Watch whales at play
Between June and December, more than 180 southern right whales swim into the great sweep of Walker Bay to calve and, on the day in question, a female decided to rub some barnacles off her snout using a rock the size of a caravan – just 20 metres offshore.
Along the seafront, signs clearly state: “Feeding of whales prohibited”, but this doesn’t stop the occasional spectator hurling a bread roll in the path of one of these leviathans.
On a good day, when the whales come to the surface to “play”, you see them breaching (propelling their bodies out of the ocean), spyhopping (raising one giant side fin) and sailing (sticking their mighty tails in the air prior to a dive). They also grunt, bellow and massage themselves with giant strands of kelp. An old fishing village, Hermanus is situated 120km east of Cape Town on the Garden Route – a landscape of ancient forests, lagoons and superb white beaches. This 400km stretch of the Western Cape is the perfect place to watch whales in style. It has some of South Africa’s chicest hotels and restaurants which, thanks to a favourable exchange rate (around four rand to one dollar), are very affordable.
Sunbake with penguins
Knowing where to stay is essential – on the Garden Route a room with a view over a beach often costs only a fraction more than one next to a busy highway. In the centre of Hermanus, you’ll find a little piece of Tuscany at the three-star Auberge Burgundy which, with its ochre walls and eggshell blue shutters, looks like a villa in Siena. The rooms have views over the sea or onto a garden of blue and white flowers and burbling fountains. Across the road is the Burgundy Restaurant, famous for its French brasserie-style food and among the top 40 eateries in the country.
Alternatively, perched on the cliffs is the five-star Marine hotel – one of “Africa’s most beautiful hotels”. Built in 1901, this elegant white building has large, arched windows and a magnificent outlook over the bay.
After Hermanus, you drive into the interior, through the Robinson Pass over the Attakwasberg Mountains, to the Karoo – a region of ancient wrinkled mountains, where millions of ostriches are farmed on the plains. The roads in this semi-desert are so long and straight that mirages emerge from the shimmering tarmac only to dissolve on approach.
Cuddle a cheetah
Ride an Ostrich
People have been racing ostriches in Africa since the time of the pharaohs, when they were also ridden into battle. Today, jockeys sit in a hollow on the bird’s back and hook their legs around its meaty thighs which, incidentally, can also provide around 30kg of prime steak.
At the Safari Ostrich Show Farm, visitors can gently ride a bird under supervision, but don’t be tempted to dig your heels in or you’ll disappear over the horizon in a flurry of feathers.
On Oudtshoorn’s main street, there’s the historic Queen’s Hotel – with an elegant courtyard garden where you can dine al fresco – or you can visit the De Fijne Keuken restaurant opposite. Here, you can eat in an antique-filled interior – perfect in winter – or on the spacious wrap-around balcony in summer. The balcony is the perfect place to watch a spectacular desert sunset. Keep an eye on the sky as it slowly turns a subtle shade of indigo before the Milky Way makes a dazzling appearance overhead.
Eat a giant Oyster
At Knysna, a huge shallow-water lagoon is home to 12 million oysters and, on Thesen’s Island (joined to the land by a bridge), you can visit a tavern and sample the local molluscs. Two-year-old oysters are comfortable mouthfuls, but 15-year-olds weigh 1.5kg and can easily feed a family.
Knysna has two other claims to fame: the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe, a steam train which puffs its way along the coast; and the phenomenon of millions of litres of lagoon water pouring between Knysna Heads as the tide goes out. At Paquita’s restaurant (www.paquitas.co.za) on the East Head, you can see the rip racing by while you eat fresh fish for lunch. Don’t be tempted to swim in the turquoise, white-streaked water – during the past two years, 11 boats have sunk and seven people have drowned. Instead, take a boat to the heads from Knysna Quays.
Sing along with tree frogs
Alternatively, 10km inland, high in the rainforest-clad hills overlooking the lagoon, there’s the 137-hectare Phantom Forest Eco-Reserve with its thatched cabins – each with a deck and small pool with a view – where you can relax and sing along with the melodious chorus of thousands tree frogs.
Forty minutes away on the other side of Cape Seal is Plettenberg Bay – or Plett as it’s known locally. It’s one of the Cape’s chicest resorts and is dominated by The Plettenberg hotel, which sits majestically at the end of a peninsula in the middle of the bay. After Bientang’s Cave and The Marine in Hermanus, this is the next best place to view whales. Sleek and surrounded on three sides by the water, The Plettenberg is like a lovely old ocean liner.
Have a lunch date with primates
Spanning the valley is a 120-metre rope and wood bridge that allows people to walk through the canopy and watch the monkeys in their own domain.
Spot a flock of rare birds
Walk with otters
It’s a long drive back to Cape Town and many people return to their favourite spot on the Garden Route for an overnight stop-over; others drop the car at Port Elizabeth, an hour to the east, and fly back to Cape Town or Johannesburg for the flight home. In the strict sense, the Garden Route is not an African safari, but an extraordinary adventure on which you’ll see just as many animals and travel in great style.