The one compensation of spending winter in the Cape is that it’s whale-watching season.
While us mere mortals are freezing our bits off on shore, the southern leviathans are wending their way up the coast from their icy feeding grounds in Antarctica for a five-month-long annual summer holiday and the pleasure of basking in warmer climes.
The shelter provided by the region’s stunning bays make them perfect for all of those usual vacation activities too – courting, mating and, a year later, calving and nursing their young ones – while providing human voyeurs with the ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ factor as they often come in really close to shore.
And so it was that my beloved and I thought we’d take advantage of an offer to stay for the weekend at the beach house belonging to our friends in the Northern Suburbs, situated in the fishing town of Gansbaai (Goose Bay in English). Or, to be more precise, in a residential area just outside of Gansbaai known as De Kelders, or ‘the cellars’ due to its dripstone caves made of sandstone.
Luckily, De Kelders also happens to be one of the best areas in the Walker Bay area to go cetacean-spotting – despite the hype surrounding its affluent and, it must be said, charming, neighbour, Hermanus. So much so, in fact, that it’s actually the site of an old whaling station and still has the lookout platform to prove it.
Thankfully though, whales are a protected species in South Africa these days and the whalers’ descendants have now either become fishermen or opt to take tourists out in boats to view the majestic creatures that they would once have shot and sold for blubber.
So, while perhaps a tad overenthusiastic as it’s still really early in the whale-watching season – generally June until December – we thought we’d give it a go anyway and see what happened.
Although dismissed as abject nonsense by my beloved, I have subsequently learned on great authority (a book I read in a restaurant) that there is actually no point in even trying such ventures, however, until the Southern Cross constellation (the one displayed on the Australian and New Zealand flags) is high in the sky and Orion and Scorpio can be seen together.
These cosmic movements, somewhat romantically I thought despite the cynics, apparently signal, and may even drive, the return of the whales each year, which is all really useful information if you happen to be a star-gazer.
If you don’t though, probably just looking at the weather forecast, or even out of the window, would help. We left Stellenbosch for the one-and-a-half hour journey to Gansbaai in the teeming rain on Saturday morning, which willfully chose not to abate all day, or night. Sunday, however, was a different story altogether.
On waking up to a lovely, bright, sunshiney day, we decided to take a walk along the cliffs and, fortuitously, ended up at the nearby ‘Coffee on the Rocks’ cafe/restaurant, just before lunch.
It’s a fab place – not only does it offer a French-style lunch menu (by which I mean a limited but beautifully-cooked choice based on whatever the chef fancies whipping up that day), but it also has a delightful balcony overlooking the bay, which offers a perfect viewing spot for marine creatures of all types.
Apparently on a good day, you can see everything from dolphins and whales to the odd great white shark, although they tend to lurk further up the coast waiting to rip some unsuspecting surfer’s leg off or, alternatively, to sample the all-you-can-eat buffet at Geyser Island, where 50,000 Cape Fur Seals hang out and breed – whichever is most convenient.
In fact, Gansbaai now brands itself the great white shark capital of the world and even offers the bizarre sport of cage-diving so that those adventurous and/or foolhardy enough to want to give it a shot can get to see them up close.
So anyway, as we tucked into our Asian-style sticky spare ribs (me) and pork belly (my beloved), we were hopeful of a sighting, not least because the owners’ son who served us, mentioned that, only that morning, he’d seen a Bryde’s whale, named after the Norwegian entrepreneur, Johan Bryde, who helped set up the first whaling station in Durban in 1908.
But sadly, it was not to be. Much to our disappointment, there was not so much as a swift breach, or even a white, lumpy callosite, to be seen. As a result, we decided to go fynbos-hunting instead.
Fynbos, for the uninitiated, is the shrubland vegetation that grows in only a limited area of the Western Cape’s coastal belt from Clanwilliam in the west to Port Elizabeth in the southeast. So not only is it quite rare, but the biodiversity of flora covered by the term is amazing – apparently it makes up half of the African subcontinent’s entire plant species.
To put that statement into even more perspective, Table Mountain in Cape Town plays host to 2,200 or so different types of fynbos alone, which is more than all of the plant species found in the UK put together.
Of the more than 9,000 varieties that you’re likely to see in the country overall, however, the most well-known are probably the protea, South Africa’s national flower, and the rooibos, which is used to make a bush tea extolled for its anti-oxidant virtues. But a huge 6,200 simply can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
The fear, though, is that due to creeping urban and agricultural expansion and the invasive spread of alien species such as Australia’s acacia trees which, in some cases, were planted to stabilise sand dunes, fynbos areas are now coming under increasing threat.
A number of species have already become extinct and more than 1,000 are endangered, which has led to the creation of a number of reserves such as the one we picked through in De Kelders on our way to the cliff edge to see what we could find.
While any attempts at whale-spotting this time were no more successful than the last, at least we got to spend a few minutes basking in the sun in an increasingly scarce terrain where less is definitely more….