Published: August 20th 2012August 20th 2012
You are driving along. You see a baboon. You try to grab the camera, but miss it. You say 'Don't worry, there'll be another one round the corner.' And it's all normal, really normal here in South Africa. Much like the West Midlands really. But the thing is it's not just baboons, its humpback whales, right whales, great white sharks and meercats. The only thing that has been shy are the cobras. And for that I am most grateful. Here are my top three animal encounters so far:
We're going to need a bigger boat.
Seeing a Great White Shark in the wild is pretty amazing really. The craziest thing is that they are pretty docile (when not breaching and chomping little seals) and really enjoy playing. They loved playing chase with the decoy seal and fish bait, and although I couldn't say for sure they seem to be a bit like dogs who could really rip the ball out of your hands if they wanted to, but aren't because they understand it's all part of the game. We saw four different sharks, all around 3-4 metres in length, in
such detail that you could even see their pupils. They weren't feeding from the boat, they were with us because they were curious. They were as interested in us as we were with them. Obviously the first thing that comes to mind when you have four great whites circling a really tiny boat is, ooh, lovely, I'll just pop into the sea for a closer look. So that's what we did. We did have a cage around us, but to be very honest with you it's a pretty flimsy feeling piece of machinery and its got a rather big bloody viewing hole, where one can submerge oneself to look through the gaps in the bars to get a closer look at the little critters. Now I cannot lie to you. I was happy on the boat. The boat was full of very loud Italians making shark jokes. If this was a film I thought, these loud Italians making a mockery of these magnificent beats, well they'd be the first to get it in the neck. There was also cups of tea and crisps which is always a winner in my eyes. So, to sum up, the boat was a warm,
happy place. I was happy to just view the biters from the deck with a packet of cheese and onion. But then I thought you will regret this when you're older and Catt is talking about the best time of his life being in the shark cage and I will say well that's all very well and good but those cheese and onion crisps were bloody fantastic. So I put down the crisps (they would get soggy after all) and wetsuited up. We entered the water and the lid went on the cage, then bam! One shark! Bam another shark! Bam! Out I get. In my excitement/terror I had managed to forget to breathe, then remembered to breathe when I was under water. If the sharks didn't get me, then the drowning would by crikey. I jumped out the shark cage and back into the boat, and by jumping I mean pulling myself in a manner of a drunk scarecrow rolling through toffee. After this struggle, I then decided to arm myself with a snorkel and return into the death cage to enjoy more one-on-one time with the lovely sharks. My husband, it must be said, was a bastion of
De Hoop nature reserve
A truly stunning nature reserve that's tucked out of the way. We had dozens of whales to ourselves on this beach, which was just incredible.
stealy reserve, the embodiment of the stiff upper lip itself as he bobbed up and down admiring the creatures shouting superlatives, as I flapped and snotted over the boat. Take two. Back in the water, the skipper, bless his soul, kept encouraging me to hang onto an underwater rail to pull myself under. To his dismay I disgraced myself by only glancing under the water, then looking up to the skies promising all the deities that I would not ever do this again just as long as I got out unscathed. It didn't help that the water wasn't that clear and although you could see the sharks perfectly when they were up-close, anything over two metres away reduced them to dark, ghostly figures, terrifying in the deadly potential they held in their quiet movement. It was the most wonderful thing I have ever experienced, but also the scariest. I was super proud to get back in the cage after trying to drown myself, and it is something I will never forget. The sharks were truly magnificent in their prehistoric design, beautiful machines gliding through the water. A sheer joy to spend time in their world.
De Hoop nature reserve is a bit of a hidden gem, tucked away to the east of Cape Town, where the warm Indian Ocean waters lap up to miles of sand dunes. And in those lovely waters at this time of year lie hundreds of right and humpback whales, in warm waters to breed and give birth. What sauce pots. Well, we got there and bam! 1,2,3, 13 whales right in front of us! And not just swimming, neither. They were having a whale of a time! No dirty stuff, mind you, get your mind out the gutter, they were breaching and tail slapping and all those other behaviours you always see on the nature programmes. Only it wasn't on the tele, it was about 20 meters off shore. You could even see them close their eyes as they breached it was amazing, truly incredible to see such enormous creatures in such an up-close way. There were mothers with their calves moving sedately along closer to shore, then there'd be a hive of activity with a group of up to three young male whales breaching just behind them. The weird thing about this was at 10/12 metres
African penguin at Boulders Beach
I'm not sure if the penguins know that 1 mile out to shore great whites are circling. I didn't like to tell them though, they looked awfully happy here in their colony.
long they could breach in one huge lingering movement from nose to tail, slapping water everywhere, then breach again in a matter of a few seconds. They'd do a couple, then it was the next whales turn, and so it went on in a breach-off type fashion. I think we saw one display for mating, and the others were all the male whales practising their breaching and having a bit of a laugh, which apparently they do, a bit like humans really. It really was like if Walt Disney had drawn whales larking around, what with the shimmering turquoise and golden sand dunes thrown into the mix. Unbelievable.
There is most likely a cobra within 10 metres of you right now. These are just some of the words I didn't want to hear from our rather colourful meerkat tour guide, in the dark throws of dawn in the middle of the bush, freezing cold waiting for a group of meerkats to pop their little heads up to warm themselves in the sun. Quick check for aforementioned cobras (none, phew) and before you can say Sergay (sorry) bam! Up pops the first
A meerkat warms himself in the sun; his 'solar panel' is just above his folded arms.
meercat from his burrow. He is a watchful fellow but pays little attention to us (for we are not feeding him or moving in any way like predators) and scans the horizon for things what do want to eat him, which is the odd cobra, jackal and raptor and suchlike. Our guide explains they have oblong shaped eyeballs that enable them to see a huge depth of field and can focus on the foreground and background at the same time, which is why they dart their heads round so quickly. Bam! Another one pops up and looks round. Too cold for me mate he thinks and heads back into the network of burrows to snuggle until it gets warmer. What do they eat? I ask the guide. They are like the Chinese, he says, anything that moves. Just stick to the facts buster, I haven't signed up for casual racism alongside a slice of wildlife. Xenophobia aside, we are delighted when nine meercats pop their merry little heads up and warm their solar-panel type strip on their bellies in the sun, rather like furry rechargeable batteries. We are told though that however cute they look they are violent buggers, and
Compare the meerkat
After the head meerkat has looked out for predators and warmed himself, the rest of the group pop up to sun themselves before spending the day eating anything that moves.
if a lady meercat has been charmed by the advances of a male meercat from another group and he scents her, when she returns to her group instead of welcoming her with a bite of a grub or moth, they will savagely and relentlessly attack her until she is quite dead indeed. Not like on them adverts where they all seem willing to work together and be very cooperative. Lies. Now alongside a penchant for casual racism and women hating, our guide spiralled further when he took the name of Sir David Attenborough in vain when he accused him of manipulating his wildlife documentaries. His reasoning was that you can't get a wild meercat on your shoulder as Sir David did in one documentary, therefore he must have used a tame meerkat and presented it as wild. National treasure Sir Davis Attenborough a fake? I shall have none of it. Most likely our meerkat man was probably jealous that venerable Sir David could charm a meercat onto his lovely shoulder, whereas the South African meercats kept away from our guy on account of his frankly outdated belief system. And then as quickly as they'd appeared, one after another the meerkats
all scampered away off to feed until sundown, where they would sleep in the nearest burrow, and do it all again tomorrow. Food
Not had a bad meal yet, which is pretty good going really I would say. They really are into good food here, whether its traditional Braai (fire) cooked dishes, or the nouvelle cuisine in foodie capital Franshoek its all really great. The wine is just lovely too, and all locally produced in the rather beautiful rolling vineyards of Stellanbosh, Franshoek and Roberston that start just to the east of Cape Town. A glass of very good wine starts at around £2.50. Boom.
Top 3 meals Lamb Shank Pie
This was a traditional recipe and really reminded me of the type of pie my dear old Nan used to make, god bless her soul. The lamb had been slow cooked for the whole day it felt like, and was bursting with flavour, helped along by a really warm Merlot from the Robertson valley. All vegetables in South Africa taste like vegetables. A revelation for our country where I believe in 10 years time we will
only be able to buy one vegetable, as they all started to taste the same; watery, fibrous, nothingness. Eat organic it's the only way! South African tapas
Ever wondered what wildebeast tastes like? Beef really. But very nice beef! We ate in the world famous La Qatier Francais restaurant the Common room in Franshoek, and had a selection of delightful tapas style portions of dishes including, parmesan gnocci and aubergine, deep-fried wildebeast and cream balls (balls, he, he) guinea fowl and chutney, pork belly, curried squid, goats cheese and fennel salad, french toast with parma ham. I round it all off with a really crisp gurwurtstraminer (£3.20 I love it here), and a small amount of flirting with our lovely waiter. What larks. Ostrich Steak
Ever wondered what Ostrich tastes like? Beef! Really nice beef! Sensing a theme here? Now recovering Vegetarian that I am, I found this one a bit difficult as we'd had a bit of a run in with an Ostrich the day before, as you do here in South Africa where they roam free, who'd seen Stephen as a threat (should I be proud or disgraced?) and done
a whole macho-macho behaviour display, where he puffed out his feathers, popped his snake-like neck into the centre of his chest, and violently vibrated his plumage whilst swinging from side to side. After seeing such behaviour I did feel really bad eating one of his kind, but it was lovely and was basically a low fat beef steak, which I would definitely like to try again as an alternative to red meat. I did not have wine here as I was very tired. Landscape
It is safe to say that I have never experienced a land so varied and unbelievable as this one. We have driven 1000 KM so far and around every corner there's a different type of rock, or mountain, or flora or fauna. It's completely breathtaking and I have actually gasped when we've rounded corners revealing blue mountains ahead in the setting sun, or lakes festooned with nesting birds. We have driven the famous Garden Route, which largely hugs the coast, and Route 62 which makes its way through the Little Karoo mountain range, that us Brits blasted through around 100 years ago. Pictures say a thousand words so
I'm going to shut up and you can have a look.
Well first of all people are very friendly. Even the beggars are pretty upbeat and entertaining when asking for money. Safety has not blighted anything so far which has been great, although you are aware all the time of the fractious nature of things here. For instance, along main roads there can be sprawling shanty towns, that go on for miles and miles. Out of Cape town's 4 million residents, 1.5 million live in such shanty towns. There had been a protest on the road linking the airport with downtown the day before we arrived, and police cars and riot vans were stationed along the wall that runs alongside the entire community, a sheer force to prevent anything from happening again. It seems that the World Cup has really left an incredible legacy of extra police officers and security guards (a bit like our CPOs) who are present everywhere, and according to people who live in Cape Town this has really made things much safer. Nearly all city and suburban houses have one or all of security response alarms
and huge f-off spikes all around their properties. The most striking juxtaposition I've seen is a crumbling shanty town on the right of the road, and a pristine, identikit new build housing estate on the left with spikes and prison style barbed wire surrounding it. It is without doubt a two-tier country. But things are improving I think; in Cape Town the council are building houses for all the shanty town residents in order to improve their living conditions. One of the most humbling things I've seen is that in the midst of cooking on outdoor fires, washing in the streams, and living in what looks to an outsider as very squalid conditions people have shown such pride in painting their shack a gloriously bright colour. After visiting the Bo Kaap area of Cape Town and the Disctrict 6 museum, the sense of community and friendliness, something that can be so lacking in modern Britatn, seems to be at the heart of these areas. Although gang activity is rife and most of Cape Town's 2000 annual murders happen in the shanty towns, I would hope that the same sense of human kindness is at the centre of these towns too. I would love to have taken a tour through the towns, but with much sadness I decided that it was the sensible choice not to.