A bitter-sweet symphony: Backroading the West Coast

The stretch of coast between Cape Town and Lambert’s Bay is heart-breakingly beautiful, but it’s also suffering from a severe case of progress. Alison Westwood went to see if there’s still any soul left.

To say the West Coast can be moody is like saying there’s a pinch or two of salt in the sea. One day it’s all smiles and sunshine, the next it’s spitting in your eyes and chucking sand in your teeth. Japie Greeff, Cape Columbine’s lighthouse-keeper, prefers it that way.

It was a disgusting night and Japie had been out in it since 03h00 while clouds flashed like rabid paparazzi, the sky rumbled as if a doomsday meteor was on its way and the wind grappled like a sumo wrestler with anything stubborn enough to stand. He strode up next morning as I picked a path through puddles. ‘Did you hear the storm?’ he asked. ‘It was a big one, hey!’ A grin lit up his flinty face like, well, a lighthouse.

Cape Columbine is at the westernmost point of this part of Africa’s west coast. On a map, the chunk of land between Langebaan and Velddrif resembles a great hook hanging in the Atlantic Ocean, waiting to snag passing ships. In fact, it did so with alarming regularity until the lighthouse was put up, only 30 years after the 1906 lighthouse commission had agreed it would be a good spot for one.

Irresistible temptation for urbanites

The previous day, Japie had ushered us to the top of its rather squat, blocky tower where the lens – the first in South Africa to be designed for an electric light – threw fractured reflections of scrub, sea and sky. A barn owl and a kestrel were sharing digs in a disused fog-horn (decent nesting sites are rare in these parts) and, as I watched, the kestrel launched itself towards Paternoster, where we could see crowds of white cottages gleaming smartly in the sun.

Hidden from view by a reef was the beach where we’d spent all afternoon messing about with boats. Paternoster’s painted wooden fishing boats are so perfectly pretty and so essentially seaside that visitors, feeling arty, will spend hours photographing or painting them.

As with the whitewashed fishermen’s cottages, they wield a charm beyond practicality. To see these boats, or those cottages, is to want one. So the original fishermen’s village is being smothered in imitation fishermen’s holiday homes. They’re all tasteful, adorable, desirable – and about as genuinely West Coast as frozen fish fingers.

At least Paternoster is only in danger of being gentrified. It’s a process that has advantages for the visitor: plenty of attractive houses for hire, shops that sell fancy jam and a handful of first-class places to eat. Other parts haven’t fared as well.

Yzerfontein had me burying my head in a well-trimmed verge between estate agents’ signs groaning, ‘Why? Why?’ The bay’s haunting natural beauty has been shoved aside by a ghost town of facebrick-and-aluminium mansions. When we found somewhere to have dinner that evening, I was relieved it didn’t have a view.

One farm labourer we spoke to in Jacob’s Bay, formerly a fishing village near Vredenburg, described the bewildering symptoms of holiday-house disease: ‘The people come here, build a big house and then they go away.’ Roberto Marrero, who manages the crayfish factory there, told us it was pretty much all that was left of the original settlement. ‘Everything else you can see was put up in the last six or seven years,’ he said.

It got worse. A golf estate we bumbled into near St Helena Bay was so enormous and its deserted streets and houses so indistinguishable, that we drove round the same roundabout for 13 hours. It was more terrifying than the time I got lost in a desert. Later, we had lunch at a hotel where the view was a procession of construction trucks roaring off to another development.

Getting away from it all

Fortunately, the malady seems to be confined to the coast. Although Darling is slightly closer to Cape Town than Yzerfontein and has – in my eyes at least – the far greater attractions of five wine farms and Tannie Evita, people are actually living there – and in houses that weren’t built last week. One family hasn’t moved far in almost two centuries.

William Duckitt was brought out to South Africa in 1800 to help the Boers update their old-fashioned agriculture. His first experimental farm was near Paarl, but he didn’t make much progress with the land or the Boers there. Duckitt finally settled at Klaver Valley near Darling and explorer Dr Heinrich Lichtenstein noted he’d picked one of the best and most fertile spots of the whole colony.

John and Jeanette are seventh generation Duckitts in the area. They’ve set aside a large portion of their farm, Waylands, for the region’s famous wild flowers and they cultivate guests in the old homestead. I had to wonder if William would be as puzzled as the Boers by these new-fangled farming techniques.

Much as I liked Darling, I couldn’t justify staying 200 years, so once we’d pottered into town and tottered out of tasting rooms, I took the map and pointed my Grand Vitara firmly at the coastline north of the Berg River. ‘It’s a big blank space,’ I reasoned. ‘It must be good.’

We crossed a bridge at the drift where, not so long ago, school buses had to be ferried across on a pontoon for rugby matches. At the river mouth, fishing trawlers bobbed like big brothers of the boats at Paternoster. At the petrol station, five attendants fought to wash our windscreen. Velddrif may look as unappetising as the bokkoms (dried fish) we bought there, but it is at least as salty and authentic.

A little way on, I started to feel hopeful as I stood in the drizzle on a shell-speckled shore in front of Dwarskersbos. The houses were mostly unoccupied but they were smallish, only one block deep and hadn’t been made in the same factory. But then I saw the hideous complexes squatting across the road.

Silver linings, black cloud

By now, if you’re an estate agent on the West Coast, you’ve crossed me off your Christmas list and, if you’re planning a holiday, you’ve probably crossed the West Coast off your list. That would be a mistake. For one thing, its allure rises above the spreading rooftops like an elegant gull above fish-guts. For another, there are still several good spots that haven’t gone to rot.

The West Coast National Park, on a slice of salt marshes between lagoon and sea, is a treat for birders and hikers. It also hides the keenly secretive fishing village of Churchhaven, perhaps the last corner on this part of coast that’s still got more than a splash of the old Cape spirit. Knowing what they have to protect, locals kick visitors in the shins unless they have an invitation or reservation. (Read more about Churchhaven in Getaway, March 2008).

The warm welcome travellers get at Paternoster can make it difficult to leave, unless you’re going camping at Tietiesbaai next door. Then there are the roads criss-crossing the countryside, criss-crossed in turn by determined tortoises. In autumn, brown fields roll in clouds of blue smoke as farmers ready the land for winter wheat. In spring, you never know where you’ll strike it rich with a pot of golden wildflowers. Windmills sing and tar unfurls across the plains towards a blue promise that perhaps there you’ll find what you’re looking for.

At Elands Bay, after a lovely, lonely drive past coastal reserves, I finally did. Mist swathed the shore and waves shushed around our feet as we walked past surfers on a smooth left break. Then the veil lifted to reveal Baboon Point’s rocky face and a broad smile of shining beach. Mountains to the left, strandveld to the right, white sand in front and, out back, the Verlorenvlei – a Ramsar site of international importance for birds.

There’s a cloud on the horizon, however. A proposed open-cast mine in the Moutonshoek Valley would poison water that flows into the Verlorenvlei and turn the wetland into a wasteland. Elands Bay’s little community seems to stand as much chance as a bull terrier in front of a bulldozer. Yup, there’s a storm coming alright, but it’s not the kind Japie Greeff would enjoy.

When to go

If you want to see the spring flowers, plan to go any time from late August to October. Keep your dates flexible until the news comes that the veld is blooming.

Christmas and Easter on the West Coast tend to be crowded and quite different to the slow pace of life at other times. If you’re able to visit outside holiday season, do.

Getting there

There are two main roads from Cape Town. The R27 is a scenic coastal drive that runs close to Darling, Yzerfontein, Langebaan and Paternoster, which are all between one and two hours from Cape Town.

The N7 runs inland through the mountainous regions of Citrusdal and the Cederberg all the way to the border of Namibia. It’s the quickest route to Elands Bay and Lambert’s Bay, both roughly three hours from Cape Town.

If you’re not in a hurry, the backroads are more relaxing and give you a chance to appreciate the scenery. My favourites were the R307 between Mamre and Darling and the dirt roads between Elands Bay, Redelinghuys and Aurora.

First published in the August 2009 issue of Getaway magazine

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