Wilfred Chivell stands, larger than life, on the top deck of his research vessel and surveys an unusually calm Atlantic Ocean.
The warm spring day has turned Kleinbaai and its neighbouring Gansbaai in the Western Cape into something to rival Mauritius, with clear azure waters and pearly white beaches. Suddenly Chivell becomes animated, excitedly hopping up and down as he thrusts his left hand forward, pointing at three menacing-looking shadows in the azure shallows.
“Look at that!” he shouts with glee. “I’ll bet they’re all girls…” He’s not wrong. As the spectral shapes approach the boat they transform into the unmistakable profiles of great white sharks. These creatures have sent shivers up and down spines the world over since Steven Spielberg unleashed his Oscar-winning movie Jaws.
Chivell is right with his gender bet. The three sharks are all around four metres in length, making the people on the boat feel rather puny. But exceptionally proud nonetheless, because this beautiful corner of South Africa is leading the world in responsible great white shark encounters, helping to protect this incredible fish by educating tourists and communities on the value of conserving it and its fragile marine habitat.
Chivell owns and runs Marine Dynamics and Dyer Island Cruises, which offers great white shark and southern right whale encounters to the paying public. Like his immediate neighbours in the small harbour of Kleinbaai, White Shark Projects, and colleagues African Shark Eco Charters an hour down the road in Simon’s Town, False Bay, his companies are certified by Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa (FTTSA) and are dedicated to making a difference, not just for animals and ecosystems, but also for the people in their communities who depend on tourism for their bread and butter.
The FTTSA certification is not just a measure of their commitment, it’s bold proof that shark cage diving and whale watching, which have been the subject of several controversies over the years, can be done ethically and sensitively. FTTSA does not certify establishments that have a negative effect on the environment or that show disregard for legislation and regulatory requirements.
To get accredication, operators have to demonstrate that there is an educational component to their operations that provides a clear understanding and appreciation of these predators without exploiting them. They must also comply with stringent requirements and regulations from Marine and Coastal Management, which oversees all matters pertaining to South Africa’s coastline.
They are not alone in their FTTSA credentials, because the Western Cape is packed with people of similar good conscience. And with 28 FTTSA certified products, the province is leading the way when it comes to responsible and sustainable tourism that directly benefits previously disadvantaged communities.
The Overberg/Overstrand region, which encompasses Kleinbaai and Gansbaai and its neighbour Hermanus, renowned for being the whale-watching capital of the world, is home to two particularly inspirational accommodation establishments, Grootbos Private Nature Reserve and Farm 215. Maarten Groos, owner of Farm 215, says that the FTTSA certification “helps to keep us sharp in a country that is still en route from a bizarre past to a fairer society”.
Right at the northernmost tip of the province, in Plettenberg Bay, is Hog Hollow Country Lodge, which has been transformed by owner Andy Fermor from an alien wattle plantation into a beautiful nature reserve filled with indigenous trees and fynbos.
In Swellendam, which after Cape Town and Stellenbosch is the oldest settlement in the country, Jan Harmsgat and Klippe River country houses keep the FTTSA flag flying and do sterling work empowering locals, keeping things “green” and preserving some of South Africa’s oldest and most beautiful farmsteads.
Bartholomeus Klip Farmhouse, near Hermon, in the heart of the Cape Winelands, breeds disease-free buffalo (there’s an impressive herd of
more than 50) on one of the region’s largest wheat and sheep farms, which is also home to a 4 000-hectare fynbos reserve, herds of eland, springbok and bontebok and the endangered geometric tortoise, as well as zebra from the world-renowned Quagga Project.
FTTSA’s Western Cape “stable” includes one of the country’s most renowned vineyards and luxury hotel resorts — Spier. It was among the first tourism products to be certified by FTTSA when the certification programme was launched in 2002 and the first luxury hotel to be awarded the certificate.
Spier’s procurement policies have been groundbreaking in empowering small local entrepreneurs, helping them to grow successful businesses and creating jobs in the process. Education projects, a pioneering waste water treatment programme and some award-winning wines all add up to make Spier a flagship for responsible tourism and an FTTSA ambassador of note.
The FTTSA label is proudly displayed at other leading hotels and guesthouses in Cape Town, among them the Cape Grace on the V&A Waterfront, the quirky Daddy Long Legs Art Hotel in Long Street, Antrim Villa in Three Anchor Bay and Bickley House in Sea Point. At the other end of the scale is The Backpack, an award-winning backpackers’ hostel in New Church Street, which in its 16 years of operation has become a byword for community involvement. Great whites are not the only attraction.
Andulela, which is based in the historic Malay Quarter, or “Bo- Kaap” of Cape Town, offers a range of day tours and activities designed to immerse visitors in the culture of the Cape. From Cape Malay curries to beading classes and discovering the Bo-Kaap way of life, Andulela’s network of cooking ladies, guides and entertainers directly benefits a greatly treasured and culturally important community.
The Adventure Without Limits (Awol) Masiphumelele Bicycle Tour helps to make a significant difference to the impoverished Masiphumelele township between Kommetjie, Capri Village and Noordhoek. Visitors get the chance to experience township life from the saddle of a bike — and peddle power is much less harmful to the environmental.
Awol supports recycling (no pun intended, of course), reducing energy consumption and encouraging indigenous tree planting. It also supports the use of organic food products and sustainable fishing methods.
For more information on FTTSA certified accommodation and activities in South Africa, visit www.fairtourismsa.org.za
Rest of the best FTTSA-certified tourist activities
Here are some of the best FTTSA activities in the Western Cape and elsewhere in South Africa:
De Zalze Golf Club: Yes, golf can be green in more ways than one. De Zalze is near Stellenbosch and is the first golf club in the world to be recognised for its responsible tourism principles.
Dreamcatcher Alternative Winelands Tour: A heartwarming and educational alternative to the mainstream winelands tour experience with insights into the lives of vineyard labourers.
!Khwa ttu: This San culture and education centre 70km north of Cape Town introduces visitors to the first indigenous people.
Ocean Blue, Ocean Safaris: Both based in Plettenberg Bay, and lively competitors, these marine tourism operators offer boat-based whale watching and dolphin encounters.
Soekershof Walkabout: Private mazes and botanical gardens with a difference — this farm near Robertson is the main “breeding” place for the South African cactus trade.
Uthando SA: Based in Cape Town, this groundbreaking initiative showcases outstanding beneficiary projects to travellers.
Calabash Tours: Based in Port Elizabeth, Calabash’s Real City and Shebeen tours, as well as its “voluntourism” programme, have made it a stalwart of the FTTSA stable.
Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers: An alternative way to experience the magic, vibe and way of life in Soweto.
St Lucia Tours and Charters: Hippo and crocodile tours and whale watching in South Africa’s first world heritage site in St Lucia.
Stormsriver Adventures: Adrenalin rushes mild or wild in the heart of the Eastern Cape’s Tsitsikamma.
Volunteer Africa: A volunteer tourism initiative that benefits schools in the Chintsa region of the Wild Coast.
Buccaneers Lodge & Backpackers: Great accommodation options and even greater experiences on the Wild Coast, outside Chintsa.
Leshiba Wilderness: Venda culture and art at its finest in a traditional- style village set high in the Soutpansberg of Limpopo.
Madi a Thava Mountain Lodge: Warm Limpopo hospitality, homecooked meals and a magical Soutpansberg landscape to explore.
Shiluvari Lakeside Lodge: Art, culture, heritage and fabulous natural beauty all rolled into one outstanding holiday destination in Limpopo.
The Peech Hotel: Upmarket, uptown Jozi at its best at Melrose Arch. Find an eco-friendly destination in the heart of Egoli.
The Dunes: Set in picturesque St Francis Bay in the Eastern Cape, this beautiful country house is committed to preserving the fragile fynbos and wetlands of the area.
Mercure Network (all four hotels): The first international hotel chain in South Africa certified by FTTSA.
Moratiwa Tours: Soweto Fair Tourism Tour is a five hour tour through Soweto.