This story was updated on 17 April 2019.
? 9-minute read
Gansbaai’s smorgasbord of adventure activities comes with a rich helping of maritime heritage among the fishing village’s fynbos-covered hills. Marion Whitehead heads along the Overberg coast to find out more.
There’s a frisson of danger in the air, and the folk in wetsuits smile nervously as they adjust their goggles and climb overboard to meet their primal fears face to face. Yes, there’s a strong metal cage between them and the teeth of the great white that is their date, but they’re in the shark’s element and the Atlantic is cold.
Close to Stanford, and on the southern Cape coast, Gansbaai is the shark-cage diving capital of the world where people pay good money to get close enough to count the apex marine predator’s serrated teeth. But I’m not that crazy (should that be courageous?) and instead am on one of Dyer Island Cruises’ other boats on an ecotour, smugly watching the people watching the shark swim ever closer, minus the Jaws soundtrack.
In 2015, Gansbaai scooped gold for Best Responsible Tourism Destination at the World Responsible Tourism Awards (WRTA). Gansbaai Tourism manager Glenda Kitley says, “This is thanks to a strong cluster of tourism businesses committed to protecting the natural environment, preserving heritage and improving the quality of life for local people.” These tourism businesses include shark-cage diving operation Marine Dynamics, which won the wildlife conservation category at the WRTA.
A treasure trove of wildlife
On my cruise we’ve already seen one of the razor-toothed creatures nosh a seal in Shark Alley, between Geyser and Dyer islands. Or, at least, most of the people on our boat did. I look up from the dozens of cute, cavorting Cape fur seals filling my camera viewfinder just in time to see a bloody slick stain the sea.
Ol’ Sharky might be endangered, but thank goodness he hasn’t taken the lone Northern Giant Petrel we passed just two minutes before. Sandra Hoerbst, the marine biologist on board, had pointed out this rare pelagic sighting, as well as some Sooty Shearwaters among a group of African Penguins out for lunch in the bay. The graceful dolphins frolicking off the beach at Franskraal make number four of the Marine Big Five we tick off (great white sharks, African Penguins, Cape fur seals) but we are still missing the southern right whales that overwinter in our waters.
“It’s a bit early still,” explains Sandra. “But that’s nature. We can’t guarantee sightings, although we do our best.” But we do spot an usual sunfish basking on the surface of the water. A dangerous occupation for a tasty chunk of protein in shark-infested waters. This bit of the Southern African coast has been an acknowledged hazard for so long that the long finger of land extending south-west from Gansbaai is called Danger Point. The HMS Birkenhead is the most famous of the ships wrecked here. It hit an uncharted rock offshore in 1852 and sank within 20 minutes. The soldiers and sailors stood fast until all the women and children were safely in lifeboats, giving rise to the famous ‘women and children first’ drill.
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“But actually they let the horses off first to distract the sharks,” says Colin Olivier, the lighthouse officer and tour guide at Danger Point Lighthouse who shows me around the small museum in the base of the octagonal tower, built in 1895 to prevent more shipwrecks here.
That night, as the lighthouse’s triple beam winks its message of safety to ships at sea, I sit on the stoep of a former lighthouse staff cottage, now renovated into comfortable self-catering accommodation, and think about the fortitude of the Birkenhead’s 432 men, who lost their lives in the surf dashing against the rocks below.
The next day, on the very scenic seven-kilometre Duiwelsgat Hiking Trail starting at Gansbaai’s fishing harbour, I find Stanford’s Cove. On this rugged coast, where waves whoosh up steep gullies and pound rocky reefs, there is a sheltered gully below the cliffs at De Kelders, where the Birkenhead survivors finally landed.
The fishing village of Gansbaai is a rough and ready place, where fish factories dominate the small harbour and the architecture is plain functional – nothing like picturesque Stanford nearby. But at the upmarket suburb of De Kelders, holiday houses form an almost solid phalanx along the clifftops, all with a grand view of Walker Bay’s whale nursery.
“That’s Cape Hangklip and those two little bits right at the end are the high points of Cape Point,” says Stanley Carpenter, gesturing across the bay. He is my host at Whalesong Lodge, after I book in to check out life on this side of Danger Point.
Sitting on the deck at Whalesong, I watch the sinking sun turn the world golden, and can understand why Stanley and his wife Lainy fell in love with this place. They moved here 13 years ago after selling their share in a Paarl hotel and have poured years of experience into their purpose-built guest house.
My maritime meanders take me south of Gansbaai to the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary, opened in 2015, and then to the Strandveld Museum at Franskraal to meet Oom Jan Fourie, an old salt who’s collected an assortment of odd relics from these shores. He’s most proud of his Birkenhead memorabilia – a rusty cannon at the entrance and a flask that belonged to one of the drowned soldiers.
I press on to Pearly Beach, where the rocky shore gives way to a long sandy bay, and get a real taste of the sea on a coastal walk with Jason Stonehewer of Beachcomber Guide. In no time at all, he has me eating seaweed like a seasoned castaway. “You like sushi? This purple laver is very much like the nori you get with sushi in Japan,” he says, handing me a piece of shrivelled blackish stuff (he has a permit to cut it off the rocks).
A botanist’s paradise
“It’s rich in protein and calcium; actually, it’s a superfood and we should be eating more of it.” It’s salty and chewy in a very satisfying way and I ask for seconds. Jason’s enthusiasm for all things marine is infectious and I’m fascinated as he explains the complex interactions of the tidal zone, as we fossick about the rock pools.
How did he end up living beside this alluring seascape? “My wife and I moved here when it got too busy for us in Stanford,” he says simply. Jason is chairman of the Pearly Beach Conservancy and shows me their fynbos garden.
The exceptional beauty of the Agulhas Plain fynbos has long been a drawcard of the area – of the 1 750 species, there are 112 endemics that occur nowhere else – and fynbos farming provides vital income for harvesters. The folk at the Flower Valley Conservation Trust farm in nearby Uilkraal Valley have been instrumental in pioneering a sustainable harvesting assurance programme for commercially picked fynbos in the Overberg, where many of these beautiful plants are endangered. “Fish and flowers can bring money into a home,” explains the trust’s executive director, Lesley Richardson, when I visit the farm. “If we do this right, there are jobs forever.”
The farm now offers hiking and mountain biking on a network of trails through the fynbos, as well as tractor rides, picnic spots and a coffee shop. “Tourism is a recent leg of our operation,” Lesley explains, “and visitors become informed consumers.”
Nearby is Platbos, the most southerly forest remnant in Africa, where I find myself taking a forest ‘bathe’, immersing myself in its beauty and peace. “It’s the latest thing in Japan,” says co-owner Melissa Krige. “There’s been research done showing that walking in forests can lower people’s blood pressure and boost their immune systems.”
She and her arborist husband, Francois bought the 50-hectare forest to protect it, and started a tree nursery. Together with Greenpop NGO, they have planted 40 000 trees, replacing alien species that were fire risks. Melissa has used her finely tuned intuition to create tree essences from the flowers and leaves of 13 of her forest favourites, and has been invited to run courses on their uses in places as far afield as Japan. “It was part of my journey getting to know the forest,” she says modestly.
With all its terrestrial and marine attractions, it’s little wonder Gansbaai has always been a favourite with holidaymakers. While Neanderthal Man was still hunting woolly mammoths in Europe, the first modern people of the Middle Stone Age camped at Klipgat Cave, an archaeological site in Walker Bay Nature Reserve, next door to De Kelders. Today breakers lap at the entrance to the cave, but in those days the sea level was much lower, and from the cave they could see antelope grazing on the grassy plain below, which provided good hunting.
I sit in the cave watching the waves, and my thoughts return to the endangered sharks I saw on my earlier boat cruise. How ironic that this coast has been home to the planet’s most destructive predator for millennia – humans.
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Where to Eat
- The freshest fish and chips can be found in the harbour at The Boathouse, +27 (0) 87 727 7542
- De See Mans Taphuis has the best view of the harbour, +27 (0) 28 384 1885
- Tolbos Bistro is in one of the original, old, stone fishermen’s cottages, +27 (0) 28 384 1560
- Blue Goose Restaurant makes the best grilled yellowtail, +27 (0) 71 863 1514
- Try the waterblommetjie bredie and oxtail slow-cooked in Merlot at Thyme at Rosemary’s Restaurant, +27 (0) 28 384 2076
- At Coffee on the Rocks at De Kelders, watch Walker Bay whales over lunch or tea and cake, +27 (0) 82 382 4114
Where to Sleep
- Stylish Whalesong Lodge on the cliffs at De Kelders has a fine view of the bay, +27 (0) 28 384 1865 or [email protected]
- Misty Waves Guest House at Danger Point Lighthouse is a well-equipped self-cater, +27 (0) 021 449 2400, [email protected]
- Gansbaai Tourism, +27 (0) 28 384 1439
- Danger Point Lighthouse tours, +27 (0) 28 384 0530
- Beachcomber Guide walks and slackpacking hikes, +27 (0) 72 890 4317
- Dyer Island Cruises, +27 (0) 82 801 8014
- For shark cage diving, book your dive with Marine Dynamics, +27 (0) 82380 3405
- African Penguin & Seabird Sanctuary, +27 (0) 82 907 5607
- Strandveld Museum, +27 (0) 28 384 1439
- Walker Bay Nature Reserve, +27 (0) 28 314 0062
- Flower Valley Farm, +27 (0) 28 388 0713
- Platbos Forest, +27 (0) 82 411 0448, [email protected]
- Fynbos Trail, +27 (0) 82 464 5115
Words and Photography Marion Whitehead