The pups were showing off, wiping their faces with their flippers, doing somersaults and surfing the waves. Streamlined, sleek and elegant in the water, they were surprisingly ungainly on land. High on the cliffs above Kanonkoelgat in the Robberg Nature Reserve and Marine Protected Area, we’d spent a good half hour watching the Cape fur seals in the colony below.
Hundreds of them lay out in the sun on the flat rocky terraces. The odd adult bull barked loudly as it lumbered around while the youngsters plopped into the water, frolicked for a bit, then artfully (most of the time) used the power of the waves to deposit them back on land. A wonderful performance.
Plettenberg Bay’s Robberg Peninsula takes its name from the Dutch word for seal, and the reserve, which extends a nautical mile south (1.852 kilometres) offshore, provides sanctuary for about 5 000 Cape fur seals, and a host of other marine mammals, birds and fish. But, we learn, it wasn’t always so – seal harvesting was legal until 1990.
“Look, a whale,” exclaimed Caron Watson, a friend from Knysna who was walking with photographer Shaen Adey and me. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before we all spotted the distinctive blow of a southern right whale a couple of hundred metres offshore.
Impressing us with local knowledge, Caron explained that Plettenberg Bay was previously a shore-based whaling station, but whaling was outlawed in 1980. Now visitors to the bay regularly see Bryde’s, southern right and humpback whales.
We were hiking the longest of the Robberg trails, The Point Circuit. Circumnavigating the rugged peninsula – coined ‘the Garden Route’s Cape Point’ – the route is only 9.2 kilometres long and, according to the helpful pamphlet issued by custodians CapeNature, should take about four hours. But we’d only walked a couple of kilometres in as many hours. At the rate we were going we’d double that.
But it seemed a shame to rush. A national monument, international biosphere reserve, and World Heritage Site, Robberg is a special place. Safe and well-maintained, with dramatic rocky cliffs, golden beaches, exquisite flora and fauna, and outstanding views, it’s a gem for nature lovers.
All three trails start from the trailhead at the car park, following a rough path along the eastern side of the peninsula, which offers stunning views of the glorious crescent of golden sand that is Plettenberg Bay’s main beach.
Passing a sign to Meidebank, a popular fishing spot and rock and surf fishing spot, the path descends steeply to a neck known as The Gap. Studying the bizarre cliffs of pebbles at this junction we learnt something of the unusual geology of Robberg from the informative pamphlet. The rocks here date back to more than 100 million years, and were deposited on the seabed when the prehistoric supercontinent of Gondwana broke into latter-day Africa, South America, Antarctica, India and Australia. Falling sea levels subsequently left them high and dry.
The shortest of Robberg’s three trails – the 2.1-kilometre circuit – loops back from this point to the car park. Or should you just want the beach, you can head down the boardwalks from The Gap to the lovely golden sands on the western side of the peninsula. But we were up for the full Monty, so after gazing in amazement at three great white sharks cruising below us (I kid you not. The diversity of species in the marine reserve is astonishing), we climbed out of The Gap onto a green plateau, the path lined with showy pig’s ear succulents and wild rosemary.
Sharp-eyed as ever, Shaen spotted tiny footprints in the sand – the Western Cape’s smallest antelope, the elusive blue duiker, inhabits this evergreen thicket. It wasn’t long before we heard the bark of seals, and we parked off on the edge of the steep cliffs and enjoyed the show before continuing on the narrow, sandy path to Witsand.
Arriving at this ‘beach’ high above the ocean, we took stock. Turning right here would take us down to the other side of the peninsula and back to the trailhead on the 5.5-kilometre Witsand Circuit. But it was only midday and we were feeling strong so carried on, pausing to look across to Nature’s Valley and scan the bay for marine mammals when we needed a breather.
Once it levelled out the path was high and exposed, offering stupendous views of the Tsitsikamma Mountains. We stopped again to look for pelagic birds – petrel, shearwater, skua and even albatross have been sighted off the peninsula – and to study another big group of seals that lazed on the rocks and played in the pools and gullies below.
We had to tear ourselves away from our prime vantage point, and regained the rocky path, noting how thicket had given way to low scrub. “The white rocks and turquoise sea give this section of the hike a Mediterranean feel,” said Caron. “I could be walking in southern Europe.”
The trail then contoured beneath the Cape Seal Lighthouse (not open to the public but, at 146 metres above sea level, the highest navigational light on the South African coast) before dropping to The Point, where hundreds of gannets, terns and cormorants stood facing the wind.
The sea was fairly calm but, even so, huge waves crashed against the peninsula’s jagged tip. Signs warned of the dangers of this wild rocky promontory; of freak waves that had washed fishermen off the rocks. Deeply scoured potholes chocked with massive boulders told of the power of the ocean.
Once around The Point the going got tougher, the path taking us over boulder fields and past vast, orange, lichen-covered rocks. Watching busy gulls dropping mussels on the rocks and African Black Oystercatchers foraging in the mussel beds distracted us from the steep climbs and descents, and we stopped for tea in a sheltered spot favoured by hardy yellow daisies.
It was low tide so we detoured to inspect some colourful rock pools, then headed up on boardwalks over a midden. From this high point we looked out over great teeth of rock towards Die Eiland – a rocky outcrop, linked to the peninsula by a sandy beach, and that becomes an island at high tide.
Continuing, we passed Fountain Shack, a basic, wooden hiker/fisherman hut that sleeps eight in a communal room with bunk beds. Since it can be accessed in a couple of hours by hiking the trail anticlockwise, it’s a great overnight spot if you want to do the walk over two days, or simply chill out in the reserve.
Somewhat ruing the fact that we hadn’t booked the rustic abode, we went on to the beach where we met up with friends who’d started late and taken the shorter Witsand Circuit. As the rest of the party sat on the sand watching the busy plough snails and scuttling crabs, I ran off to explore Die Eiland. Following the boardwalk around it, I was treated to stunning views of shallow reefs, and undercut cliffs riddled with caves and nesting seabirds.
There was no one in sight when I returned to the beach so I had a quick skinny-dip before commencing the steep climb back to The Gap. The path led past a large cave, one of numerous archaeological sites in the reserve, and the reason why Robberg is a National Monument. This site is not open to the public, but Nelson’s Cave, an interpretive site near the entrance gate, is well worth visiting before you leave.
A final stroll along the top of the rocky headland took us to a viewpoint from where Shaen’s aunt and uncle had been watching the birds, and, it transpired, our progress (and my swim). The wine was on ice and a picnic was laid out. It was the perfect way to end my favourite trail.
Up to it?
One of the nice things about the hiking Robberg is that there’s something for everyone. There are three, interlinked circular loops – the 2.1km Gap Circuit (30 minutes, with one short but steep climb up from The Gap), the moderate 5.5km Witsand Circuit (two hours) and the full 9.2km Point Circuit, which is strenuous, in summer as there is no shade. I’d thoroughly recommend the latter if you are reasonably fit and agile, but allow four to five hours and avoid the heat of the day.
Contact 044 533 2125/85. The Fountain Shack can be booked at 086 122 7362 www.capenature.co.za