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St Francis Chockful of Surprises

St Francis Chockful of Surprises

The Greater St Francis area offers calamari, catamarans, canals and so much more writes Judy Bryant.

I’m sampling the most tender calamari I’ve tasted, in a seaside port that appears on very few maps. From my restaurant seat I spot a fleet of blue, red and white fishing boats bobbing in a picturesque harbour. Greece or Portugal? Neither. I’m in Port St Francis, midway along the coast between Durban and Cape Town.

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The Greater St Francis area, I discover, is full of surprises. It’s where world-famous catamarans are assembled; local golf courses and hospitality are so renowned that two dozen Swedish golfers visit annually for a month; and while more than 50 years have elapsed since Bruce Brown directed his iconic film
The Endless Summer, this is the spot that surfers still travel to in search of the perfect wave Bruce described.

This south-easternmost area of Africa comprises St Francis Bay, Cape St Francis and Port St Francis – each with its distinctive atmosphere and attractions. Upmarket St Francis Bay, with distinctive white-walled, black-roofed houses, was originally developed by Leighton ‘Sugar’ Hulett, who dredged the canals and created South Africa’s first marina.

His son Nevil recalls, “My father read an advertisement in a 1954 Farmer’s Weekly that described a fisherman’s paradise, ‘lonely and isolated, well wooded and watered. Two miles of private beach, 273 morgen, £1750.’ My parents sold their KZN property, and a few months later their belongings were transported in an old ox wagon across the enormous sand dunes.”

Nevil, a property developer and keen sportsman, who broke two world paragliding distance records in 2008, owns Quaysyde Barbecue Restaurant on the canals. Local sports clubs use the premises as a base throughout the year for activities, such as running time trials on Tuesday nights, paddling time trials on Wednesdays, Thursdays mountain biking and Fridays open water swimming.

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Working on a chokka boat in the port.

Cape St Francis was developed when the farmland adjacent to Seal Point Lighthouse was acquired by Karoo farmer John Booysen in exchange for his Chevrolet. A further 160 plots were added and Cape St Francis, which has a more laid-back, rustic feel, was proclaimed a town in 1965.

Port St Francis – the only privately owned working harbour in the country – was created after the townsfolk realised they had an incredible source of ‘white gold’.

“Squid, which local fishermen call chokka, used to be caught for bait only,” explains Eric Stewart, who owns a chokka fishing vessel.

“It was only when a visitor pointed out that this chokka was very similar to the calamari served in the best Mediterranean restaurants, that people realised catching and exporting squid could be lucrative. Now sea-frozen squid (caught on a hand line) is exported to Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece and Croatia.”

There’s space for more than 30 commercial chokka, hake and pilchard fishing boats, a recreational harbour and a small-harbour resort village. At the Balobi Seafood Market and Deli, Eric demonstrates how to clean squid. “Here are the three hearts – the ‘beak’, liver and ink bag,” says Eric, expertly dissecting the mollusc. We compare local and imported calamari and agreed that local is lekker.

Port St Francis is also where I see two magnificent catamarans in the final stages of fitting-out. Who would have guessed that the ‘St Francis 50’ catamaran, assembled locally, is sought out by sailors from across the world?

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Cashiers Avril Pietersen and Pamela Speelman at Balobi Seafood Market and Deli.

Retired American investment executive and author Chris McNickle and retired attorney Frederick Walters show off their bespoke vessel with its enclosed, all-weather cockpit. Retired American business executive Paul Allinson and his wife Maureen (who lived in Cape Town for a few years) are equally proud of their vessel, which includes a state-of-the-art wine fridge and a sleeping area for grandchildren.

As housing development has expanded, many residents and holidaymakers have worked to conserve precious resources. The Kromme Enviro-Trust was founded in 1981 to promote environmental awareness and preserve flora, fauna, shellfish, and sea and bird life.

Enviro-Trust vice-chairman Maggie Langlands tells me about some of the projects, “We work within the Greater Kromme Stewardship project to preserve valuable biodiversity in the area, scrutinise environmental impact assessments for developments proposed in the district, and run environmental education projects for kids and adults.

“We also organise community clean-ups of the coastline, and maintain coastal walkways and the community garden. The garden is a real community project, mind you, as St Francis Links and surrounding home owners and the municipality are all involved in looking after it.”
Several wind farms operate in the area, making the most of the onshore breezes.

For five years the local bird club has undertaken bird counts every six weeks on 14 wind farms (operating or proposed sites), supplying the data to the University of Cape Town and to non-profit organisation BirdLife SA. About 15 frog species occur in the Greater St Francis area, ranging from the large raucous toad to the little arum lily frog. And if you want to see some of them, Dune Ridge Country House, found between coastal fynbos and dune fields, offers novel frog safaris.

“The removal of alien vegetation from our immediate vicinity and the surrounding uplands has revitalised a natural wetland that is a frog hotspot,” says owner Sarah Swanepoel. “Guests gear up with gumboots, headlights and nets, and head off with guide Henry Maarman to catch, identify and release.”
About five years ago, conservationist Maggie proposed developing a hiking trail.

She approached Esti Stewart, then managing the tourism centre. “The two of us just started to walk and explore. We always wanted to know and discover – then we put it together and we had a route,” says Esti, who now conducts the popular four-day, three-night, 62-kilometre Chokka Trail.

I tackled the hike with my daughter, discovering a stunning mix of coastal, dune, wetland and forest vegetation within 40 000 hectares of privately-owned land. Esti’s husband Eric handles the logistics, while local lodges ensure warm hospitality and delicious food overnight.

On the final hiking day, we arrived at Seal Point Lighthouse, the tallest stonework lighthouse in the country. The SA Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds has a seabird rehabilitation centre here, and marine biologist Christina Marques introduces us to permanent penguin residents and long-term rehabilitation patients.

They include Batman, who’s blind, and Penelope, who might become a penguin ambassador. “Some have fused shoulders so their flippers don’t move, three or four have badly scarred fins due to seal or shark bites, so their fur can’t grow and they’ll die of hypothermia,” she explains.

Next stop is Cape St Francis Resort, where we enjoy a three-dish calamari experience at Joe Fish restaurant. Shaun Tessendorf, activities manager, describes the dish, “Calamari with wasabi and sesame seeds, with a dipping sauce; deep-fried rings with rice and tartare sauce; tubes stuffed with peppadews, mushroom and feta – plus chips.”

Quite delicious – and more proof that the Greater St Francis area is chockful of surprises.

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Sanccob marine biologist Christina Marques with a resident penguin.

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