Land of Hope

Photos by Mary King

Wining and dining, whale-watching and ostrich-riding are all to be had on Africa' tip. Cape crusader Mary King ventures south.

When the wind howls and the waves of the Atlantic crash against the rocks, one of the world's most famous ghosts is reputed to haunt the waters off the Cape of Good Hope: the Flying Dutchman. Tales have been passed down through the generations of a phantom ship flying before the gale, doomed to forever fight its way around the cape at the tip of Africa. Like many visitors to South Africa who take a Cape Peninsula tour, I looked out at the raging waters in awe, with just a glimmer of hope that I might make out the ghostly outline of the vessel that sunk off these shores in 1641.

Our group wasn't lucky enough to see any phantom ships with broken masts or shredded sails, but we did catch a glimpse of some dolphins playing in the icy waters as we followed the scenic winding roads on our way to the Good Hope Nature Reserve. The reserve is known for its array of vegetation and as a good place to spot the occasional zebra and ostrich. Farther along the coast, near Simon's Town, we came across a colony of jackass penguins, an endemic species found nowhere in the world except off the coast of southern Africa. Here we were introduced to Hendrik Van de Merwe, a local pensioner who has voluntarily been watching over the bird colony for almost ten years.

Jackass penguins, which usually nest on islands, have only recently established two mainland colonies in South Africa and a third in Namibia. Nesting on the mainland is dangerous for the birds since they nest on the ground and are vulnerable to Africa's many predators. This is one reason why Van de Merwe, or the Penguin Man as he is known locally, keeps a watchful eye over them, caring for any birds that become sick. "Back in the 1930s, there were 1.2 million jackass penguins, but the present population stands at about 20,000. The drop in population is due to two main human activities; the harvesting of eggs for human consumption and the destruction of the bird's food supply by overfishing. Another serious threat is the danger of oil spills," Van de Merwe explained as groups of penguins waddled in and out of the water.

Whale of a time
Visiting the Cape Peninsula is just one of many easy tours that can be made within a short distance of Cape Town. Hermanus, which lies about 150 kilometers southeast of Cape Town, is on the way to Cape Angulhas, the southernmost point of Africa. It's known as the heart of the whale coast and offers the best place in the world for watching whales from land. A cliff path, which stretches from one side of the town to the other, hugs the coastline for about 12km, giving whale watchers many opportunities to study the gentle giants swimming in the coves below or lolling just beyond the breakers. Bryde's whales, humpbacks and southern right whales can be seen from as close as 20m by climbing out on some of the rocky outcrops.

Peter Claasens, who may be the world's first and only whale crier, is not only a major attraction but keeps visitors informed as to the whereabouts of the whales each day. The sound of his kelp horn has become a charming feature on this quaint seaside resort during September and October, the peak of the whale season. "The southern right is the most common whale seen off this coast," Claasens told me as he pointed to one that was leaping out of the water in an arching back flip. "Due to commercial whaling they came close to extinction, but there are about 1600 off this coast today. They were hunted for their oil and baleen and were so named because they were considered the 'right' whales to kill as they are very fat, easy to spot and float when dead." Claasens surprised me when he told me that he has eaten whale meat, and that he thoroughly enjoyed it. "My parents used to eat it when I was a child. Whale biltong (jerky) is delicious, but you're not allowed to hunt whales these days," he said.

Jackass penguins around South Africa's shores near Simon's Town

Animal attractions
While kujira (whale meat) is certainly not to be found on local menus, but those visitors looking for rare gastronomical delicacies may want to try an ostrich burger or some other game steaks, perhaps of kudu or springbok. A good place to try ostrich meat is Oudtshoorn, a six-hour drive from Cape Town up the Garden Route. The area surrounding Oudtshoorn is home to 80 percent of the world's ostrich population. Ostrich farming has become South Africa's most profitable form of farming, with the bird's plumes being exported for use at the Moulin Rouge in Paris and at Rio de Janeiro's Mardi Gras. Ostrich-leather jackets, shoes and bags are also sent to the fashion houses of Europe, selling there for suitably exotic prices.

Many tourists are content simply to come here to learn about the ostriches, maybe even ride them. But the more well-heeled visitor may choose to pay US$600 for an ostrich handbag that is guaranteed to last for life. Some may choose other souvenirs, such as a painted eggs, you can test the toughness of the shell by standing on it. Visitors to the area usually make a trip to the nearby Cango Crocodile Ranch and Cheetahland, as well as the Cango Caves. These caves date back millions of years and are considered to have some of the world's finest stalactites and other fascinating limestone formations.

Ostrich farms are big business in South Africa

Table talk
Those who appreciate a good glass of wine often head to Stellenbosch, South Africa's second oldest town (Cape Town is the oldest), a two-hour drive north of Hermanus. Since the founding of Stellenbosch in 1679, the cool climate and fertile soils in the region around the town, combined with the correct varieties of grapes, have produced a winemaking tradition that spans three centuries. The area, with its 28 estates and wineries, is synonymous with high-quality, award-winning wines, and visitors are welcome to sample the range of reds and whites produced here. Once back in Cape Town, there is plenty for visitors to see and do. But before flying out, there is one thing that definitely has to be experienced by any visitor to South Africa: a hike up Table Mountain (and for those who feel they cannot make the walk, a cable car will take you to the mountain's flat summit). Flanked by Lion's Head and Devil's Peak, Table Mountain has become both a dramatic backdrop to and a symbol for Cape Town.

The mountain is crowned by a cap of clouds which, in the summer, unrolls across the flat summit and drapes itself over the edges, creating a blanket that is popularly thought of as a tablecloth. On a clear day, Table Mountain can be seen from as far as 200 km out at sea. This visibility made the anchorage at Table Bay easy to find. A vast block of sandstone, Table Mountain was originally formed on the floor of a shallow sea some 500 million years ago. It stands 1806m high with a sheer precipice on its north face that is more than three kilometers long. From a distance, this great cliff appears to be unbroken, but when you get in closer a deep cleft, the Platteklip Gorge, splits it from the base of the mountain to the summit.

From the top you can look down on the city and Table Bay. To the south is the Cape of Good Hope, to the north lies Hottentots-Holland Mountains and the interior of Africa. There is a dazzling array of flowers to enjoy, and the animal life there includes baboons, rock rabbits, springklippers, Himalayan goats and tortoises. The first recorded ascent was made in 1503, but mountaineers today have a choice of more than 350 routes to the summit, ranging in difficulty from an easy scramble to a dangerous climb.

The Bay Hotel, tel: +2721-438-4444; fax: +2721-438-4433, Email: Camps Bay Terrace (this hotel also organizes tours of the area), tel: +2721-438-5048, fax +2721-438-5693, E-mail: 

Tour agencies:
Camissa Tours:  


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