People I have interviewed have told me that the Imperial Airways flying boat service between the UK and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s sometimes made a stop at the Bot River Estuary. I have not been able to verify this information, and it seems such a stop would be too soon after take-off from Cape Town and too soon before landing at Cape Town. I continue to look for confirmation.
Readers may be interested to know that the first weekly flights took 10 days, with 18 stops and lots of low-level sightseeing opportunities. In 1938 flights were doubled to two a week. By 1950, the final year of operation, the flight time was down to 4 days on the route Cape Town – Vaal Dam – Port Bell (Uganda) – Khartoum – Cairo – Augusta (Sicily) – Southampton and train to London.
In the 1960s, Hermanus got its own airstrip, built where part of the suburb of Zwelihle is now. Many visitors flew into Hermanus on holiday, rather than drive from Cape Town and other parts of South Africa. Local flying enthusiasts kept hangars for private planes there and flew for pleasure. Readers of the Facebook post version of this article responded with stories of their own. Mary Krone wrote:
I landed at the Hermanus airstrip in the 1970s on one of my early training flights. What made it so special was that lots of tall trees surrounded the airstrip and it was rather a windy/gusty day. The ‘long & the short’ of it was that one had to ‘crab’ it in (i.e. keep the nose of the plane facing the ‘wrong way’ against the wind) until you were just at the height of the surrounding trees, at which point you had to adjust and aim at the runway itself quickly, or else you would have crashed into the trees due to the sudden loss of wind below the height of the trees. Scary stuff at the time, but exhilarating all the same.
Andrew Embleton recalled several aspects of the airstrip in Hermanus, especially the fact that the Harvard planes used by the SAAF in the 1970s and 1980s, often landed there during training flights. (Andrew’s father was a friend of Air Vice-Marshal Meredith referred to in Part 1 of this article.)
As pressure for housing in the Zwelihle area grew in the 1970s, the airstrip became surrounded by human settlement. Acts of sabotage of the hangars and the planes began. Avril Sinclair noted:
I have been living in Hermanus since 1987. My first visit here was by air, my first husband piloting the plane. We landed at the airstrip in about 1977, shortly before the place was vandalised.
The airstrip finally ceased to function in the 1990s. Adrian Louw recalled that “the airstrip functioned into 1992 at least when an air show was held there. I managed to cadge a trip (to the show) in a rebuilt Super Dakota. The legendary Scully and famous announcers were there.”
Powered flight retained a link with Hermanus, even though the airstrip was no longer in operation. Evan Austin established the air charter company African Wings and recalled the more recent days of flight from an airfield near Stanford:
My parents were Capetonians who moved to Pretoria in their twenties and lived on a farm where we grew up. My father flew as a means of travelling the length and breadth of South Africa with his family on holidays to every wild place imaginable in Southern Africa.
In 1973 during a visit to Cape Town we drove out to Hermanus and Dad bought a holiday house in Westcliff. After that, the whole family would pile into the aircraft on the Pretoria farm and fly to Hermanus for the Christmas holiday.
I moved to Hermanus in 1993 as a resident. I kept my aircraft on the Hermanus runway until it became untenable, after which I moved it to Weltevrede airfield in Stanford, which was owned by Jacko Jackson, an ex-airways pilot. I started African Wings, an air charter company with myself as the single owner/pilot/booking agent/aircraft washer. Had many enjoyable years flying whale-watching flights with my Cessna 175 and doing Namibia/Botswana private flying safaris from SA in a Mooney 201. The best ten years of my life. Then, stupidly sold the business to my brother and got a real job. African Wings is still doing whale-watching/scenic flights out of Weltevrede, so Hermanus still has its own airline. (Read the whole story on www.africanwings.co.za)
I have been seriously told that the massive widening and straightening of Seventh Street in Voëlklip in the 1960s was done to provide an emergency runway for Mirages of the SAAF, in case other sites were unavailable because of enemy action. I have not been able to verify this fact.
Powered flight is less evident in Hermanus in the 21st century. The road from Cape Town has been improved continuously and the driving time cut down, and tourists come by that route. From time to time, helicopters ferry in the really affluent visitors, usually landing at The Marine Hotel.
Every year, the whale count takes place from fixed-wing aircraft that pass the town a few hundred metres offshore, but seldom fly over commercial or residential areas. They operate from Stanford. Very occasionally, jet fighters from de Hoop flash across the consciousness of residents and tourists.
Autogyro flights by environmental photographers zoom in and out along the coast, looking for specific target shots or images that capture the beauty of the coastline.
Inland, helicopters also fly more frequently as the summer fire season sets in. They dip into one or more of the freshwater dams to fill their buckets and then rush off to help stem the spread of the fire. They maintain a practical link between powered flight and Hermanus but would see it as a failure to control the fire if they were forced to come too close to town. I have watched them dipping their buckets into the Rockfill Dam, one of the famous Three Dams that once supplied most of Hermanus with water.
Increasingly, drones fly the skies over the coast and out to sea, to catch the ultimate publicity image for the next Airbnb website or a new book about Hermanus. They must be careful as, on any given day, there are many more paragliders hanging over the town than powered aircraft passing over it. Powered flight and Hermanus now intersect hardly at all. But, the history remains.