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January 30, 2008

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                                 Hermanus

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Greetings! This week, we finish up our unforgettable trip to South Africa in and around Cape Town. Ready to get up close and personal with nature? I'm talking about seeing whales like you've never seen them before, penguins and even baboons. If you want to find out more, read on. Plus, we'll get an insider's view of some of the area's best hotels. If you're on a tight schedule, you can get a taste of the adventure by watching this four-minute Johnny Jet video. And if staying closer to home is more your style, then tag along with Mike Manna as he shows us Dallas. Yee haw, cowboy!

I couldn't have been more excited about going to Cape Town, even if it meant boarding a small, 29-seat plane. The three-seat-across Jetstream 41 turboprop was so tight that my carry-on bag, which normally fits under the seat on regional jets, had to be gate checked. But it was okay; I took everything valuable out and the 55-minute flight went by quickly and smoothly. For the entire 200-kilometer journey, we hugged the scenic coastline and the lone flight attendant handed out drinks and pre-packaged chocolate chip muffins. If you're afraid of small planes, the drive takes roughly five hours.

It's always been a dream of mine to visit Cape Town. I've heard so many fantastic things about it. Some say it's the best city in the world, likening it to Sydney and San Francisco, except of course, that Cape Town has the world famous Table Mountain as a backdrop. Unfortunately, the overcast skies prevented me from seeing the mountain as we descended and made our way out to the suburbs.

Surprisingly, the Cape Town International Airport doesn't have that many nonstop international flights and none from the United States. However, Delta Airlines is scheduled to begin one later this year from JFK so that's good news for Americans. As of now, the majority of visitors need to go through Johannesburg, a two-hour flight away.

A shantytown is an unauthorized settlement of poor people living in dwellings made from corrugated metal, scrap plywood and plastic. Sadly, they don't even have proper sanitation or electricity. And right outside of the Cape Town airport is one of the largest shantytowns in the world. It's located along the highway and goes on for miles. I was told it's 4.5 kilometers long by four kilometers wide, with over two million people living there. One reason is that South Africa has an unemployment rate of 87%. Crazy, I know. So be prepared to feel a range of emotions when you visit. One moment, you couldn't be happier as you drive to clean, safe accommodations and the next, you're deeply saddened, your heart heavy with guilt. At least, that's how I felt.

The folks from Cape Rhino Tours picked me up at the airport. My first few days, I had a guide named Brian Cuddle – a very nice Capetonian man who at times, was difficult to understand, with his thick, South African accent, and who didn't always have the most accurate facts. However Waleed, a Cape Malayan guide, finished the tour and was not only articulate, but very knowledgeable. The first thing I learned from Waleed is that Cape Malayans are people originally from the Malay archipelago (mostly from Indonesia). They started their community along the Western Cape of South Africa hundreds of years ago and today, there's a huge Cape Malay community in South Africa. Cape Rhino Tours. tel.: +27 83 3801416, email: Here's a scan of their business card.

We drove along a coastal road to the village of Hermanus. It took 90 minutes but the drive was beautiful, even on an overcast day. When I pulled up to the five-star Marine Hotel, I thought my eyes were fooling me. In the Walker Bay, I saw a rock and it looked like it was moving. When I saw a huge spray come out of it, I realized it was a whale that was only about 20 feet away! Then there was another ... and another! I thought I was dreaming. I rubbed my eyes and shook my head and realized that there were 20 whales, some breaching off in the distance. I later found out that there are between three and four hundred Southern Right whales here during the high season (late June to early December). They come from the cold waters of Antarctica every spring to mate and nurse their young off the "Whale Coast". It's filled mostly with Southern Right whales but Humpbacks, Bryde's and Minkes are occasionally spotted, too. One way to identify a Southern Right whale is by the blow, which is V-shaped – Southern Right whales have two blowholes.

It was only fitting that the keys to rooms at the Marine Hotel came with a whale tail keychain. The Marine Hotel is a beautiful hotel with a bright white exterior, perched atop the cliffs of Walker Bay. Inside, you'll find 43 individually decorated rooms with large bathrooms, each with a separate tub and shower. There's also a heated towel rack, which was a nice touch since it got a bit chilly at night. The hotel offers free wireless Internet access but ... it doesn't actually reach the rooms. You can only access it in the sunroom, the gorgeous lobby with huge picture windows so that guests can enjoy the view. At first I thought it was a pain to lug my computer down there but it turned out to be a grand thing. When I Skyped my friends/family, I was able to share the view with then by using my webcam. If it's possible, I think my niece Amanda was even more excited about seeing the whales than I was.

Sitting there, in that gorgeous lobby, enjoying my bottled water that cost four times what it should (12R=$1.67), I found myself observing the staff and guests. Many of the guests I saw were older, wealthy, loud Americans on a Butterfield and Robinson tour. And for the most part, I found many of the white staff members to be a bit snooty (not this guy). Yet all the blacks I encountered couldn't have been more kind and friendly. I don't normally categorize people by race but it's near impossible not to notice these things in a place like South Africa, with its deep history of race issues. Here, they speak in terms of black, white and colored. It's just a way of life here.

The Marine Hotel's seafood restaurant is supposed to be one of the best eateries in South Africa. But we must have been there on an off night; not one person in our party of eight raved about the food. Neither did any of the guests at the table beside ours, who I made friends with. What's ironic is that I was the only one who had a non-seafood dish -- chicken paella -- and I loved it. However, the Marine's breakfast buffet made up for the so-so dinner. It was elaborate and tasty! Sitting on the outdoor patio, watching whales breach just yards away in the warm sun was surreal and worth every penny. Rates start at R1350 ($187) per night for a single in low season. Marine Hotel, Hermanus, South Africa; Tel: +27 21 794 5535.

I walked along the path and the shoreline to get up even closer to the giant, gentle mammals. The landscape of cliffs and ocean reminded me so much of Palos Verdes and La Jolla, California. But as soon as I made it to the center of town (two blocks away) to the daily outdoor market, where sellers capitalize on the flow of tourists by selling all things African, I realized I was indeed a long way from home. I ended up purchasing some salad tongs for 50R and a souvenir refrigerator magnet with a fitting slogan – Hermanus: The best land-based whale watching in the world.

I always try to avoid spending the beaucoup bucks hotels normally charge to wash clothes, nor did I feel like washing my skivvies in the sink. So I went looking for a laundromat. Two blocks from the hotel, down a hidden alley off of the main street, is the Wash Tub. It's not a self-service laundromat but rather a full-service. I asked the women working there if they could get my clothes back to me in a few hours before I split town. They were very nice but said they were very busy and it would take longer than a few hours. I was desperate to get my one load done because this load was all of the clothes I had brought and they were dirty. So I asked if they'd do it for double the price. They were reluctant at first but when they saw how desperate I was, they finally agreed. Then I asked the golden question, which should have been the first one I asked: How much? Not matter how much it was, I knew it'd be much cheaper than what the hotel was charging. But I wasn't expecting them to say 25R ($3.50) a load. Can you believe it was that cheap? When I returned to pick up my freshly laundered clothes, I brought the kind women a bag of designer toiletries that I'd collected from other hotels and a bottle of wine, which they greatly appreciated. For more information on Wash Tub, here's a scan of their business card.

Next stop was 20 miles east to Grootbos, directly across the bay from Hermanus. Along the way, we stopped off at the Gansbaai fishing village, which is where all the Great White Shark diving boats depart from. I had an opportunity to go out on the four- to five- hour cage diving expedition but declined. Listen: Even if I'm safe in a cage, I have no burning desire to go out five miles in rough, freezing cold waters to get face to face with a shark the size of a school bus. It just doesn't appeal to me. My friends who went enjoyed it, even though five of the 25 divers got seasick and were puking their heads off.

What I would like to do is go out early one morning and see Seal Island in False Bay. It's about 7 kilometers out and it's where all those famous pictures are taken of sharks jumping out of the water chasing baby seals. FYI: Days later I did drive by False Bay and spoke to one of the shark spotters. The day I was there it was overcast and I asked the spotter if he himself would surf with the hundreds of people out there. “Not in these kind of conditions; only when it's sunny so the spotters can actually spot the sharks and warn the surfers,” he said. Note: There hasn't been an attack in over a year and when spotters see a shark, they raise a flag and sound an alarm and watch the surfers swim like hell.

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Copyright 2007 JohnnyJet, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Pictures From

The Trip


Cape Town Airport


Jetstream 41


Tight Seats


Flight Attendant




Welcome To Cape Town




Marine Hotel


Walker Bay




More Whales!


My Room


Friendly Wait Staff


Seafood Restaurant




Cliff Walk


Local Handicraft


Main Street


The Wash Tub


Shark Diving Boats


Shark Cage Diving


False Bay Surfers


Shark Spotter


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