southern right whale hermanus
A southern right whale calf breaches the water surface off the coast of Hermanus (Reuters)

To cheer ourselves up following the misery of the "eight-day rain", my Beloved and I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to take ourselves off to our favourite place in the whole of South Africa (so far) - the lovely little, whitewashed town of Hermanus.

The "eight-day rain" is a Cape phenomenon that happens every winter in August. It's desperate - the UK's got nothing on this, particularly because, despite having three months of winter each year, Cape houses really aren't set up to cope with the cold.

As a result, you freeze your bits off in a way that central heating makes unthinkable at home. I've never worn so many layers in my life. I can barely get through the front door at times.

Anyway, having spotted a break in the clouds, we clambered into the car and took off on the hour-and-a-quarter journey from Stellenbosch to our lovely, whale-watching destination extraordinaire.

Hermanus prides itself on offering what it claims is the best shore-based cetacean-spotting in South Africa. It even employs an official whale crier, allegedly the only one in the world, to blow his curly, dried kelp horn in a series of Morse code-like sounds to alert passers-by to the whales' location.

A dash and a dot for New Harbour, two dashes for Fick's Pool, three dots for Roman Rock, that kind of thing - all of which are spelled out for easy understanding on the sandwich board that sits over his navy blue raincoat (at this time of year anyway).

The present whale crier, Wilson Salakusana, does the rounds along the town's coastline between 10am and 4pm from June to December and, somewhat gruesomely, wears a hat with a bit of whale's tail stuck in it too.

Happy whale-watching

But the crying tradition was actually started in 1992 by one Pieter Claasens, who used to dress up as a parrot, but retired in 1998 and, sadly, died two years later.

Such was his reputation, however, that by 1996 he was apparently invited to star as guest of honour at the UK's annual Town Crier's competition, which that year was held in Topsham, a suburb of Exeter in Devon. He also was made an honorary 'Town Crier of Britain' to boot.

As to the whales being cried about, of the nine southern hemisphere species that pass by South African shores, the ones that you're most likely to see in the Walker Bay area are the Southern Rights.

They were given that name because, rather ghouslishly, they were said to be the "right" ones to kill - they were slow enough for rowing boats to approach, floated when dead, which made them easy to handle and process, and yielded large amounts of oil and baleen, or the so-called whalebone used in old-fashioned corsets and the like.

Thankfully, as it's been illegal to cull them since 1935 when they were given the dubious honour of being the first large whales to gain special protection, their numbers have risen to about 7% per year.

And the safeguarding appears to have paid off. As we checked into our charming, if rather over-priced, 'Misty Waves' boutique hotel and went to gaze out of the window of our sea-view room, what should we see but a whale waving its tail at us, not once but twice. To be swiftly followed by a full-on breach as she leapt out of the water to say hello.

We were stunned. And delighted. Over the moon in fact. And even though we only had a few spouts and the odd tail-sighting to show for our trouble after that, we simply couldn't tear ourselves away until the sun went down.

At which point, it was time for an amble along the seafront to the old harbour to treat ourselves to a triumphant dinner at what both of us consider to be the best restaurant in Hermanus - the Burgundy.

Unexpected finds

Housed in a couple of the original village's oldest stone-and-clay fishermen's cottages, which now comprise a national monument, it's a cosy spot and comes complete with open fires, tasteful French-style décor and relaxed and friendly service. The cuisine itself is of a predominantly seafood bent and, just to gain even more brownie points, most of the ingredients and wines are sourced locally.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, and certainly not what we expected to find in a well-heeled, upmarket place like Hermanus was Bo Jangles, the upstairs hostelry that we were directed to on deciding to go for a post-prandial bevvie.

Although as I found out later, it's considered more of a late night bar/club than anything, it's also the only option in the vicinity and reminded me very much of the smoky, old pool dives that you come across in the US.

Full of men in leather jackets drinking beer, pie-eyed kids in denim showing off - and six-packs of 'Choice' condoms in the ladies loos. All very sensible, it must be said, in a country where one in 10 of the population is HIV positive.

Another unexpected Hermanus find, and regular haunt of ours, however, is the Funky Vibes music shop. Situated right on Main Road, you really can't miss it - not only do the vibrant sounds of reggae, dub and ska fill the air as you stroll by but its frontage is chock-full with all kinds of tie-dyed T-shirts, brightly-coloured Indian cotton trousers and bags in Rasta shades with Ganja plants on them.

And its owner, David Lowe, is just as flamboyant. A regular twice-a-week fixture on Whale Coast 96 FM, he very patently loves his music and has sold us some great stuff, our fave to date being the eponymous debut album of Hollie Cook, daughter of Sex Pistols' drummer, Paul Cook.

It really is amazing what you can find when, and even where, you least expect it. Weather notwithstanding.


South African Adventure: Johannesburg, City of Gold without the Lustre [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: Paarl, The Town Where Nelson Mandela Walked to Freedom when Apartheid Died [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: The Legacy of the San Hunter-Gatherers [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: Lynedoch Eco-village Rolls Back Pain of Apartheid [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: How Living Abroad Brings out Green, Green Grass of Home [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: Book Club Blues [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: Having a Whale of a Time in the Freezing Cape [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: How to Beat the Cape's Wild Winter Weather [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: 23 Years after Apartheid, Townships Still Mired in Poverty [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: Missing the Charm of the English Pub [BLOG]

Cath Everett is a resting journalist who has written about business, technology and HR issues for over 20 years. She recently moved from the UK to South Africa with her husband