I’m all alone, sleeping in a little cabin situated on the edge of a stormy coast. The doors and windows are wide open, and my ears are filled with the soothing boom of crashing waves. The air is heavy with ocean spray. I can see the stars, bursting through the southern night sky.
This is Fountain Shack in Robberg Nature Reserve, with no electricity, no cell phone reception and certainly no TV or radio. And I’m as close to heaven as I can get. Which is remarkable, given that I’m just down the road from one of South Africa’s busiest holiday towns.
Now, I’m not a big fan of Plettenberg Bay, as you may know from my previous blog on Keurbooms River Nature Reserve. Plett – as the locals call it – is my idea of how NOT to develop a holiday town in a beautiful area. And it is a notably beautiful area.
All South Africans and many foreigners know how pretty this coastline is, with long beaches, coastal cliffs, lush indigenous forests, and a climate that is always gentle, always lovely. I’m often blown away by the view of sparkling bay, with the Outeniqua mountains on the northern horizon.
But although Plett was once a secret holiday hideaway for nature lovers and beach wanderers, today it is almost a city, with shopping malls, restaurants, hotels and huge mansions cut into the forest and fynbos, hovering like UFOs over some of the most photogenic parts of the coast. Why do people have to build such massive structures, with such ugly, insensitive facades?
There is one part of Plett, however, that retains its original beauty. Robberg Nature Reserve is a peninsula abutting the southern end of town, almost entirely surrounded by the temperate Indian Ocean, with about 9kms of coastline and cliffs and some of the best views and best scenery in the area.
I can only imagine how the property developers must have licked their lips when they saw this piece of land. But fortunately, it’s a nature reserve, managed by CapeNature, and thank goodness for that. Although it’s one of the smallest reserves I have visited, it’s one of the best!
Let’s rewind a bit – 120 000 years in fact. Of course, there were no “white” (or “black”) people living in this part of the world, just stone-age hunter gatherers and strandlopers (beach wanderers), who clearly loved this part of the world, because there is extensive archaeological evidence of their presence. There are numerous sites in the reserve, the most obvious being Nelson’s Cave on the southern side.
A bit closer to the present in 1630, a Portuguese vessel – the Sao Goncalo – came into the bay. The 400-odd crew were the first recorded “white” people to see the area, and after making some repairs to their ship, they traded goods with the local Khoi people. Some of the Portuguese sailors made a camp on the shore, while the majority stayed onboard, only for a huge storm to wreck the vessel against the cliffs of the northern side of the Robberg Peninsula. Almost all the sailors died, while those on land survived…there are a few ghosts wandering the beaches of Plett!
The sense of disaster and despair must have been immense for those few survivors, but they must have been consoled by their surroundings. Plett – although it was only given its name Plettenberg Bay in 1778 – would have been a pristine paradise then.
And this is what’s so great about Robberg Nature Reserve. It’s largely untouched, and visitors can walk the beautiful hiking trails, knowing that this is what it must have been like 400 years ago, before the Sandton elite drove their Ranger Rovers into town.
The reserve is just 18 square kilometres, so you can get to know it well in just one day. The best thing to do is walk the 10km circular trail, starting at the main gate, and looping around the northern edge of the peninsula, past the point, and then back along the southern side. It’s one of the very best day hikes in the country, for sure.
A marine protected area stretches for one nautical mile out to sea along the length of the reserve, so you’ll have a good chance of seeing rays, whales, sharks and plenty of seals from your vantage point on the cliffs above, especially on the northern side of the peninsula. There is a large seal colony here, and you can see them easily from the hiking trail. (“Robberg” means “seal” in Dutch, and this is where the name of the reserve comes from).
And then there’s Fountain Shack. Wow! It’s position on the southern side of the peninsula is awe-inspiring, looking out over a tombola of sand that connects “the island” to the main peninsula. There’s no luxury here – just bunkbeds with canvas-covered mattresses, gas to cook on, outdoor shower (no hot water) and solar for the lights. (Reserve manager Henk Niewoudt says they will be putting a small battery-powered fridge into the shack.)
The Fountain Shack was originally built and used by the local angling club, and when Robberg became a reserve in 1980, it was agreed that CapeNature would maintain it and rent it out to visitors. For me, it’s one of the best places I’ve stayed in. Like the Whiskey Creek Cabin in Keurbooms Nature Reserve, it is the only place for overnight visitors to stay, meaning you have the whole reserve to yourself in the early mornings and late afternoons when the main public gate closes. Don’t underestimate this…it’s like you are one of the original Khoi hunter gatherers, living simply in paradise.
As a way to recalibrate your spiritual compass, a few nights and days at Fountain Shack in Robberg is difficult to trump. I’ll be going back for sure – next time with some friends and family, so they too can experience living in paradise.
For more, go to www.yearinthewild.com and www.facebook.com/yearinthewild. Check out my Flickr photos at www.flickr.com/scottnramsay and my Instagram photos at www.instagram.com/wildscotty. Twitter on www.twitter.com/yearinthewild.
Conservation partners BirdLife South Africa, Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, CapeNature, Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Gorongosa National Park, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.