After an early wake up, my private vehicle picked me up at my Cape Town hotel and the friendly driver navigated us out of town. Since it was 5:30 a.m., I dozed until we reached the quaint town of Hermanus, famous for its land and sea-based whale watching. A bit later, we reached the dive office, where I was warmly greeted by a friendly staff and offered coffee and a light breakfast. Next, we had a short briefing and video explaining the importance of sharks in the marine ecosystem, and what we could expect on their specially-designed boat and shark cage. (The cage is for the people, not the sharks!)
Soon, we boarded our boat, the Slash Fin, and were speeding toward Dyer Island, famous for its sea lions, which is the main reason sharks are in the area. Over the past year or so, great white shark sightings on these types of trips had dropped to nearly zero, due, it is suspected, to the presence of some orcas who have a taste for great white shark pâté. We were told by the boat’s naturalist that the orcas kill the great whites and eat only their livers, and the surviving sharks then flee into the deep sea.
Lucky for us, the orcas appear to have moved off, and great whites are returning. Our naturalist said that sightings have been pretty consistent in recent months. As if on cue, the first shadowy figures appeared below, swimming slowly but purposefully toward the chum and seal decoy being offered by the boat crew. The first sharks were big – at least 6 feet long – but alas they were “copper” sharks, a less fearsome but still impressive great white cousin. By the time I had my 7 ml wetsuit and mask on and was in the cage, we saw more coppers and then the staff yelled, “Down!” and the 12 of us in the cage held our breath and dunked our heads under the surface. Immediately, a juvenile great white appeared, instantly showing their more aggressive nature. Another great white materialized seemingly out of nowhere, a result of the fact that we only had about three feet of visibility. As it chased the bait, its tail fin hit the cage. “Wow!” I yelled underwater, bubbles escaping to the surface.
We didn’t see the really big ones, but I got my up-close-and-personal great white experience and conquered my fears – at least as long as I’m ensconced in a metal cage. I highly recommend the experience for those who have an interest in seeing these impressive predators, but keep in mind that there’s usually a very early wake up and long drive involved, and that the seas are rough, causing several people to spend much of the time throwing up, or forcing the cancellation of trips altogether. Tip: Most shark viewing companies provide complimentary transfers from Cape Town hotels, but we recommend a private transfer (for an extra charge) to reduce travel times and waits. Also, if your shark dive is cancelled, you then have a car and driver to do other touring, like a Winelands or Cape Peninsula tour.
Many people have heard of the Cape Peninsula and believe it to be the southernmost point in Africa, which it is not. It’s the most southwesterly. Nevertheless, it’s a nature lovers dream, and gives you a sense of the dynamics of the turbulent tip of Africa where the frigid Atlantic Ocean meets the tropical Indian Ocean.
On my last visit, we used a specially outfitted van (complete with blow-up paddle boards and artisanal gin and tonics, among other things). Our first stop was coffee and croissants in quaint Kalk Bay. We then continued along the coastline to Simon’s Town, where we sea kayaked with African penguins and a few sea lions. The sea kayaks were stable and fun, and it was great to get out on the water and view the penguins going out to sea in small fishing parties.
At the Cape Point reserve, the lines to get in are long, but well worth the wait. The coastline is dramatic, and it would be easy to sit for hours watching the waves crash against the rocks or roll into the white sand beaches. Most visitors choose to visit the lighthouse near the tip of the peninsula. The Cape Peninsula is also home to interesting flora and fauna like Cape mountain zebra, ostrich and fynbos.
After an informative nature hike, we enjoyed a picnic lunch on the beach, complete with tasty treats, and soccer and rugby balls for those with more energy. Others enjoyed a glass of one of South Africa’s fine wines, but I saved that for my visit to the Winelands.
For anyone who enjoys fine wine or good food or just spending a day in a beautiful and relaxed atmosphere, the Cape Winelands – namely Franschhoek, Stellenbosh and Paarl – are not to be missed. Usually, I gravitate toward Franschhoek, but this trip I visited Stellenbosch, famous for its wineries, restaurants, university and more.
Stellenbosch was founded by a former governor of the Cape who established the settlement on the banks of the Eerste River in 1679, making it the second oldest formal settlement in South Africa. The town has a friendly feel and boasts original Cape Dutch buildings, oak tree-lined streets, world-class wine estates and lots of shops and restaurants, all with a beautiful mountain backdrop. If that’s not enough, you can consider bicycle tours, hiking, horseback riding, golf and more.
On my visit, the weather was pleasant, and I enjoyed tasting many fine wines. Stellenbosch is great anytime of year, and there are lots of fairs, festivals and other events including the annual Stellenbosch Wine Festival in July and the Spier Performing Arts Festival in February or March.