From dolphins to dassies, caracals to klipspringer, and hartebeest to hippos: discover the incredible variety of animals we share the Mother City with!
One of South Africa’s biggest selling points is our abundant wildlife and yet, the general opinion seems to be that in order to see it, you need to journey outside of Cape Town. But, unbeknownst to many, the Mother City is alive with wildlife and, no, we’re not talking about the sozzled students stumbling about Long Street. We’re talking about wild beasts, the likes of which starry-eyed tourists travel tens of thousands of kilometres to witness and take brave “selfies” with.
True, we may not have lions roaming our streets, contrary to mislead foreign perceptions, but we do have baboons cavorting on the side of Sir Lowry’s mountain pass, dassies (rock hyrax) sun-bathing on exposed boulders, caracals prowling our peninsula, zebras mowing the lawns on the slopes of Table Mountain, ostriches in fields on the West Coast, and noisy African Penguins sharing the sand with beach-goers at Boulder’s Beach.
Between July and December, our coasts receive annual visits from Southern right and hump-backed whales, some of which come so close to the shore that you can hear them singing to each other and blasting water from their blowholes. To get even closer to these mammoth marine mammals, Dyer Island Cruises and Simon’s Town Boat Company offer frequent whale watching cruises from Kleinbaai and False Bay respectively. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for smaller critters, such as African penguins, Cape fur seals, dolphins, and, if you’re really lucky, Cape clawless otters.
We also have sharks in our bays, the nocturnal spotted genet roaming our mountains, porcupines in our backyards, mongooses in the veldt, and the mightiest of antelopes, the Eland, in the Cape Point National Park. There are even hippos in Rondevlei wetlands, which, with over 230 different species of birds, is one of Cape Town’s most prolific bird-watching spots.
Rondevlei Nature Reserve
Address: Grassy Park / Zeekoevlei, Cape Town
Contact: 021 706 2404
The Cape peninsula and surrounding flats, mountains, valleys, and even urbanized areas are riddled with pockets of nature that have persisted or been preserved in spite of our tireless efforts to dominate them. The Table Mountain National Park, for example, which is literally on the city’s doorstep, is home to rock hyrax or “dassies”, Eland, Red Hartebeest, Cape mountain zebra, the critically endangered Table Mountain ghost frog, tortoises, more than 20 snake species, and a glittering array of beautiful bird species, many of which aren’t found anywhere else in the country.
Table Mountain National Park
Address: 5821 Tafelberg Road, Table Mountain (Nature Reserve)
Phone: 086 132 2223
Slightly further afield, but no more than an hour’s drive from the city, there’s the Cape Point National Park to the south and the West Coast National Park to the north. Both afford visitors the spectacular coastal views for which our world-famous city is known and are home to a staggering diversity of mammals, reptiles, and birds.
Cape Town is bursting at the seams with wildlife and birdlife. So, look up from your travel apps, camera’s viewfinder, out the window, and beyond the sweeping views; examine the rocks, ravines, cracks, crannies, fields, farmlands, sky, rivers, lakes, and the glittering ocean surface; look for movement or a break in the uniformity and the Cape’s glorious and abundant wildlife will be revealed to you.
The Cape countryside is a patchwork quilt of rolling fields dotted with cows, sheep, blue cranes, and the occasional ostrich. Amongst the cultivation remain untouched stands of the Cape’s indigenous flora or taller tree imports from Australia. Winding through this tranquil, timeless scenery en route to Arniston, I mused that John Constable himself couldn’t paint a more bucolic landscape. And it’s in landscapes such as these, framed by the stoic, craggy mountains of the Cape peninsula and escarpment that the Cape Country Routes’ constellation of properties is located.
The Cape Country Routes is a loose coalition of hotels and activity-based experiences sprinkled across the southwestern Cape (in concentration) but that extends as far up the east coast as Port Elizabeth, and as far north as Hanover, the halfway stop between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Our destination, however, was the Arniston Spa Hotel, a large luxury four-star hotel right on the beachfront in the quaint 120-year-old fishing village of Arniston, and whose bright façade gazes into the East over the Atlantic Ocean.
The Arniston Spa Hotel
We arrived fairly early in the day and as the Arniston Spa Hotel and its spectacular coastal surrounds came into view, we all pressed our faces eagerly against the car windows. Eyes aglitter, we could scarcely believe that this would be our address for the next 24 hours. The Arniston Spa Hotel offers pretty much everything one would need/want to enjoy a long, leisurely stay on the southern coast.
There is ample accommodation with four exclusive room options to choose from, all of which are kitted-out with luxury furnishings, satellite TVs, minibars, coffee and tea-making facilities, and complimentary Wi-Fi. There is also a full-service restaurant (more on that later), bar, Ginkgo Spa, and picturesque pool in a central courtyard so that even the rooms that don’t face the ocean afford guests desirable views.
With her aspect towards the east, I hoped for a sea-facing room, imaging just how beautiful it would be to watch the sun rise over the Atlantic. But before we could settle in, we had somewhere urgent to be and so we deposited our luggage and made a 180-degree turnaround. The tide was rising.
Arniston AKA Waenhuiskrans
Surveying this tranquil, cheery little fishing village today, it’s hard to imagine that Arniston was named after one of the worst naval disasters in South African history but indeed it was. In 1815, the British East Indiaman Arniston was bound for England. Aboard her were 378 passengers, many of whom were wounded soldiers. Tragically, a furious Cape storm – and perhaps a bit of a boo-boo on the part of the captain who miscalculated her longitude – smashed her onto the shore and only six lived to tell the tale.
If that story is a little macabre for you, there’s always Arniston’s other official name of Waenhuiskrans, which literally translates to “wagon house cliff” or “wagon shelter cliff”. This name is derived from an immense nearby tidal cave that was said to be big enough to accommodate an entire ox wagon team, the popular mode of transport several hundred years ago. And this was exactly where we needed to be before the rising tide rendered the sea cave inaccessible to us.
Coastal walk to Waenhuiskrans Cave
After a brisk walk alongside craggy ocean cliffs, past odoriferous colonies of cormorants, pristine coastal scrub, and dune systems that beckoned to our inner children, we finally arrived at the village’s namesake attraction. Waenhuiskrans cave was large, cool, and dank with its recent tidal bathing and was surrounded by rock pools riddled with brightly coloured sea life like anemones, sea urchins, and skittish fish. We took our photos, delighted in the sea spray and the reflections of the cave off its subterranean pools, and then, a whole morning’s walking under our belt, headed back to the Arniston Spa Hotel to check in, relieve our feet of their sodden shoes and socks, and finally appraise the views from our rooms.
Home, sweet temporary home
We were all lucky and secured sea-facing views. The suites were filled with natural light and spectacular views of the ocean and embracing coastline. I did a quick appraisal, which culminated in some seriously smug satisfaction, and then headed down to the restaurant, where I enjoyed a lunch of chicken and prawn Thai curry with a glass of Arniston Bay Sauvignon Blanc / Sémillon. That afternoon was taken at leisure with the exception of an hour-long massage at the Gingko Spa, from which I emerged pickled with pleasure. Mystified by how my fellow media people manage to use their afternoons productively for work, I sprawled out on my king-sized bed and snoozed.
We concluded a perfectly hedonistic day with a slap-up dinner of fresh wild oysters harvested from the bay at Arniston and washed down with a glass of the delicate and elegantly perfumed Theuniskraal Riesling 2017, followed by a melt-off-the-bone lamb shank, which I savoured with a glass (or two) of the exceptional Strandveld (Rhône style) Syrah 2016. Unable to choose, we ordered three desserts to share: the baked cheesecake with sour cherry compote, iced nougat parfait with toasted almonds and maraschino cherries, and good old-fashioned pavlova with green peppercorn mascarpone cream and fresh fruit. Judging from the alacrity with which those desserts disappeared down our gullets, it’s safe to say that we all enjoyed them immensely.
That night, I was lulled to sleep by a belly full of home-style cooking, the region’s beautiful cool climate wines, and the gentle sigh of the waves on the coast.
Kassiesbaai and breakfast
As tempting as it was to remain swathed in sheets, I extricated myself from bed to go on a fresh, early morning walk through Kassiesbaai heritage fishing village, which sprawls right next door to the Arniston Spa Hotel. This is how Arniston began really: as a fishing community and it’s wonderful to see that the rustic, lime-washed, and thatched homes with their colourful doors and window frames remain standing, unspoiled, and inhabited by friendly fisher folk. We meandered through the 120-year-old village, enjoying the company of free-ranging dogs and the views of the sun making its escape from the eastern horizon.
Our final indulgence for the trip was a full-out assault on the most epic continental style breakfast buffet you could ever imagine. Quite literally, no breakfast item was left unrepresented, from fruit salad, yoghurts, cereals, and muesli to croissants, scones, flapjacks, cheeses, charcuterie, and smoked salmon. There was even a hot station where you could order your heart’s desire for an on-the-spot breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, tomato, and any and every combination and iteration thereof. I ate like food was going out of fashion and it was good.
Your next getaway
What began as a colourful fishing community has since soared in reputation and popularity for its incredible natural beauty, whale watching opportunities (June to November), and human heritage and history. Chief amongst the draw cards to this rather remote neck of the Cape is the Arniston Spa Hotel, which offers travellers a quintessential Cape country experience and a luxurious and comfortable base from which to explore the region’s charming, breath-taking surrounds. And if you are yet to visit Arniston, you now know where your next weekend getaway should be.
The Arniston Spa Hotel is located at 1 Main Rd, Arniston, an approximate 210 km drive from Cape Town. For bookings and enquiries, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call +27 (0) 28 445 9000
The Cape (of South Africa) is brimming with attractive hotspots for tourism. These have become regarded as the epicentres for our dining and art scenes, our heritage and history, and the thrill that is to be found here, whether it’s from dancing in a thrumming nightclub or abseiling down the stern countenances of the peninsula mountains.
Yet, between these hotspots, a little off the beaten track, perhaps along a secondary road that few people know of and even fewer tourist establishments thump their chests over, you’ll discover the Cape countryside and the Cape Country Routes’ constellation of hotels. These offer quintessential country-style accommodations and hospitality, and it was to experience this beguiling offering that we journeyed to the southernmost tip of Africa, to the Agulhas Country Lodge in the town of l’Agulhas.
The Agulhas Country Lodge
With one eye on the l’Agulhas coastal road before me and one eye on my GPS, a spectacular-looking building loomed into sight and I whispered to myself: “Oh please let this it!” If you somehow didn’t know where on Earth you were, approaching the Agulhas Country Lodge, you might very well believe that you’re in the Scotland. The hotel perches on the rocky limestone hills adjacent to the shoreline and its construction from natural limestone blocks gives it the presence and grace of a castle.
Inside, the hotel has been jigsaw puzzled together using materials salvaged from such enchanting origins as shipwrecks and old railway yards. Bare stone walls, dark timber ceilings, bespoke décor, and low, romantic light lend the Agulhas Country Lodge a tangible touch of history without being gloomy.
The suites, while gorgeously ‘country’ in theme and feel, have been considerately put together for the modern traveller, and feature mini-bars, tea and coffee stations, free Wi-Fi, and, in my case since I somehow landed the honeymoon suite, an enormous Jacuzzi bath. I also had a private balcony with inspiring views of the hilly coastline and its thick coat of Fynbos vegetation, the winding l’Agulhas coastal road, and the glittering ocean beyond.
Dinner is served
After an afternoon spent with my feet up on possibly the most comfortable hotel bed I’ve ever had the luxury of sinking into, I met my fellow media people in the cosy bar/lounge area for a drink before supper. Here, we met the lovely owners of the Agulhas Country Lodge, Sue and Phil Fenwick, whose multi-decadal love story is an inspiration to us all, whether single, engaged, or married. We also learned that the bar’s air force and maritime theme was informed by Phil’s rather dashing history as a pilot in the South African Air Force.
With cheeks warmed by romantic tales and a glass of red wine, we headed downstairs to the Agulhas Country Lodge’s small and intimate restaurant where, with a roaring fire warming our backs, we sank our teeth into a delicious, three-course meal home-cooked by none other than Sue and her lovely daughter Chelsea. A heart-warming starter of tasty vegetable soup and crisp homemade bread was followed by a sumptuous seafood potjie (we all continued to rave about for days afterwards), which went beautifully with the First Sighting Shiraz 2016, a peppery yet silky smooth, black fruited red wine from Strandveld Winery. We concluded the meal with what was advertised on the chalkboard menu as “the best carrot cake in the world” and which, I’m very happy to report, was no hyperbole.
Falling asleep has never been so easy!
Cape Agulhas historic walking route
The following morning, after a breakfast of homemade muesli, fresh fruit, boiled eggs, and my daily-required dose of caffeine, we hit the road to explore Cape Agulhas, a region of immense historic and geographical significance. Our walk began at the Agulhas lighthouse, a sad reminder that modern technology is fast robbing our culture of the need for these stoic and romantic maritime structures.
We then walked along the coast through fynbos vegetation atwitter with canaries and bejewelled sunbirds to the southernmost tip of Africa, where the warm Indian Ocean clashes with the cold Atlantic. From here, we hiked to the boardwalk at Rasperpunt, which offered blessed respite from the hard-to-walk-on sandy and pebbled beaches and lead us along the coast past the Meishu Maru 38 shipwreck, a Chinese fishing vessel that ran aground in 1982 (allegedly on purpose…for insurance purposes).
Our walk even took us past the lagoon at Pietjie se Punt, where cormorants gathered along the pool’s edges and plovers ploughed the sand for morsels. With the brisk sea air invigorating our lungs, our feet ate up kilometre after kilometre of beach terrain and, before it was even noon, my Fitbit counter registered 12,000 steps. Is there anything better than a well-earned lunch?
Seafood buffet and bubble bath
Our reward for our rather epic morning walk was a seafood buffet of fried calamari, hake, prawn cakes, and chips washed down with Springfield Estate Life From Stone Sauvignon Blanc 2018 at the Sea Shack in Struisbaai, a casual seafood eatery located right on the beach. We then atoned for the fry-up with a short walk along the coast to the harbour of Struisbaai before returning to the Agulhas Country Lodge to enjoy our suites and a little solace.
Being located on porous limestone, l’Agulhas is in the fortunate position to have vast underground reservoirs of water at its finger (toe?) tips and so while the rest of the Cape languished in drought, the tiny coastal town remained flush with fresh water. And so, I treated myself to a guilt-free bubble bath in my suite’s enormous Jacuzzi tub, whose jets churned the water into froth and blissfully buried me in fragrant bubbles.
The Agulhas Country Lodge is just one of the Cape Country Routes’ properties, a loose coalition of hotels sprinkled across the country but that exists in greater concentration throughout the southwestern Cape. Together, these establishments offer visitors a quintessential Cape country experience, which is all about tranquil settings, sweeping vistas of nature, hearty dishes crafted from fresh, locally sourced, seasonal ingredients, a heady blend of luxury and comfort, and good old country hospitality. The Agulhas Country Lodge does a fabulous job of upholding this philosophy, sending us away positively glowing with all of the above, in addition to the extraordinary beauty and history of the Cape Agulhas countryside.
The Agulhas Country Lodge is located at 9 Main Road, L’Agulhas, an approximate 220 km distance from Cape Town. For bookings and enquiries, please email email@example.com call +27 (0) 28 435 7650.
Africa changes you forever, like nowhere on Earth. Once you have been there, you will never be the same. But how do you begin to describe its magic to someone who has never felt it? How can you explain the fascination of this vast, dusty continent, whose oldest roads are elephant paths? Could it be because Africa is the place of all our beginnings, the cradle of mankind, where our species first stood upright on the savannahs of long ago?
– Brian Jackman, award-winning British author and journalist
The steep rutted dirt track levelled out and the thick vegetation that had hemmed in the road grew sparse and then fell away, revealing a breath-taking and quintessentially African vista. Before the safari vehicle yawned a vast open expanse of rolling green plains punctuated by enormous fig trees under which white rhino sought respite from the sun.
Like an imagined scene straight out of an early Wilbur Smith novel, the plains were alive with wildlife. A single glance revealed upwards of five different species of animals, from waterbuck, which look as though they’ve sat down on a freshly painted toilet seat, to warthogs with faces that only a mother could love. Rhino moved about on the plains like giant grey tanks, slowly grazing at the lush grass as the late afternoon sunlight filtered through the air, lending a bluish tinge to the mountains in the background. Overhead, gaudily coloured European Bee-eaters wheeled and swooped.
The Fig Plains, as they are aptly called, was our first real introduction to the incredible abundance of wildlife in the Welgevonden Game Reserve and it was such a spectacular and breath-taking greeting that I couldn’t wait to see what my stay at Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa would show me. I was right to be excited: before the end of the day, we’d see the most elusive member of the Big Five.
The Welgevonden Game Reserve
The Welgevonden Game Reserve is a 35,000-hectare slice of heaven located an approximate three hours’ drive from Johannesburg in the Waterberg region of the Limpopo Province of South Africa. This rare malaria-free reserve is home to Big Five game – elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, and buffalo – as well as just about every other species of African animal you can think of, big and small.
Birdwatchers: prepare to annoy the living daylights out of your fellow explorers as you make the ranger stop the vehicle every few hundred yards for a new bird sighting. But, at the end of the dusty road and a drive filled with adrenalin-laced game viewing, is the heart of the operation: the luxurious five-star Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa. It was to this veritable oasis of luxury that I had been invited to write an article about their offering.
A Home for the Heart
The Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa consists of a beautifully appointed main lodge (which functions as a reception, guest lounge, and restaurant), a spa, a “boma” for dinner under the stars, a curio shop, and a luxurious collection of rooms, suites, and a villa (accommodates six people), every bedroom of which has views over the lawns and watering hole that lie directly in front of the lodge.
Mhondoro has clearly been built with this in mind: offering guests an immersive wildlife experience that continues even after you’ve alighted from the safari vehicle, retired to your room, and gotten into your pyjamas. This is a true story: many of the photos I took of wildlife were taken from the vantage point of the villa’s master suite (and in my pyjamas). In fact, one of my favourite pastimes between game drives was sprawling out on my ridiculously large balcony with a glass of bubbly to watch the warthogs rolling in the mud and the baboons chase and pester each other.
I don’t know which divine entity favoured my fortunes but I somehow got lucky and landed the villa’s master bedroom suite. I had, completely to myself, a bed large enough to sleep an elephant, a walk-in closet, an enormous luxurious bathroom complete with his and hers vanities and a separate toilet, my own lounge with a fireplace and writing desk, and a wrap-around balcony and patio with views of the watering hole. My suite also came with an outdoor shower and so – super eager to try it out – I washed off the day’s travel while watching zebras graze around the watering hole and take the occasional nip at each other’s rumps.
The space was enormous and yet it felt cosy, intimate, and like home away from home (with five-stars, attentive service, exceptional food, and ridiculous extremes of pampering thrown in).
Mhondoro Dining Experiences
Dining at Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa is a celebration of the reserve’s spectacular and abundant wildlife, not in the sense that this wildlife finds itself on the menu, but rather in that every meal – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – is taken outside, either on the deck of the lodge or on the deck of the villa, where the views of the watering hole and its animals and birds are uninterrupted.
On our first night, however, we found ourselves in the atmospheric “boma” – a small, open-air arena with tables and seating arranged in semi-circular arcs around a central fireplace, where we enjoyed a traditional South African braai and fare (think oxtail potjiekos and boerewors) and even a song and dance performance by the staff. The service was unrelenting in its attentiveness and we didn’t once want for anything. I fell asleep that night in the sweet embrace of silky soft white linen, red wine over-indulgence, and a mosquito net that cascaded, dream-like, down around my elephant-sized bed.
The Watering Hole and Game Drives
One of my favourite features of Mhondoro, not surprisingly, was its underground watering hole hide that is connected to the main lodge through a 65-meter long concrete tunnel, which makes it the very first and the only luxury lodge in the country to offer guests (literally) eye-to-eye encounters with the wildlife that come here to drink and take a dip.
Throughout our stay, we had a troop of 30+ baboons pay the watering hole a visit, as well as wildebeest, zebra, impala, elephant, a rhino mother and her very young baby, and a family of ever-present warthogs. According to the staff, lion, leopard, and cheetah have been seen from the excellent vantage point of the lodge, not only coming to drink, but in the case of the cheetah, to take down a gazelle and enjoy a leisurely lunch as well (they would have had to pry me from that hide with a crowbar).
And then there are the game drives. Mhondoro maintains a fleet of safari vehicles that are not only bigger and sturdier than most of the animals you’ll encounter on your excursions but are very comfortable to sit in even while the vehicle negotiates dongas the size of the Grand Canyon and bounces over roads more rutted and pockmarked than the surface of the moon.
The absolute STAR of the show are the game rangers who take you boldly into the bush, wear their passion for nature on their sleeves, know how to track the wildlife, and are tomes of knowledge on the park’s fauna and flora. Our lead ranger, Fritz, knew more about birds than I do, which was at once ruffled my feathers and impressed me.
The rangers maintain constant communication with each other, reporting sightings and sharing information over the radio, which gives guests much better odds of experiencing those once-in-a-lifetime sightings of special animals, like leopard. In fact, it was on our very first game drive (on the evening of the first night) that Fritz spotted a leopard slinking low in the yellow grass. Had it not been for that communication network, we would never have stopped at that bend in the road to search for the leopard and, undoubtedly, had it not been for Fritz’ keen eyes, the big cat would have slunk past us completely undetected.
Sunrise snacks and sun-downer drinks
After a few hours’ of fruitful game viewing, the rangers make a habit of stopping the vehicle, usually somewhere with a beautiful view, and break out the coffee, tea, rusks, and other breakfasty snacks (on morning drives) or the gin-and-tonic, wine, liqueurs, and nibbles (on late afternoon drives). And let me tell you… there are few moments are profound as finding yourself standing in the middle of the African bush with a gin and tonic in your hand, watching the setting sun paint a blaze of fierce colours on the horizon.
The hardest part of writing this article was trying to keep it short and sweet and even that I have failed to do. The Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa and the Welgevonden Game Reserve into which it is nestled is, quite honestly, one of the most beautiful places I have ever had the luxury of visiting. So much so, I could have written a novel-length account of my stay there. From the lodge’s major services, amenities, and offerings right down to the minute attention to detail paid by the staff (that opening quote was placed next to my bed on a printed out piece of paper), Mhondoro is a home for the heart that, once departed, will forever beat with a deep love for Africa.
This article was originally written for Southern Vines Magazine, a Cape Town-based lifestyle and leisure publication that focuses on food, wine, travel, and adventure in South Africa.
Step aside Big Five, whales are so much bigger and you don’t need to schlep to the Kruger National Park to see them! Every year, around June and July, great pods of southern right whales make their way northwards from their feeding grounds in Antarctica’s frigid Southern Ocean. The purpose of this epic journey is to reach the substantially warmer waters around South Africa, where they will make sweet love, have babies, and show off their fins. And it’s the predictable arrival of the whales each year that attracts hoards of people, both tourists and South Africans, to the Cape.
Cape Town’s prime whale watching spots
At this time of year, southern right whales can be seen cavorting along the south-western Cape coastline from several land-based vantage points. The most notable (and successful) of these vantage points are found in False Bay, Cape Agulhas, and, of course, the famous whale-watching town of Hermanus, which the World Wildlife Fund has rated as one of the top 12 whale-watching locations in the world.
Truth be told, however, you don’t have to drive far at all to see these marine mammals that are, in spite of being the size of a bus, remarkably graceful. In peak calving season, they take refuge in the shelter provided by the natural harbours of our scalloped coastline, and it’s here that you’re likely to see them whilst sipping on a cocktail at the Chapman’s Peak Hotel in Hout Bay, or on a sunset beach walk in Camps Bay. In fact, wherever you are along the Cape peninsula between June and November , you shouldn’t be terribly surprised to see a tell-tale spout of water, a skyward-thrust flipper, or a tempestuous fluke (tail) spanking the surface of the water.
The Cape’s Species of Visiting Whales
Southern right whales – so called because their tendency to move slowly made them the “right” targets for whaling vessels – aren’t the only species to grace the Cape. We are also routinely visited by humpback and Bryde’s whales, as well as several species of dolphins, which, if you ask any zoologist, are also technically whales. In November of 2016, a pod of an estimated 60 humpback whales made the waters off Cape Town their feeding ground and for several days, they just about broke the internet with people sharing photos and videos of their unusually vivacious antics.
We are also, on the rare occasion, visited by orcas or killer whales. In May 2017, the butchered bodies of three great white sharks were recovered at Gansbaai, a small seaside town about 160 km up the east coast from Cape Town and a stone’s throw from Hermanus. All three of the carcasses had been savaged and their livers completely torn out by what was clearly a much larger predator. So, unless Godzilla had once again risen from its deep-sea abyssal lair, the perpetrator/s could only have been visiting orcas, which not only have a liking for shark meat but are also known to be quite fond of liver! Yum.
The Cape’s spectacular and diverse marine life
South Africa’s coastal waters are teeming with marine life: great kelp forests gently swish and sway in the swell, Cape fur seals honk and bark at each other from their sunbathing spots on harbour walls, and beach rock pools are a kaleidoscopic array of purple sea urchins, orange star fish, and red sea anemones. A little further out to sea, we have some seriously big predators patrolling the waters, and, in the air above, a diverse bird life made up of gannets, cormorants, gulls, petrels, shearwaters, terns, and albatrosses.
The Cape is blessed with a biologically rich marine biome but its pièce de résistance has got to be the stately whales that, every year, make their homes and their babies in our bays. So, find yourself a great spot, take a picnic, crack open a bottle of vino, and enjoy the show!
Whale watching spots in and around Cape Town:
Arniston, Betty’s Bay, Elands Bay, False Bay, Gaansbaai, Hermanus, Hout Bay, Knysna, Lambert’s Bay, Langebaan, Llandudno (and Camps Bay), Melkbos, Mossel Bay, Nature’s Valley, Paternoster, Plettenberg Bay, Stanford, Stilbaai, Witsand, Yzerfontein.
When I was 19, I spent the Easter holidays in a soggy canoe barrelling down the Orange River, the longest river in South Africa and the mighty waterway that constitutes its northern border with Namibia. You’ll notice this if you look at Namibia’s eastern and southern borders. The former is a clean cleave right through the left ventricle of the subcontinent, while the latter, which follows the meandering course of the river, is wonkier than your life choices after your fifth tequila. For the trip, we hired the services of a river rafting company that supplied everything we needed – canoes, guides, equipment, food, and watertight storage – while we were tasked with bringing our own beverages and sleeping gear.
On day one, we landed at base camp after a long, dusty drive up from Cape Town and, on the banks of the Orange River, got acquainted with our guides and our fellow intrepid explorers. These were a rambunctious lot of my parents’ vintage (with kids my age) and thank goodness for that because there’s nothing worse than travelling with boring people. After a welcome braai (South African colloquialism for “barbeque”), several beers, and final preparations, we retired to our cabins for a night of civilized sleep: our last for the next seven days.
Daytime on the Orange River
As the sun came up, the heat descended. The north-western border of South Africa is several hundred kilometres closer to the equator and with the cold Benguela current, which flows adjacent to the west coast, imparting little moisture to the atmosphere, the air here is dry and the landscapes parched and dusty. Of course, the Orange River gives life to the trees, bushes, and reeds whose seeds won the lottery by falling near enough to its water to germinate and so there is some greenery. This is strongly juxtaposed by the warm oranges and reds of the iron-rich soils, which is where we and many like us assumed the river gets its name from. In fact, it was named in the 1770’s by a Captain in the Dutch East Indian Company after Prince William V of Orange.
The days spent on the river were long and afforded us a sneak peak at the lives of people who spend the majority of their waking hours engaging their hands and bodies, a digression for most of us middle-to-upper class families whose jobs or studies have us desk-bound. I found myself relishing the simplicity of the day’s work: the rhythmic, repetitive motion of rowing, the trees and rocky red landscape drifting idly by, and the hypnotic ripples caused by our canoes cutting through the muddy green waters of the not-so Orange River. The hours trickled by as new landscapes evolved and melted past us punctuated by the odd series of rapids we’d have to negotiate. I also kept mental note of the birds we saw – goliath herons, African fish eagles, hamerkops – which I would write down on my list when we stopped to camp for the night.
With all the arid beauty of this region and its rich birdlife, there was always something to keep the eyes engaged but untethered from the insular concerns of my fairly sheltered life, my thoughts were allowed to wander precariously to the future and to my dreams of travel. I was only in the second year of a Bachelors Science Degree and so my soul belonged to academia, a demanding and occasionally traumatizing mistress who would, every now and then, award you with enough validation to get you through the next six months of intellectual toil. I had a fair slog ahead of me before I’d be able to hit the road but the point is that the dream, or rather need, to see the world was there, gnawing steadily at my inner fibres.
This was daytime on the river – row, row, row your boat; think, think, think about shit – and for every toll it took on the body, it gave back in mental rejuvenation. Never mind the intense heat of the near-equatorial sun, the physical demands of rowing for eight hours a day, and the blisters caused by the oars rubbing wetly against the soft flesh adjacent to the thumb. You do your best introspection when there is nothing to distract the mind and there are few people to talk to. It’s the people who struggle with solitude and who constantly need to be surrounded by chatter that tend to have shaky relationships with their inner selves. And if they can’t be alone with themselves, what makes you think it’s safe for you to be?
Don’t date those people.
Nighttime on the river
African sunsets are something to behold. There is some magical quality to the air here that creates the most spectacular sunsets, the intensity of which I’ve simply never witnessed anywhere else in the world. Perhaps it’s not so much the visual spectacle as it is the multi-sensory performance of the sun setting below the African horizon: the accompanying smell of the burning Earth and its parched shrubs; the chorus of the weaver birds, sparrows, and starlings settling down for the evening; the way the light falls over the landscape like a golden veil. Then, very suddenly, the night descends and, by God, it was my favourite time of day on the Orange River.
With no light pollution and few obstructions in a 360-degree sweep around us, the night sky yawned above us, a fathomless black vault set ablaze by trillions upon trillions of twinkling stars. The starlight was so intense and the night so still, it was almost as though one could hear the universe gently breathing in and breathing out. I looked at the gentle silvery light on my arm and marvelled at the fact that the photons pummelling my skin at that very moment were likely older than the Earth. Total nerd that I am, I had brought along a star chart of the Southern Hemisphere (I was taking a university course in astronomy at the time) and delighted the other families’ children with the names and mythology of the stars, planets, and constellations. Nighttime on the Orange River was my favourite, even though the mosquitoes were relentless in their bloodsuckery.
Earning your experience
We slept in tents, cooked over the fire, and went to the toilet in the bush with sweeping views of Namibia one night and South Africa the next, depending on which bank we camped on. We paddled hard during the day, swam in the river to cool off, and, on the third day or so, hiked up a hill to an abandoned fluorspar mine, where shards of the snot-coloured mineral lay scattered everywhere. These, we threw onto the campfires at night to unleash their enchanting properties of thermoluminescence, which is nerd speak for something that lights up when it’s heated.
The Orange River was a magical experience from which I returned with bulging deltoids, sun-bleached hair, and skin so tanned that I barely recognised myself in the mirror. Basically, I looked like a dried-out bag lady but with an enormous white smile. Every meal, every night’s rest, and every breathtaking view I had experienced during those seven arduous, euphoric days on the river had been earned. From the ephemeral streak of meteorites in the night sky to the spectacular pink sunrises, the bubbling stews on the campfire and the vegetal smell of the river… we had earned it all and the experience was all the more thrilling for it. I returned to city life and the rigors of university refreshed, invigorated, and refocused.
A few weeks ago, my best friend and I climbed aboard a boat and struck out for Duiker Island, a seal, seal pup, and seal poop covered collection of rocks tucked around the corner from The Sentinel Mountain in Hout Bay, Cape Town. Why would anyone endure the swells and smells for such an excursion? Aside from the staggering beauty of the Cape peninsula and the pleasure of watching seals in their natural habitat, we were here to go snorkelling with them!
For one blissful hour, we escaped reality to submerge ourselves in the moody greens and blues of the Atlantic Ocean, where prolific kelp forests swayed and swished in the swell and the playful seal pups were close enough to touch. Usually, I use my words to describe experiences. This time, we hired a Go Pro camera from the company who took us out – Animal Ocean – to document it all and so I present to you my first ever (shoddy) attempt at putting together a travel video!
We saw the leopard slinking low in the desiccated grasses of the Welgevonden Game Reserve in South Africa’s Limpopo region. I almost soiled myself, not out of fear but of excitement. I have been to almost every major game reserve in Southern Africa, yet never to have once spotted this dotty kitty. Until now – this was a huge moment for me and my underpants.
One solitary male on a discrete hunt for food. At first, I celebrated the sighting, treasuring every second that I could watch him sleekly moving through the dry bush. A sighting like this – a once in a lifetime – is too often over in seconds.
But a hunting leopard makes use of lofty vantage points to spy potential prey and, in one fluid movement, our male launched himself up the bole of a tree and took up sentry. Leopards are shy animals and extremely unsociable, which likely explains his unimpressed expression with being watched and photographed.
Legs (and litchis) dangling out all over the place, he remained in suspension for the better part of 20 minutes, while lazily surveying the surrounding bush and staring at us with piercing, tawny eyes. On average, leopards weigh between 60 and 70 kg and can live up to 15 years. What is most exceptional about these cats is that they can drag prey heavier than themselves up a tree, where it can hang safely out of the reach of other predators and scavengers, offering the leopard a consistent source of meat for several days.
The heat, the altitude, and the lack of action took its toll and he let rip an enormous yawn, offering us a glimpse at teeth that could crack your neck like a cheese stick. Seeing this leopard quite honestly constitutes one of the high points of my life and if you’ve seen one, perhaps you’ll understand why. They are truly beautiful, extraordinary animals.