Esme Fox enjoys a visit to the Western Cape in the middle of the recent drought, but witnesses the impact it has had on tourism in South Africa.
I do not expect to be confronted with it so soon after arriving, but there it is: no water in the taps at Cape Town International Airport, only bottles of hand sanitiser. Large ‘water crisis’ posters on the walls and, at my hotel, a red sticker on the mirror reminds me to limit my showers to one minute at a time.
This year Cape Town has suffered its worst drought in more than 100 years, prompting the government to warn of a ‘Day Zero’ – the moment when dam levels would run so low that taps would be turned off and residents sent to communal water points. Apocalyptic headlines followed across the world, as water restrictions were implemented, with residents and tourists told to limit usage to 50 litres a day. Despite the crisis only affecting Cape Town and its surrounding areas, not the wider Western Cape, there has been an inevitable impact on tourism.
Navigating the drought seems daunting, but I soon realise it’s easy to stop and start the tap every time I wash my hands and to be more mindful of how much water I am using. It is because of everyone making seemingly small adjustments like these that Day Zero has been averted, for now.
Russel Brueton, chief communications officer for Wesgro, the Cape Town and the Western Cape tourist board, says water usage is down 60 per cent: “We are now at a record low of 502 million litres per day.”
With winter now here, the rains have begun, bringing much-needed water to the city’s reservoirs and easing the strain on its natural resources. There is every chance that the city could experience another drought next summer, but the government plans to be ready, investing in alternative water sources, including desalination plants, and collecting runoff from Table Mountain.
Cape Town and beyond
I begin my tour of the Western Cape, South Africa’s southernmost province, in Cape Town, the “Mother City” of four million people, which sits before the stunning backdrop of Table Mountain. Locals tell me I am in luck: it is rare to see the landmark without its “tablecloth”, the line of fluffy white clouds that cover its summit, so I take the opportunity to go up straight away. From the mountain’s flat top, the views are spectacular: clear all the way to Cape Point, the jutting stone promontory that is the extreme southwestern tip of the African continent. The sun is shining, and the dassies – giant guinea pig-like animals, said to be the closest relative to the elephant – are out in their dozens. But even up here, away from the bustle of the city, I am reminded of the big issue: the toilets flush grey water; the taps are empty.
There is plenty to do, see and eat in Cape Town, a melting pot of cultures and cuisines. The active traveller can surf, hike and paraglide off Lion’s Head, or abseil off the top of Table Mountain. There is also, of course, Robben Island, which now pays tribute to former prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, who was born 100 years ago this month.
After Cape Town, I head for the delightful town of Stellenbosch, amid rolling hills and golden vineyards, known for its traditional Dutch architecture and, of course, wines. The water crisis is less severe here, but restrictions have still been put in place, and many wineries have had to adopt innovative means of lessening water consumption. Deeper into the Winelands, however, many areas have experienced no drought at all.
I take a hop-on, hop-off safari with Hermanus Wine Hoppers to visit the best of the wine makers, including the sublime Whalehaven Winery, where wines are paired with floral chocolates; the historic Bouchard Finlayson, the first winery in Hermanus; and Creation Wines, which has an exquisite tasting and pairing menu.
The world in one place
This area of the Western Cape is more about the marine Big Five than land safaris: it is home to southern right whales, great white sharks, bottlenose dolphins, African penguins and Cape fur seals.
The southern right whales are the undoubted stars of the show, and can be seen all along the Cape Whale Coast, one of the best whale-watching destinations in the world. The whale season lasts from the beginning of June to the end of November and is centred on the picturesque town of Hermanus.
Sadly, I am not in time for whale season, but I do have the chance to get up close and personal with the endangered African penguins at the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary in Gansbaai. The town is also the shark cage diving capital, and the place from where tours leave to Dyer Island, home to one of the biggest African penguin colonies in the country, as well as Cape fur seals.
The highlight of my trip, however, is the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, a safari with a difference. High above the Walker Bay Nature Reserve, Grootbos is home to plants found nowhere else on the planet and offers mesmerising views of the surrounding fynbos (a belt of heathland with exceptional biodiversity), the De Kelders sand dunes and the ocean beyond. It was once a humble group of self-catering cottages, but today Grootbos is one of the region’s most luxurious lodges, where lavish villas are hidden among the ancient milkwood forest.
It’s not that I am tired of autumnal vineyards, countless glasses of fragrant pinotage and dramatic coastal habitats, but I am also keen to see another side of South Africa, and to learn more about its mix of cultures and languages. So, Ann Heyns, development manager for Route 360 Township Tours, takes me to the home of Nocawe Piedt, in Kayamandi township, near Stellenbosch, who regales me with stories and songs, and treats me to a meal in her home. Nocawe is from the Xhosa people, and has welcomed more than 1,000 visitors through the Township Tourism project.
“Water shortages are nothing new for the townships,” I am told. “Many people don’t have running water in their homes and often have to queue to fill buckets, making them last all day.” (See picture below.) I cannot help but think, despite the problems it has caused, that this drought has been a much-needed wake up call, not just for South Africans, but for all of us around the world.