As we did not have a schedule to meet anyone in Cape Town this evening, I suggested that we take a leisurely day and watch the whales from the old harbor cliffs and along the cliff paths of Hermanus. Mama agreed. We had another long visit with the Jansens, discussing our prior day’s trip to Elim and Cape Agulhas. Looking out over the golf course from the Jansens house with the pool in between is a tranquil place to take in a breakfast. Once again, we were greeted with wonderful weather of clear skies and morning temperatures in the low 60’s. The sun was warming us quickly and by the time we left the Jansen’s driveway at 10:30AM, the temperature was creeping into the low 70’s with estimates for 75 by midday. I was to come back and check my email prior to leaving for Cape Town so Mama and Yvonne discussed the flowers in her garden and we then took the short one mile drive to the old harbor.
I believe that the appeal of Walker Bay to the migrating whales manifests in three features. The natural harbor created by nature allows for a natural resting place for these behemoths. While the seas can occasionally become choppy, the water close to shore almost always remains calm. This peaceful setting is just what these animals need to give birth, nurse their young and burn few calories while taking in almost no food for 6 months. Secondly, the bay is not a place where killer whales, the Southern Right Whales’ only predator, prefer to hunt. Killer whales perform best in open water when on the hunt so they remain offshore until the Southern Rights head south during summer to feed. Lastly, the rock faced cliffs of Hermanus can offer these whales the greatest tranquility by their being able to rests themselves within a few yards of these protective shores versus further offshore of a sandy beach. The waters immediately beneath the cliffs are deep enough to host one of these 45 foot, 45 ton animals.
After the short drive (which could have been a 10 minute walk along the cliff paths; as I got up early this morning and jogged along the same path. I’ve been on some beautiful hikes, but never had I had such a view when taking a run.), we parked and sat on the grass overlooking Walker Bay. The water was flat, very flat, perfect for whale viewing as viewers can more easily pick up surface water disturbances created by whales splashing their tail flukes, spy hopping and the most exhilarating of all displays, the full propulsion of their bodies out of the water, often multiple times in a row.
Watching an animal of this size push itself completely out of the water head first, arch its back, and come down on its side it both a marvel to see, and hear, if possible. The power created by their tail flukes can only be imagined as enough energy must be created to create air between itself and the water’s surface. Consider how difficult it is for you to get your body out of the water high enough to take a breath when performing the butterfly stroke in the pool and you might be able to appreciate the power of this act by a Southern Right Whale.
Mama eventually took a seat on a park bench and struck up a conversation with an Afrikaans woman for Johannesburg who had driven to Hermanus the night before (all 14 hours worth). She had come to see the whales and was enjoying the beautiful day with her children and grandchildren. Oddly enough, despite the perfect conditions, the whale activity in the morning was minimal. As with anything associated with nature, nothing is for certain. While conditions proved perfect for whale watching, our friends from the sea showed themselves only at a distance further from the cliff side. Nonetheless, Mama and I enjoyed the spectacle we were provided. We took but a 100 step walk, took the café table overlooking the harbor and enjoyed lunch from our seats while the whale activity gradually increased in the distance. More fish for me and more soup and salad for Mama—we were not going to hungry nor were we ever dissatisfied with the meal—and today was no exception.
After our late lunch, we walked down to Bientang’s Cave along the cliff paths. This cave served as the home of the last local Choi tribesman, Bientang, to live on these cliffs prior to taking up residence in a house. Bientang’s Cave is now a restaurant that serves basic cuisine for visitors to enjoy the sea as the waves crash only a few yards from the sitting area. The waves are close enough that you would think one with a bit more height could wash the picnic tables away— customers included. But such is the appeal of South Africa that so many places to enjoy the aspects of civilized culture (a hot meal from a restaurant) can be enjoyed while being in such proximity to such high excitement as watching whales loll in the water that is close enough to feel the mist from the breakers.
By about 4PM, we drove back to the Jansens to bid them farewell but found them not at home. Reluctant to ring the doorbell in fears of waking them from a nap, we elected to drive east down the main road for about a mile, then turning right towards the beach for a 100 yard drive. There are access roads like this along the main road, providing links to the cliff paths. We were blessed with another pristine view and far reaching panoramic sightings of Walker Bay.
South Africa served up another supporting statement to my claim of never being disappointed, as soon after we parked and sat on the rocks, about 200 yards offshore we saw a mass climb out of the water, launching itself like a over buoyant submarine. The calm seas were greatly disturbed by this change in serenity. I had learned that an individual whale often will jump out of the water in sets, so I told Mama to watch the same spot. Sure enough, the same whale came right back up again after about 10 seconds to regain its power, and again and then, one more. All told, we were privileged to see four complete soarings, each met with a splash of white water high enough to reach over the roof of a house. As soon as we relaxed after taking in nature’s never ending home movies and expressing ourselves in basic human groans of, “Oooohhhhh” and “Look, look, look, look, look”, another animal breached and provided subsequent jumps. We were thrilled to have seen various animals showcase their talents to us.
Why do these creatures hurtle themselves out of the water? Scientists have a few formulas, but they admit they are but guesswork. Some offer the suggestions what the whales might be trying to rid themselves of the barnacles on their skin. Others profess that the whales could be communicating of showing off for their female interests. Still other scientists think the animal might just be having fun. The latter proposal seems to make me feel the best. Its always nice to see animals enjoying themselves in nature as the challenge of survival for them if often a daily test. We humans don’t always appreciate the fragility of life. Wow, what an ending to two wonderful days of whale watching.
We drove back to the Jansens, thanked them for their hospitality and beagn the one and one half hour drive to Cape Town. A choice is to be made when driving back to Cape Town. We could have taken Sir Lowry’s Pass, over the mountains and providing us with an exceptional view of Somerset West and east Cape Town. Or we could drive along the sea road, through Kleinmond, Vermont and Betty’s Bay. The latter option produced scenic, but winding roads. The sun was going to set in an hour but I thought the views of the coastal road would be stunning. Just outside of Kleinmond, we crossed a river that emptied into the sea. In 2000, I stopped on the bridge crossing this river as there were a few people in bathing suits standing on the edge of the bridge’s guard rail. I was curious as to what they were doing, so I pulled off and summarily watched as one by one, some of them jumped into the river below. In the river’s edge there were boulders creating tidal pools and 20-30 teenagers enjoying the cool water providing refuge from the January heat. As I peered over the edge, a friendly girl from South Africa asked me if I would like to take the plunge. I am not one for heights, and best I could tell, this jump was more than 30 feet high, probably more like 40 or 45 feet. The swimmers were all interested in watching the foreigner take the leap, so I took of my shirt (I elected to keep my shoes on to help break the water’s surface), pushed myself up the concrete guardrail and looked down. The good news was that I had watched a few people ahead of me jump so I knew the water was deep enough and free of rocks below the surface. In fact, I could see 6 feet or so below the surface. The bad news is that it looked even higher now that I had nothing separating me from the drop. With chants from the small crowd, I launched myself, falling ever faster, until my feet touched the water. I must admit I was underwater for a bit longer than I would have liked but I managed to struggle to the surface and was met by a round of cackles, groans, laughter and few rounds of applause from the small crowd. I was 34 at the time and imagine that the teenagers looked at me as some old man taking the jump. I stayed at the river for about an hour, chatting with some of the swimmers. All were quite hospitable and friendly to me.
I wanted to show Mama the place where I had jumped from the bridge and the sketch Rebecca had made of my jump. Someone in that small crowd had taken a photo of my jump and set it to me. Rebecca, while in Interior Design school in 2006, had sketched my jump for a class project. My mother took one look over the bridge’s edge and decided that I had made a poor decision in taking the plunge.
We got back in the car, and drove the remaining hour while watching the sun set over the mountains while I drive hugged the sea and gave us an unobstructed view of False Bay. The twists and turns were many and beautiful Probably too many for Mama, but she only gripped the hard rest a little tighter and watched the sea pass by her window.
I was excited to share with her the last place we would be staying during our journey, 1 Chapman’s Peak Drive, in Cape Town’s suburb of Hout Bay. The condominium complex of 1 Chapman’s Peak Drive is well named as it rests just on the bank of Chapman’s Peak as it slips into the Hout Bay harbor. My friend, Graham Haywood, is a tour guide and has driven a few of my guests around Cape Town. He and I have become friends and he recommended the idea of staying at a neighboring condominium owned by his friend who was out of town. The views from 1 Chapman’s Peak are stunning as I have been in Graham’s apartment so I was excited to have the same opportunity to share the views with Mama. All was in good order until we opened the door. Yes, the views were magnificent, but the place was so spartanly decorated it looked like a prison cell (granted a big one with beautiful views). Hout Bay literally sat below us from the deck and we took in a sweeping view of the harbor and the peak protecting its calm waters. If only we had more than 2 sofas and two beds, we would have loved it. We got a bit of a chuckle out of the entire affair and I resolved, despite the stunning scenery outside, to have us stay at a more livable B&B just in Hout Bay, Amblewood Guest House. We went to bed and were happy to realize a beautiful house does not necessarily mean it is also a home.