The Season of the Whale

Whale Season

The truth about whalesong is like much in life. Elusive, if not wholly unknown. We can philosophise and theorise but the truth about the enigmatic voices of whales and dolphins evades us. Nobody knows its true purpose or meaning. As the BBC documentary below states, “Scientists may one day find out the whole truth behind these extraordinary voices of the sea, but for now the private life of these ocean giants remains wondrously mysterious.”

All we can do is look on, watch these creatures on their cross-oceanic journeys, from land, water or air. We can deduce a little more from their body language, their lobtailing and spyhopping and breaching. But between the fact and fiction of their wonder, all we have to do is be amazed by the simple joy of something we cannot fully grasp.

In African waters, you can glimpse whales on the east and south-east coast of South Africa on their own version of the Great Migration. On the east, they often flock to the Sardine Run, from May through to July, as captured on film by the Earth-Touch divers below. Here a massive Bryde’s whale joins sharks, dolphins and diving seabirds to feed on a sardine shoal.

Further south, from June to November each year, the Southern Rights take over Hermanus… Right now whalewatchers are scurrying down to the town’s Walker Bay, a place widely regarded as offering the best land-based whale watching in the world. Motivated by warmer waters, Southern Right Whales depart the nutrient-rich Antarctica for this south-east coastline of South Africa, to breed, give birth and nurse their young.

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Whale Season 4

In November last year, at the tail end of whale season, I got lost for days watching the whales through my camera lens from the cliffs of Walker Bay, at The Collection by Liz McGrath’s The Marine. Capturing every curve of a tail or fin as it appeared above the water, the mothers and their calves constantly roaming past us. It is the mystery, the truth left unknown, that keeps me there, along with the other visitors in the rest of Hermanus, wielding their binoculars, gopros, cameras, handicams, iPhones… But it is also the mere spectacle of that jump.

Whale Season 2

Those incredible fins propelling the whale into the air like a long jumper, but with no advantage of a running start. With whales jumping every few minutes, last whale season in Hermanus turned me into somewhat of a whalewatcher. And like the birdwatchers with their lists and bins, going after their megaticks and cripplers, one safari is never enough.

I find myself pulled by the desire to capture that perfect leap…

Whale Season

Whale Season 1

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Whale Season 1

Whale Season 7

Whale Season 8

I’ll meet you in Walker Bay…

Go on your own whalewatching adventure

While whales can be seen all along South Africa’s coastline, your best chance of seeing these marine behemoths is from June to November, particularly during August and September, in Hermanus. Relais & Châteaux’s The Marine in Hermanus, part of The Collection by Liz McGrath, provides the perfect theatre for this oceanic performance.

Visit our website to discover more about how the area’s whales came to be known as “the Cape’s best kept secret, along with its whale crier, the town’s whale whisperer with his horn made of kelp.

The Secret Life of Cats


The air is vacant, frozen. Only three things exist: the lion, the safari vehicle and me. This is the feeling of time standing still. And fear. My fear. Obviously. Today, this lion is king. His gaze is locked on me. It doesn’t waiver until a younger cub breaks his focus, brings us back to the world.

Lets Kamogelo, my ranger at Zarafa Camp, comes back into view. The cub has lost his way, he explains, has wandered too far from his mother and his pride. Here in the wilderness of the Selinda Reserve in Botswana, the sun is falling fast on our evening game drive, casting shadows across the cub and elder. Without his pride’s protection, Lets says, the cub may not survive the night.

Image by Tamlin Wightman


In the last light of day, the little lion strides up a sandy hill and exhales a long moan into the cool dusk air, calling out to his family. It is heartbreaking. The older male and his partner, lying some distance away, have no interest in the wanderer. He is not one of them. Not in terms of blood. They will not protect him from the evils of the wild.


It is in this moment that my thoughts drift to Munich, my Manx, and the brilliance of her breed. Not sunsets, G&Ts and warm towels. But my Manx, Munich, at home in her handmade felt bubble bed. The domestic cat, considered today to be the most popular pet in the world, has cleverly managed to bypass all the less desirable qualities of the lives of their wilder counterparts. Cleverly and of their own volition, as it turns out.

An expert on the subject, Dr. Leslie Lyons of the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, says:

“We say cats adapted themselves to us rather than the other way around. As humans became farmers, we started a civilization. And civilization has grain stores and refuse piles, two things that draw rodents. Cats started coming closer to households to eat the rodents, filling the niche that humans developed. Cats were the first to come close to humans. We tolerated them because they ate the rodents, and cats tolerated humans because we provided food.”

Image by Tamlin Wightman 2

But of course, as much as we fawn over them as pets, our Manxes and Tabbies, our Persians and Raggamuffins (yes, that is the name of an actual breed of cat) don’t evoke the same awe in us as The Big Cats. They don’t make time stand still. Not compared to a lone female leopard slinked along a jackalberry branch, mere metres away, her stomach fat with new life and her rosetted tail hanging from the tree like ivy…

Safaris present you with these frozen moments, a glimpse into the wild, at both its dangers and miracles. They let you enter the secret life of the cat, not the cat of the popular Nat Geo documentary, but the other “untrainable lazy bundle of fur”. The Big Cats. And their own world of revealing personalities and talents.

Discover this world below, through our Big Cat experience, or on a safari of your own.

Images Above: by Tamlin Wightman. Images below: as credited

The Leopard

The Best Places To See The Big Cats

  • Leopards are notoriously elusive creatures but the population in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve rejects this stereotype by inviting game vehicles to witness their daily lives. It is common on game drives in Londolozi to spend hours in the company of these normally shy cats.
  • Boasting one of the highest population of lions in the world, the Masai Mara in Kenya more than deserves its reputation for being big cat country. It is also one of the last wild frontiers that caters for cheetahs exacting needs, with wide open spaces and tall grass. Leopards also have affinity for this part of the world, with a penchant for the landscape’s rockier terrains. Explore the region from Mara Plains and Ol Donyo.
  • Madikwe Private Game Reserve is one of the world’s great conservation success stories. The reserve’s reputation as a cheetah sanctuary recently gained muster when two females were relocated to the territory, bringing the population to an impressive seven. Witness the grace of the big cats at Morukuru.

An Evolutionary Masterpiece

Unlike lions and leopards, cheetahs are diurnal (active during the day). Their distinctive black tear-marks prevent the agile cats from being blinded by the sun during the chase. Despite their alarming speed, hunts prove successful around fifty percent of the time. Even when they land the kill, they are often powerless to the whims of stronger predators – such as lions and hyenas – who rob them of their hard-earned meat. | Image: Morukuru by Ryan Rapaport
The Cheetah
Being the fastest animal on the planet doesn’t just happen. Evolution has engineered cheetahs into running machines. Their artillery includes slender builds, flexible spines, big nostrils, increased lung capacity and enlarged hearts. As a collective these crafted attributes allow cheetahs to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph (96 kph) in three seconds. Although speed is a cheetah’s greatest ally, it is not without its downfalls: it takes these slight cats around 30 minutes to recover after a sprint – a necessity that leaves them vulnerable to theft. | Image: Mara Plains by Beverly Joubert

Dynamics of the Pride

Brotherly Love on the Selinda
Defying the solitary nature of their greater felidae family, lions form tight-knit groups called prides. The collective usually consists of related lionesses, cubs and young adults. Distinguishable by their glorious mains, males are transitionary members of the pride, holding their position only as long as they hold onto the territory. Driven by a desire to sow their seeds, rogue males enter competitors’ territories to challenge the dominant male. | Image: Botswana by Beverly Joubert
Zarafa Camp by Tamlin Wightman
The reward for repeatedly warding off vagabond males is the prized rights to mate with the females. If the lone male is successful, the pride’s cubs are at risk of being killed. The reason for this seeming unnecessary brutality is that when a lioness is weaning the previous male’s cubs, she cannot fall pregnant with a new litter. Killing the cubs is a solution to this procreative obstacle. While female cubs tend to remain with the pride, when young males reach a certain age they are ousted from their family unit – sent into a dangerous existence where they will have to feed and fend for themselves. | Image: Zarafa Camp by Tamlin Wightman

A Lion’s Share

The Lion King
Lest you forget that you’re in Africa’s wild heart, a lion roaring into the dark night will bring you back to the precious present. These apex predators often sound closer than they are because they normally roar at night when the air is thinner and the noise travels further. On particularly still nights, their calls resonate as much as five miles away. Roaring is predominantly territorial although it can be used between pride members to reconnect if they have been separated. | Image: Londolozi
Although both male and females roar, males tend to be more vocal than their counterparts. In order to hold onto a territory and protect their pride, males often form coalitions which consist of anywhere between two and seven lions. These caucuses have been known to synchronise their roars as a show of united force. | Image: Gorah Elephant Camp by Ryan Rapaport
Morukuru 2
Catching wind of their might, any rogue male in their vicinity will think twice before launching an attack. Though nomad lions drift in and out of resident males’ territories, they have a habit of remaining quiet until they wish to challenge the dominant male for the territory. | Image: Morukuru by Ryan Rapaport
 What is your experience of the big cats? Share your stories with us below.

The Secret Garden of Ellerman House

Ellerman House

As an outsider looking in, it’s a simple thing you see. A garden. But for the insider, it’s not simple at all. They see purpose in every corner, life in every dab of shade. It is the library lonely children retreat to, the playground for overactive imaginations, the church to marvel in, the remote island to find quiet in the storm.

The garden of Ellerman House is no different, whatever age you enter as, 18 or 81. Last year, we at Relais & Châteaux turned 60. And we chose to celebrate it in this very garden at Ellerman House beside the Atlantic Ocean.

Assisting us was one Paul Odendaal. A well-known name in the landscaping and gardening fraternity, Paul planted 60 roses dedicated to Relais & Chateâux in the estate’s indigenous garden for the occasion. We knew our roses were in good hands (or greenfingers) as Paul, together with Keith Kirsten and Raymond Hudson, was also part of the team that created the magnificent gardens at Delaire Graff in Stellenbosch.

Roses at Ellerman House

In the spirit of the Chelsea Flower Show in London this week, we wanted to bring you a special feature from one of our own gardens, on the coast of South Africa. Britta Dahms from Ellerman House shadowed Paul through the green corners of the hotel to find out what he’s currently up to…

“When we caught up with Paul, he was busy planting Agapanthus in the garden next to the bottom terrace. He has chosen Agapanthus Blue Bayou and states that the indigenous plant will compliment the panoramic ocean views and not grow too tall and obstruct the view. He added Dierama (fishermen’s bells) and Wild Garlic to name a few to the mix and noted that it will provide the section with flowers all year round and provide some variety on the terrace.

Paul draws his inspiration from the surroundings as well as the climate and noted that he simply loves the Mediterranean climate in Cape Town as it provides opportunity to plant a variety of species. The brief he received for the garden at Ellerman House was to use only indigenous flora, including fynbos and incorporation some plant material that are sometime forgotten like Belladona lilies.

Fynbos grows in a 150km to 200km belt along the coast of South Africa and forms part of the Cape Floral Kingdom that is part of only 6 floral kingdoms in the world. Paul mentioned that working with Fynbos could be quite tricky as a fynbos garden can quickly look like a veld or grow in all directions at once. His aim at Ellerman House is to make the space look like a landscaped garden and make the Fynbos work with him in creating the beautiful garden.

We are very excited to see how the garden at Ellerman House evolves into a beautiful landscaped replica of the indigenous plants we find all over Cape Town and the surrounds. We will also be keeping a close eye on the Relais & Châteaux roses after the winter so be sure to watch this space.”


“A garden should make you feel you’ve entered privileged space – a place not just set apart but reverberant – and it seems to me that, to achieve this, the gardener must put some kind of twist on the existing landscape, turn its prose into something nearer poetry.”

― Michael Pollan
Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education