Overberg

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Overberg Travel Guide

In the early days of the European occupation of the Cape, very few people ventured far from the foot of Table Mountain. The vast Cape Flats to the east of the fledgling city were a treacherous stretch of shifting sands, wetlands and - of course - wild animals. And at the eastern extreme of that huge, sandy plain was a formidable mountain range, which is now - a couple of hundred years later - easily traversed by virtue of the scenic Sir Lowry's and Houwhoek Passes on the N2. But in those days, these mountains presented a serious barrier to movement and the land beyond them, which was visited only by the very adventurous and became known as the 'Overberg' - the land over the mountains.

The Overberg extends from the high-lying apple orchards of the area between the two passes in the west, to just past the lovely historical town of Swellendam in the east and - to the south - as far as you can go. Cape Agulhas is the most southerly point of the African continent and - officially - the place where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. The interior is dominated by grain farms interspersed with cute country towns, and the coast is a series of beautiful bays, beaches, wetland and dramatic headlands. Walker Bay, which lies between the towns of Hermanus and Gansbaai, has two claims to fame.
It is reputed to be the best land-based whale watching in the world, as the huge southern right whales swim close in shore and there is a beautiful and convenient, fragrant, flower-rich cliff-top walk that offers an excellent vantage point to observe these, South Africa's biggest tourists.

They turn up here in late winter to escape the harsh Antarctic, give birth, nurse their calves and - while they're in a nice romantic honeymoon destination - work on the next crop of baby whales.
The second claim to fame is as the most southerly vineyards in Africa - and it's well worth doing a tasting. This is not just a gimmick.
The other big attraction of this area is the great white shark. Dyer and Geyser Islands, off the small fishing village of Gansbaai offer probably the best shark cage diving in the world. A number of boats operate in the area - chumming to attract the sharks' attention and vying with each other for the best position. Do it soon, as there is increasing resistance to a practice that many people consider to be morally indefensible, ecologically destructive and dangerous.

There's loads more to do. There are three great nature reserves. Kogelberg in the west, which is a major hotspot of botanical diversity, offers fantastic hiking and an exciting white water rafting day trip. De Hoop, in the east, has some small game, great easy mountain bike trails, an escorted, portaged hiking trail, fun snorkelling, wonderful beaches and some awesome land-based whale watching. Slightly further east, the Bontebok National Park was proclaimed to protect the last few remaining bontebok - a beautiful antelope that is found only in the Western Cape. The Breede River, in the eastern part of the Overberg, has some quite fun rafting and canoeing trips and the only remaining hand-operated ferry in the country and fantastic fishing.

There is great paragliding and fun canoeing and sea kayaking near Hermanus, a gliding club in Swellendam, a good horse trail, great hiking and some fabulous mountain biking trails. There are fun boat trips and a long and exciting foefie slide (flying fox) on the Buffelsjag Dam, near Swellendam.

For the more culturally inclined, the mission villages of Genadendal and, particularly, Elim, hark back to a much quieter era. Interesting museums include the Drostdy Museum in Swellendam, the Old Harbour Museum in Hermanus, which has exhibits relating to fishing and whaling, and the small but fascinating Shipwreck Museum in Bredasdorp. This area is, in fact, littered with historic wrecks. A noble tradition was born when the troopship Birkenhead went down near Gansbaai in 1852. For the first time in recorded history, the troops and sailors lined up on the deck in disciplined ranks while the women and children passengers got into the lifeboats and were ferried to shore. The men then took their chances with the icy water and the legions of sharks. Another historic wreck nearby was the Arniston, which gave its name to the town that has officially been called Waenhuiskrans - which means wagon house cave, and refers to an enormous sea cave big enough to house an ox wagon (although you'd struggle to get a bicycle to the spot, never mind an ox wagon). But everyone knows the place as Arniston - a great beach destination.

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