FOSSILS, FORAGING, FLYING INSECTS AND FERAL RABBITS – AN ALTERNATIVE EXPLORATION OF THE WEST COAST
Eighteenth century English writer, Samuel Johnson, once famously said: “If you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life.”
Well, I’ve never been to London, but I’m sure it’s true.
Just as I’ve found it to be true for almost any place under the sun.
Take the West Coast, for instance.
If you’ve seen the wind-swept beaches and colourful fishing boats, walked among the wild springtime flowers and feasted on a plate of fresh-from-the-sea mussels, you’ve experienced it all, right? No need to go back for more of the same.
During a recent three-day adventure around the West Coast Peninsula, I discovered some gems I’d completely overlooked before and found myself nurturing a budding affinity for this region I’ve always deemed to be a little too sparse – even somewhat desolate – for my liking.
Here are four experiences that stood out in particular:
West Coast Fossil Park, Langebaanweg
Who thought a bunch of old bones could be so interesting? Certainly not me.
In fact, upon hearing we’d be visiting a fossil park, I was tormented with visions of those depressing places where big, badly moulded, paint-chipped dinosaurs hide among unkempt ferns and overgrown grasses. You know the type.
Well, let me tell you, it’s not like this at all.
Instead, you get to visit an actual archaeological excavation site where one of the knowledgeable guides will resurrect an unimaginably ancient and alien world from the dust and debris by pointing out jaws and ribs, spinal cords and flipper bones, fossilised footprints and femurs.
While the West Coast of today may be scrubby and semi-arid, back then the area was a subtropical haven for species weird and wonderful – four-tusked elephants, giraffes both long-necked and short, saber-tooth cats and even African bears!
Whether you’ve ever been interested in palaeontology or not, being in a place that feels so remarkably primordial is a truly humbling experience.
So, what happened? Why all the fossils? Why here?
Well, I guess no one can ever be sure about these things, but scientists believe that a massive flooding event that took place 5 to 5.2 million years ago that led to a whole bunch of animal carcasses being washed up here in – what used to be – one of the bends of the ancient Berg River.
The first signs of a possible fossil deposit were uncovered during phosphate mining activities in the 1940s, but it was only in 1958 that the area was brought to public attention through an academic visit to the site. Excavation work began and what followed was the discovery of one of the world’s most well-preserved faunal fossil remains. It was declared a national monument in 1996 and the West Coast Fossil Park as we know it today was officially opened two years later.
In September, the next exciting development takes place, as a brand new, world class education centre opens to the public.
For more information, visit the West Coast Fossil Park website.
Simply Bee, Hopefield
Similar to my sentiments about fossils, I never considered bees to be much of a muchness. Sure, their ability to inflict possible fatal injury on humans is rather terrifying, but other than that, I guess I’ve always just found them kind of commonplace.
After a visit to Simply Bee’s observation centre in Hopefield, however, this has changed.
Bees are – in a word – extraordinary.
Apart from being bastions of industriousness, they are blindly loyal – serving none other but their queen; astonishingly selfless – committing every bit of their life’s work to the greater good of the hive; painfully tidy – constructing great halls of wax cells, uniform in perfectly prismatic hexagons, which they keep pedantically clean.
And don’t for one second think that all bees are created equal.
There is her majesty, the all powerful monarch, whose sole purpose is laying eggs. The drones are the males who impregnate her and once they’ve done the deed have their balls chopped off by the queen herself, after which they get driven from the hive.
Finally, there is the army of infertile female workers, who literally do EVERYTHING – from constructing and cleaning out cells to foraging and security. In their short 32-day avg lifetime, they also produce 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey… which kind of makes you appreciate that dollop of goodness in your Rooibos tea a bit more, or what?
Apart from learning all about the intricacies of a flying insect community, Simply Bee’s main claim to fame is their natural beeswax skin care range. Inspired by the struggles of dealing with her own sensitive skin, owner Helena van der Westhuizen decided to use the resources from their hives to develop beauty products that are environmentally friendly and free from harmful chemicals, synthetic fragrances and parabens.
They have a lovely shop on site where you can stock up on everything from lip balm and hand cream to shampoo and beard oil. Oh, and, yes, there’s honey too!
Check out the Simply Bee website for more details.
While I wouldn’t really consider myself a ‘foodie’, I have to say that dinner at the legendary Wolfgat in Paternoster was probably the highlight of my trip.
Chef and owner, Kobus van der Merwe, draws inspiration from his stark, yet spectacular surrounds – windswept beaches and bouldered shorelines – foraging for tantalising treasures tucked away from the untrained eye.
His seasonal tasting menu takes you on a gastronomic exploration of the Strandveld as he blends fresh delights – plucked from both the rocks and dunes – with other, equally special ingredients infused and prepared long in advance.
Expect ‘soutslaai’, ‘dune spinach’ and ‘heerenbone’ to dance alongside ‘springbok’, ‘angel fish’ and ‘Saldanha mussels’, presented in delicate gourmet fashion on rustic wooden plates, in cast iron pans and pottery bowls.
And what do you wash this all down with, you may wonder? A rare selection of locally-produced wines, like the magical Karoobossie MCC by Teubes Wines.
More than all of this, however, it’s the atmosphere that really won my heart. With an emphasis on sustainability and exclusivity, the restaurant can only seat 20 diners at a time.
We were there on an chilly winter’s evening and got to enjoy the cosiness of flames crackling in the fireplace and soft lighting, while sharing jokes and tales around the large stained-wood table and watching the bustle of Kobus and his staff in the hearty open plan kitchen.
I’d highly recommend this to anyone looking for a 5-star dining experience in a delightfully informal setting. Just be warned – there tends to be quite a waiting list, so make your booking well in advance.
Check out the Wolfgat website for more information.
Stand-up paddle boarding around Schaapen Island, Langebaan
Following two days of cold and rain, our last day on the West Coast was clear, crisp and sunny – perfect conditions for SUPing on the Langebaan lagoon. Fortunately, even the infamously icy water played along by not attempting to freeze off our toes.
After being kindly kitted out with boards and wetsuits from Windtown, three of us headed down to the beach to set off on our mission with a local guide. Being my first time on a SUP, I conservatively started paddling on my knees, but soon made my way up onto my feet, navigating the gentle ripples under the board in what felt like an expert manner. So much so, that I completely zoned out for a bit, forgot that the surface below me wasn’t solid and took a proper tumble into the saltiness. A strangely exhilarating experience, in itself.
As we approached Schaapen Island, the guide started telling us about the intriguing history of this little mass of land just off the coast. Way back, farmers from the surrounding areas used it as a refuge for their sheep at night – taking them across at low tide and leaving them there till morning. As the tide came in, they’d be cut off from land and also from the predators who roamed about, wreaking havoc among the flocks.
These days, it no longer serves this purpose and is, instead, considered to be something of a sea bird sanctuary, but also – weirdly enough – home to a host of pure white bunny rabbits.
Yup, that’s right! We even saw a few. Apparently, the rabbits were once brought over here for reasons similar to the sheep and then – as rabbits do – just started thriving on their own. In the rainy winter months, the island provides plenty of grazing for their insatiable appetites, but during the dry summers when juicy blades of grass are hard to find, they’re happy to snack on seaweed. For real!
If you’ve always wanted to try SUPing, the Langebaan lagoon is the perfect spot for your first time. You can rent equipment from Windtown for R100 a pop and go on your own, or get a guide to accompany you for R250. The water is mostly super calm and there’s loads to learn as you go along.
The nitty-gritty travel info
The West Coast Peninsula is home to seven towns – Langebaan, Saldanha, Hopefield, Paternoster, Vredenburg, Jacobsbaai and St. Helena Bay – all of which are reachable within a two-hour drive from Cape Town.
The area recently launched a brand new website, packed with useful information and tips for travellers – check it out here.
Also, if you’re fond of sharing your travel experiences on social media, be sure to use the #visitWestCoast-hashtag when you do. They’re doing good work, can’t hurt to help them spread the word.
Words & Photos: Nadia Krige