Ramsgate, where residents are determined to keep their South Coast seaside town unspoilt…
Words: Andrea Abbott
Pictures: Andrea Abbott and Supplied
You have to wonder why Ramsgate on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast was named after Ramsgate in the UK. Apart from both places being on the east coast of their respective country, there was no apparent similarity between them in the early 1900s when ‘our’ Ramsgate, then just a farm, was first surveyed.
For starters, you can’t even begin to compare the weather or sea temperature. As for the name itself, it has nothing to do with male sheep. According to Google, the term derives from the Anglo-Saxon for Raven’s Gate – a reference to a gap in the cliffs at that UK port, thus of no relevance to us here.
Anyway, perhaps the surveyor foresaw our Ramsgate becoming a popular resort just as its highly developed British namesake already was all those years ago. As it turns out, the two Ramsgates currently do have one important thing in common – Blue Flag beach status, a prestigious international award given to beaches whose safety, amenities, cleanliness and environmental standards meet strict criteria laid down by the Foundation for Environmental Education.
“Ramsgate’s main beach was the second beach in South Africa, after Margate, to be granted Blue Flag status,” says Gareth Tennant, head of Aquatic Safety along the Hibiscus Coast. A former lifesaver at that beach, he’s among a group of influential residents who’ve gathered to give me the lowdown on their village.
We’re at the local meeting spot, the Waffle House that sits on the north bank of the Bilanholo Lagoon and a short stroll from the Blue Flag beach, through the Tanglewood Garden of Serenity. It’s an enchanting garden – a patch of forest where ancient coastal red milkwoods (Mimusops caffra) stretch colossal, gnarled limbs across paths that lead to the unexpected: a mysterious circle of resonance and the dead end of a castle wall.
This green zone was created by Gareth, with the support of Ken Gaze whose family established the Waffle House and still owns the land it occupies as well as the Gaze Gallery on site. “Tanglewood was a personal and social experiment to see what could be made from nothing,” says Gareth. The nothing was an alien-plant-infested property belonging to the municipality.
Gareth began by laying a path on the invasive plants. He refers to it as raising a flag. “I wanted to see how a single mind could impact on many.” And indeed, from that small seed, a mighty oak in the form of the Whale Viewing Deck has grown.
“In the mid 2000s we were on the cusp of getting Blue Flag Status but petty theft on the beach was a problem,” Gareth recalls. “We had to eliminate the thieves’ hiding place.” That den was a high dune on the south side of the lagoon. Formerly the site of a sewage plant that was decommissioned in the 1980s, it had become a no-go area.
Having completed Tanglewood, Gareth was ready for another challenge. “I’d go up to the dune and be struck by its beauty and superb views.” He also realised how vulnerable it was to high-rise development such as has happened in many coastal towns. The site had to be protected.
Gareth and Ken investigated the status of the property and found that it was transferred to the Ramsgate Health Committee 60 years earlier with the condition of usage as a ‘public park’. After rounds of meetings involving municipal authorities and groups representing business, residents and conservation, and in the face of the threat of a hotel development on the dune, the site was finally rezoned as ‘conservation’. The then newly formed Ramsgate Conservancy, under the leadership of prominent conservationist, David Halle adopted the dune as their flagship project, proposing to the municipality a Whale Viewing Deck project. The idea gained traction and a team of professionals worked pro bono to design and finally build the Whale Deck and Environmental Educational Centre.
“It’s a project in progress,” says John Makin, current chair of the Ramsgate Conservancy. “Next in line for the dune are indigenous gardens and an eco-tourism information centre.”
From being the exclusive domain of vagrants, the site, fondly referred to as Ramsgate’s Green Lung, is now home to creatures like blue duikers, dassies, many birds (I saw no ravens though), and a green mamba or two – but fear not, the snakes are seldom seen. There’s more chance of spotting dolphins from the magnificent whale-shaped deck.
During whale migration season between June and October, there are sensational sightings of those charismatic mammals. Heartening news is that whale populations are recovering. “Since whaling was banned, numbers have increased annually by about 15 per cent,” says David. Humpbacks are the most commonly spotted species, but southern rights and Minkes swim past too.
The site is also the venue for community events like the monthly Moondeckers Evening, when folk gather to have a ball while watching the full moon rise over the sea. Another noteworthy happening is the annual two-day Ramsgate Literary Festival in September to mark Heritage Day and, as organiser Vicky Wentzel says, “To celebrate everything that’s great about Ramsgate, including good books, art exhibitions, quirky museums, fine wines, and antiques.”
Linked to the Whale Deck is the six-kilometre Ramsgate Ramble along the diverse and beautiful marine front. Beloved of dogs and their owners, the ramble isa nature trail of note. In 2007 though, large sections were washed away during severe storms. That’s how it stayed until John Scott joined the Ratepayers Association and undertook to repair the damage. With a team of volunteers and funded by private donors and the association, John re-built the path well back from its original course.
“We’ve installed about 18 benches made from recycled plastic, and bridges to protect wetlands,” he says. John also works tirelessly to restore the natural vegetation that the storms destroyed. Restoring the indigenous vegetation was a top priority at another important green lung in Ramsgate. Bellevue Park is a richly biodiverse Natural Heritage Site that owners, Sally and Paul Booker rehabilitated to provide a living resource where children are encouraged to play in a natural environment.
The park boasts a variety of habitats, naturally occurring wildlife, and exciting play equipment built by Paul, a master craftsman who also built most of the Whale Deck and Education Centre.
“We went to the Eden Project in Cornwall (www.edenproject.com) and I was blown away,” says Sally. “It inspired me to create a little Eden in my own backyard where children can play freely and find their connection to nature.”
Ecology, superb beaches, the arts, a lively community – these are features you could say define Ramsgate. “A unique synergy exists between conservation, community, culture and commerce, and we have a good relationship with the municipality,” says Pauline Lee, former chair of Ramsgate Tourism and now the owner of the Waffle House.
Like the Blue Flag beach and the brightly hued paddle boats on the lagoon, the Waffle House is one of Ramsgate’s icons.
“It started as a little tea room called The Crow’s Nest,” says Doreen Gaze, who arrived in Ramsgate with her husband John, sixty years ago. “We took it over and re-named it the Tea House of the Blue Lagoon.” Three and a half decades later, after establishing two successful Waffle Houses in England, John and Doreen converted the Tea House into the third Waffle House.
The doyenne of Ramsgate, Doreen has extensive knowledge of its history and the legendary characters who populated that history, like the original owner and builder of the old Crayfish Inn, the redoubtable Noél Spiller – later Quarry – whose business partner, David Pratt attempted to assassinate Dr Hendrik Verwoerd at the Rand Easter Show in 1960.
Doreen’s delightful book Ramsgate Recollections (available at Ramsgate Stationers in Shelly Beach and the Artists Gallery in Ramsgate) documents that fascinating past and paints a nostalgic picture of days gone by when community was everything, Noél’s daring antics were the talk of the town, and farmers delivered fresh vegetables to your door.
“I’ve always stood against development that would spoil Ramsgate,” Doreen tells me. She mentions a 14-storey building once proposed for Ski Boat Bay south of the main beach. “It would have blocked the sun from the beach. The application was thrown out and that was the beginning of awareness of what shouldn’t be here.” Today, that awareness is well entrenched. “We are determined to prevent high-density and high-rise development in Ramsgate,” says John.
In her book, Doreen quotes from TV Bulpin’s To the Shores of Natal (Howard Timmins 1953) – ‘Alfredia (once the name for that part of southern Natal) is still a beautiful land despite… man’s efforts to ‘develop’ it… Mother Nature is a generous and forgiving mistress. She soon heals man-made scars with her magic green fingers; and if man would only learn to plan his schemes in harmony with the tranquil environment… Alfredia would rank with the loveliest on earth.’
He could be describing the rescue of that high dune on the south side of the Blue Flag beach.
- Meander along Marine Drive (aka Old Main Road) to find, among others, The Waffle House for great savoury and sweet waffles; The Lobster Pot where seafood is the order of the day; Burlesque Café famous for delectable French- and Italian-inspired meals; Pistols Saloon for traditional pub grub; Crocodile Café for breakfasts, light lunches and teas.
- Ramsgate offers a wide choice of accommodation from budget self-catering cottages such as those at Bellevue Park to sumptuous B&Bs like the most excellent Ocean Gaze Bed &Breakfast. www.bellevuekzn.co.za www.oceangazebnb.com
- Also highly recommended are Wailana Beach Lodge and Gecko Moon Bed & Breakfast. www.wailana.co.za, www.geckomoon.co.za