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Cape Town: whales, sharks and cave art

Cape Town

Sun-seekers, who head south in their droves over Christmas and New Year, love Cape Town for its flat-top mountain and bounteous vineyards. But there’s plenty more to see off-piste, says Tim Butcher, an author and long-time Cape Town resident

Sun-seekers, who head south in their droves over Christmas and New Year, love Cape Town for its flat-top mountain and bounteous vineyards. But there’s plenty more to see off-piste, says Tim Butcher, an author and long-time Cape Town resident

October/November 2016

30 MINUTES 15 MILES AWAY

1 NOORDHOEK EAGLE HIKE

To spice up the traditional tour around the Cape of Good Hope, get up early, drive the clockwise route and pack walking boots. After penguins at Boulders Beach and baboons at Cape Point, aim for a light lunch at Noordhoek Farm Village before driving the Chapman’s Peak road. Ready your camera as the carriageway clings unconvincingly to skyscraper cliffs. The opening of the Oscar-winning “Searching for Sugar Man” was shot here, so it’s fun to cue the score on the car stereo. After cresting the rise, park at East Fort to begin my favourite Cape Town hike. A Silvermine and Hout Bay map from slingsbymaps.com helps locate the old fishermen’s trail dog-legging up to where the mountain meets the sky. The highlight comes at Noordhoek Peak, where a sign leads to a spot overlooking the only Black Eagle nest for 50 miles. It is home to a recently widowed female; experts hope a partner will soon waft by. In the meantime she enjoys alone the vortices swirling off the Atlantic. The three-hour walk sets you up for a sundowner at the Chapman’s Peak Hotel, where the best calamari in the Cape are served. Or, away from the crowds, book a spot at Tintswalo (atlantic.tintswalo.com, from 7,000 rand or $517 per night), a gem of a boutique hotel on the water’s edge. In summer, when the sun sets between the rocky jaws of Hout Bay, there’s nothing between you and Montevideo.

45 MINUTES 25 MILES AWAY

2 SIMON’S TOWN GREAT WHITE SHARK SAFARI

You’ve seen the movies and read the books, but an encounter with a great white shark still exceeds expectation. False Bay, the watery southern fringe of Cape Town, has the densest population on the planet lurking off Seal Island, a popcorn-maker of a food source for this apex predator. They hunt from depth, targeting seals as they skit along the surface, rocketing upwards to hit them, sometimes clean from the water. The stunned victim is then eaten in a toothy swirl of crimson cappuccino foam. During the high-predation season, May to September, you can have your own David Attenborough experience with one of three licensed operators based in Simon’s Town. (Try sharkexplorers.com, 2,550 rand.) You leave before dawn to be there at first light when the hunting is most active. Once the sun has appeared, a cage is lowered so the brave can slip into the water for an eye-level encounter. Back on dry land let the adrenalin spike pass in Kalk Bay, a 15-minute drive back up the coast, where a muddle of art galleries, bookshops and trinket stalls offer beachcombing and window-shopping. The renowned Olympia Café serves great freshly baked pastries, and I always find it a challenge to resist Quagga, a secondhand bookshop decorated with whale bones and animal skins. The seafood at Harbour House is so fresh you can hear the fish being sold on the dockside.

2HRS 90 MILES AWAY

3 SPRINGFONTEIN, NEAR STANFORD

Jurgen Schneider held a Michelin star for 18 years in eastern Germany, lovingly referred to as “The Last Star Before Moscow”. That star now has shifted to a littoral wine farm called Springfontein (springfontein.co.za) near the hamlet of Stanford. Germany’s loss is South Africa’s gain. Leave Cape Town early to break your drive in Hermanus, whale-watching capital of South Africa. In spring, southern right whales gather nearby to breed, surfacing so close you can hear them exhale. But the main prize, Springfontein, lies 20 minutes along the coast, an old farm spread over scrubby dunes between the Atlantic surf and an inland lagoon. Be sure to book one of the farm’s cottages so you can enjoy fully both kitchen and cellar (from 1,000 rand per night B&B for two guests). The seafood and red meat – from local game-farms – are outstanding. But the greens really shone for me. “Foraged” means something richer here in the heart of the world’s smallest but most diverse floral region. And Jurgen has worked alchemy in matching aloes, herbs and broad-leaved plants plucked from the nearby veld. Frame the food with the farm’s chenin blanc, and you can see why holiday reservations are gold dust. The menu won’t wear thin if you base yourself here for several nights, allowing for a botany safari at the nearby Grootbos Private Reserve (grootbos.com), an area so diverse they have recently found six new flower species.

2HRS 30 MINUTES 140 MILES AWAY

4 BUSHMANS KLOOF, NEAR CLANWILLIAM

Most visitors head east from Cape Town along the Garden Route but if you swing north along the refurbished N7 highway and aim for the Cederberg Mountains, a truly spectacular treat awaits at Bushmans Kloof. An old farm has been converted into a luxury desert reserve with cuisine so sensational, service so un-improvable and accommodation so elegant that it is regularly placed in Africa’s top three hotels. The spa alone wins so many awards there’s not enough wall space to hang them all. The reserve’s 7,500 hectares of unworldly boulder fields can be explored on foot, by bike or on game drives. Evening is best when the lowering sun blushes the rock roseate. Summer temperatures regularly average over 40˚C but there is cool to be found – in the shade from mature trees in the aloe-rich garden or splashing in the constellation of river-fed plunge pools, waterholes and waterfalls. But what makes Bushmans Kloof special is its rock art, millennia-old messages from Bushman Banksys, who hunted and gathered through this same parched terrain. The reserve has 135 known sites to date, making it a unique window on the pre-modern human world. Are they snapshots? Or diaries? Or scripture? Nobody knows for sure, which means the magic is left to the beholder. (bushmanskloof.co.za, from 12,500 rand per night for a double room.)

3HRS 15 MINUTES 140 MILES AWAY

5 MELKKAMMER, DE HOOP NATURE RESERVE

It’s a story repeated all over British colonial Africa: rich outsider builds a manor house deep in the bush, only for it to fall into disrepair. Fortunately that fate was spared Melkkammer, the Edwardian home of Irish racehorse breeders, which has recently been refurbished as the jewel in the crown of the De Hoop Nature Reserve, a spectacular 34,000-hectare patch of salty tundra (dehoopcollection.com). From Cape Town head as far south as it’s possible to go in Africa to Cape Agulhas, a storm-battered spot that feels like the end of the world. This is where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic, a maelstrom not far from where HMS Birkenhead went down in 1952 and the cry of “women and children first” began. The motorboat that delivers visitors to Melkkammer chugs sedately across a shallow estuary, home to pelicans and flamingos. From the water’s edge, a lawn kept trim by grazing elands leads you to an imposing pile, complete with panelled walls, tiled floors and four-poster beds. You can self-cater (from 9,600 rand per night, sleeps 8), or book a team of chefs and maids. Spend days climbing dunes or visiting the nearby Lekkerwater house where F.W. de Klerk put the finishing touches to his 1990 speech that dismantled apartheid. There are bird guides and bike trails. Come sundown, be sure to be back in the drawing room for preprandial drinks.

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