After isolation is over, winter rains have run their course, and the weather has warmed up, there is no better time to take the slow road through the Northern- and Western Cape, along the West coast and inland to revel in the blaze of flowers and splendid platteland hospitality this area is so famous for.
Last year that time, I found myself on the Cape to Namibia Route or rather, in my case, the Namibia to Cape. The small 10 000-hectare Goegap Nature Reserve on the outskirts of Springbok in the Northern Cape has one of the best flower displays in the far north, and slightly further south there’s good reason to take a break in Kamieskroon. For two months of the year, the small town dons its ball gown and is ablaze with Namaqua daisies and gousblommetjies (Gazania krebsiana).
From here to Langebaan
At all times of the year, Kuiervreugde coffee shop – ‘where people come together in good cheer’ – is full of colour and charm. When I arrive, Peet Kruger is putting the finishing touches to the paintwork of a garden gnome, one of several that join the inspirational sayings and colourful murals outside.
Peet and his wife Elsa epitomise platteland hospitality and share their home with passers-by as the coffee shop is in a section of their house. Everything from the jams, chutneys, beskuit, koeksusters, and boerewors in their all-day breakfasts, to the knitted beanies, crocheted blankets and wooden toys are tuisgebak or handmade, mostly by the Kruger couple.
From August to September Kuiervreugde transforms into a floral hotspot and flower central where information is shared by travellers. In the 16 years since the couple’s move here from Gauteng, Peet has kept his finger on the flower pulse and has become acquainted with the farmers in the area, gathering updates on where and when the flowers are blooming.
It was a natural transition for Peet, an avid gardener, to become interested in the wild flowers when he arrived in the Northern Cape. He bought some Namaqualand flower books and educated himself.
“Before everyone starts arriving, I drive out to see where the flowers are,” he says. “I usually know where they are blooming from here all the way to Langebaan.”
Wine with its own region
After taking my leave, I hit the road south on the N7, soon turning off the main road at Vanrhynsdorp. I head towards Vredendal and the popular Olifants River Valley Wine Route that includes larger cellars like Lutzville and Klawer, plus several small wineries. No time today to stop for wine tasting, and I continue past the holiday town of Strandfontein, with its spectacular long beach, to one of the most unusual wine cellars in the country at Doringbaai.
Fryer’s Cove proved to be so unique that it was allocated its very own region. Winemaker and manager Derick Koegelenberg explains, “We are privileged to have the smallest wine ward in South Africa (Bamboes Bay), and the only vineyards here.”
The grapes are no more than 500 metres from the coast and the sea mist gives them an element of the ocean. “The minerality in the wine is unique,” says Derick. “Whatever you associate with the sea intensifies in the wine. The salt on the grapes also offers some protection from pests so the crops don’t have to be sprayed. The low pH means less sulphur is needed in the winemaking process.”
Another unusual quality is that unlike most white wines (Fryer’s Cove Sauvignon Blanc is their flagship wine) the Cove wines can age for ten years because of their natural high-acid content. I’m no wine connoisseur, but as Derick and I chat I sure enjoy tasting the Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir that have received many accolades over the years, as well as their Rosé and Shiraz.
Oysters by the sea
But the Fryer’s Cove experience is much more than wine. The winery itself has one of the most unique wine-tasting locations, positioned on the jetty in the small Doringbaai harbour, where it has a rustic, community-run restaurant. The menu includes seafood such as Saldanha oysters, snoek and calamari to snack on while we savour the wine next to the sea.
It also serves some local favourites like roosterkoek and ‘the best kerrievis (curried fish) in the Cape’ (no, they won’t share the recipe). The adjacent building, once a crayfish factory, now concentrates on abalone and provides a livelihood for 58 Doringbaai families.
When the sun dips and the evening chill edges in, I drive up the road to my self-catering accommodation at Thornbay, which has a prime view over the bay. When I had popped by earlier in the day, all the doors were open and the rooms (named after marine creatures and decorated accordingly) were airing, as was the reception office, and a black Scotty dog had been left in charge.
This time, I find owner Michele Slott-Nielsen who, with her husband Peter, bought the three-bedroom house in 1995, and over the years expanded it to ten rooms. Michele runs the accommodation side and, at the back of the establishment, Peter, a former diamond diver, looks after the fish shop that has a selection of frozen fish that includes snoek, mackerel and prawns, as well as a range of fishing tackle.
A tale of forbidden love
Next morning, I continue southwards along the West coast, but not too far. First stop is Lambert’s Bay, where I’m in for a good story, more platteland hospitality and a large doorstopper of a scone with appelkooskonfyt and moerkoffie at Kitta Burger’s Die Plaaskombuis, on Steenbokfontein farm.
Just south of Lambert’s, Steenbokfontein was one of the original farms in the area, and also lies next to the West coast shore where the HMS Sybille, a 3 400-ton British gunboat was wrecked in a storm in January 1901. Fortunately, all but one crew member survived the incident.
Tannie Kitta gives me the bigger story as she shows me the collection of old photos and newspaper clippings on the walls of the restaurant. “Twenty-three-year-old Isak Burger heard the eight emergency shots that night, looked outdoors and saw the mast of the Sybille. He took his horse and landau to the Lambert’s Bay Hotel to tell them that a ship was on the rocks.
“During the salvage operation afterwards, two British men from the salvage team arrived at the farm while Oupa Dirk was out, and arranged accommodation with his wife, Ouma Betjie, at the back of the house. On his return, Oupa Dirk was not impressed with the arrangement.” It was, after all, the time of the Anglo-Boer War.
Oupa Dirk was even less impressed when his 15-year-old daughter Martjie (Martha) fell in love with the Sheffield salvage man, Harry Blades. The clandestine courtship involved hiding letters under the horse saddle, and imitating owl calls to arrange many night-time rendezvous.
“The couple eventually married on Martjie’s 21st birthday in 1906, and when their first child was a year old, moved to England,” says Kitta. “Martjie would never return to the country of her birth, but of her five children, her son Frank regularly sent Christmas cards to the Steenbokfontein family, and celebrated his 82nd birthday on the farm in 2000.”
Return of the Gannets
Kitta’s husband, Herman, is the fourth generation Burger and his great-grandparents’ 1864 farmhouse was converted into Die Plaaskombuis in 1990, which besides serving scones and coffee, smoked-mussel soup and home-made bread, prepares traditional meals by arrangement. Tannie Kitta tells me that two of her customers are sure they saw Ouma Betjie in Die Plaaskombuis when they visited. Kitta exclaims, “But how can that be? If she was here, surely she would have shared some of her recipes with me.”
My West coast journey then takes me to Lambert’s Bay and Bird Island, the only island of breeding Cape Gannets that is accessible to the public, thanks to the breakwater that joins the island to the mainland. Isabellas restaurant looks out to the island, with several colourful boats bobbing in the bay.
The Cape Gannet population on Bird Island is stable and thriving largely due to the efforts of bird conservator Yves Chesselet. When Yves arrived at the West Coast’s Bird Island 13 years ago, he identified that the population was in dire straits because of predation by the bull seals that live on the northern edge of the island, and interference from the shipyard. Of the 10 000 breeding pairs seen in 2003, in December 2005 there wasn’t a single gannet to be spotted.
When the birds flying overhead saw that their birthplace and breeding home was deserted, they instinctively wouldn’t land, sensing danger. With the help of gannet decoys made by a local artist, the birds returned to the island and, by the 2007 breeding season, there were 8 000 breeding pairs.
“There’s been no on-land seal predation of the gannets since the event in 2005,” Yves tells me, “because of the current, ongoing management plan to maintain the buffer zone between the species, and regular patrolling.” Yves spent 18 years on the seabird-breeding islands of Ichaboe, Mercury and Possession, off the Namibian coast, where he gained valuable knowledge that’s been instrumental in the success of repopulating Bird Island.
As one of only six islands in Southern Africa where the Cape Gannets breed, Bird Island plays an important role in the survival of the population. The birds on Bird Island and Mercury are the only two colonies at present that are showing stability and the potential to increase.
In the Flintstone-style bird hide overlooking the colony, Yves fills me in on the goings-on of the gannets. “The birds leave the island in winter and follow the fish up the west coast of Africa from Cape Point to the Gulf of Guinea, and on the east coast up to Dar es Salaam. They start returning here in mid-July to breed.
“Around September, the breeding stock gets ready to start laying by pair bonding, reclaiming their site and fighting off their neighbours. Their bonding displays include bowing, bill-scissoring, nest building and, of course, copulation.” Seeing these handsome, photogenic birds with their elaborate behaviour and striking markings is a highlight of a journey to Lambert’s Bay.
It seems that my visit this year conveniently coincides with two Lambert’s Bay events – the first of the annual Rooibos2Muisbos MTB cycling from Clanwilliam to Lambert’s Bay, and the Malkoppan Farmers Market on the last Saturday of every month. On Malkoppen farm, the market is opposite the popular, open-air Muisbosskerm restaurant, and has an authentic West Coast character, offering food such as kerrie afval en rys, skuinskoek, roosterkoek, wine and oysters.
I meet up with Kitta again, this time to take a drive to see the two caves on Steenbokfontein farm. Simon van der Stel was said to have visited the caves when passing through on the way to the copper mines in Nababeep in the late 1600s. There is also evidence in the caves that, thousands of years earlier, they were the home of Khoisan. Faded handprints mark one rock surface, and archaeological studies are underway to learn more about the people who once lived here.
Finally, after a warm goodbye from Kitta, I begin the slow dawdle down the West coast back to Cape Town, through a landscape sprinkled with bursts of spring flowers. As I descend the hill on the way to Elandsbaai and see the sparkling water of Verlorenvlei in the distance, I spot a sign informing me, ‘It’s time’. And then, at the entrance to Vensterklip guest house, restaurant and padstal Die Rooi Stoor on the banks of the vlei, come more signs, ‘Stop. Slow down. Relax. It’s time for a break’. And, so I do, again.
Goegap Nature Reserve, Springbok 027 718 9906, [email protected] (08h00-16h00)
Kuiervreugde coffee shop (and self-catering chalets), Kamieskroon 027 672 1904/072 141 8980 [email protected]
Fryer’s Cove, Bamboes Bay 027 215 1092 [email protected], fryerscovewine.co.za
Thornbay Accommodation, Doringbaai 027 215 1333/083 632 2205, [email protected]
Steenbokfontein Plaaskombuis (and self-catering accommodation), Lambert’s Bay
027 432 2720/073 178 8433, steenbokfonteinaccommodation.co.za
Lambert’s Bay Tourism 027 432 1000/063 667 0385, lambertsbay.co.za