Sunday, September 5, 2010

Hermanus. Holidaymaking with Gentle Giants

It’s a sunny Spring day and the sky is full of tall, puffy clouds – the kinds that are full of contours, move slowly and cast shadows as big as the mountains beneath them. I’m sitting on the rocks next to the sea taking in the view. The calm waves are gently lapping below and seagulls are gliding above on the gentle breeze. I’m daydreaming, wandering off towards No-Place-In-Particular, somewhere in my own private bubble. Then a startling noise shakes me out of my head and back to the shoreline – a loud blowing of sorts, just a few meters away. My gaze lands on a place in the water where a puff of smoke still wafts through the air – “No, not smoke,” I think – “it’s the breath of a whale!” And now as if on cue, the view before me comes alive with sounds and a flurry of activity. The wind picks up, my heart rate, too. The birds are diving and calling their seagull screeches, tickling the inside of my ear drums. Somehow the swell of the water seems more intense and as I excitedly walk closer towards the edge of the rocks to see better my steps feel quick and unbalanced. Off in the distance a pod of more than ten dolphins sets course in a storm of splashes and acrobatic breaches and right in front of me, seemingly appearing out of the proverbial woodwork, are at least five more slowly moving whales, waving their tails and sending puffs of damp, warm air through their blowholes. I feel like the scene has been here the whole time, yet it’s only just come into focus – like through sitting still long enough and staring into the distance my eyes have just clicked onto the secret code.

I’m in Hermanus – one of the best places in the world for land-based whale watching. The Southern Right Whale is an annual visitor between June and November, when they come from the chillier waters of the Antarctic to mate, calf and rest – a “whale holiday” I guess you could say. Seeing them in person makes it easy to understand why they are known as Gentle Giants – on average they weigh 40 tons (that’s more than 30 mid-sized cars) and measure up to 15 meters (50 feet – about four classic Cadillac Thunderbirds, lined up edge-to-edge) long! Of course when seeing them from the shore you know you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

A perfect whale watching spot at Hermanus’ Old Harbour is Bientang’s Cave, an unusual restaurant at the base of a rocky cliff on the water’s edge, set into an enormous cave – apparently named after the last Koi Strandloper known to have lived in there at the turn of the 19th century. This little bit of historical intrigue is in itself enough to make me want to give this spot a try. Admittedly, the food isn’t “to die for” (we stuck to the simpler fare and found our burgers to be over-salted and the chips to be stale), but the unique setting at the entrance to a cave where diners can greet whales from their tables over lunch, truly is. Plus, with a man-sized fireplace blazing and fuzzy throws to keep you warm on chilly days, the management has done well to create an unforgettable experience.

Bientang’s Cave

  • Located below Marine Drive, 100m from Old Harbour
  • Tel: 028 312 3454
  • Email:
  • Serving Breakfast and Lunch between 09:00 16:00, weather permitting
  • Dinner by prior arrangement