Wish you were here, having a "whale" of a time

Article and photos by Lynette Oxley

Recently I had the opportunity to revisit the stunningly beautiful town of Hermanus, in Walker Bay on the Cape South Coast (approximately 120 km from Cape Town) in South Africa. My previous visit was approximately 4-5 years ago and although massive development in terms of restaurants and shops has taken place, it still held the same magic for me as it obviously held for the founder, Hermanus Pieters so many years ago.

For those well-heeled adventurous souls, who don't necessarily want to rough it, Hermanus is full of holiday scope. Excellent whale watching (in season), crayfishing (rock lobster), paragliding, fishing, birding and several other activities are supported by good restaurants, accommodation and all the necessary amenities.

History ...

Hermanus is historically rich with many interesting tales and facts about the people who sculptured the town into what it is today: from Sir William Hoy, who didn't want a railway going through the town to Bientang, the last indigenous "strandloper" (beachcomber) that lived in a cave in town. These people contributed to the development (along largely noncommercial lines) and feel of Hermanus in several unique ways.

One of the most significant contributors to the "village feeling" of Hermanus is Sir William Hoy, the General Manager of the South African Railways at that stage. He was a regular visitor to and a property owner in Hermanus in the early 1900's, and ensured that the natural beauty of Hermanus would stay unspoilt by blocking any attempt to extend the Bot River railway line to the village. He didn't want the peace and quite to be disturbed by the noise of the trains.

The town originated as a direct result of an itinerant teacher and shepherd, named Hermanus Pieters who grew tired of his chosen profession and environment and wandered south of Caledon towards the sea. He settled at a freshwater spring (fountain) which later became known as Hermanuspietersfontein (a combination of his name and surname and the Afrikaans word for "fountain"). In 1855, this name was passed on to the village established on this site and was shortened in 1902 at the anguished request of the local postmaster who had problems with the long name. The town became a municipality in 1904.

The place . . .

Approximately 70 guesthouses, hotels, self catering facilities, bed & breakfasts' and cottages provides for a variety of accommodation needs in Hermanus. We opted to stay with some local friends, in a spare holiday house (they recently purchased a permanent house in the town, "exiles" from Gauteng) in Voelklip (literally translated as bird rock).

Our appetite (literally speaking) was satisfied by several crayfish braais (barbeques), fresh mussels in cheese and white wine sauce with friends as well as visiting several restaurants in the area. Bientang's Cave Restaurant was probably the most memorable because of the setting. This restaurant is located in a cave inhabited by the last strandloper (beachcomber) in the area and they provide a fresh seafood platter. A variety of other restaurants cater for anything from burgers to German food.

The climate in Hermanus is mild and although winter is the rainy season, it nonetheless includes many sunny days with mild temperatures. High winds build up at times during winter and have been known to wreak havoc. Summer is sunny with little rain and extreme temperatures are cooled down by the sea breezes. In late summer (March) it is idyllic, with wonderful days and in the late afternoon one can experience the so called "Hermanus champagne air" - or the afternoon sea mist.

What to do?

One can participate in a variety of activities in Hermanus ranging from birdwatching to paragliding from the Rotary Drive (a large hill overlooks the town, and paragliders launch from here):

I)Crayfishing in Sandbaai and Whale Rock

One of our main and most pleasurable activities during our stay in Hermanus was our daily crayfishing at Whale Rock and Sandbaai with our local friends, Johan and his son David. These outings were not restricted to merely crayfishing but included a whole "nature" experience that left one refreshed and rejuvenated for the whole day.

The best time to do crayfishing during March is at sunrise, 6:30 - 7:00 - one has to be launched at that stage. Sunrise is breathtakingly beautiful at New Harbour and provides for an experience in itself.

Johan, has a semi-rigid rubberduck (inflatable) with a fifty horsepower Mariner motor that was easily launched from New Harbour. Two slipways are used to launch and land boats here, of which only one is used by locals to launch smaller boats. The other one is extremely treacherous in terms of the green moss growing on it. Launching and landing boats during high tides is easier than at low tides because in the latter case the green moss is more exposed - and I soon realised that it wasn't called a slipway for nothing. One day while trying to walk down to the boat trailer I slipped badly and had many blue marks to show for it the next day. Launching boats with a 4X4 is advisable, preferably a Land Rover (it doesn't rust when the chassis is immersed in salt water) or a Toyota Landcruiser. With a 4 X 4 one can launch or land with the trailer right into the water. Another factor that one needs to take into consideration is the weight of the boat - the heavier the boat, the more difficult it is to launch or land the boat. A 2-wheel drive vehicle can also be used to launch lighter boats but with two prerequisites, namely a good, knowledgeable driver and a long rope. Using this method, the vehicle stays higher up (where it's dry and no moss grow) and the boat trailer gets taken down to the water by rope.

Launching the rubberduck at New Harbour

King Neptune claimed four vehicles during the December period. During our stay in Hermanus we saw a little Chev Nomad (2X4) landing a large boat directly out of the sea without a towing rope. The next thing we saw was great spouts of water billowing out from the engines of the boat, trying to push the Nomad back up the slipway to prevent it from landing in the harbour. What happens often is that when the weight of the boat being landed hits the boat trailer, the wheels of the the lightweight towing vehicle start slipping. A third vehicle was needed to tow the Nomad and the boat out with a long rope. Putting bricks behind the vehicle's wheels - to chock them - is also good practice. Surprising to us was that the chap in the Nomad didn't learn his lesson and we saw him in trouble several times during our stay. We launched Johan's inflatable with his 1974 Landrover, our 1972 Landrover and Johan's wife, Jenny's, Suzuki Vitara. We didn't experience any problems with launching with any of the three vehicles although we used a long rope with the Vitara to stave off the rust factor.

Sunrise at New Harbour

It was also at New Harbour that we met "Harbour Hobo" who is a well dressed, well-spoken hobo that survives on a diet of crayfish. Harbour Hobo is a good and canny source of knowledge on local conditions, for example, where the best crayfishing is at a particular time, or to serve as crew or assist with launching the boat. He also has numerous interesting stories to tell about Mercedes Benz's landing in the harbour and bakkies (small trucks) floating out to sea - a worthwhile character to talk to.

We usually took the boat out towards Whale Rock (so named because many years ago, when there was a whaling station at Hermanus, locals often mistook the rock for a whale) and Sandbaai, both south of Hermanus. Five crayfish nets with sardines (pilchards) for bait were used and it took us between one and two hours to make up our quota for the day. The nets get lowered onto the bottom of the ocean with the bait hanging in a small bag in the middle of the net. Floats are used on the other side of the ropes. At the bottom of each net divers' weights are used as sinkers to hold the nets in place on the bottom. After approximately 10 - 20 minutes we would pull each net. Pulling crayish nets is a very physical "thing", if the nets are not raised swiftly to the surface the crayfish extricate themselves and swim out - David was especially good with this. Paul, my husband, once saw a few big crays hanging onto the outside of the net, at which time he decided that he was not going to lose these and heaved the net onto the boat with a vengeance. Crayfish went flying all over the deck of the boat, the lead weight landed on David's foot and toes were quickly lifted off the deck where at this stage many crayfishes were crawling (locals would have you believe that a crayfish can bend a coin with its jaws. We had not seen this with our own eyes but weren't planning to let our toes get in the path of danger).

Off shore - Whale Rock - David, pulling in crayfish nets early in the morning

A permit is needed to catch crayfish or rock lobster (Jasus Lalandii), in Hermanus these can be obtained from the Magistrate's court. A bag limit of four crayfish per person and a maximum of 16 per boat is rigorously enforced. We therefore always had a crew of four people on the boat. The crayfish has to be a minimum size of 80 mm, measured along the middle dorsal line of the carapace from the posterior edge to the middle of the anterior spine. Egg carrying females can also not be taken. They carry their pinkish eggs underneath the tail clasping them with extra "flippers" which the males do not have. Further requirements are that one cannot catch crayfish between sunrise and sunset and between 1 June and 15 November - the closed season.

Other marine and bird life were also abundant during our crayfishing trips including kelp gulls, a variety of small sharks (mostly tiger catshark) which are locally, collectively, referred to as "skaamhaaie" or shysharks (this is not the pukka shyshark (puffadder shyshark, Haploblepharus edwardsii) but basically any small, 30-60 centimeter, shark which curls its tail up over its head in order to shield its eyes from the sunlight), Jackass penguins, dolphins and seals. The Kelp Gull (Southern Blackbacked Gull) or Larus dominkancis are very common residents of South Africa. These birds usually scavenge along the coast, especially in harbours and we found hundreds of them in New Harbour, particularly when the large fishing trawlers come in, at which time they become very vocal. A couple of Cape Fur Seals also regularly made their appearance, especially in the kelp forest close the Sandbaai. On one occasion some Southern Mullets (Harder) were running which attracted dolphins, seals, kelp gulls and Jackass Penguins - who totally gorged themselves. Interesting to note is that there are two colonies of Jackass Penguins close to Hermanus at Stoney Point and Betty's Bay. Although they are listed in the Red Data book as birds "near threatened", Cape Nature Conservation regards it as one of the three most critically endangered species in the Western Cape. The colonies at Stoney Point and Betty's Bay are of special interest because they are one of the very few mainland colonies in existence - because they prefer to breed offshore on islands.

ii)4 X 4 driving

One can get a permit to take the route towards Die Kelder (The Cellar) and Gansbaai on the beach from Die Plaat. Sometimes this route is over utilised and ultimately better control measurements will have to be made by Cape Nature Conservation to conserve the natural beauty of the area.

The terrain is extremely difficult and one should take enough precautions to enable oneself to get out of trouble anytime. Loose, very soft sand, fine sand makes going difficult at times and therefore the pressure in ones tyres should be let down very low.

The day we went on the trip a 2-wheel drive bakkie (pickup truck), with approximately eight people in it attempted to go on the beach at Die Plaat, but didn't get further than the waters edge when it sank seriously deep into the soft sand. The big problem that presented these people is that this happened at the water's edge and that the tide was doing what tides do and coming in very fast. It took approximately two hours of digging, towing and winching to get them out of their predicament. This cost the efforts of ourselves and two other vehicles with winches on them.

Most of the route along the coast towards Die Kelder takes one over a soft beach with beautiful views of the sea, fynbos and mountain. The last part of our route for the day took us through a narrow passage through some rocks to a protected area between two lots of rocks. This is an ideal place to stop, have a bite to eat and spend quality time with friends. An interesting piece of history can also be found in this area. A hobo claimed himself a very neat little house in the rocks with benches to sleep on and to keep worldly possessions. The story told to us was that a couple of years ago the authorities ripped the door of to this "house" and evicted the inhabitant apparently because he used to steal things from people visiting the area.

Fishing is quite good along this stretch of coast, especially for white steenbras, but we didn't have much time to do fishing at this spot.

iii)Fishing

Fishing, just past Kwaaiwater

Hermanus used to be one of the most productive fishing spots along the Cape coastline but has largely been out-fished and catches are less frequent.

A local fishing shop owner advised us that the best catches were recently made in the Klein River Lagoon where one can do safe angling from a small boat. The types of fish available in the lagoon are kob, shad, white steenbras and garrick, usually during the summer months. We investigated this possibility from Johan's inflatable one afternoon and also from Die Plaat's side of the lagoon but unfortunately no bites. We had limited time to our disposal and fish can never be forced to bite under these circumstances. Remember that permits are necessary (obtained from the Magistrates court) to catch fish in Klein River Lagoon.

Fishing at Die Plaat (the stretch of beach between Hermanus and Gansbaai) apparently also produces good catches of white steenbras and galjoen during the winter months.

We also shortly tried fishing at Kwaaiwater and other little coves along the coastline in Hermanus with red bait, but also without success. At this occasion a fellow angler pulled out 7 galjoen in a row.

Fisherman at "Mosselbaai"

Another good fishing point apparently is at Danger Point, which is good for pelagic and bottom fish like Geelbek and Yellowtail. The coastline between Danger point and Cape Agulhas in the North is very shallow and shore angling is only fruitful when the wind is blowing in the right direction. Anglers watch the water here and also in Hermanus when the south and southeasterly blows inshore and cause a muddy discolouration of the water - the so-called gingerbeer effect, close to the shore. This is excellent conditions for Kob and excellent places to catch this fish are at Kwaaiwater (Cross waters), Die neus (the nose), Die Gang (The Passage) and Kraal Rock.

An angler is allowed 10 fish a day and a maximum of five each of the following garrick, cob, white steenbras, shad (elf), white stumpnose and bream. The following closed seasons currently exists:

Shad (elf): 1 September - 30 November

Galjoen: 15 October - 28 February

Red Steenbras: 1 September - 20 November

iv)Birding

Hermanus and environment are very rich in birdlife with a variety of birds in different habitats. An ideal place for birdwatching in the area is the Bot river estuary that is a closed estuarine system, with occasional artificial and natural breaching of the sand bar between the lagoon and the sea. This estuary is closely linked with the Kleinmond Estuary and is situated between Hermanus and Kleinmond. A small bird hide is also available at the mouth of the Vogelgat river that is part of the Klein River Lagoon system.

The Cape Francolin (Francolinus capensis), a dark francolin was prevalent in the Voelklip area where we stayed. Other birds spotted included the whitebreasted cormorant, the Cape Cormorant, Kelp Gulls, Jackass penguins, Cape sugarbirds, Malachite Sunbirds and Rock pigeons.

On our next trip to Hermanus we are planning to spend much more time on this activity!

v)Beaches

Hermanus has one of South Africa's most beautiful coastlines and offers the tourist several choices ranging from sandy white beaches to protected coves with breathtaking views of the sea.

A variety of beaches exist including Grotto beach, Voelklip beach, Kammabaai (Nanny's beach or Lovers cove), Langbaai, Schulphoek, Sandbaai, Onrusrivier, Breakfast Bay at Vermont, Plankhuis (Hoek van den Berg) and Hawston. The beaches that are most suitable for the nature lover or the person that needs peace and quite are Langbaai, Breakfast Bay in Vermont and Plankhuis. Langbaai is a secluded beach tucked away at the foot of some cliffs in Hermanus itself while Breakfast Bay is just before the Frans Senekal Nature Reserve. High dunes surrounds this sheltered beach which provides excellent opportunity for picnicking. Plankhuis is one of the most natural beaches in the area and is removed from civilisation. Kelp is not removed here and sea lice are still prolific in this area. A good place for snorkelling can be found at Sandbaai.

vi)Walks

Several formal and informal walking trials exist within Hermanus and the fynbos in the area against the backdrop of the mountains provides excellent walking conditions.

vii)Whale watching

Although we visited Hermanus outside the whale season, this is whale country and I thought that giving some relevant information around this subject would be necessary.

Hermanus is considered one of the 12 best places in the world to watch whales by the World Wildlife Foundation. Because of the geography of the coastline, whales can be watched from rocky cliffs a mere 10 metres away from these giants. The Southern Right whale arrives at Walker

Bay around June and leaves again in December. Peak whale season (guaranteed daily sightings) are between September and October. Calving takes place in August and September and the whale population peaks in Walker Bay during October.

One of the rocky cliffs around Hermanus

The Southern Right Whale was so-named because it was the right whale to catch because it is rich in products that could be commercialised such as oil and baileen. It is currently estimated that there are between 4000 - 6000 Southern Right Whales in the world and South Africa is honoured because they receive the highest percentage visits.

Hermanus also boast with the only whale crier found in the world. He alerts people in town of sightings of whales by blowing on his kelp horn telling one exactly where sightings of whales have occurred. He works from September to October. An interesting development is that anyone can phone from anywhere in the world to find out where whales have been spotted along our coast by MTM Cellular Network.

Favourite spots for whale watching include Dreunkrans, Windsor Bay, Gearing's Point, The Old Harbour, Die Gang, Sliver's Punt, Kwaaiwater, Voelklip and Grotto.

What now?

Hermanus provides the would be traveller with a wide variety of activities in a temperate climate all year round and is well worth a visit. We will definitely be back during the whale season!!