South Africa: Whale watching

Once threatened with extinction, the Southern Right whale is now protected and numbers are slowly growing. whale-watching by boat has recently been allowed. Valerie Singleton won't forget her first sighting
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The Independent Travel

For several days stormy gusts had whipped the sea into spectacular waves, making it impossible to venture out in a boat to search for whales. Then one morning, the wind suddenly dropped. "We're going out at last ­ don't forget your camera and binoculars," someone shouted at me.

For several days stormy gusts had whipped the sea into spectacular waves, making it impossible to venture out in a boat to search for whales. Then one morning, the wind suddenly dropped. "We're going out at last ­ don't forget your camera and binoculars," someone shouted at me.

We set off from tiny Kleinbaai harbour in a boat skippered by Wilfred Chivell. It's only in the last couple of years that watching whales from the water has been allowed. Only a few boats have been given licences and Wilfred told us there are strict guidelines to make sure the whales are not harassed or disturbed. When a Southern Right whale surfaced silently and unexpectedly a few feet from the boat, we were caught completely unawares and gasped with astonishment. Nothing can prepare you for that moment, even though you know, if you are lucky, it might happen.

The sheer size of this extraordinary creature ­ ten times the weight of an elephant ­ is incredible. Seeing it at such close quarters was magnificent. The whale blew, paused for a moment and then vanished quietly below the waves.

After being hunted almost to extinction, the Southern Right has been protected now since 1935 and is slowly on the increase. From June to November they migrate from Antarctica to South Africa, to mate and calve in the warmer waters. More are arriving each year and staying longer, indicating that they no longer feel so threatened, and whale-watching has become a great tourist attraction. We saw more whales that morning, but nothing could be quite as special as that first sighting.

I was staying at the Grootbos Nature Reserve up on the hill overlooking the superb 18km of Walker Bay ­ recognised by the World Wide Fund for Nature as one of the dozen top whale-watching locations in the world. Every day at 4pm there was the shore whale-watching trip for guests, with one of the Grootbos team and a complimentary bottle of champagne to open as the sun set. And the sunsets were glorious ­ some of the best I've ever seen.

When the sea is rough, whales stay further out to protect their young from being swept against the rocks. One evening, when the sea was particularly wild, with huge, rolling breakers, it wasn't whales, but dolphins that suddenly appeared in the white crests of the waves, leaping and surfing through the water. There must have been at least 60 of them, and they were having fun. It was magical, and we followed them along the bay for nearly half an hour. Then it was back to light the stove in the sitting-room of my cottage. From the sundeck I had a view of the coast and the Hottentots Holland Mountains ­ some days, it was possible to glimpse Cape Point.

A short walk through the darkening garden as the frogs began their nightly chorus led to the main lodge (umbrellas were provided if it was raining) and dinner. The long, open-plan room, with its roaring fire and strong earthy colours, had a welcoming atmosphere. Dinners were good, and the chef often served tasty local fish. Then guests from all over the world met and mingled at the bar.

Ten years ago, Grootbos was an old farm which Michael and Dorothee Lutzeyer bought as a weekend retreat from Cape Town. "Everyone loved it so much, we made it our home in 1994," Michael told me. Today, using only local craftsmen and materials, Grootbos has been transformed into an award-winning Nature Reserve, with over 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) and 500 indigenous species of plants. Michael's brother Tertius and his wife Gabi and his parents joined the venture. Michael's father Heiner has become an enthusiastic flower photographer, and his prints hang on the walls. But the Lutzeyers are doing more than just running a successful Lodge. To a life-long interest in animals and the sea, Michael has now added a burning passion for conservation.

"Plants were not a major issue in my life," he said, "but coming here has changed all that" ­ and he went on to tell me that he was having every bit of the reserve mapped for flora and fauna.

The world is divided into six floral kingdoms, and the Cape Floral Kingdom is the smallest, and the richest in plants. Early Dutch settlers called the distinctive shrublands of the western Cape province Fynbos. Pronounced "fain-bos", it literally means fine bushes. It includes ericas (heathers), pelargoniums (geraniums to us) and those huge, fabulous proteas. Orange pin-cushion proteas were in flower when I was there, and bowls of them filled the lodge.

Grootbos is in partnership with Fauna and Flora International in Cambridge to encourage nature-based tourism that doesn't damage the environment. The idea is to plough the proceeds back into conserving the land, rather than allowing it to be used for purposes that could be detrimental to the Fynbos. Several species are already on the endangered or rare list.

The Nature Reserve has a dedicated team specialising in botany, entomology, nature and marine conservation and forestry. They willingly share their knowledge with the guests and organise walks and trails for them. "We've left our boys with Stephen," a couple from Oxford told me, as they took off for the morning. "He's taking them bug-hunting in the garden."

The garden was large, with intriguing corners to investigate. In the last few years, 50,000 different varieties, all from this part of the Cape, have been planted and, depending on the time of year, the garden is ablaze with different colours. I went on the early morning guided walk through the ancient Milkwood Forest on the edge of the garden, the second largest forest of its kind in the world. One of the trees is nearly 1,000 years old. Milkwood grows down the west coast of South Africa and Zulus use the milky sap for a drink to keep evil spirits away. The Reserve grows Milkwood saplings in their nursery and for 150 Rand (£13), you can have one planted. It was a good way to leave a small contribution. I learnt how Fynbos needs fire before it germinates, and how insects, birds and plants all work together in this process.

The countryside around Grootbos is stark and dramatic, with sweeping vistas and constantly changing light and skies. Before I left, I took another boat trip to look at some of the 60,000 Cape Fur seals that live around Dyer's Island, 20 minutes off Kleinbaai. The sea churned milky-white as it rushed over the rocks and hundreds of sleek, inquisitive seals bobbed and dived around our small boat. Unseen below us lurked the Great White shark. How many, we couldn't guess, but this is one of their main hunting grounds and where most of the films are made about them. Nearby, on another small boat, more adventurous tourists were waiting to jump into a cage to be confronted by one of these creatures. Real Jaws stuff ­ would I have the courage, I wondered. Well, perhaps ­ on my next visit.

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