While most of this article is about the history of the area, and the small town of Vermaaklikheid and Duiwenhoks have not changed much in the ten years since this article was published in our September 2010 issue, look out for our short update at the end.
No GPS can ever capture the intrepid traveller’s imagination the way a road map can. The joy is the journey that begins with tracing undiscovered avenues and places on the paper landscape and continues with frequent roadside stops to reconsider, reroute and refresh.
My MapStudio Road Atlas shows that the Bay of St Sebastian is flanked by Cape Infanta to the south and Cape Barracouta to the north – names that evoke the era of Portuguese exploration of more than 500 years ago. Many of the galleons carrying fabulous riches between the East and the West found their watery graves off the miles and miles of South Africa’s rugged coastline. Traveller, adventurer and author T.V. Bulpin reminds us of an old jingle that says ‘in St Sebastian Bay you can find pearls. . .’
For the modern explorer, the beacons that now enclose St Sebastian Bay are Witsand and the Breede River to the south, and Groot Jongensfontein to the north. A solitary name is mapped on the bay’s curve – Puntjie. From here, a thin blue line sketches the Duiwenhoks River’s winding course towards a tiny dot named Vermaaklikheid.
Puntjie is the diminutive name for the rocky point on the northern bank of the Duiwenhoks estuary. With commanding views over the indigo dome of sky and bay, it has for many years been the favourite holiday spot of local farmers. For the payment of an annual rental of four shillings, the erstwhile owner of this farm named Kleinefontein allowed them to erect reproductions of the kapstylhuisies that the pioneering farmers built when they trekked inland from the Cape during the 18th century.
Kapstyl means ‘truss style,’ and it describes a building technique that has a European history dating back to 500 AD. Typically associated with pioneering communities, these structures have A-framed thatched trusses that reach right to the ground. ‘Form follows necessity’ might have been the architectural impetus for the original truss‑style dwellings, as grass was usually in abundance in the hinterland. The Monuments Commission have included the Puntjie houses in their proclamation to preserve the kapstylhuisie as an important part of South Africa’s architectural history.
The holidaying pioneers of Puntjie pass their houses on from generation to generation and a signpost at the locked entrance gate proclaims the privacy of this settlement. The whole of St Sebastian Bay’s shoreline is protectively hugged by private farms and pretty much off limits to the exploratory traveller. However, at Vermaaklikheid, some 10km upstream, the friendly folk will assist you in renting a putta-putta boat to navigate the Duiwenhoks River and explore the beach. It is worth the effort, just to witness the thundering waves crashing into dramatic rock formations and sense the wild beauty of this secluded place.
Vermaaklikheid is not a town. From its centre, which consists of the Duiwenhoks Restaurant and a tiny shop called the Post Office, a few dirt roads meander into the surrounding knolls and dales. A number of cottages and old hartbeeshuisies, some of them renovated, others worn bare by many a season’s erosion, are sprinkled onto a landscape of pastures, newly planted olive groves, poplar woods and dune veld.
The restaurant is the place to start finding your way around this scarcely populated patchwork of land. Manager Malcolm Moodie will serve you fish that comes straight from the sea into the frying pan, while filling you in on the ways of Vermaaklikheid.
These were good times
The original owners of the 15 000ha farm gradually subdivided the land into smaller and smaller plots, as their offspring multiplied. Ample spring water and a rocky soil used to feed acres upon acres of hanepoot vineyards, and some fruit orchards and vegetable fields for decorum. It was from the sweet grapes that witblits was distilled – illegally. Literally translated as ‘white lightning’, this home-brewed brandy would surreptitiously disappear behind undetectable trapdoors the moment the local grapevine warned that the inspector was on his way to Vermaaklikheid.
These were good times and the village was the centre of the district’s jolly social life. But adversity and the depression struck, taking its final toll when the hanepoot contracted a disease. The young people left, finding work in the towns and cities, and Vermaaklikheid lost its lustre.
Eventually some city folk discovered this quaint place, properties exchanged ownership and the natives reluctantly welcomed the inkommers.
“Yes,” laughs John Stanbridge, who came here some 20 years ago, “the old Vermaaklikheid families agree that this is a wonderful place for us all to live, but they say it was better before the arrival of steekgras, witgatspreeus en die Engelse (stick-grass, Pied Starlings and the English).”
But if anything, it is the inkommers that have realised the unique qualities of this area. The communities of the greater district that enfolds St Sebastian Bay have organised themselves into four conservancies – Lower Breede, Duiwenhoks, Blombos and Duineveld – to tackle the various issues facing them with eco-sensitive gloves. Foremost issues for the Vermaaklikheid area are the preservation of the area’s architectural tradition and the environmental management of the river.
Hordes of southern right whales
Southwards from the Duiwenhoks is the Blombos area, known for its show of spring flowers. At the lip of the bay’s basin is the friendly, upmarket holiday village of Jongensfontein. The gravel road to the north winds through agricultural land where ostriches and sheep peck and graze away in fields strewn with thousands of fist-sized stones. At Witsand the full force of the prevailing winds rushing in from the bay hit you. Known for its excellent fishing, sailing and kite‑surfing, this popular village at the mouth of the Breede River holds a chest full of treasures.
Hordes of southern right whales breed in these waters between May and November and graceful, pirouetting Blue Cranes – South Africa’s national bird – have found a sanctuary here. A small gabled church bears a plaque indicating that it was built by the Barry family in 1849 ‘when Port Beaufort was a flourishing port for ships. . . which plied regularly between Cape Town, Port Beaufort and Malgas.’
Port Beaufort is just upstream from Witsand and was built by Joseph Barry. Because many ships were wrecked at the tricky entrance to the port, Barry had a steamer called Kadie built that could better navigate the waters. Six years later, after 240 voyages of carrying produce and supplies between the Overberg and Cape Town, the Kadie hit rocks and sank. Sadly, this marked yet another turning point in the fortunes of the people of this area.
A number of ships have buried their cargo in the Bay of St Sebastian. Whether these waters harbour any riches I do not know. I do know that I could only scratch the surface of this area with its bounty of historical and natural treasures. An unassuming place with a very, very pleasant hum. *
Over the past decade, Vermaaklikheid has been slowly returning to the place it was before all the “inkommers” started changing things. Duiwenhoks Restaurant closed soon after Malcolm returned to Cape Town and he wasn’t the only one making the trip back.
Now anchoring the centre of town is a place called Joey se Kontrei Winkel where you can stock up on the essentials from coffee to melktert. The adventurous should try their one-of-a-kind fynbos brandy, whisky, wine and liqueur, which they brew from the local fynbos.
The Town is off the beaten track and then some, and those looking to find peace have few better destinations they can visit. Accommodation can be found on the pristine estuary at Vermaaklikheid.co.za