I’m a planner. The minute I confirmed my South Africa trip, I immediately purchased a guide book to research and get organized. But one of the best things about travel is that you can’t plan everything. And oftentimes, it’s the unexpected which makes for the most memorable experiences.
Like Hermanus. Hermanus is a small coastal town outside of Cape Town, on the way to, but not quite on the Garden Route. I had stumbled upon it in my reading as the South African destination to whale watch. Unfortunate for my whale-loving heart, I was several months off-season. On the other hand – there was one other sea-related aspect of Hermanus that caught my attention: shark cage diving.
Shark cage diving is fairly unique experience limited to only a handful of locations throughout the world. The excursion involves taking a boat out into the ocean, being lowered in a cage a few feet under water and watching as sharks attempt to eat the chum located just outside the cage. You know, a few feet from your head.
Now, aside from the random bungee-jump excursion, adventure tourism is really not my thing. And while I liked the idea of being able to have said “I was sort of almost eaten by a shark,” my fish-phobic self didn’t know if this was something I’d actually have the courage to do. Additionally, time was limited, and my friends wanted to head straight to the Garden Route. It was looking like I’d have to give it a miss.
But somehow after a couple days in Cape Town, this voice in the back of my head saying “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” got louder. The morning of our scheduled departure date I made a snap decision: I was going to Hermanus. And as my companions didn’t share my adventurous sentiments, I was going to approach these sea predators alone.
I said goodbye to my friends, rented a car and headed east to the Hermanus Backpackers Hostel to await my sea fate. Nervous, I went to check in and book my excursion. I had come all this way, damn it, this was going to happen. I knew not to expect whales, but it didn’t dawn on me that the sharks would be anything but excited to meet me as well.
To my dismay, I learned that not only were there no whales, but there no sharks. In fact, there had been no sharks for weeks, despite it being a year-round occurrence and “why didn’t you call ahead?”. Since the trip cost about $100 and was only exchangeable for another trip if there were no shark sightings, the hostel recommended I explore something else in Hermanus.
No whales, no sharks and no time to catch up with my friends, I looked at my options: a visit to the local township and a wine tour. While not my original plan, I signed up anyway for the next day and headed to town for dinner.
Despite being in a coastal town, the hostel was not actually located on the coast or even visibly close to it. Nestled in a quiet residential street, the same was true for its visible proximity to the downtown. As I followed their map to the city, I really had no idea what I was in for.
And then I saw it.
Straight ahead, green and blue ocean that stretched for miles with white waves crashing against faded orange cliffs all along the shore. To my left a sleepy yet charming seaside town full of restaurants and shops. A small green mountain guarded over everything.
I was in love.
The day was fading, so I quickly found a lovely seaside restaurant featuring fresh seafood, local wine and stunning views. The restaurant itself was mostly full, so I opted to dine alone outside and enjoy the view in the cold. As I sat down, I was greeted with a complimentary glass of local sherry and a blanket and immediately began to relax. I ordered the shrimp meal and a glass of pinot grigio, something Hermanus is famous for, and enjoyed one of the most beautiful, delicious and relaxing meals I’d ever had.
The next day proved to be equally as incredible as my first impression to the city, with the disjointing experience of a South African slum on the one end, followed by an afternoon of wine tasting and fine dining on the other, a fascinating experience showing both ends of life in South Africa. (Stay tuned for more on that).
As I returned to the hostel, relaxed, slightly tipsy and ready to leave for the Garden Route in the morning, I heard the morning sea report from the staff: they had seen sharks after all.
While I didn’t have the time to wait another day, I decided I didn’t care. Stunning views, incredible food and an eye-opening look at South African life, my spontaneous trip to Hermanus ended up being one of the best mistakes I ever made.
For the sea life, I’ll just have to return :).