Last year on the last weekend of September, our travelling trio hit the road once more and headed for what is frequently and fondly referred to as ‘the whale capital of South Africa’ and indeed the world: Hermanus*.
*(So named after teacher and shepherd, Hermanus Pieters, who arrived in the area during the 1800s when he came from Caledon in search of better grazing for his livestock, Hermanus forms part of the Overberg region/coastline and is one of the oldest seaside resorts in S.A.)
We left early and as we wound our way out of the Mother City via the N2 and navigated Sir Lowry’s Pass (it’s a really beautiful pass that offers great views of the sloping valleys sprawled out below as you head inland and because we passed through the region a few times on our way to and from various out-of-city adventures, it’s now a firm favourite of mine) – alternatively, you can reach Hermanus via the R44 coastal route, which I enjoyed travelling in June 2015 – I hoped the brooding skies and somewhat cool, windy day would improve, especially since I’d foolishly decided to wear a billowy dress with tights instead of opting for a winter jacket with jeans… a decision I would later regret even further, despite managing to brave the cold quite successfully and carefully avoiding accidentally flashing people in the process. 😛
We stopped over at a quaint, though somewhat pricey, little farm stall in Elgin (one of my new favourite parts of the country and the Cape. It’s so beautiful and I love the endless trees, both fruit-bearing and wild ones alike, that cover the hills and occasionally disperse to reveal breathtaking, shimmering blue dams and ‘islands’ in between) and enjoyed sitting on the outside ‘deck’, overlooking the old tractors and farming implements scattered characteristically around the yard, as a friendly black cat, much to our collective delight, decided to join us during our pitstop.
(Sadly, I don’t recall the farm stall’s name but if I’m in the area again sometime, I’ll pop by and give it or one of many other farm stalls along the way a proper review because they’re
worth checking out. It was cutesy but some of others looked more appealing to me personally.)
Despite our stopover, from there, it didn’t take us long to reach Hermanus (we passed some gorgeous-looking fruit and wine farms, which form part of the R320 Wine Route, along the way. Nearby Hemel en Aarde – which aptly translates into English as ‘Heaven and Earth’ – valley is particularly famous for its wines and beauty), and as the first glimpses of the darkish aqua ocean beneath leaden clouds came into view, I could feel my excitement building as I inwardly hoped that we’d see quite a few whales. (I had quite literally been hoping to go whale watching in Hermanus for several patient years and fortunately, as is so often the case in life, that patience was wonderfully rewarded in the end.)
Although I’ve always wished to experience the ‘Hermanus Whale Festival’ (an annual event held over the first weekend of October during the height of the whale watching season (June to December) that always attracts thousands of visitors to the quaint coastal town. This year, the Festival ran from the 2nd-4th October) and would still like to someday, I’m actually really glad that we went a week earlier because, even then, the town was certainly not lacking for crowds, especially bus-loads of beaming Asian tourists.
Truthfully, you could go whale watching just about anywhere along the Cape coastline, even as far as Cape Agulhas, and still see these enormous, gentle marine mammals but Hermanus is a real whale-watching mecca that caters for everything ‘whale’ – I loved the signage along the delightful Cliff Path (which, with its 12 km coverage, offers well-positioned benches, viewing spots, greenery and flowering shrubbery, as well as some interesting garden attractions to visitors) that covers everything from conservation to explaining behaviour (this includes: lobtailing, sailing and different types of breaching, far as I know) and how southern right whales (Humpbacks, mid-sized Bryde’s whale, dolphin pods and sometimes even the elusive orcas can also be spotted) come from icy Antarctic waters to the Cape coast every year to mate, calve and yes, even to play.
Although some people opt to go out onto the open water to watch these magnificent creatures (‘Southern Right Charters’, ‘Hermans Whale Watchers’ and ‘The Whale Watchers’ were some of the bigger boat trip organisers sighted), we decided to remain onshore, which I was quite pleased about, for – although I practically grew up on boat and am thus perfectly at home on one – the waters looked particularly choppy, especially with the strong, chilly gale blowing its way through town (in fact, it got so unbearable at one point that we eagerly disappeared into a local cafe to grab a hot beverage and managed to ingenuously film the breaching, playful whales from within its warm confines).
Also, I for one don’t entirely see the point of spending quite a considerable amount of money (often about R700 pp) viewing the whales ‘up close’ when you can see/film them just as well from the shoreline for free, provided you have a decent digital camera, video camera or binoculars on-hand, which are a must if you go whale watching. (Sure, you might be lucky enough to see the whales close enough to take a photo/video with your smartphone or to see them clearly enough with the naked eye but it’s not worth the risk.)
We were fortunate enough to have at least two of the above on the day so, as my companions took stunning photos of the whales and general surrounds with their digital cameras, I filmed with my HandyCam. I’m pleased to say that we all ended up with some pretty amazing footage but honestly, it’s not something you can relive even when you view the videos or look at a still of a whale breaching or smacking its tail against the water’s surface.
I didn’t think I’d be quite so excitable but it’s truly one of the most amazing wildlife experiences that I’ve ever been blessed enough to encounter firsthand. Although the whales were breaching in the distance when we first arrived in Hermanus and walked along Cliff Path and later, when we explored the Old Harbour (there’s also an ‘Old Harbour Museum’, but it didn’t appear to be too noteworthy) area around midday, it was only much later in the day, after lunchtime and during early afternoon, that the whales really decided to play ball and in so doing, offer us the full whale-watching experience… again, patience proved to be a virtue. 🙂
I can still recall how, when we went further out of town (or at least away from Old Harbour), I bundled out of the idling car, oblivious to the cold wind blowing and my infuriatingly blowy skirt alike, and clamoured over boulders in durable ‘girly’ shoes (again, epic fail on my part…) at breakneck speed before finally coming to rest upon a rocky outcrop, inhabited by a group of American tourists, as one whale in particular decided to come decidedly close to the shore.
It’s impossible to describe the sounds and sight of it blowing through its blowhole or splashing that big, lazy flipper against the water but it still makes my heart leap with joy when I watch the amateur, though still precious footage I captured back then.
Something else that possibly excited me just as much (if not more…) were the ridiculously tame dassies or, rock hyraxes, that frequent the grassy slopes and rocky outcrops around Cliff Path, Old Harbour and even the area just below Market Square. We all had a really fun time taking photos of them and because I have, well, a slight obsession with the little furry, hopping creatures (they look a bit like grumpy rabbits, hence, their other name, ‘rock rabbits’ 🙂 ), I was proclaiming that the dassies alone could ensure frequent returns to Hermanus on my part.
I also really loved the atmosphere of the Market Square, which, true to its name, has many market stalls selling all kinds of African goods and keepsakes, as well as the awesome, life-sized whale and separate whale fountain nearby. (See what I mean about Hermanus being decked out in everything whale?)
It also has some charming cafés, restaurants, hotels and B & Bs, most of which overlook the ocean vista that spans from Old Harbour right across to New Harbour – built between 1939 and 1951 (completion was halted significantly by WWII), it lies somewhat on the other side of town, so to speak – and the clean, ‘cobbled’ streets with their modern, chic boutiques and little shops were particularly charming. Overall, I think we all really enjoyed strolling around town.
(Also: Keep an eye out for the naval ‘guns’ and other points of interest in and around the charming, stonewalled Old Harbour.)
After a great few hours of whale watching, we were starting to get peckish, so we headed over to New Harbour and found a trendy, yet elegant restaurant, which overlooks both New Harbour and the expansive ocean, called ‘Harbour Rock’.
There, I enjoyed a few more ‘firsts’ as I sampled prawns (I have to say, I really enjoyed them) and a warm, positively decadent rich chocolate Belgian ganache (without a doubt, one of the best desserts I’ve ever tasted). The rest of the platter and accompanying white wine we had were excellent and the service, décor and the views from the restaurant were great too, but that’s a story for another review. 🙂
What I will make mention of is the fact that we were able to get even more great footage of the whales through the restaurant’s clean, sweeping glass windows and I personally enjoyed watching the whale-watching boat trips departing from the harbour, as well as the lazy whales breaching fully (it seemed to us that they get more active in the afternoons but I can’t swear by this) in the then-somewhat calmer waves below. All in all, this, too, was a very memorable mealtime – after all, how often do you get to watch whales splashing about whilst enjoying a tasty lunch with fine company? 🙂
After that, it was time for us to say adieu to Hermanus and although I do think it’s a charming enough town and I had a really memorable day there, it’s not really a place that I would personally visit outside of the whale-watching season or rush to holiday in.
Though, having said that, I hasten to add that it does offer a multitude of fun outdoor experiences, which I’d certainly love to try sometime, that include enjoying: hiking trails, gardens, wildlife, rock pools or even overnight accommodation in the massive Fernkloof Reserve or else, experiencing the private Vogelgat Reserve, beach walks along the 18 km Grotto Beach, which stretches from Hermanus to De Kelders, and lastly, visiting one of several, well-known local wine farms (like Finlayson and Creation) in and around the area.
We made our way back through Elgin and Sir Lowry’s (I decided to film our return journey as we drove) and around 16:00 p.m., we arrived back in Gordon’s Bay where we had a quick, ‘harbour-side’ cappuccino and took some photos near the main beach. At sunset, we drove alongside the Strand’s shoreline and, although it’s one of my least favourite places in the Cape, even I enjoyed seeing the crashing golden waves and horizon before we arrived back home in Cape Town a while later.
As a whole, my first proper day spent in Hermanus (and the Overberg region at large) gets a 10/10 rating and I have to say I really had a whale of a time (excuse the pun! :P), so I know I’ll definitely be back in the future during the whale season – and I hope that you will visit the ‘whale capital’ of Hermanus too sometime! 🙂
Many thanks to http://www.southafrica-travel.net, www.southafrica.info, http://hermanus.com, www.southafricainfo.com and http://www.satourismonline.com/ for the additional info. used and to my travel companions for the additional photos contained within this post.
[Please note: Some of the above photos were taken using my SONY HandyCam and are thus of a lower quality]
Author: Tamlyn Amber Ryan
Tamlyn Ryan is a writer and blogger, who runs her own travel blog, called Tamlyn Amber Wanderlust. Despite a national diploma in Journalism, her preferred niche remains travel writing. She is a hopeless wanderer, equipped with an endless passion for road trips, carefully planned, holiday itineraries and above all else, the great outdoors.