? 10-minute read
This story was first published on 29 August 2016 and was updated on 5 February 2019 by Leigh Hermon.
So you think Mossel Bay is all about offshore gas and little else? Don’t feel alone. Chris Marais also used to think so. He doesn’t any more . . .
So here I am, sitting under a milkwood reading the opening lines of a play that bears the same name: To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.
Damn. Not only could Dylan Thomas drink like a proverbial fish but boy, could he write. He was like the Eric Clapton of writing. In fact, the Slowhand probably wishes he was Dylan Thomas’s little toe. Maybe a typing finger. Under Milk Wood is placed in a fictitious village called Llareggub. Now say that backwards. Clever, hey?
Mossel Bay’s Milkwood
Today, however, the milkwood I am sitting under is a 600-year-old worthy in Mossel Bay. It’s in the depths of the Dias Museum Complex, and the story goes that this spot was used as a mail-drop for passing sailors going back to the year 1501, when a Portuguese naval commander left a letter for someone in an old seaman’s boot and hung it on one of the boughs of this aged tree. Legend has it that this was the start of the South African postal system. So there’s a large stone boot under this tree now, from which you can still mail letters.
This milkwood tree interests me more. Its egghead name is Sideroxylon inerme and three of them were once declared South African National Monuments. One is the ‘Treaty Tree’ in Woodstock, Cape Town. The other is the ‘Fingo Milkwood Tree’ in the Eastern Cape town of Peddie. And then there’s this old guy in Mossel Bay.
Birds love its fruit. Bats love its fruit. Hell, monkeys, bush pigs and speckled mousebirds also think it’s quite dandy. Various parts of the milkwood tree are very good muti for humans (dispels fevers, bad dreams and afflictions of the gall bladder in one go) and its timber also makes great components of ships and mills.
Another little lesser-known factoid you might not know is that Dylan Thomas might have called his play Under Milk Wood in reference to the latex it weeps, and which was used to make condoms. So there. Put that in your Google and smoke it . . .
Back to the Dias Museum Complex, and now I am hunting for the fresh water spring that first made Bartholomeu Dias fall in love with Mossel Bay. Later on, there was a bit of a fracas with the local hunters, herders and gatherers variously called the Gouriqua, the Hottentots or the Khoe, and Dias sailed away.
A security guard points to a little pond where a duck family is currently disporting itself with duckish glee. That’s the famous fresh water spring. Paging through Robin Knox-Johnson’s The Cape of Good Hope – A Maritime History, I find a quote from a sea-traveller called Perestrello who visited these parts and remarked thus on the nearby channel between Seal Island and the mainland:
‘There are in it innumerable sea-wolves, some of which are of incredible size, and some birds as large as and shaped like geese which are called penguins. They have no feathers but wings with which they make their way, and with only these stumps of wings covered with a very fine down they go under water in such a manner that with fish they feed themselves and their young. . .’
I wander over to the Maritime Museum, swimming through tides of Chinese tourists en route. I win the race to the Bartholomeu Dias, a near-as-dammit-with-modern-flush-toilets replica of the old Portuguese trading ship called the caravel.
This, as the Yanks would say, is neat. For an extra 20 bucks, you get to walk around the deck of the caravel and get all Pirates of the Caribbean on yourself. They actually sailed this baby all the way from Vila do Condo in northern Portugal to Mossel Bay in November 1987, arriving at these shores two months later.
Today it stands, safe from the elements, in the Maritime Museum for me and half of Shanghai to clamber over like excited little kids. But that’s also OK. Part of being a tourist, I say.
I step briskly through the Shell Museum and find myself back at the fresh water pond photographing the mother duck and her babies. Say, what’s over there?
I wander over to some cottages called The Munro Houses. I’m really glad I did that, in retrospect. In one cottage a team of young researchers is cataloguing bits of debris. Disturbing their train of thought, I ask whose trash they are going through. They look up and laugh. Turns out they’re studying the remains from the middens of modern humans dating back 164 000 years, at nearby Pinnacle Point. That’s now the site of a fascinating archaeological dig, off-limits to you and me.
But there is a similar kind of cave under the Cape St Blaize Lighthouse, which is open to the public. I find the place easily enough, climb some steps into a large overhang with lots of smoke-trace on its walls and give this all some thought.
A little group of 600 souls once lived in a series of overhangs and caves in the area. Because the weather was of the most temperate in the world, because there was lots of seafood to be had on the rocks and in the little tidal pools, they turned into really smart individuals.
This, they say, is where humans first learned to make complex tools, and use different ochres for decor (personal and habitat) purposes. Those 600 people, according to the experts, were the mamas and the papas of every person alive today. We seven billion plus had our origins down in Mossel Bay. Hmm.
I also have a theory that this was the start of the modern leisure industry. The only other places I’ve been to where it’s obvious to see that The Ancients were having a whale of a time is Twyfelfontein in Namibia and the Cederberg in the Western Cape. There was lots of sweet spring water, game in great numbers and, by the quality of the etchings and wall paintings, lots of time for creativity. But Mossel Bay was the original spot where Mankind stressed a bit less, and thought a bit more.
As I step out from under the overhang, I see the Cape St Blaize Lighthouse. I dunno about you, but a lighthouse, a proper Egyptian-style fire tower, gets my motor running.
This lighthouse that looms above one of the most significant places on Earth was historically a dream assignment for the light-keepers and their families. These guys used to live hard, brutish and isolated lives often very far from the bright city lights.
This one, not far from the heart of Mossel Bay, had them lining up in droves. Harold Williams, the author of Southern Lights – Lighthouses of South Africa found an ancient Public Works report somewhere that states:
‘Quarters and light satisfactory, but goats must not be kept in the quarters.’
I like Williams’s sense of humour. His comment:
“It must be assumed that he had in fact discovered goats or evidence of them in the living quarters – strange bedfellows?”
And here I was thinking Mossel Bay. Meh. All about offshore gas and little else . . .
Where to eat, stay and play in Mossel Bay
The main attractions of this town are the history, the beaches and its situation midway along the southern coastline. Also, Mossel Bay is close to other interesting Garden Route towns, including Groot Brak, Tergniet, Hartenbos, Ruiterbos, Albertinia and George.
- The seawater temperature is pleasant, and the people are mostly unpretentious.
- Learn while you hike on the fascinating Oystercatcher Trail around Mossel Bay. www.oystercatchertrail.co.za. With various grades for different budgets and comfort needs, you can do a guided slackpack along the very beaches where our forefathers of 160 000 years ago grew from being a nearly extinct little hominin tribe to decoration-loving modern humans.
- Mossel Bay offers great whale- and dolphin-watching, all the way from St Blaise to Vleesbaai. You’ll often see them from the shore, but for a sea experience call Romonza Boat Trips on 044 690 3101 or email [email protected].
- There’s an excellent and not very long historic walk in the town. Download the brochure from www.visitmosselbay.co.za.
- Interested in Voortrekker history? You’ll find an extended history of them at the ATKV Hartenbos Museum on the outskirts of Mossel Bay. There’s a great beach there too. 044 601 7243 or www.hartenbos.co.za
- If you love seafood, book an experience at De Vette Mossel at nearby Groot Brak. It’s an outdoor, barefoot-under-canvas food experience. 079 339 0170
- There’s a private nature reserve at Botlierskop near Little Brak that welcomes groups for elephant rides, elephant picnics and elephant feeding. 044 696 6055 or www.botlierskop.co.za
- At Gondwana Game Reserve catch the Big 5 and go for day trips or stay overnight. 044 697 7002 or www.gondwanagr.co.za
- The Garden Route is renowned as a golfing mecca. The 18-hole Mossel Bay Golf Course has a view of the ocean from every tee. 044 691 2379 or www.mosselbaygolfclub.co.za
- Find out more from the tourism centre at the corner of Market and Church streets. 044 691 2202 or www.visitmosselbay.co.za
Words and Photography Chris Marais, karoospace.co.za