends can have the wild sea and the whales all to yourselves.
De Hoop is also home to the ever-popular Whale Trail, which takes walkers from Potberg in the east to Koppie Alleen. Apart from the first day’s hike to the top of the Berg, the five-day trail hugs the coastline. This gives you a front row seat to the annual display of southern right whales breaching, lob-tailing and spy-hopping.
Accommodation is in comfortable huts with hot showers, flush loos and some excellent braai spots. You can even pay to have your luggage portaged each day, so you can take it easy with just a daypack and enjoy a bottle of wine each night. The bad news? The trail has become so popular that you now have to book a year in advance if you want to walk in the peak season. (www.capenature.org.za)
Getting to Witsand and Infanta – perhaps the best whale watching spots along the southern Cape coastline – is an adventure in itself. It’s just a short hop down the coast from De Hoop, but the gravel road that will get you there is rough enough to shake loose every bolt in your car. If you want to get to Witsand on the eastern shore of the Breede River you’ll have to entrust your vehicle to the famous Malgas Pont. It’s the only hand-drawn pont left in the country and has been running since 1860. A few more kilometres of rutted gravel road bring you to Witsand (on the eastern shore of the Breede) and St. Sebastian’s Bay. The bay is home to the largest concentration of southern rights on the South African coast. The warm, calm waters of the bay are a protected ‘whale nursery’. You are sure to spot dozens of mothers and calves lolling about at any one time (www.whalewatchersinn.com, www.places.co.za/html/witsand.html).