The N2 freeway that runs from Cape Town towards the Garden Route must be one of the most frequently traveled tourist routes in South Africa. While the freeway may be the quickest way to get from one destination to the other, Bevan and I are not well-known to choose speed over scenery! We decided to take things a little slower and turn our drive from Cape Town to the Garden Route into a coastal meander through the Overberg.
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Checking out African penguins at Betty's Bay
The African penguin (previously called the Jackass penguin for it's braying call) is very special. It is only found off the coastline of south-western South Africa and Namibia and is highly endangered. Its population declined dramatically between 1920-1950, attributed to food competition with commercial fisheries, nesting habitat modification from guano harvesting and historic over-exploitation of the penguins' eggs for food. This rapid decline in numbers has continued in recent years too - of the 69 000 breeding pairs in 2001 only 20 000 breeding pairs were estimated to remain in 2011.
Betty's Bay in the Overberg is one of the best places to see African penguins. Stony Point Nature Reserve is home to a breeding colony of these unique birds, and the boardwalk that runs through the reserve offers an opportunity to view the penguins up close. Bevan's brother Byron joined us for an afternoon stroll through the reserve. These birds are quite comical in their appearance and waddling movements on land. Their sharp beaks give a nasty bite and many of the Betty's Bay residents have been caught off guard by an errant penguin who settled down for some shade under their car...
Cliff-top walks and Overberg views in Hermanus
Hermanus must be one of the most scenic towns in the Overberg. The town is situated atop a long series of cliffs that drop into the coastal waters of Walker Bay, which is a calving and mating stop for migratory Southern Right whales. Having deep water so close to shore allows whales to get in close to shore (in some cases as close as 10m!) making Hermanus the best land-based whale watching sites in the world. Southern Right whales can be viewed from the cliffs around town from June to December, and in September each year Hermanus hosts the eco-marine Whale Festival when the world's only Whale Crier makes his appearance.
Visiting the Overberg in April meant we were a little early for the whales, but we enjoyed a walk along the clifftops regardless of this fact. A paved path follows the edge of the cliffs offering spectacular views across Walker Bay and landmarks like the Old Harbour. In places the path is fringed by fynbos that adds to the scenic beauty. On this occasion we were simply passing through but a sunset walk along the cliffs is a definite plan for a longer visit!
On the hunt for the Marine Big 5 in Gansbaai
Gansbaai was our overnight stop and this is because we had an early appointment that we hoped the so-called Marine Big 5 were going to keep! Modeled after Africa's terrestrial Big 5, the marine version consists of the endangered African penguin, the Cape fur seal, dolphins, whales and the Great White shark, also endangered. The best way to see all of these animals is by boat, and what better way than by visiting Dyer Island and neighbouring Geyser Rock with its penguin and seal colonies and the infamous Shark Alley in between? Because of the high density of Cape fur seals in these waters Great White sharks are common, and use the deep water of Shark Alley to launch vicious aerial attacks on the seals.
The waters around Gansbaai are rich in marine life. Boat-based viewing trips are very popular as are the shark cage diving operations. The best time to view these marine animals is in the winter (May-August) when migratory whales and dolphins are common and the prevalence of seal pups brings the sharks in close.
Although we visited a little early we were still lucky enough to see four of the Big 5. Cape fur seals and African penguins are pretty much a given as the boat cruises right past their respective breeding colonies. We were very fortunate however to come across a large flock (or is it more correct to call swimming penguins a shoal?) of penguins foraging far out in the coastal waters - a sighting that is quite rare in such numbers. We also cruised past a shark cage diving operator who had a large Great White shark close to the boat, and had a Bryde's whale surface close to the boat. Not a bad day in all!
Selfies on South Africa's southern most tip
Cape Point in the Table Mountain National Park is a popular tourist attraction. Although beautiful and worth a visit in its own right, in my opinion this section of the park benefits hugely from tourist misconceptions. Visitors to Cape Town are drawn to the park because it is the country's most south-western tip, and commonly considered to be the meeting point of the warm Agulhas and cold Benguela coastal currents. In reality, the meeting point of these large currents fluctuates between Cape Agulhas and Cape Point, and the country's most southern tip is Cape Agulhas, some 150km or so to the south-east.
The final stop on our coastal meander was to be L'Agulhas, access point to Cape Agulhas in the Agulhas National Park. Unlike Cape Point, there were no parked tourist buses and camera-wielding queues at the board proclaiming "Cape Agulhas, the southern tip of Africa". A simple boardwalk took us from the car park to the marker which in the end wasn't far enough south for Bevan who insisted on climbing over the rocks right to the water's edge.
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Onwards towards the Garden Route
The end of the R43 meant the end of our coastal meandering. From here on it was onto the N2 towards our next stop and another popular tourist destination - the Garden Route. Towns like George, Knysna and Plettenberg Bay are waiting to be explored and as the name suggests, offer plenty of opportunity to get outdoors and enjoy nature which is exactly what we intend to do.
A huge thank you to Marine Dynamics for hosting us on our ocean safari in Gansbaai!