The Cliff Tops, Hermanus

Project Team
Client: Overstrand Municipality Local Council
Landscape Architects: De Villiers Turner & Associates
Engineers: AVDM Consulting Engineers
Landscape Contractor: CHB Landscaping
Paving and Civils: ABC Civils

Hermanus is one of the world’s foremost whale viewing destinations, nestled in an alcove of Walker Bay in the Western cape, about 120 km east of Cape Town. Having started out as a fishing village, it soon became a popular tourist destination, and today relies almost exclusively on tourism for its economic survival.

The client’s brief was to combine the desire for a tourist node with traffic control in the area.
The Cliff Tops site is the traditional centre of Hermanus, very close to the old harbour. It has always been the centre of tourism and affords easy access to the harbour, cliff paths which afford excellent viewing opportunities of whales and to the town centre with its shops and restaurants.
The idea was conceived to create a node in which a number of shops, restaurants and bars could capitalise on the area, with a piazza for outdoor seating and tables. De Villiers Turner created an amphitheatre and new parking areas in place of an old dirt lot. This has formed a node to the area which is within easy walking distance of nearly everything one would want to see in the town.

Design aspects

The design process was largely self-actualising. Says Jason Turner: “The design almost presented itself to us and we had all the ingredients at our fingertips; we just had to pull everything together. The area existed with the shopping centre and many of the restaurants already there in the heart of the tourism area of the town. The views out over Walker Bay are exquisite, with the costal fynbos running all the way up to the Cliff Tops area. To be able to walk 100 m from the piazza area and be close enough to a whale to pelt it with sugar cubes is pretty much unique anywhere. It is a very special place.”

Site development plan of the Cliff Tops, courtesy of De Villiers Turner and Associates

With all the design elements present, the task for De Villiers Turner was to form a congruent whole, with the aim of creating a node in which people could park, get together, share a meal, go for walks, watch the whales, go fishing, watch productions at the amphitheatre or simply walk into town. The design needed to embrace all these facilities and the piazza area was the obvious starting point as it enjoyed the beautiful views mentioned earlier. The only issue to contend with was the south easterly wind, which can be a real issue in the Western Cape.
Two water features were built, one with a whale tail and the other with an abalone shell. These are high enough to act as benches. The amphitheatre was designed to be used in season, when a tarpaulin may be erected as a backdrop. For the balance of the time it is very inconspicuous, affording easy seating for people to have a view of the bay and whales while enjoying a picnic, or just sitting and relaxing. As the area was already very developed, the work posed no threat to any existing ecosystem and an EIA was therefore not required.

Planting palette

The planting palette was directly informed by the existing flora in the area, which is in turn dictated by the prevailing conditions, namely harsh, salt-laden onshore winds for much of the year. The existing flora has been topiarised by the wind to look like something from a Zen garden and the interrelationships of the material is fascinating to watch. Each plant uses the shelter of the one in front to hide behind, and anything sticking out is quickly pruned back by the wind. With this in mind, material which either grew naturally on the site, or other species indigenous to Cape coastal areas, were chosen. There was a concern that any trees to be planted on the piazza would suffer severe wind burn and salt stress, and the landscape architects therefore came up with the idea of using metal sculpted trees. This was not met with the approval they had hoped for and so they settled for Tarconanthus camphoratus which have done really well, far surpassing expectations.
In line with the naturally occurring flora, the planting was kept loose and informal, drawing on an indigenous palette. While maintenance is being undertaken by a private company, it is still necessary to keep the design as maintenance friendly as possible to lower costs and keep it looking good. As in any street scaping project, the public can be fairly thoughtless, and in a formal setting the damage is always more noticeable. Desire lines* were anticipated as far as possible and the informality lends itself to opening up new slip-throughs as they are required.


The choice of materials was interesting, as it was very much a case of “working at the interface of two worlds,” according to Turner. Necessity dictated that the parking area be hard surfaced, and a brown brick laid in herringbone bond was selected for this. Pedestrian areas were laid in stretcher bond, using an Autumn blend paver with a header course of brown brick. The pedestrian walkways lead through the parking areas and traverse the tarmac roadway on a raised table, which gives preference to the pedestrians. The piazza is laid in brick broken with header courses to prevent it appearing too monolithic. The same stretcher bond used for the pedestrian walkways runs down to the amphitheatre and draws the eye over the uncluttered stage, allowing it to run out unhindered across the bay.
Away from the paved areas, other footpaths have been made by placing flat stones dug up on the site during construction. Planting has been encouraged between the slabs of stone and the finish is natural and unaffected.
More of this salvaged stone was used to dress the water features, and this detail draws the stone from the cliff paths right through to the piazza area, where the transformation from the world of windswept coastal shrubbery has segued** into a formalised area which reads with the architecture of the surrounding buildings.
As this area is used at night in season, the lighting was very important. It was essential to find a balance between having adequate light for it to be functional and secure, yet at the same time to keep light pollution down to acceptable levels. Hermanus has a wonderful night sky, with very low levels of light pollution, and it is important to maintain this. Lighting an area like a prison yard also robs it of any ambience at night, so bollards at hip height and louvers were chosen to give pools of light only where required. There is a degree of spill from the street lamps nearby, and this meant that the lighting used needed to be only supplementary.

Landscape installation

CHB Landscaping was responsible for site leveling, soil preparation, planting, irrigation and pond construction. Owner Chris Hepburn-Brown states: “Because the project site is such a public place and one of the main attractions in Hermanus, we had to move in and finish quickly. It is one of the better projects we have been involved with as there was tremendous support from the Hermanus locals as well as people visiting. In addition to all planting and soft landscaping, CHB also undertook pond construction and stone dressing, using natural rock which was chipped on site. The stone ponds are “low key and blend in, as does the entire project to the natural surrounds,” says Hepburn-Brown. A fully automatic irrigation system with 100% coverage has been installed.

Botanical garden

People and whales

Turner concludes: “This was a great project with which to be involved, and we thank the people of Hermanus for their patience during the construction phase, as well as the Overstrand Municipality for helping to put it together. Andre van der Merwe of AVDM Consulting Engineers gave invaluable help on the road works and civils and Chris Hepburn-Brown’s team from CHB Landscaping were a pleasure to work with. Their hard landscaping is second to none and their stonework makes a wonderful contrast to the brick work. We are very happy with the finished product, and have had nothing but positive feedback. Even the whales like it!”

  The whale tail water feature is a focal node within the Cliff Tops pedestrianisation upgrade

 * Desire lines: Lines found in landscaping where people walk tracks through things to get from point A to point B. They indicate the easiest and shortest route.
** Segued: to follow on smoothly and seamlessly.

Information provided by De Villiers Turner & Associates and CHB Landscaping. Photos courtesy of De Villiers Turner & Associates.