Island adventures

By Stef Terblanche


Few people will associate the idea of island destinations for holidays or adventurous excursions with the South African coastline. But did you know that South Africa has upwards of 30 islands, some of which make for some unusual and fascinating outings, and some of which are thousands of kilometres away in the southern Oceans? Some are just a few meters offshore, while some are in the middle of rivers and estuaries.

Of course, for most people the most famous South African island that will come to mind is Robben Island…where Nelson Mandela and other political leaders were incarcerated for many years.

But when thinking ‘island holiday’, most of us think of tropical palm-fringed islands, with white sandy beaches surrounded by turquoise water, such as the islands of Mauritius, Madagascar or Seychelles. These are of course very popular with South Africans and within easy reach, although not within everyone’s budget. Nonetheless, many tour operators offer excellent package deals to these islands.

Inhaca Island

Much closer to home and far more affordable are the islands of Mozambique, the nearest one being beautiful Inhaca Island, just 30km across the bay from Maputo, capital of Mozambique and just a couple of hours away from the nearest South African border post. The island is a true paradise of tropical beaches, forests, including a sea forest, coral reefs, popular diving spots such as at Santa Maria or the lighthouse, lagoons and more.

There is ample good accommodation, ranging from camping to self-catering, lodges and a top-class hotel. Plenty of bars and eateries are to be found in the village, the people are friendly and the island largely crime-free. The island retains its beauty as it is a protected area and the southern part is a nature reserve. At low tide one can almost walk to neighbouring Portuguese Island, a bird sanctuary, across the exposed sand bars. At low tide elephants used to cross over from the mainland peninsula to the southern part of the island, but it’s doubtful whether any of the elephants are still left.

Some years ago, at the height of the Mozambican civil war, I met a grey-haired local man at the Inhaca Marine Biology Research Station on the island, which belonged to the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo. This self-educated man had worked as a helper for the Portuguese marine biologists from the university, assisting them with collecting, labelling and exhibiting various marine species…and learning from them. With the revolution and the subsequent civil war, all the scientists left. He was left behind alone and without funding or other resources. Yet every day he would faithfully go to the sea and collect specimens, research their details, label them and place them in the glass cases, keeping the research station going. The research station has since become fully functional again, but I doubt my grey-haired friend is still there.

Numerous excellent fly-in package deals are available from South Africa to Inhaca. For the do-it-yourself kind of tourist, the island is also now within easy reach. Driving from northern KwaZulu-Natal to Maputo across the brand new three-kilometre long Maputo-Katembe suspension bridge, has cut travelling time from South Africa from 6 hours to just 90 minutes, depending on the traffic. From Maputo you can hop on a light plane to the island or take the ferry across. But be warned, the ferry can be overcrowded and stops a few hundred meters offshore, so you may have to wade the last stretch through the water with your luggage on your head, unless you have pre-arranged to be fetched by smaller boat.

Saint Helena

Another island that is becoming more popular with South Africans, is the British island of Saint Helena, 2,000km northwest of Cape Town in the Atlantic Ocean. Previously one could only reach the island by weekly mail ship from Cape Town, but now it can be reached by air since a brand-new airport was built a few years ago.

The island has a fascinating history that includes the internment of thousands of South African Boer prisoners during the Anglo-Boer War. It is also the place where Napoleon was held captive until his death. His favourite wine was a Constantia red, regularly shipped to him from Cape Town. The island has some very interesting flora and bird life, all of which can be experienced along some really beautiful hiking routes. Most of the island’s inhabitants live in Jamestown, a quaint old-worldly village sandwiched in a narrow gorge between two high cliffs. From the air the village looks like a colourful glacier about to slide into the sea.

Robben Island

A ferry trip from Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront to Robben Island and a tour of the prison where Nelson Mandela and many other famous people were held over the past three centuries, remains high on the to-do list of many people. This island is worth a visit, not for its palm trees or beaches, but for its rich but sad history. Other famous island prisoners over the centuries included Robert Sobukwe, leader of the Pan-Africanist Congress, and the Xhosa leader Makanda Nxele who was imprisoned for leading an uprising against the British in 1819 that led to the 5th Xhosa War in the Eastern Cape. One of the first prisoners was Autshumato, also known as Herry die Strandloper (beach walker), who was a leader of the Gorinhaikonas Khoikhoi clan at Cape Town, and who worked at one time as an interpreter for Jan van Riebeeck, first Dutch commander at the Cape.

Also imprisoned here was Imam Abdullah ibn Kadi Abdus Salaam, known as Tuan Guru, a Prince from Tidore in the Ternate Islands of Indonesia who was imprisoned on the island by the Dutch. While imprisoned, Tuan Guru wrote several copies of the holy Qur’an from memory, one of which is preserved and on display in Cape Town’s Dorp Street mosque. In 1969 the Moturu Kramat, now a sacred site for Muslim pilgrimage, was built on the island to commemorate another Muslim prisoner of the island, Sayed Abdurahman Moturu, the Prince of Madura.

Between the 17th and 20th centuries, the island was used variously as a prison, including for political prisoners, a place of banishment, a leper colony, and as a military base. The island has probably also produced more national presidents than any other similar-sized island in the world: no less than three of the island prison’s former inmates went on to become president of South Africa, namely Nelson Mandela, Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma.

Located on the island is also South Africa’s oldest lighthouse… in the sense that the first ‘lighthouse’ was a bonfire lit up each night in the 1600s on the same spot where the built lighthouse now stands. The island was once part of the mainland before the sea surrounded it and is actually a peak of the Table Mountain-linked series of mountains. From the island one has magnificent views of Cape Town, the Peninsula, West Coast and all of Table Bay.

There are roughly 132 species of bird, including a colony of African penguins, crowned cormorants and black crowned night herons on the island, while Cape fur seals, southern right whales and great white sharks are frequent marine visitors.  A variety of buck – including springbok and eland – and three different species of tortoises also live on the island.

The Robben Island ferry departs three times daily – weather permitting – from the old Clock Tower precinct of the V&A docks. After docking at the island, busses take visitors to all the historic sites such as the leper graveyard, the lime quarry where political prisoners were forced to work, army and navy bunkers, the maximum-security prison and museum complex, with the tour ending with a visit to Nelson Mandela’s cell. Your tour guide, like all the others, was once also a prisoner on the island. Robben Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Algoa Bay islands

Few visitors to Nelson Mandela Bay know that just a couple of kilometres off the coast of Port Elizabeth and the Coega harbour complex, in Algoa Bay, there are two island groups of three islands each. They are extremely important for birds, as they are the only islands along a very long stretch of coast and are home to large breeding colonies. Hence the main island of the one group is called Bird Island, and its two smaller cousins are called Seal and Stag Islands. The St Croix group of islands consist of St Croix, Jahleel and Brenton Islands. The closest island to land is Jahleel Island, just one kilometre away, while tat 7km the Bird Island group is furthest away.

At 19 hectares Bird Island is the largest. After a series of shipwrecks around the islands, a lighthouse was erected on Bird Island in 1898. In 1755, the East Indiaman Doddington was wrecked here while underway from Dover to India carrying a treasure in gold and silver. A few survivors lived on the island for months before making it to the mainland in a makeshift boat. In recent years some of the treasure was salvaged secretly, and probably illegally, and found its way to auction houses abroad.

All six islands and the waters around them are nature reserves and form part of the Addo Elephant National Park. The islands are closed to the public. However, on fine-weather days they are ideal for visits – without going ashore – by kayak or small motorboat to fish or dive on the reefs in the surrounding waters.

Three Seal Islands

There are no less than three islands – possibly more – along the South African coast named Seal Island. As their names suggest, they are home to colonies of Cape fur seals. The one is part of the Bird Island group off Port Elizabeth. The other is located in the centre of False Bay between Simon’s Town and Gordons Bay. It forms part of a marine reserve and is equally popular with local fishermen and roaming great white sharks.

Some of the biggest great whites ever were caught here before catching them was banned. In one incident some years ago, the well-known sports fisherman Danie Schoeman and a friend had a narrow escape when a great white unexpectedly breached the water and landed on their boat. He was so big that his jaws covered the front of the boat while his wildly slapping tail protruded over the stern. After getting the shark off and making it back to land, the men had to receive medical treatment.

The area around the island is also known for freak waves that have on occasion appeared without warning, overturning any unfortunate boat in its way. However, on a nice day the island is the perfect spot for a leisurely cruise to observe the seals and birdlife, and to take in the absolutely awesome views from there of the entire False Bay coast. During the whale season it is also an excellent spot to view these gigantic ocean mammals up close.

The rusty, twisted metal remains of a radar mast built on the island during World War II, can still be seen lying where it was blown over by a winter storm in 1970. The crew that built it lived in prefabricated huts for the duration of the construction. The ruins of a few huts and other structures from the days when sealing and guano-collection flourished on the island, can still be seen, with some rock inscriptions made by sealers in the 1930s also still visible.

The third Seal Island, also known in Afrikaans as Robeiland, is located in the bay of Mossel Bay, just off Diaz Beach. With over 4,000 of these furry inhabitants, the tiny island is a writhing, squealing, snorting, smelly mass of seals. And patrolling the waters around the island are of course always our friends, the great white sharks, ever on the hunt for a furry meal. Boats take visitors on daily scenic and informative cruises from Mossel Bay harbour around the island.

The oldest and best known of these cruises is on a vessel named the Romonza, a ferro-cement yacht home-built some 40 years ago by a Dutch engineer, Wim Klapwijk who settled in Mossel Bay. He originally built the yacht with the idea of taking his family on a world cruise. The occasional Seal Island cruises he started all those years ago became so popular that it became a fulltime business, and the world cruise had to take a backseat. Today the Romonza still makes the trip around Seal Island, every hour, every day, all year round. If one were to add up all those cruises around the island over the years it would probably equal a dozen world cruises!

South Indian Ocean Islands

Few people are probably aware that South Africa also owns two of the remotest islands in the world: Marion Island and Prince Edward Island, collectively known as the Prince Edward Islands, almost 1,800km south of Port Elizabeth in the sub-Antarctic Indian Ocean. But unless you’re an authorised meteorologist or biologist the only way you can view these two islands is by flying over them or passing by on a sailing yacht on one of the most treacherous sailing routes in the world.

The only people living there are the annually rotated scientists manning the South African research station on Marion Island. The islands have been declared Special Nature Reserves under the South African environmental management laws and activities on the islands are therefore restricted to research and conservation management. In 2013 the 180,000 km2 sea area around the islands was declared a Marine Protected Area, thereby creating one of the world’s largest environmental protection areas.

More Islands

There are many more South African island waiting to be explored. A favourite family outing is on one of the many cruise boats that daily take groups of people from Hout Bay harbour, near Cape Town, to the nearby Duiker Island, also known as Seal Island (yes, that’s number four). Departing almost hourly from Mariner’s Wharf with families, tourists and photographers on board, these vessels steam out across the bay with the majestic Chapman’s Peak as dramatic backdrop, slip around the West Battery and Sentinel Peak, before reaching the tiny island.

On the way, below Sentinel Peak, the boat crosses what is known by surfers as Dungeons, scene of the annual Red Bull Big Wave Africa Contest, with the world’s top big wave surfers surfing by invitation only the gigantic waves that come up in winter from the South Pole. At the island the boats slow down, and the crews manoeuvre the vessels gingerly as close as they can to the island for up-close photographic shots of the rich seal and bird life. From there the cruise takes you around a cliff to the site of a giant steel ship wrecked on the rocks for more picture-taking, before making the journey back to Hout Bay. There are also cocktail and sunset cruises to the island.

Another favourite with adrenaline-seeking adventure tourists is Dyer Island some 8.5km offshore from Kapteinsbaai near Gansbaai on the southwestern Cape coast. On the adjacent Geyser Rock island lives a colony of 60,000 Cape fur seals, attracting one of the densest great white shark populations in the world. Hence it is popular with tourists for shark cage-diving. Dyer Island is a 20ha nature reserve, and the easternmost of the chain of seabird islands of the Western Cape.

It has been recognised as one of the global Important Bird Areas (IBA), and as such is one of the hundred most important bird sites in the country. African penguins, Cape cormorant, the endangered bank cormorant and roseate tern are some of the birds that breed there. The area around the islands is also an important calving area for southern right whales. The island is managed by CapeNature. While visitors are not allowed onto the island, boat trips around the island bring visitors to see the seals and birds.