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[Friday 2 April 2010 : Cape Town-Paternoster] Karen and I had decided before we left that this would be a trip of very little planning - we would simply drive north from Cape Town up the coast and see what happened. So we threw some clothes into a couple of bags, chucked the bags into my car and headed off. It was the start of the Easter weekend, four days of holiday, and the roads were packed. We had to thread our way through the crowded suburbs of Cape Town from south to north before getting onto the "West Coast Road" (the R27), the road that leads north out of Table View, Blouberg and Melkbos. It was virtually bumper-to-bumper with holiday-makers, mostly in huge four wheel drive vehicles, all travelling at insane speeds with the typical aggression and lack of consideration that is characteristic of South African drivers [Aside : I wrote a blog about the shocking behaviour of drivers on the R27 ; you can read it here].
A short distance north of the road leading to the tiny fishing village of Yzerfontein we turned off the hectic racetrack with a sigh of relief and entered the West Coast National Park. From congestion, snarling road-rage and testosterone-hyped speeding drivers we entered the tranquility of a nature reserve, with a single road meandering through the park and a speed limit of 50 kilometres per hour. Unfortunately we saw no wildlife apart from a couple of small tortoises scuttling at high speed across the road.
The West Coast National Park consists of two fairly separate sections, one on each side of the Langebaan Lagoon. Langebaan Lagoon is the southerly part of Saldanha Bay, a deep-water port and anchorage used primarily for ships loading iron and steel for export from the nearby steelworks. Thankfully the steelworks and harbour occupy only a small part of one end of Saldanha Bay, so the southern section is pristine and uncontaminated, a haven for birdlife, boardsailers and canoeists. The lagoon is so shallow that when the tide goes out it dries up completely for several hundred metres near the shore ; this also means that, unlike the dangerous and icy cold Atlantic Ocean, the water in the lagoon is warm and perfectly safe for swimming.
We drove up the peninsula that forms the western boundary of the lagoon, with the heavy surf and angry waves of the Atlantic Ocean pounding the shore on one side and the calm waters of Langebaan Lagoon on the other. The temperature difference from one side to the other was extreme - the ocean side was foggy and cold, whereas near the lagoon it was warm and pleasant.
On the east side of the lagoon, near the park's visitor centre, we stopped at a bird hide. The hide is sited in a wetland, with the lagoon on one side and marsh all around it ; to get to the hide from the parking area there is a wooden boardwalk, the last section of which is concealed behind high poles so that any birds nearby do not get disturbed by the arrival of noisy humans. Narrow slits in the hide's walls allow visitors to sit inside, out of sight, and view the abundant birdlife from quite close up. When we arrived we found a small party of "twitchers" in the hide, discussing bird species and bandying around complicated Latin names in low voices. Their cameras appeared to be miniaturized versions of the Hubble Space Telescope.
We exited the park via the north gate, a road which leads directly into the town of Langebaan. These days Langebaan is a weekend mecca for watersport enthusiasts from Cape Town, with guest houses, bed & breakfast establishments and self-catering cottages everywhere. Mansion-style holiday houses crowded the slopes of the small hill overlooking the lagoon. We had no interest in stopping so we drove right through town and headed north on the road to Vredenburg, past the Greek-style Club Mykonos holiday resort and the ugly steelworks clustered on the north end of Saldanha Bay.
The Saldanha steelworks, although a smoke-belching blight on the landscape, represents a huge industry in South Africa - iron (mainly) and manganese ore is railed south from Sishen in the Northern Cape on a railway line that was custom built in the 1970's. This 860 kilometre line handles millions of tons of ore per year by using extremely long trains ; the longest train ever on this route consisted of 660 wagons and seven locomotives, extending more than seven kilometres from end to end! This remains a world record length for a train on "Cape Gauge" tracks (1067 millimetres between the rails).
Vredenburg is the largest town in the area. It is completely without charm or character, a dusty junction with roads leading out of it in several different directions. Just out of town we passed an horrendously crass new development called The Weskus Mall, a huge shopping centre that appeared to contain all the usual retail suspects. Massive billboards alongside the road had been exhorting us to visit this shopping mall ever since we'd left the outskirts of Cape Town, but we managed to resist any stray impulse to turn off and drove on past without stopping.We headed north-west out of Vredenburg and soon came to the village of Paternoster, nestled snugly against the sweeping curve of a bay. Paternoster used to be a backwater, connected to the outside world by one badly-maintained gravel road and inhabited by hard-bitten fishing folk. The fishermen lived in tiny whitewashed stone cottages just above the beach and braved the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean in open boats to earn a living. Not any more - these days Paternoster is a popular weekend spot with the yuppie crowd from Cape Town, and none of the original fishermen's cottages remain ; in their place are rows of guest houses and holiday accommodation.
It was the Easter weekend so we were a little concerned about whether we'd be able to find a place to stay in Paternoster. However, it proved easy enough and soon we were settled into our room at the Mosselbank Bed & Breakfast, an establishment that was listed in our 2000 edition of Let's Go South Africa (yes, ten years old, proving that the owners of Mosselbank B&B must be doing something right to have been in business for that long). Tired after a long day of driving and exploring, we went for a walk along the beach and hit the sack early.
[Saturday 3 April : Paternoster-Eland's Bay] An early walk on the almost-deserted beach in the morning provided proof that the original reason for the existence of Paternoster was still valid - groups of fishermen were launching their boats into the surf. The fishing boats were all small and open, some with engines but many powered only by strong arms and oars. The frigid water lapping at our bare toes caused us to be grateful that we did not have to brave the icy seas but could take a leisurely stroll back to our guest house for a hot shower followed by breakfast. Breakfast was a superb affair - fruit, muesli, yoghurt, eggs, bacon, sausage, tomato, mushrooms, toast, marmalade and a plunger of excellent coffee. Everything was cooked and exquisitely prepared by the daughter of the couple who owned the place.
Comfortably replete, we packed up and drove out of Paternoster on the gravel road that leads west and then south to the Cape Columbine Nature Reserve. The reserve is bleak and desolate, with the harsh waves of the Atlantic Ocean pounding angrily against a rocky coastline. The road ends at Tietiesbaai (an Afrikaans name, the translation of which into English I shall leave to your imagination), where there is a large camping and caravanning park and a couple of sheltered beaches in a secluded bay. The camp site was jam-packed, tents, campers and caravans standing right next to each other with only centimetres separating them. So much for a relaxed and isolated wilderness experience ...
We headed back the way we'd come, through Paternoster and north-east to Stompneusbaai ("Stump Nose Bay" in English), Shelley Point and Brittania Bay. Shelley Point is a huge, luxury housing development on the northern tip of the West Coast "peninsula", thus including both west- and east-facing beaches. The developers have tried to beautify the estate by planting avenues of exotic palm trees, but these merely succeed in making it look out of place amongst the bleak West Coast terrain. Shelley Point is advertised as being only "an hour from Cape Town", but this claim smacks of desperation and an ignorance of the distance and amount of traffic involved - it might, perhaps, be possible at 2 AM on a weekday with a Porsche and Michael Schumacher at the wheel.
East of Stompneusbaai the road skirts the coast via the industrial area of St Helena Bay. Along the way we chanced upon the Da Gama monument, a couple of granite slabs and a weathered inscription explaining how the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama made landfall at this point in 1497 on his long sea voyage round the Cape to India. A short drive later we came to Velddrift, a sizeable town at the mouth of the Berg River. One side of the wide river mouth is used as a harbour by deep-sea fishing trawlers, while stretches of the river further inland have been transformed into an up-market housing estate with waterfront properties, a marina and a yacht club. Called Port Owen, this relatively new suburb looked slightly down-at-heel, as if it had never quite caught the real estate wave of success. But the yacht basin was pleasant, so we found a shady spot and had a picnic lunch on the side of the road, attracting some odd glances from people driving past.
North of Velddrift traffic was sparse. After passing through the small seaside settlement of Dwarskersbos the road was almost completely empty. The scenery was typical of the West Coast - flat and windswept, with low scrubby bush and stony beaches hidden behind sand dunes. We passed the Rocherpan Nature Reserve and headed into increasingly arid terrain as the road veered away from the sea. It came as a relief when we breasted a slight rise and saw the blue waters of the Verlorenvlei ("Lost Lake" in English) stretched out in front of us.
For the first time since leaving Cape Town the scenery became fairly dramatic. The road dropped down until it was right on the edge of the lake (unfortunately our view of it was partially blocked by the high reeds that are characteristic of the Verlorenvlei) with a high sandstone ridge on the other side of the road. After a few kilometres of snaking along the lakeshore we came to Eland's Bay, a town of a few weather-beaten houses and an hotel clustered around a bay and a long curved beach. To the south of town the sandstone ridge extends to the sea, ending in a sheer cliff above a rocky promontory called Baboon Point. The Sishen-Saldanha railway line passes behind the town, parallel to the sea and only a few metres from the last row of houses. The railway continues south through the sandstone ridge via a tunnel.
The single hotel in Eland's Bay was quite full but luckily a couple of rooms were still available. The hotel has clearly seen better days and is frequented by a tough, hard-drinking crowd ; we knew we were in for a noisy night because the room we were in was unfortunately directly above the bar. However, the room had just recently been renovated and was spotlessly clean and had a spacious, immaculately tiled bathroom.
After lugging our gear up the stairs we strolled down to the beach and went for a walk. At least we tried to walk, but the fierce and relentless wind quickly drove us into the shelter of a sand dune, from where we watched a couple of kite surfers skittering along the waves. The force of the wind was such that they were very quickly swept north and were unable to get back again ; they eventually beached themselves a long way further up the beach. While we were sitting on the beach we heard a low rattling, clanking sound, and looked up to see an iron ore train coming through the railway tunnel to the south. Knowing that these trains are usually very long, we started counting the wagons and reached about 220 before two more locomotives appeared. However, this wasn't the end of the train - there were another 170 or so wagons behind this second lot of locomotives, followed by three more locomotives at the end, meaning the train consisted of about 400 wagons and eight or nine locomotives. Given that an iron ore wagon is about ten metres long, this means that the entire train was well over four kilometres in length! Amazing.
Dining options in Eland's Bay are limited to say the least, so we had supper that night in the hotel's dining room. The food wasn't great, but the view through the floor-to-ceiling windows over the Atlantic Ocean was superb.
[Sunday 4 April : Eland's Bay-Lambert's Bay] Breakfast at Eland's Bay hotel was a disappointing affair, in large part because the coffee was dreadful - insipid, weak and tasteless. Karen was particularly edgy, having got used to drinking strong Italian-style espresso every morning at home. We drove east out of town on the road to Redelinghuys, wondering where we could possibly get a caffeine jolt in this lonely area, and resigned to probably having to wait until we reached Lambert's Bay, further up the coast. However, opposite the turn-off to the north that would take us to Lambert's Bay we spotted a sign for a place called Vensterklip ("window stone" in English), and on impulse we drove in to have a look. It turns out that Vensterklip is a rustic adventure-style holiday resort on the banks of the Verlorenvlei, where you can camp, kayak or canoe on the lake or go abseiling, hiking or mountain-biking. It also has a restaurant in an old converted stone barn, with outside tables in a shaded, semi-enclosed garden. It was all done very nicely, so we sat at one of the tables and ordered an Espresso (for Karen) and an Americano (for me), wondering what we'd get in this lonely, out-of-the-way place. My first sip, and Karen's expression, told the story ... the coffee was fantastic! Incredible ; barista-style coffee served in an old barn on the back road between Eland's Bay and Redelinghuys! Who would have guessed?
With great reluctance we tore ourselves away from our unexpectedly good coffee stop and drove off to the north. At this point things got a bit confusing, because my road map was a few years old and appeared to bear little or no relation to the roads we found ourselves on. Luckily there aren't many roads in this lonely part of the country in the first place, so we successfully managed to avoid going to Redelinghuys, Leipoldtville or Graafwater and soon found ourselves heading towards Lambert's Bay.
Lambert's Bay is quite big, a major fishing port on the West Coast. There is one large hotel and a profusion of guest houses, holiday flats and bed & breakfast establishments. It was quite easy to find somewhere to stay the night - we merely drove round the streets, looking at the many signs that were up advertising accommodation, and found a self-catering flat in a large house a couple of blocks from the harbour. The place wasn't very big, with a cramped kitchen and a poky lounge, but it was across the road from the sea with large windows facing the ocean, and the setting sun in the west filled it with a warm late-afternoon glow.
There was another flat in the same house next to our front door, and over the course of that day and the following morning we observed some interesting behaviour there. Three generations seemed to be in residence - a couple of young children, a fat, bloated father with a huge beer belly, a mother who never left the flat and two grandparents who seemed to be surgically attached to the couch in front of the TV. The children were in and out all the time, playing in the street and across the road amongst the rocks on the shore. The father emerged a few times, twice to buy beer and once to drive off with a couple of dodgy-looking characters who had been hanging around outside ; when he returned (alone) he had a plastic bag of something which looked suspiciously like abalone. My guess? The two guys were poachers and our neighbour had bought some illicit seafood from them for the family's dinner that night. The mother no doubt spent the entire weekend cooking and cleaning for the lot of them - we only saw her once, the following morning when they were packing to leave. I guess there are many different ways to enjoy a long weekend ...
The three main attractions of Lambert's Bay are crayfish, diamonds and birds. Unfortunately the former are in short supply these days, having been over-fished to near extinction, but there are birds a-plenty. A small island near the harbour (called Bird Island, funnily enough) is used as a nesting site by over 20 000 Cape Gannets, a species of sea bird that is indigenous to South Africa and Namibia [Aside : there are but six Cape Gannet nesting sites in the world ; Bird Island in Lambert's Bay is the only one open to the public]. The island is connected to the mainland via a man-made causeway so that visitors can walk over and view the birds from inside a specially-constructed "bird hide". The gannets cluster together in a massed swarm of birds, thousands of them, all squawking, pecking and flying around. Mating pairs of birds engage in various forms of ritualistic behaviour, such as pointing their long beaks upwards and rubbing against each other. Smaller numbers of cormorants, penguins and seagulls also use the island as a base, but it is interesting to note that the different species tend to keep to themselves.
It's uncertain how rich the diamond pickings still are, but we saw several diamond boats in the harbour, their thick hoses coiled up like massive umbilical cords. There was absolutely no activity ; however, it was the Easter long weekend, so perhaps the divers were also taking a well-deserved break.
Supper that evening was the best meal we had on the whole trip. We went to Isabella's, a legendary restaurant in the harbour directly on the wharf. Both Karen and I had snoek (a fish common to Western Cape waters) and it was delicious. Every mouthful was a taste sensation. Absolutely replete, we walked back to our rented flat in near-freezing weather, the wind off the Atlantic Ocean raw and icy.
[Monday 5 April 2010 : Lambert's Bay-Cape Town] After a leisurely breakfast we found ourselves on the long road back to Cape Town. I was very grateful that I'd filled the petrol tank in Langebaan, because there was a long queue of irritated motorists at the only service station in Lambert's Bay - it was simultaneously the end of a long weekend and the end of school holidays, so everybody was heading home. Luckily the bulk of drivers took the route directly east to the N7 national road via Clanwilliam, so when we swung south towards Leipoldtville and Eland's Bay we had the road to ourselves again.
Of course, it goes without saying that we simply HAD to stop at Vensterklip near Eland's Bay (where we'd had outstanding coffee the previous day) and have coffee again. And, as before, it was excellent, fortifying us for the long drive home via Dwarskersbos, Velddrift, Langebaan and the northern suburbs of Cape Town. We briefly stopped for lunch at a farm stall on the R27 near Yzerfontein, and were surprized to discover a well-stocked aviary behind the restaurant. We wandered around, looking at the birds, before tackling the congested roads leading into Cape Town.
It was a great weekend, and our decision not to pre-book any accommodation was not a problem after all. In fact, it was an advantage - we were not constrained to be at a specific place every day but could decide on the spur of the moment whether we wanted to move on or stay where we were. Very relaxing indeed ...