Cape Of Good Holidays

6th November 2009

Fran Perillo plunges – literally – into a South African trip to remember…

The shark was coming around again. The Dive Master’s voice was urgent: “Down, down, down.” I held my breath, let go of the bars and sank.

The Great White slid towards me, then, at the last second sheared off, its ventral fin brushing the edge of the cage. It was huge and so close that I could’ve kissed it. When I resurfaced, my 12-year old son was bobbing wide-eyed next to me in the water. I looked up at his mother standing in the boat above us with a video camera. “Tell me you got that?”

We’d come to South Africa by mistake. When a family friend in his forties announced that he was getting engaged for the first time, we were delighted. That the lady in question came from the Western Cape only added to the excitement. An Easter wedding! In South Africa! My partner and I rapidly booked tickets for our three children and ourselves. Heathrow to Cape Town. Twelve hours, overnight. Then all we had to do was relax, and bask in the care and hospitality of the bride’s family.

Barely a month later, romantic disaster struck. The wedding was off. With it went our itinerary. We were on our own, holding tickets that couldn’t be cancelled.
South Africa is enormous, four times bigger than the UK, and the Western Cape alone is the size of England. Where would we start? Fifteen minutes online and we’d found salvation in the shape of Percy Tours. Originally from South Bucks and married to a South African, Percy Heywood specialises in designer tours of the Western Cape. As well as boasting Cape Town, South Africa’s most tourist-friendly city, the province is home to an incredible variety of landscapes and peoples.

Emails flashed back and forth. What do you want to do? “Shark diving” said Herself, “and a Township.” Kids? “Animals,” they chorused. As for me, I wasn’t going to visit one of the world’s most attractive wine regions without imbibing – and certainly not if someone else was driving. Over the next fortnight Percy worked with our budget, making suggestions, providing recommendations and booking accommodation. We even got regular weather updates.

Two weeks later, we stepped off the aircraft in Cape Town, squinting into the diamond-sharp light of the southern hemisphere. One of Percy’s colleagues, Neels, was there to greet us.

We were going to Hermanus, about a two-hour drive down the coast and our base for the first week of the holiday. A softly spoken Afrikaner, Neels pointed out the cool box full of drinks in the minibus and asked whether we’d like to take the quick drive down the N2 motorway or the more scenic Route 44 that hugs the cliffs above Atlantic breakers and kelp beds. There was no debate; we were on holiday, after all.

Hermanus itself was a delight. Considered the best land-based whale-watching spot on the planet, the town has a relaxed and prosperous feel. September is when it fills up for its famed annual Whale Festival, and when Southern Right Whales and other Cetaceans are regularly seen in the bay. At Easter we found it the perfect place to potter in the funky souvenir shops or sit scanning the horizon with a drink or an ice cream while contemplating more adrenaline-soaked activities. Like shark diving.

Hermanus isn’t short of operators offering this, which takes place in the shark stuffed waters of nearby Gansbaai. Percy had booked us with Shark Diving Unlimited run by Mike Rutzen, aka ‘the Sharkman’. One of very few people on earth to interact with Great Whites outside the safety of a cage, Mike has been the subject of several TV documentaries and has a client list that boasts Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Prince Harry.

After a light breakfast, and heavily dosed on anti-sea sickness medication, we powered out of the harbour heading towards Shark Alley where we rendezvoused with our cage. A steel-barred lozenge, ten feet deep and open at the top, the cage was strapped to the side of the vessel while a thin ‘chum’ of fish oil was splashed onto the water by a deck hand.

We struggled into wetsuits. They’re essential, given that the sea here isn’t warm. Suddenly, a shout and pointed fingers. The boat lurched as those on the top deck ran to the side…

A fin! Grey-black and cutting purposefully through the water, circling the boat.

As the first divers donned masks and climbed into the cage, the deck hand threw a reeking tuna head on a rope into the water, dragging it across the surface to draw the shark towards them. Feeding the sharks is strictly forbidden; the operators say that ‘chumming’ attracts only sharks who are already in the area.

What the sharks are there for, of course, are the Cape Fur Seals. Shark Alley is near Geyser Rock, home to 50,000 of these playful, but very smelly, creatures. After our unforgettable shark encounters, and having dried off, we spent the next ten minutes watching the seals gambol around the boat, seemingly unconcerned that they were so close to the sharks.

Still on a high, and feeling like David Attenborough after our nautical adventures, we headed for home. We’d hardly picked up speed before the boat’s engines changed note again, slowed and stopped. Ahead there was a spout of water. Then a shiny black Bryde’s Whale broke the surface and lingered for a second before its tail slid in slow motion back beneath the waves. The children were ecstatic. You don’t get many of those in an aquarium.

Having such a highpoint as shark diving at the start of the holiday left me slightly uneasy. What if the rest was an anti-climax? I needn’t have worried.

More experiences were to follow. Walking with giraffes on our wildlife safari. Stroking cheetahs. Holding eagles. Being made incredibly welcome as we were shown around a Township by Wilson, one of the residents, and the former Whale Crier of Hermanus. Gliding up the sheer face of Table Mountain in a revolving cable car. Peering into Nelson Mandela’s old cell on Robben Island, then listening to our guide, a former prisoner there himself, joke about how his own experiences of working in the kitchen had left him unable to stand the smell of fish. Wine tasting amid scenery so gorgeous you didn’t know whether to stick your nose in your glass or just stand there and drink in the view. Wonderful accommodation with our own plunge pool. Consistently superb dining that spanned everything from spicy Portuguese-Mozambican cuisine to the moreish wares of South Africa’s ‘Biltong Maker of the Year’ in Hermanus. And everything at prices that don’t leave you feeling like you’ve just been mugged.

And talking of mugging, what of crime? It’s something we’ve been asked about regularly since we returned and something we worried about before we went. The statistics certainly tell you that it’s a daily reality for many in South Africa. We didn’t have any problems whatsoever. In fact, we didn’t even see much litter or grafitti. Not by UK standards at least.

What we did encounter, time and again, was the genuine warmth and hospitality of ordinary South Africans, in a country that combines old world courtesy with a real sense of Anglophilia so that you always felt you were among friends.

As we settled into our seats ready for the flight home we each ran through our favourite bits of the trip. Then my youngest lowered her voice conspiratorially. “You know Dad, I didn’t mind that there wasn’t a wedding.”

“I didn’t either,” I said. “It might’ve ruined a great holiday.”

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