Running barefoot down the Witsand dune in the rain. Watching seals play beneath a rainbow suspended from a pewter sky. Feeling the cool, salt-laced breeze against my face. Hearing the giant easterly swells thunder in and end their journey from across the ocean by crashing against the boulders of the Wild Side. Swirling tendrils of mist creeping up the cliffs as a family of dassies scurry out and warm themselves in the first rays of the rising sun. Dolphins hunting offshore while rays fly silently beneath the waves. This is Robberg Magic. Robberg has become my escape, my refuge from the daily pressures crowding in and vying for attention. Hitting the trail at sunrise restores a balance that is so easily knocked out of equilibrium by getting caught up in convoluted expectations and societal limitations. The healing powers of nature, not in a druids-waltzing-around-a-campfire kind of vibe but an immersion and a reconnection to the real and the raw, is so often underestimated. A daily recalibration in a world of intangibilities. I let the rhythmical crash of the waves drown out the white noise while I sift through the background chatter and reacquaint myself with what actually matters. The act of running, barefoot, down a sand dune, in the rain, awakens the free-spirited nature of being a kid, carefree and truly happy. Allowing oneself to just let go and enjoy the simplicity of the moment, free from inconsequential clutter, can have a powerful impact on one’s outlook. Over the years Robberg has provided my family with just that sort of an escape. That Witsand dune has felt the light-hearted step of four generations as we’ve trundled down the sand to the sea; my granny even remembering a blanket of flamingo pink candelabras fringing the path. My mom recalls learning to swim in the protected pools on the Wild Side and witnessing a school of juvenile hammerheads (possibly smooth, Sphyrna zygaena) glide past them at Meidebank.
Memories of exploring Robberg as a kid are a blur of steep rugged cliffs, mountainous sand dunes and thundering waves. I have always been drawn to Robberg; shrouded in mystery, steeped in history and abundant in natural wonders. Above the stone fireplace in my great-grandmother’s house hangs an old, hand-drawn map detailing the rugged peninsula. I remember a roaring fire heating my face, the cracking and popping of the wood as it kept the cold of winter at bay. I would sit in the lounge, swallowed up in an oversized armchair, for what seemed like hours, studying the intricacies of the map. The contour of the Wild Side is punctuated with the skull and crossbones symbol which would conjure up images of an ancient barque battling through a storm, combating pirates and shipwrecked sailors. The fact that the symbols warn of freak waves only added to the allure. Little did I know then that I would later be lucky enough to be able to spend almost every day soaking up the Robberg atmosphere and discovering her secrets. When I moved to Plett last year, I began spending more time exploring the peninsula…boundless wonders slowly revealing themselves as I sat at the Point, a whole ocean before me, and watched great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) cruise past. Despite only having a footprint of less than 200 ha (174 ha), the Robberg Nature Reserve (proclaimed as such on 25 July 1980) is bountiful in flora and fauna, significant archaeological sites, fascinating geological formations and astounding views. Its Marine Protected Area (MPA), extending 1.85 km out to sea, provides an additional 2 270 ha of protection to a number of IUCN Red List species. The MPA was declared, under the Marine Living Resources Act 1998, on 2 September 1998 and its boundaries increased to its current size on 29 December 2000. In 1999 the reserve was declared a National Monument and is now also an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Cape fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus) is Robberg’s most obvious inhabitant; the smell of the colony is carried in on the breeze and is so strong that it is often encountered before even starting the trail. After spending quite some time observing them from a clifftop lookout for a research project, I for one can say that I am rather fond of the smell…smelling it means that I am on Robberg and in my happy place. Yes, I know it’s weird and that the sweet smell of the fynbos baking in the summer sun would be a more conventional choice but conventional is so yesterday! Once above the colony you can clearly hear the deep barks of the bulls and the plaintive bleats of the pups; which are not mountain goats, as one visitor assumed. Historically there were two seal colonies in the bay, one on Robberg (resulting in its current name, meaning Seal Mountain in Dutch) and the other on the island where the Beacon Isle hotel is now situated. These seals were hunted to extinction back in the 1800s but after protective legislation was put in place, they slowly started to recolonise the area. During the pupping season of Nov/Dec 1996, the first pups in over 100 years were born on the peninsula. The Robberg colony is also the occasional home to a vagrant southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonine) bull, known affectionately as Solo to the locals. Solo has been visiting the rocky shores of the Nature Reserve for several years, arriving from one of the sub-Antarctic islands to haul-out and moult; he also occasionally munches on an unsuspecting pup that gets in his way. Solo is not the only species inhabiting these waters that happily chomps on the odd seal. From the clifftop trail, white sharks can be easily spotted patrolling the waters on the bay-side of the Peninsula.
These sharks are constant companions as you trek from Meidebank to the Point but my favourite place from which to observe them is while perched on a rocky outcrop just before the Point. The clear, shallow water creates beautiful silhouettes against the shell-white sand below; as they glide effortlessly through their undersea world. One of my favourite, albeit bittersweet because my camera malfunctioned, memories observing them from the Point is a bit of a David vs Goliath moment where a Cape cormorant (Phalacrocorax capensis) gallantly fought off the inquisitive advances from a young shark. The cormorant was a sitting duck so to speak and a juvenile snuck up to investigate. I was so sure that the bird was going to be lunch that the I-can’t-watch-the-Lion-King part of me wanted to turn away but the marine biologist in me grabbed the opportunity, and the camera, to record a natural predation. Much to my astonishment, the cormorant turned to face the shark just as it broke the surface near the bird’s tail feathers and admonishingly “klapped” it on the snout. The shark veered quickly away, its snout being one of the most sensitive regions on its body. Inquisitiveness not yet quite satiated, or now maybe driven by indignation, the shark circled back to face its quarry. Once again, the little bird stood (well, bobbed) its ground, making contact with the shark’s snout yet again. At this point; the shark swam off probably hugely disgusted with itself, the incident doing nothing for its image as one of the ocean’s most feared creatures. I eagerly checked the images that I had managed to capture, or so I thought. All the photos that I had taken that day were black, totally and completely black! I was absolutely gutted, no front cover of Nat Geo for me! A quick call to my sister resulted in an hour-long clifftop lecture on aperture, speed, equipment compatibility etc etc, which left me realising just how much of an amateur, amateur photographer I was. After a month of brooding; I attempted, in PhotoShop, to salvage what I could from the images. Yet another rude awakening, this time of how completely incapable I am at wielding a cursor in this age of digital technology. My efforts can however be viewed below.
The shallow waters at the foot of the north-facing slopes of Robberg are ideal conditions in which to witness the inshore mobbing of great white sharks by the fur seals. It is a behaviour trait often recorded at the seal colony and one that I find fascinating and plan to further document. Great white sharks are ambush predators with predations mostly taking place in deeper water, channels and along the fringes of kelp forests. When in the clear, shallow water close to the mountain however, the seals are able to spot the sharks and chase them off. The best time of year to view the sharks is during the winter months, June-August here in South Africa, and being able to observe them in their natural habitat without the aid of chumming and such really is an awesome experience. Great white sharks are apex predators and play a key role in maintaining healthy oceanic ecosystems. A protected species in South African waters since 1991, these sharks are recorded as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and as such every effort should be made to ensure their survival. White sharks are not the only big shark species to be encountered off the Peninsula. Hammerheads can often be seen in the bay; large schools of juveniles historically being spotted in the area. Taking the distribution limits of the three hammerhead species present in South African waters (nine species globally) into account, the species recorded in Plettenberg Bay is possibly of the smooth variety. The common name describing the lack of middle indentation in the cephalofoil (read weirdly shaped head) and not its attitude to life in general. The smooth hammerhead is listed as Vulnerable while the other two species, the scalloped (Sphyrna lewini) and the great (Sphyrna mokarran) are both listed as Endangered (EN). The IUCN status of these four shark species alone highlights the importance of MPAs in our waters, and of course globally.
MPAs function differently to terrestrial reserves in that they are dynamic, fluid and not constrained by fences. Animals are able to freely move, to migrate and to follow food sources, between the protected and unprotected patches of the ocean. One of the main goals of an MPA is that by providing a refuge, certain species are able to build up their numbers and spill over into the surrounding unprotected waters and thereby begin to replenish a region. The current management strategy of MPAs is to take the holistic approach in conserving an area’s biodiversity and key habitats (such as known nursery areas) as opposed to the single-species-based form of protection. The Robberg MPA, situated in the warm temperate South Coast zone, contains an array of coastal rocky and sandy habitats, as well as offshore reefs, and provides a refuge supporting a rich diversity of species. A number of the species frequenting these protected waters are recorded on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The red steenbras (Petrus rupestris) and black musselcracker (Cymatoceps nasutus), are endemic while both the red and white steenbras (Lithognathus lithognathus) are listed as Vulnerable. Globally threatened turtles are annually observed within the MPA boundaries; the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) is Vulnerable while the green turtle (Chelonia mydas) is Endangered and the hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) is Critically Endangered (CR). The leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), a rare visitor to the bay, is listed as Vulnerable. With approximately only 2 500 of the Vulnerable Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis) remaining worldwide, it is of great importance to afford protection to the small resident population here in Plettenberg Bay. Watching them surfing waves off the Point remains one of my favourite memories, a memory I hope will not be just that.
Other dolphin species that can be spotted feeding offshore and enjoying a surf are the long-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus capensis) and the common (Tursiops truncates) and Indo-Pacific (Tursiops aduncus) bottlenose dolphins. If you are lucky, you can spot one of the secretive resident Bryde’s whales (Balaenoptera edeni) lunge-feeding in deeper waters but more than likely you’ll just be able to snatch a quick glimpse of a dorsal fin 3 km away. Between June and November, the stillness of the bay is punctuated with the breaching splashes of migrating humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae) and southern right (Eubalaena australis) whales. With adjacent waters offering protected feeding grounds, the terrestrial reserve provides sanctuary to a number of breeding seabird species. White-breasted cormorant (Phalacrocorax lucidus) can be found sharing space on the rocky ledges of the seal colony while African black oystercatcher (Haematopus moquini) can be seen strutting along the beaches and foraging in the rockpools. During my morning run, I always like to take a moment (well, a few moments…there’s a fair bit of uphill on Robberg) to sit on a rock by the ocean’s edge to “take it all in” and every time I am left in awe by the rugged beauty and the astounding biodiversity that is crammed into this relatively small area.
I enjoy watching the little white-fronted plovers (Charadrius marginatus) busily foraging along the high tide line of the golden sand connecting the mainland to the island. In the days before Google, this strip of sand caused great contention in our family and divided us into Team Tombolo and Team Isthmus. We are a stubborn bunch but just for the record, this is a tombolo. An isthmus connects two large land masses while a tombolo connects the mainland to an island. The plovers aren’t the only ones sifting through the debris of the high tide line; in amongst the tangles of seagrass is a treasure trove of interesting and colourful objects to be found. One of my favourite finds is the shell of a paper nautilus (Argonauta argo). This cephalopod is part of a group of pelagic octopus and only the female produces a shell, as her brood chamber. Males are minute and shell-less. In Greek Mythology, Jason and the Argonauts sailed on the Argo from Iolcos to Cholchis on the eastern shores of the Black Sea to retrieve the Golden Fleece. Legend has it that the Argo was the first ship to sail the seven seas and after her successful voyage, she was consecrated to Poseidon. She was then sent to the heavens and transformed into the constellation, Argo Navis. On early charts, her bow was depicted as disappearing between the Clashing Rocks (guarding the entrance to the Black Sea) or vanishing into the mists of the Milky Way. Legends like these really capture my imagination; as do tales of epic voyages from early seafaring days where (in my mind) pirates ruled the waves, where the uncharted ocean remained a mystery (to a certain extent, it still does) and where the natural bounty of the seas was so plentiful that nowadays it’s hard to imagine bays so full of turtles that it was possible to walk ashore on their shells.
One of the original names for Robberg came about from one such epic voyage in 1488. Shortly after becoming the first European mariner to conquer Cabo das Tormentas (Cape of Storms) and round the tip of Africa (not that he knew it at the time, having been blown off course in a storm), Bartolomeu Dias sailed into a beautiful bay; calm waters set against forested valleys and staggering peaks. Cabo Talhado became the first European name for Robberg. With epic voyages come tales of shipwrecks, which always intrigue me; imagining weather-beaten sailors battling the ferocity of a raging ocean, enthralled by the accounts of survival and bravery, and captivated by the legends that are born from a few scribbled annotations in a crewman’s diary or the missing pages from the Ship’s Log. With the Cape Seal Lighthouse only being commissioned on 11 May 1950, Robberg and Plettenberg Bay as a whole have seen their fair share of wrecks; Whale Rock and the strong easterlies being responsible for shattering more than just dreams. During the winter of 1630, the São Gonçalo, an overladen Portuguese East-Indiaman, sailed into Plettenberg Bay to carry out some repairs. In July, before the repairs could be competed, she was lost in a storm and took approximately 130 sailors with her. The 100 survivors who managed to swim ashore stayed in the camp that had been set up during the time of the repairs, trading with the locals and building two vessels with which to get home. Nearly a year later one set sail east to Algoa Bay while the other navigated west to the Cape of Storms. While both boats were picked up, tragically only the crew of one made it safely home while the others went down with their rescue ship in the mouth of the Lisbon Harbour. 337 years later, on 1 August 1967, the MFV Athina (Penstemon, Galaxidi, Rosa Vlassi), on her way home to Greece, struck Whale Rock on a calm day and ran aground on Robberg Beach. Her captain was forced to take the alternate route due to war closing the Suez Canal and, while all crew survived, her cargo of 200 tonnes of tuna was lost back to the sea. Her hull is now an artificial reef that can be seen at low tide on a clear day from the start of the Robberg trail.
Before shipwrecks and exploring mariners, Robberg was home to some of the early members of our species. Out of the mists of time emerge Stone Age relics that give us a fascinating glimpse into our past. There are 19 archaeological sites on Robberg with an interactive centre being set up at the only one open to the public, Nelson Bay Cave. Occupation is dated back to 125 000 years ago but due to fluctuating sea levels, usage of the caves and rock shelters has been intermittent over time. During the last Ice Age (40 000-20 000 years ago), the Nelson Bay Cave was abandoned as the sea level dropped approximately 130 m which pushed the coastline seaward by approximately 100 km. Between 22 000 and 14 000 years ago, extensive grasslands covered the coastal plateau of the region where giant buffalo and various large antelope species were free to roam. The diet of the cave dwellers, preserved in layered middens, has been scrutinised to reveal the species present and the state of the environment during various ages throughout history. In places these middens have been excavated down to 3 m, that’s a lot of history. Stone Age tools and ostrich-shell jewellery have also been uncovered, along with Khoisan pottery made as recently as 2 000 years ago. Although the caves had been pilfered by skeleton hunters hoping to sell their finds on the European market, a number of graves were unearthed during a 1917 expedition by Rev WG Sharples, by order of the then Director of the South African Museum in Cape Town, Dr Peringuey. The graves were marked with burial stones, had a bedding of seagrass and were decorated with shells and ochre.
While I’m sure that 125 000 years ago must seem like a staggering amount of time to have passed and it is; but when put in relation to 120 million years ago, to the breakup of Gondwanaland and the birth of the rocks in this region, it is but a fraction of the time that it took me to figure out PhotoShop. I’m only joking, that took longer! While sitting on my rock by the ocean’s edge; I often look up to the cliffs above me and imagine our early ancestors returning home from a hunt to the relative warmth and protection of their caves, imagine them roaming the grasslands alongside giant buffalo (well, maybe not too alongside…regular-sized buffalo are scary enough) and wonder what it must have been like to walk across that seafloor. In a way I envy the simplicity, and yet the richness, of their life. So; the next time you are wandering along the trail beneath a canopy of subtropical thicket, smelling the sweet smell of the fynbos (or the delightful reek of the seals) and listening to the songs and the chatter of the rich birdlife, think of those who have walked that land before you. Think about our early ancestors living in the caves, think about the shipwrecked sailors surviving in foreign lands and think about the early explorers rounding the rugged Cabo Talhado and sailing into this beautiful bay. When you step onto that trail, when you run barefoot down that sand dune (yes, you have to run!), when you feel the raw power of the ocean reverberate through your body… you have discovered the Robberg Magic.
Explore. Dream. Discover.
DEACON J & BRETT M. 1993. Peeling Away the Past: The Display of Excavations at Nelson Bay Cave. The South African Archaeological Bulletin 48 (158): 98-104.
RIDPATH I. 1980. Argo Navis – The Ship Argo. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.ianridpath.com/startales/argo.htm
RUDNER J & RUDNER I. 1973. A Note on Early Excavations at Robberg. The South African Archaeological Bulletin 28 (111/112): 94-96.
SCHUTTE-VLOK AL, HUISAMEN J, NIEUWOUDT H & CLEAVER-CHRISTIE G. 2012. Robberg Nature Reserve Complex Management Plan 2013-2018. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.capenature.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Robberg-Nature-Reserve-Complex-PAMP_signed.pdf
SMITH AB. 1986. Excavations at Plettenberg Bay, South Africa of the Camp-Site of the Survivors of the Wreck of the São Gonçalo, 1630. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 15 (1): 53-59.
TAPSON W. 1963. Timber and Tides – The Story of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay. Second Edition. Johannesburg: General Litho.
TURNER M. 1988. Shipwrecks and Salvage in South Africa – 1505 to the Present. First Edition. Cape Town: Struik.