Three days would never be enough. I knew that I would only scratch the surface, but I still couldn’t resist the opportunity to explore this wonderfully wild, somewhat ancient and fabulously down-to-earth and quirky region known as the Cape West Coast. It’s an easy hour-or-so drive from Cape Town making it perfect for a day trip… but you’ll come for a day and want to stay for a week, or more. I certainly did.
I was travelling with Carmen Lerm, CEO of West Coast Way, a passionate, knowledgeable and savvy businesswoman and destination marketer. The right person to give me an introduction to this wonderful region. As the suburbs thinned and the wide-open spaces became more prevalent I learnt a little of its history – from the ancient ways of the San to its significance in the Anglo-Boer War, to the communities that live and thrive in little almost forgotten towns and the proud fishermen who to this day salt their catch (mullet) whole and dry them in the open air – bokkoms they are called, salty fish biltong.
Our first stop was !Khwa ttu, a unique space that introduces visitors to the culture and history of the San – past, present and future. Not in a structured or institutional kind of way, as most museums tend to do, but in a tactile, experiential way, introducing the way of the San through the senses – sight, touch, taste, hearing and smell.
Michael Daiber, General Manager of !Khwa ttu, shares his heart with me, his vision for this proud, yet often marginalised people and their incredible wealth of knowledge. Knowledge that could so easily be lost. He tells how, back in 1999, the late Swiss anthropologist Irene Staehelin, bought a farm so that a San Culture and Educational Centre could be established, so that this ancient history and knowledge would be preserved, continued and extended.
From Michael, and San guide Joram, I learn about southern Africa’s First People, the original inhabitants of this same land. I learn how art tells a story, how the stars are a gateway to the heavens beyond. How tools of old were made and how human history is linked to these ancient hunter gatherers. I learn about the tragic outcomes of colonisation… the de-humanising of these humble yet self-sufficient people as they were poked, prodded and photographed in the name of science. And how they were removed from the land they had roamed for generations as colonial farmers took ownership.
The heartlessness of this injustice sat heavy on my soul. Fortunately, the experience didn’t stop there, and soon my senses were awakened with the sound of birdsong, the buzzing of bees and the cheerful family comings and goings of the San way of life. I was walking through the incredible, state-of-the-art, Way of the San building – if one could even call it a building.
The ‘Way of the San’, is so much more than a history lesson, it’s a lesson about life. Life lived then… and now. Life lived with respect for those around you, respect for nature and the environment. To taking only what is necessary, to giving back and keeping little. Carrying my backpack, camera and cell phone, I felt weighed down by stuff. Necessary for the task at hand, but stuff, nonetheless.
With these thoughts still searching for a place to settle in my mind, I was introduced to Dongue Dala, and with a beautiful smile she introduced me to the !Khwa ttu herbal tea, its medicinal quality a taste that I’m sure would take time to acquire!
Next was chef Lily Jansen and the most delicious soup I have ever tasted – made from Spekboom leaves (Portulacaria afra). I learnt that the Spekboom is high in vitamin C, that its good for dehydration, exhaustion and heatstroke, making it the perfect snack when hiking through arid regions.
We were introduced to the chickens and their innovated egg-laying facilities – repurposed filing cabinets made for easy access to the freshly laid eggs – just brilliant, and met Luca Samba as we walked through the vegetable and herb garden and the newly developing plant nursery (a favourite of the local eland).
The relatively new II Kabbo Training Centre is a place for mentorship and training, where up to 30 San go through the educational skills development annually, enabling them to make life choices and decisions regarding their future. Some have gone on to study further, many have started their own businesses or entered the workplace, with some are even working at !Khwa ttu. My heart is full knowing that what these young men and women can now have hopes and dreams, not just for themselves, but for their family’s too.
I could have stayed longer, but the rest of my whistle-stop West Coast experience beckoned, and the quaint little town of Darling was calling.
Darling is home to South Africa’s favourite diva, Tannie Evita (aka Pieter Dirk Uys), the yummiest toffees south of the equator, Darling Sweet and Africa’s first carbon neutral brewery, Darling Brew… and a whole host of wineries.
At the Darling Brew Tasteroom and Brewery I met the young lady brewer Joyce Denson, who shared both her knowledge and passion for beer with me. A fairly new passion, I learnt, as before working as a waitress in the Tasteroom she had never tasted beer. Needless to say, she acquired the taste quickly and as her interest grew so did her passion, a passion that led to her current position, right hand woman to current brew master Rene du Toit.
As I walk through the state-of-the-art facility, I learn about Darling Brew’s commitment to slow brewing and sustainability. Which, in addition to reducing their energy and water usage, is maintaining their carbon neutral status – attained by offsetting their emissions via responsible carbon capturing (in a sense capturing the carbon created through the brewing process), reduction projects and finally off-sets where required. Our brewery tour is topped off with a beer tasting, five delicious variants accompanied by biltong and beer grain chips, an innovative way of repurposing the ‘waste’ from the brewing process.
Evita se Perron is where you’ll find South Africa’s favourite political satirist and impersonator, Pieter Dirk Uys, if not in person, certainly by representation. The transformed Darling railway station is home to a bar, cabaret venues, restaurant and arts and craft shop – if you’re a ‘Tannie Evita Bezuidenhout’ fan you’ll love the memorabilia and the tongue-in-cheek history lesson.
Not only does Darling Sweet create seriously yummy toffees, they also provide much needed employment in the town – as a drive through the streets will attest to. The story begins when two guys – Frits van Ryneveld and Hentie van der Merwe, decided to make handcrafted toffees the old-fashioned way. Six years later and Darling Sweet has 21 full-time and 11 part-time employees, and a range that has grown to include 10 toffee flavours including favourites Tannie Evita’s Classic, Honey and salt and my favourite, Liquorice. A portion of the sales of Tannie Evita’s Classic Toffee goes to The Darling Trust which was started in 2003 by Pieter Dirk Uys to empower and help the community mainly through education, skills development and health.
The cool and temperate West Coast climate has ensured that this region has become a popular wine growing area with wine tasting available at Ormonde Wines, Darling Cellars and Groote Post Vineyards. My favourite is the subtly pinked Pyjama Bush, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Grenache from Darling Cellars. The rosé is so named, because its subtle pink blush resembles the pink of the Pyjama Bush (Lobostemon fruticosus) a local indigenous shrub that has flowers in both subtle pink and blue (like little boys and girls in their pyjamas) during the spring and summer months. And if you’ve no time for wine-tasting, then pop into the Darling Wine Shop for a great selection of all the local tipple.
Con Meyer, wildflower enthusiast, and previous president of the Darling Wild Flower Society, tells me that this region is also famous for its Spring flowers, celebrated in September with the Darling Wildflower Show (usually the third weekend in September). A weekend of all things floral, where the streets are lined with flowering annuals and the fields are alive with colour as dormant bulbs and spring flowers burst forth. His enthusiasm for wildflowers is infectious and I begin wondering how I can fit in a visit to spend time with the spring flowers with Con as my guide.
All this wine and beer tasting called for some serious fresh air, and what better than a sunset walk along the wild Atlantic Ocean at Yzerfontein. This small harbour town is centrally located for most West Coast attractions and offers a wide range of accommodation options, from self-catering apartments and B&B’s to guest house accommodation and homestays.
I enjoyed the beautifully appointed self-catering accommodation at Pelican’s View and its proximity to the ocean was just what I needed after such a busy day. Waves pounded the shore, sea-spray wafted into my face and clumps of kelp lay strewn on the isolated beach. Seagulls foraged and a pair of oyster catchers sat catching the last rays of the sun. A man walked his German shepherd and the lights of the Yzer twinkled in the distance. I breathed in the fresh salty air and felt myself relaxing…
Returning to my snug ‘home’ at Pelican’s View, I enjoyed making use of the free WiFi, watched a movie and snuggled into the wonderfully comfy bed. Ready to head out bright and early the next morning for more West Coast exploring.
Further north is Hopefield, an historic town dating back to 1851. It is in the heart of the Sandveld and is surrounded by fields of wheat and hillsides covered in fynbos. The town’s origins revolve around the building of the stately Dutch Reformed Church, built with money donated by local farmers.
Down an ordinary street, opposite the towering spire of said Church, you’ll find an ‘unordinary’ shop. It’s a place where ‘Ouma’ and ‘Oupa’ sit comfortably on the stoep, where the walls tell a story of beekeepers and fynbos, and where the shelves are laden with the beautifully fragrant and exceptionally pure products. Honeybee products. Simply Bee products.Simply Bee, the brainchild of inspiring entrepreneur Helena van der Westhuizen, is a place where the honeybee products are blended and bottled with love, and where hopes and dreams are brought to life. To honour her father’s passion for responsible beekeeping, Helena has turned his hobby into a business creating an all-natural range of beeswax products – from fynbos honey to candles, soaps and cosmetics with not a paraben in sight.
Helena tells me that it was her sensitive skin that started her thinking of a cosmetic range using only the raw materials from their own hives. A range free from harmful chemicals, synthetic fragrances and parabens. Additionally, with no commercial farming in the region, their fynbos honey, beeswax and propolis is all organic. Bee conservation is also key, so their hives aren’t used for commercial pollination, are placed on stands to be badger friendly and no harm is done to the bees in the harvesting of bee products.
Helena’s vision for empowering women has certainly brought the ‘hope’ back in Hopefield. With a number of women employed in the production and sales of Simply Bee products she has impacted the lives of many families enabling moms to clothe and house their kids and to pay for their education thereby impacting a new generation.
Heading to the coast one crosses the Berg River estuarine system into the traditional fishing village of Velddrif. Hit a right into Bokkom Laan and you’re in the quintessential West Coast fishing village with its whitewashed buildings, rickety wooden jetties and a wide assortment of boats.
For centuries local fisherman have been hauling in their catch, salting and then drying them in the heat of the sun. Bokkoms are still seen hanging in crudely made structures and on the menus of restaurants along the dusty stretch of road. Kids play on jetties; fishermen head out in boats and seagulls hover hoping for a tasty titbit. If you’re lucky flocks of flamingo fly overhead and pelicans fill their bellies in the shallows.
One of the little white-washed Bokkom huisies (houses) is now The River Studio and it’s where you’ll find local artist Marina Clunie, often with paintbrush in hand. There are canvases everywhere, some complete, others a work in progress. I feel as though I have fallen into a ‘West Coast Wonderland’ with each scene transporting me to a different time or place. Shades of blue, pops of yellow, stormy skies and tranquil bays, Marina has a way of absorbing her surroundings and capturing them on canvas.
If the idea of bokkoms isn’t tantalising your taste buds, then pop into Russells-on-Port, overlooking the Port Owen Marina. The restaurant, which has both indoor and outdoor seating, offers an upmarket dining experience that focuses on fresh local produce, including West Coast seafood. The on-site vegetable garden provides most of the herbs and some of the salad greens with the micro-herbs grown by Retso Foster, one of the waiters as a side-hustle. We opted for gourmet wood-fired pizzas accompanied by a glass of Groote Post Pinot Noir Rosé and finished off with delicious homemade berry ice cream… just the thing for a warm summery day.
If wine isn’t your thing, fear not as Charlie’s Brewhouse offers a range of on-tap local craft beers to accompany the bar-snacks, think West Coast mussels and hearty meals, from Eisnein and Bitterballen, to burgers and salads. The craft beers are produced in-house at their very own micro-brewery, we tasted the Charlie’s Brewhouse- Sandveld (Lager), Lighthouse (Blonde), Cormorant (Bourbon Stout) and Harbour (American Pale Ale) – with the Blonde being my clear favourite. Not a beer fan? No stress, as they also stock Poetic Licence Gin from the UK and a range of local wines and ciders.
No visit to the West Coast is complete without a visit to the West Coast National Park. And what better way to get there than via the picturesque town of Langebaan with its white sandy beaches and the clear waters of the Langebaan Lagoon – a favourite with kite surfers, wind surfers and the kayaking and sailing fraternity.
The West Coast National Park, which stretches from Langebaan to Yzerfontein, was established in 1985 with the aim of preserving the Langebaan Lagoon, an internationally acclaimed Ramsar Site for its importance as a wetland. These wetlands and tidal flats are a haven for many local and migratory bird species, with thousands of seabirds making use of the sheltered islands to roost. Birders make use of the three bird hides to watch vast concentrations of waders as they forage in the tidal flats, with pelicans and flamingos inhabiting the deeper water.
Beach lovers enjoy the pristine beaches, the athletic and energetic the hiking and mountain bike trails and the wannabee botanists the incredible diversity of flora – especially the remote Postberg section which is only open to visitors during the months of August and September for the spring flowers. And everybody the wide variety of game – from eland, red hartebeest and bontebok to zebra, ostrich and even, if you’re lucky, a bat-eared fox.
So, whether you’re looking for a route to travel, keen on contemplating your ancestral roots, or just wanting some R&R or a break away from the city, the West Coast (with the help of West Coast Way) certainly has exactly what you’re looking for.