The southern Cape town of Hermanus is generally regarded as the mecca of whale watching in South Africa, and is certainly one of the best places in the world to see these denizens of the deep at play. But although the famous cliff-top walk in Hermanus is sure to get you a great view, in the height of whale season (which runs from roughly June to December) you should expect to share your hard-won lookout with thousands of other visitors.
While Hermanus certainly does have one of the highest concentrations of whales coupled with excellent facilities for tourists, few visitors realise that there are many other places around the Western Cape that provide excellent opportunities to watch whales from the shore, but without the jostling crowds.
West coast wandering
Deserted beaches and isolated bays on the West Coast mean that you?ll get a close-up view of the whales close to shore, but without having to battle the crowds for a viewing spot.
A few kilometres outside the quaint fishing village of Paternoster, about two hours drive north of Cape Town, is the Cape Columbine Nature Reserve. Declared a nature reserve in 1973, the area has been set aside to conserve the indigenous sandveld-fynbos vegetation endemic to the area, but also protects a rugged and beautiful coastline.
In spring the normally drab hills come to life with their annual explosion of colourful wildflowers, carpeting the area in a bright tapestry of blooms, so you can even combine a bit of late-season flower-gazing with your whale watching. A trip up the Cape Columbine lighthouse offers a panoramic view of the coastline and the perfect eyrie for whale spotting.
Although the nature reserve has an official campsite at the amusingly named Tietiesbaai (supposedly named after two suggestively-shaped nearby hills), a far better option to the overcrowded campsite is The Beach Camp, situated a kilometre or two from the lighthouse. Nestled on the northern side of the reserve, the rustic camp has all you need for a few days of serious relaxation and whale spotting.
The park surrounds the Langebaan Lagoon, which has been designated as a Ramsar site, meaning it is of global significance to wetland bird species. This is evidenced in the spring when the lagoon becomes a haven for thousands of migratory birds, which head south to escape the European winter. The Geelbek Visitors centre at the southern end of the lagoon has a variety of information about the ecology of the park, as well as a number of bird hides.
The park is also a fantastic location for whale watching, with a number of vantage points providing great views out over the Atlantic Ocean. Take a picnic and sit on the rocks at Plankiesbaai in the Posberg section and be entertained by the whales relaxing in the bay less than 100 metres from shore.
Spring flowers are also a major drawcard, with vast tapestries of wildflowers carpeting the reserve in spring. The best area for flowers is in the Posberg section, which is only open to the public during the spring flower season and is also the best area for game viewing where eland, springbok, red hartebeest, bontebok, zebra and wildebeest can be seen.
The Fairest Cape
Even closer to Cape Town, the Cape Point Nature Reserve offer fantastic whale-watching opportunities just 40 minutes drive from the city centre. The reserve, famously described as 'The fairest Cape in all the world' by Sir Francis Drake, the reserve also has a rich range of fauna and flora, with zebra and antelope making their home amongst the 1100 plant species, many of which are endemic to the Cape Peninsula.
Not far from the entrance to the reserve is the secluded Olifantsbos cottage - the perfect hideaway for a group of dedicated whale-watchers - and once the park closes and the day visitors have left you?ll have the park to yourselves!
From Olifantsbos cottage take a stroll along the deserted beach and you?ll soon come across the wrecks of two ships: the Thomas Tucker which ran aground during World War II, and the Nolloth which was wrecked in 1965. Not for nothing was Cape Point referred to as the 'Cape of Storms', and over 26 shipwrecks dot the shores. The western coastline of the reserve is a favourite haunt of Southern Rights, who can often be seen lolling just behind the breakers.