Bay of plenty
Originally published in Cape Etc magazine
He (or she – it’s not that easy to tell) surfaces not five metres from the boat, water streaming down the smooth skin of his (or, again, her) exposed back. Not even the mild seasickness I’m inexplicably experiencing for the first time can mar this astonishing moment: an adult southern right whale just popping over to say ‘hi’ on a Saturday morning.
I am clutching the metal railing of Whale Whisperer’s upper viewing deck, the rolling swell of Walker Bay making this higher vantage point an exercise in holding on and staying upright. We launched from Gansbaai harbour not 20 minutes ago and already we’re face to ... well ... back with one of nature’s most wonderful creatures – all 11 or so metres of him making tight circles around our boat as if to magnanimously give everyone the best possible view.
One of the top 10 land-based whale-watching sites in the world, the sheltered cove of Walker Bay is something of a nursery and speed-dating hub for all the southern rights who return here annually between June and December to calve and to mate. We fragile humans may require a wetsuit to dive its chilly waters, but compared to their icy Antarctic feeding grounds, this is a tropical paradise for the whales, with the perfect conditions for rearing their young before they head back to the freezer.
If you’re planning on setting up base camp in Walker Bay for a spell of whale watching, there is no better place to do so than Grootbos Private Nature Reserve. Touted as a ‘five-star eco paradise’, this is one location that lives up to its marketing, and its name – ‘groot bos’ translates to ‘big forest’ in Afrikaans.
Forest Lodge (our decadent home for the weekend and one of the three accommodation options on the reserve) is situated in an ancient milkwood forest, the gnarled, mossy trunks and yearning, intertwined branches of these trees lending a kind of magic to the shaded stroll between the main building and our freestanding suite. And then there you are, standing on your private balcony with a forest at your back, a sea of fynbos in front of you and Walker Bay gilded by the distant setting sun. Paradise indeed.
If you can tear yourself away from that view, Grootbos has a large selection of activities that can be tailor-made into your perfect itinerary, whether you are enjoying a family vacation, a honeymoon or an adventure-focused getaway. Many form part of the all-inclusive package but a select few (such as boat-based whale watching and scenic flights over Walker Bay) are at an additional cost. All can be arranged at a moment’s notice via the front desk ... or after a spontaneous decision at dinner the night before, which is how we’ve ended up on Whale Whisperer this morning.
It’s more than worth the 6 am wake-up call. The expedition (exclusive to Grootbos guests at this time) is led by a marine biologist and whale-crazy team of guides, including a spotter who explains to us what he calls the ‘footprint’; a smoothening of the water that helps him pick out a whale close to the surface from a distance.
The boat maintains a minimum distance of 50m from these leviathans at all times, but their naturally curious nature means that they’ll often swim up to it to investigate. And it doesn’t get any better than that – unless you spot dolphins and great whites on the same trip, of course, a trifecta some guests have been lucky enough to experience.
Funnily enough, considering all there is to do on the reserve, our next excursion also takes us out of its beautiful limits on a social-responsibility tour to Masakhane. A neighbouring Gansbaai township, Masakhane was first built back in the 1960s for men working in the fishing industry. While marine creatures, relaxation and attentive service all form part of the Grootbos experience, its core focus is on conservation and social development. This it achieves through the non-profit Grootbos Foundation, which was established in 2003 to protect the biodiversity of the area and develop sustainable nature-based livelihoods for its people. 70% of the reserve’s staff complement of around 120 is from Masakhane, including our guide, Bongani Mjokweni. He conjures a vivid picture of the region’s past and present, pointing out local landmarks and some personal ones too, like the sand bowl of a soccer field where he first played the beautiful game as a child. It’s in stark contrast with the green, floodlit fields Masakhane’s kids now have access to, thanks to a R15-million fund injection raised by Grootbos owner Michael Lutzeyer in collaboration with Fifa and Barclays.
Next, Bongani takes us back on to the reserve to Green Futures, a horticultural school. Its aim is to help Masakhane’s youth find employment, and 90% of its graduates do. In addition to horticulture, students are taught computer skills, given lunch and breakfast daily and paid a stipend, and each year the top three students are given the opportunity to visit the Eden Project in Cornwall to further their studies. After a tour that includes a somewhat surprise meeting with the resident baby boomslang, we purchase a gorgeous pincushion protea from the nursery attached to the school, happy in the knowledge that all proceeds are funnelled back into Grootbos Foundation projects.
The next time we see a pincushion, it’s from the back of an open Land Rover, the sort usually reserved for viewing the big five. This time we’re focusing our attention at grass-roots level – quite literally. Our flower safari guide, Jo de Villiers, is laying some serious knowledge on us about the 2 600 ha paradise, the most alien-free reserve in the country. She stops the Landie every now and again to school us on the interesting flora, from the list of indicator species that classify something as a fynbos region (proteas, ericas, restios and various bulbs, in case you had been wondering) to the astounding endemism of the Cape Floral Kingdom (for example, of all the species of Erica irregularis worldwide, 98% are endemic to Grootbos). She’s threatened a test before we drive back up to the lodge, too.
A short while later, the seven of us from the Landie are balancing on a rocky outcrop at Klipgat Cave, pretending we are a baobab in silhouette while Jo snaps away. We’ve gone from seeing the bush to this historical sea cave inhabited by bushmen 2 000 years ago. It’s the site of the earliest pottery unearthed in South Africa to date, and a gold mine of archeological discoveries. But Jo’s informative talk of shell middens and the Ice Age nevertheless plays second fiddle to the beauty of the massive rocky shelter, the crashing waves just a stone’s throw away and, beyond that, presumably more whales.
Our presumptions are right, because just half an hour later, as we’re sipping sparkling wine on the deck of Whale House, a Grootbos-owned property on the cliffs of De Kelders, the water below us is full of flukes and flippers, waving lazily at the sky. Every now and again, there’s a burst of deep, throbbing whale song, and it occurs to me that the southern rights may be on to something...
If I had the opportunity to return to this paradise year on year, I’d be singing too.