Hermanus: South Africa’s whale-watching capital

To cheer ourselves up following the misery of the ‘eight-day rain’, my Beloved and I made a spur-of-the-moment decision on Saturday to take ourselves off to our favourite place in the whole of South Africa (so far) – the lovely little, whitewashed town of Hermanus.

 

The ‘eight-day rain’, as it’s known locally, is a Cape phenomenon that takes place every winter in August and, as its title intimates, consists of eight depressing days of relentless, torrential downpours.

 

It’s desperate – the UK’s got nothing on this, particularly because, despite having three months of winter each year, Cape houses really aren’t set up to cope with the cold.

 

As a result, you freeze your bits off in a way that central heating makes unthinkable at home. I’ve never worn so many layers in my life. In fact, I can barely get through the front door at times.

 

Anyway, having spotted a break in the clouds, we zoomed into the car and took off on the hour and a quarter journey from Stellenbosch to our lovely, whale-watching destination extraordinaire.

 

Hermanus prides itself on offering what it claims is the best shore-based cetacean-spotting in South Africa. It even employs an official whale crier, allegedly the only one in the world, to blow his curly, dried kelp horn in a series of Morse code-like sounds to alert passers by to the whales’ location.

 

A dash and a dot for New Harbour, two dashes for Fick’s Pool, three dots for Roman Rock, that kind of thing – all of which are spelled out for easy understanding on the sandwich board that sits over his navy blue raincoat (at this time of year anyway).

 

The present whale crier, Wilson Salakusana, does the rounds along the town’s coastline between 10am and 4pm from June to December and, somewhat gruesomely, wears a hat with a bit of whale’s tail stuck in it too.

 

Happy whale-watching

 

But the crying tradition was actually started in 1992 by one Pieter Claasens, who used to dress up as a parrot, but retired in 1998 and, sadly, died two years later.

 

Such was his reputation, however, that by 1996 he was apparently invited to star as guest of honour at the UK’s annual Town Crier’s competition, which that year was held in Topsham, a suburb of Exeter in Devon. He also was made an honorary ‘Town Crier of Britain’ to boot.

 

As to the whales being cried about, of the nine southern hemisphere species that pass by South African shores, the ones that you’re most likely to see in the Walker Bay area are the southern rights.

 

Southern rights were given their name because, rather ghouslishly, they were said to be the “right” ones to kill – they were slow enough for rowing boats to approach, floated when dead, which made them easy to handle and process, and yielded large amounts of oil and baleen, or the so-called whalebone used in old-fashioned corsets and the like.

 

Thankfully, as it’s been illegal to cull them since 1935 when they were given the dubious honour of being the first large whales to gain special protection, their numbers have risen to the tune of about 7% per year.

 

And the safeguarding appears to have paid off. As we checked into our charming, if rather over-priced, ‘Misty Waves’ boutique hotel and went to gaze out of the window of our sea-view room, what should we see but a whale wafting its tail at us, not once but twice. To be swiftly followed by a full-on breach as she leapt out of the water to say hello.

 

We were stunned. And delighted. Over-the-moon in fact. And even though we only had a few spouts and the odd tail-sighting to show for our trouble after that, we simply couldn’t tear ourselves away until the sun went down.

 

At which point, it was time for an amble along the seafront to the old harbour to treat ourselves to a triumphant dinner at what both of us consider to be the best restaurant in Hermanus – the Burgundy.

 

Unexpected finds

 

Housed in a couple of the original village’s oldest stone-and-clay fishermen’s cottages, which now comprise a National Monument, it’s a cosy spot and comes complete with open fires, tasteful French-style décor and relaxed and friendly service. The cuisine itself is of a predominantly seafood bent and, just to gain even more brownie points, most of the ingredients and wines are sourced locally.

 

At the other end of the spectrum, however, and certainly not what we expected to find in a well-heeled, upmarket place like Hermanus was Bo Jangles, the upstairs hostelry that we were directed to on deciding to go for a post-prandial bevvie.

 

Although as I found out later, it’s considered more of a late night bar/club than anything, it’s also the only option in the vicinity and reminded me very much of the smoky, old pool dives that you come across in the US.

 

Full of men in leather jackets drinking beer, pie-eyed kids in denim showing off – and six-packs of ‘Choice’ condoms in the ladies loos. All very sensible, it must be said, in a country where one in 10 of the population is HIV positive.

 

Another unexpected-for-Hermanus find, and regular haunt of ours, however, is the ‘Funky Vibes’ music shop. Situated right on Main Road, you really can’t miss it – not only do the vibrant sounds of reggae, dub and ska fill the air as you stroll on by, but its frontage is chokka with all kinds of tie-died T-shirts, brightly-coloured Indian cotton trousers and bags in Rasta shades with Ganja plants on them.

 

And its owner, David Lowe, is just as flamboyant. A regular twice-a-week fixture on ‘Whale Coast 96 FM’ (7-9pm on Mondays and 8-9.30pm on Fridays), he very patently loves his sounds and has sold us some great stuff, our fav to date being the eponymous debut album of Hollie Cook, daughter of Sex Pistols’ drummer, Paul Cook.

 

It really is amazing what you can find when, and even where, you least expect it. Weather notwithstanding.

 

 

 

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