From whitewashed seaside villages to sprays of spring flowers, Richard Holmes can’t get enough of road-tripping the West Coast
If the wind is right – or wrong, if you are of a more delicate disposition – you can smell Bokkom Lane long before you see it. Even as the R27 runs across the swirling waters of the Berg River, the salty tang in the air seems to waft downstream on the breeze.
Like myself, the river is in no hurry at all when it reaches the small West Coast town of Velddrif. Almost 300 km from its source in the Jonkershoek Mountains, it strolls sedately past on its way to meet the icy Atlantic. Fishermen try their luck beneath the railway bridge, casting a line for any elf and steenbras that happen to wander upstream.
But down on Bokkom Lane harders – also known as southern mullet – are the star attraction. Salted for two days, then air-dried by the thousand; strung out in the wind to dry. A week later the fish are ready to eat; although they are, don’t say I didn’t warn you, an acquired taste.
They may not be to everyone’s palate, but bokkoms are something of a badge of honour in these parts. A local delicacy perhaps emblematic of the West Coast itself: no frills, no fuss; wearing its heart on its sleeve. Take it or leave it. No wonder the area is a favourite weekend escape for Capetonians, and a haven for travellers from across the country.
In flower season though, it’s a savvy traveller who chooses to swing off the R27 long before West Coast Road hits Langebaan and Velddrif.
The West Coast National Park may not be much to look at inland, but as the tarmac wends past the Langebaan Lagoon, it reveals its secrets. Stop off at Geelbek Manor House for a lazy hour in the over-water bird hides: this Ramsar ‘Wetland of International Importance’ is home to dozens of migrant and resident species. I quickly spot long-legged godwits, greenshank, whimbrels and curlews. Further down the road, consider braving the numbing water at Kraalbaai before paying your dues for entrance to Postberg.
This restricted section of the park is only open in August and September, and offers arguably the finest spring flower displays within striking distance of Cape Town. On a clear day, you can still see Table Mountain while surrounded by endless fields of daisies. After updating your Instagram with flower-filled pixels, head out for Plankiesbaai on the Atlantic Coast, where southern right whales come to cavort in the winter months. It’s a wild and windswept coast this, and shipwrecks litter the shoreline north and south. One particularly unlucky vessel, the barque Columbine, gave its name to the jagged headland just beyond the nearby village of Paternoster.
Cape Columbine lighthouse may have been a century too late to save its nautical namesake, but since 1936, the lighthouse has done its very best to keep passing ships well offshore: after sunset, a four kilowatt beam extends its long luminous arms into the ocean every 15 seconds. Guided tours of the lighthouse building are available by appointment, and the views from the top make it well worth the hassle of phoning ahead. Back on terra firma, a circular drive through the reserve offers superb views, as well as a chance to spot more flowers come springtime.
While the West Coast scenery alone makes Paternoster worth a visit, the village is a charming spot and a popular weekend bolthole for Capetonians who come here to soak up the empty beaches and wild coastline. Self-catering cottages are quite plentiful, but rather splash out on rooms at Abalone House & Spa boutique hotel. Easily the most stylish accommodation in the village, the cocktail bar and rooftop deck offer superb sunset views. Paternoster has also become something of a foodie hub in the region. Celebrity-chef Reuben Riffel has a bistro at Abalone House, while endearing little restaurants such as The Noisy Oyster and seafront Gaaitjie have become reservations-only hangouts in the summertime. For a true taste of the West Coast, humble eatery Oep ve Koep, with its menu inspired by foraged ingredients (think dune spinach, veldkool succulents and home-made bokkoms), is a must.
The next morning I head away from Paternoster and drive north. Over the Berg River and past Bokkom Lane, with its salty washing drying in the wind, and out towards Rocherpan Nature Reserve.
This 930 ha reserve offers an attractive mix of scenic drives and fynbos walks, while twitchers will find plenty to keep their binoculars busy. A handful of well- maintained bird hides offer a perfect spot to start ticking off the 180-odd species commonly found here. Me? I leave the spotting to the experts and wander over the dunes in search of whales: from June to September, southern rights are easy to spot offshore as you roam along the long and lonely beach.
From Rocherpan, there’s little to distract you until the sweep of Elands Bay hovers into view. Baboon Point may be a hazard to shipping, but this rocky headland is a godsend for the surfers that flock here in summer. As the deep ocean swells rolling up from the south hit the Point, they bend and slow down. The result? Arguably the finest left-hand point-break in the country. But be warned: between the swell, the kelp and the rocks, you’ll want to know what you’re doing before paddling out here. If you are a beginner, rather head north, like I do, to the gentle beach breaks off Lambert’s Bay. This unremarkable town isn’t worth lingering in, save for a meal in the harbour-front restaurants and a stroll out to the revamped interpretative centre on Bird Island; one of the world’s most important breeding grounds for Cape gannets.
From here, the road swings inland; through fields planted with potatoes and then rooibos. Further on, vineyards will appear, framed by mountain peaks in the distance. ‘Where to next?’ you’ll wonder. North, to the famed spring flower fields of Vanrhynsdorp and Nieuwoudtville? Inland, to the ancient rock art and mission villages of the rugged Cederberg mountains? Or south, through the Swartland to discover food and wine in the charming villages of Riebeek-Kasteel and Darling? They’re all worth a visit on a West Coast road trip. And who knows, perhaps next time you’ll even be brave enough to nibble a bokkom or two.
Photography: Gallo/Getty Images IStockPhotoStockPhoto, Thinkstock