Adventure Travel » Soft adventure and soft beds

by Wayne Wirtanen (Third of three parts, jump to part 1, part 2, part 3)

Great white sharks!

Stillness Manor, with its Cape Dutch style of architecture, near Cape Town. Photos: Wirtanen

From the safety of a small “shark watching” boat, our small group of mildly adventuresome travelers was watching a group of “young and reckless” travelers on a nearby “shark diving” excursion boat in Walker Bay, South Africa, southeast of Cape Town, in March ’05.

If you have seen documentaries of the great whites, some of the filming was likely done here at one of the world’s premier whale and shark viewing locations. Dyer Island, about a 30-minute cruise from shore, is shared between a 60,000-strong Cape fur seal colony and great numbers of gannets, penguins, cormorants, seagulls and terns. There’s safety in numbers, they say, but the profusion of wildlife on the island provides well-balanced meals for the accompanying population of great white sharks.

About a dozen young people were on the dive boat, dressed in black wetsuits and snorkel equipment, awaiting their turn to be lowered, several at a time, over the side of the boat in an open-topped wire cage, measuring about six feet on each side, to observe sharks “up close and personal.”

Portion of strenuous hiking trail to De Kelders cave, which overlooks Walker Bay.

First the sharks have to be attracted. While our boat cruised idly around the seal island observing the apparently joyful frolicking of myriad seals in the water all around us, the dive boat crew was dipping small nets with bloody fish bits in and out of the water.

A mild current apparently carried the blood scent for quite some distance, for after about a half hour a great white three-fourths the length of our boat appeared close to the surface of the water. It first circled our boat, a great, dark figure in the water, and then leisurely cruised back and forth around the dive boat.

Great excitement erupted on the dive boat as the first group of caged adventurers was lowered into the water alongside their boat until they were about chin deep in the water. This position allowed the divers to dip their heads and snorkel masks under water at will while still standing up in the safety of the cage.

There was an underwater camera situated so that the view would record both the divers and the shark as it came close to the cage. Video copies of the action would certainly be dramatic South African souvenirs to be shared at home.

Adventuresome travelers can view great white sharks while safe in a sharkproof cage — Walker Bay.

Added to this marine extravaganza was the sighting of several rather large jellyfish pulsating their way along, close to the surface of the water right next to our boat.

These same waters are visited by pods of 40-ton southern right whales in their annual breeding and calving rituals. Between June and December these massive, curious mammals seek out sheltered bays all along the southwestern South African coast.

We were told that they are easily spotted from shorelines, and barnacle-encrusted whales often approach within a few feet of whale-watching boats. Our guide told us that in November he could guarantee close-up viewing of whales in Walker Bay.

This exceptional marine experience was an afternoon excursion that we made from Grootbos Private Nature Reserve.

Grootbos Private Nature Reserve

Luxury accommodation at 5-star Grootbos (P.O. Box 148, Gansbaai 7720, South Africa, phone 1 27 28 384 8040, fax 1 27 28 384 8040, e-mail info@grootbos.co.za or visit www.grootbos.co.za) is provided in 13 privately situated cottages on a 2,500-acre nature reserve.

 Dyer Island in Walker Bay has great numbers of Cape fur seals that attract great white sharks.

This private property is home to some 6,000 plant species and provides unique trails for horseback riding and nature hikes, including easy hiking through a rare milkwood forest.

The not-so-easy hike/climb to nearby, dramatic De Kelders cave had me puffing and my leg muscles twitching, but the resulting view was stunning. The wide, open mouth of this tremendous limestone cave looks out over Walker Bay.

Archaeological studies done as recently as 1995 have confirmed that this was a home of human inhabitants for the last, maybe, 70,000 years. For further information and a view of the rocky shoreline below, look up “De (or Die) Kelders cave” on your Web browser.

Full-board rates at Grootbos in 2005 were $359 per person, double (the winter rate, April through August, is $287).

Other luxury stops along the way

Stillness Manor Hotel & Spa in Cape Town (visit www.stillnessmanor.com) had 4-day/3-night full-board hotel/spa treatment packages starting at about $800.

Indoor heated pool at Stillness Manor — Cape Town area.

In South Africa’s wine country in Franschhoek, we tasted wine and had a wonderful lunch at Le Quartier Francais, rated Best Small Hotel in the World by Tatler magazine (U.K.) in 2005. For an e-brochure, visit www.lqf.co.za.

The 5-star stop in Johannesburg was the Michelangelo Hotel (phone 0 800 997 012 or visit www. michelangelohotel.com), a member of the group The Leading Hotels of the World (800/745-8883 or www.lhw.com).

Five-star luxury can be found in Cape Town at Twelve Apostles (www.12apostleshotel.com), also of The Leading Hotels of the World group and situated at seaside with Table Mountain and the Twelve Apostles mountain range as a backdrop. (The hotel is The Leading Small Hotels of the World’s 2005 winner for Best Hotel in Africa/Middle East.)

Their dramatic spa is built into a natural underground cave that was found on the property.

Not-so-soft beds

Any visitor to South Africa will notice the shantytowns on the periphery of cities where the underemployed black population lives. We had an opportunity to visit a “township” by the town of Stanford, southeast of Cape Town.

“Townships” near cities in South Africa are home to the underemployed black population. These homes are near Stanford.

In the middle of about 50 homes, I noticed an electric power pole from which 50 individual power lines went to the houses, looking like a giant spider web. The area was Spartan but clean and orderly. The children were relatively well dressed and were playing joyfully in the dirt streets… until we arrived, and then they came to see the strangers, all curious and friendly.

One young man invited us into his self-made one-room house. About eight by 12 feet in size, it was neat and tidy, with space for a bed, table, one chair and a storage cabinet. A single lightbulb hung down from the ceiling. I assumed that other facilities were available at some central location. He said that he worked part-time at a tourist hotel and was doing well enough, for the present.

Happy trails!

Complimentary travel arrangements, accommodations and a tour director for a small group of travel writers and me on this March 2005 trip were provided by KAI, or Kartagener Associates, Inc. (New York, NY; phone 800/524-7979 or visit www.kainyc.com), a full-service travel and marketing firm.