The West Coast leads us up to ever beautiful Namaqualand and the seasonal contradictions of the Namaqualand are part of its fascination. It is too full of surprises ever to be dull, and the road route offers many scenes and novelties. The road has the finest of departures from Cape Town. The classic frontal view of Table Mountain, with the city and Table Bay at its foot, dominates the beginning of the highway and is still visible from 75 kilometers away. At night the sparkling lights of the city and the shipping in the harbour provide a glorious scene.
For the first 160 kilometers of the West Coast journey, the road leads through the principal wheat lands of South Africa, the country’s breadbasket. In the winter months this area (known as the Swartland because of the colour of the soil) is a green sea of wheat; in spring it turns golden. Beyond the wheat lands there is a profound scenic change. The road climbs the Oliphant’s River mountains and then descends into the magnificent river valley. The alluvial floor is covered with groves of citrus trees. Along the roadway are wayside stalls where some of the finest and sweetest of all oranges can be bought. The road leads down the valley to the west of the river. To the east is the Cedarberg range, the first wilderness area proclaimed in South Africa.
Passing the great dam of the Oliphant’s River and the irrigated farms of Klawer and Vredendal, the road enters Namaqualand proper. Here, the spring flowers give the world its most beautiful botanical spectacle providing that just enough rain has fallen in the winter, and the searing desert winds do not blow until after the flowers have bloomed. The road continues northwards across a seemingly endless plain. Then it enters an area of granite, richly mineralized and covered with vast domes and whalebacks of rock. The hot and arid landscape is prodigious in its expanse and strength. Such a granite landscape, flooded with sunshine, less than half-tamed by man, is awesome in the age and mystery of its primitive geological origin.
Bitterfontein - The railway from Cape Town to Namaqualand comes to a sudden and rather disconcerting end at a bleak little railhead called Bitterfontein, from the taste of the water in a fountain here. In 1931, Bitterfontein was the scene of one of the world’s great diamond robberies, when £80 000 worth of diamonds vanished without trace from a mailbag.
Citrusdal - From May to July, the air in Citrusdal is heavy with the perfume of freshly picked oranges and other fruit making their way down the conveyor belts of the packing stations. This warm, pleasant town is the main handling and dispatch centre for the vast citrus farms of the Olifants River Valley. More than a million cases of fruit leave the packing stations of Citrusdal each year. The packing is done by hand and the faster the girls work the more they earn. The record is 177 000 oranges packed by one girl in a 46-hour week.
Clanwilliam - A delicately flavoured herbal brew known as rooibos tea is exported from Clanwilliam to all parts of the world. The town stands in a warm, well-watered and very fertile valley where the rooibos, or red bush, grows wild. The tea is free of tannin and rich in Vitamin C. Its health giving properties were first popularized by a local resident, Dr. P. le Fras Nortier. The local library, which includes paintings by Hugo Naudé and other artists among its collection, is named after Dr. Nortier and his great friend, the poet Dr. Louis Leipoldt.
The valley produces a wide variety of sub-tropical and other fruits, as well as vegetables, wheat and tobacco. Clanwilliam has a hotel and a caravan park and there is a wild flower reserve at Ramskop on the outskirts of the town, and a recreation area on the shores of the Clanwilliam Dam.
Darling - The area around Darling is famous for its flowers. A wild flower show is held in the town in the third week of September and the Tinie Versfeldt Wildflower Reserve lies 12 kilometers away on the road to Ysterfontein. Chincherinchees and lupins are grown for export. The town is named after a lieutenant-governor of the Cape, Charles Darling, and is the centre of a prosperous dairy farming district. A few kilometers outside the town is a monument to C. B. Hildebrand, the celebrated Boer hero.
Eland’s Bay - For surfing enthusiasts, Eland’s Bay is a place of pilgrimage. The majestic, fast-moving waves which roll into the bay in summer when the south-easter blows are world famous. Surfers can work into the sea from a headland to catch the waves early and enjoy long rides.
The high cliffs of the Bobbejaanberg project into the sea at Baboon Point on the south side of the bay. In these cliffs is a large rock shelter with walls decorated with primitive Bushman paintings, mostly crude outlines of hands and various strange shapes. The floor is a vast midden of prehistoric garbage and is being excavated.
Graafwater - The railway at Graafwater is a despatch point for the agriculture of Clanwilliam and the seafood products of Lambert’s Bay. A road leads north to Vredendal and after 23 kilometers reaches a remarkable rock shelter known as the Heerenlogement, or ‘gentleman’s lodging’. Scores of travelers who in former times broke their journey at the shelter have used the walls as a kind of visitors’ book. Kaje Jesse Slotsbo inscribed his name here in 1712 while en route with an expedition against the Namaqua Hottentots.
Cape Governor Hendrik Swellengrebel, who passed this way in 1737, later wrote an account of the shelter, in which he mentioned the wild fig tree growing from a cleft at the back of the cave. The tree is still here today. The cave is a historical monument.
Koringberg - Looming up out of an ocean of wheat is the high hill known as Koringberg, or ‘mountain of wheat’, and the name is also applied to the little railway town at its foot from which the golden harvest is distributed.
Lambert’s Bay - A large fishing fleet has its base in Lambert’s Bay. Rock lobsters are caught in great numbers here and there are two fish processing plants. The harbour is sheltered from the sea by a rocky islet known as Bird Island, which yields more than 300 tons of guano a year. In winter, gannets, cormorants and penguins nest on the island, which is linked to the mainland by a causeway.
Langebaan - The village of Langebaan lies at the point where Saldanha Bay joins Langebaan Lagoon. Out in the channel, the islands of Skaaf and Meeu stand like two stepping stones. There is a good beach and in summer the water is warm enough for swimming
Langebaan Lagoon - The lagoon is 16 kiometres long and 4,5 kiometres wide and is connected to Saldanha Bay by a narrow channel. It is a magnificent stretch of sheltered water, only 6 meters deep at its maximum and about 10 degrees, warmer than the bay itself. Many species of fish find their way into the lagoon and the mud banks, exposed at low tide, make it a favourite feeding ground for birds, including large numbers of migrant waders from Europe and flamingoes. On the eastern shores are several farms with Cape Dutch homesteads. To the west the narrow isthmus separating the lagoon from the sea shelters picturesque fishing villages.
The lagoon was the home of huge colonies of oysters, but changes in the water temperature has killed them off over the years. Today, there are no live oysters, but the bed of the lagoon is covered with shells, more than 30 million tons of them piled to a depth of 7 meters in places, making it one of the largest oyster graveyards in the world. The shells are dredged up and crushed for making lime.
Malmesbury - The largest town in the wheat country of Namaqualand, Malmesbury began as a small collection of houses built around a tepid sulphur-chlorine spring in the middle of the 18th century. For some time there was vogue for the waters and a small sanatorium was built. The British governor, Sir Lowry Cole, visited the spa in 1829 and named it Malmesbury after his father-in-law, the Earl of Malmesbury. Today, the spring runs to waste, but Malmesbury has become the largest grain distributing centre in Southern Africa.
It lies in the valley of the Diep River and is so awkwardly situated that trains have to back out before being switched on to the northern continuation of the railway. The early pioneers called this area the ‘black country’ because of the rich deep colour of the soil.
The local Afrikaans dialect has a characteristic guttural ‘r’ not found elsewhere. General Jan Smuts, who was born in the district, spoke with a distinct Malmesbury accent.
Moorreesburg - Much of South Africa’s bread comes from the wheat fields which surround Moorreesburg. It is worth paying a visit to the museum, devoted to the history of the cultivation of wheat. On the outskirts is the Langgewens experimental farm where the government sponsors research into wheat farming.
Olifants River - The river where, in 1660, the first European explorers from the Cape, led by Jan Danckert, came across a great herd of elephants, is today of major importance to the economy of South Africa. From its source in the mountains near Ceres, the Olifants (‘elephants’) River flows through a narrow, rocky ravine and then enters a broad alluvial valley where fine farms produce citrus fruit.
Above the town of Clanwilliam, the Olifants is harnessed by a dam, built in 1935 and expanded in 1968, which irrigates 12 140 hectares of farmland. The dam also provides an excellent stretch of water for boating, swimming and fishing. Below the dam, the river continues northwards, with fine rapids for canoeists. Then it curves west and, where it reaches the sea, helps to hold back the sands of the Namib Desert.
Pakhuis Pass - The direct road from Clanwilliam to Calvinia climbs over the mountains by means of the Pakhuis Pass (905 meters). It is a region of strange rock formations and near the summit is a rock shelter with walls decorated by Bushman paintings. The poet Dr. Louis Leipoldt, who often visited this spot before his death in 1947, has his grave here
Paternoster - One of the most attractive fishing villages on the shores of Paternoster Bay. The name probably comes from a particular kind of fishing tackle, though there is a local legend that survivors of a shipwreck gave thanks for their deliverance by means of the paternoster prayer.
It is a great centre for the catching, processing and export of rock lobsters. Perlemoen and other sea foods are also found in considerable quantities, and the whole atmosphere of Paternoster is associated with fish and the salty tang of the Atlantic.
Piekenierskloof Pass - The trunk road climbs the Olifants River mountains by means of the Piekenierskloof Pass and the summit, 518 meters above sea level, gives tremendous views over the wheat country and the bold massif of the Piketberg range in the west.
This was the route used by the first Europeans to explore the area. The name of the pass comes from a squad of pike men who pursued Hottentot rustlers through the cleft in the mountains in 1675. The route has been rebuilt several times, and the present road was completed in 1950.
Piketberg – Mountains piled up behind the small wheat centre of Piketberg were a great stronghold of Bushmen many of the caves showing examples of their art. Hottentot tribes also used the mountains as hideaways for rustled cattle and it was because of this that a small military outpost, or picket, was established at the foot of the range in the 1670s. From Piketberg, a 22-kilometre road leads to the summit via the spectacular Versveld Pass.
It was privately built by a farmer, who included three great loops in the route to provide easier gradients for ox-wagons, and these give the road a curious corkscrew effect. Excellent apples are grown in the mountains, as well as a herb know as buchu, which is exported for the making of medicines. The range is dominated by the 1443 meter Zebra Kop.
St. Helena Bay – Vasco da Gama discovered this great bay while on his pioneer voyage to the east. He sailed into it on 7 November 1497, St. Helena’s Day. The explorers anchored their four ships and relaxed in the bay for four weeks. It was at this time that a brawl developed between one of Da Gama’s men and a group of Hottentots. This was the first clash on the shores of Southern Africa between Europeans and Africans.
St. Helena Bay is the most important centre of the fishing industry in the whole of South Africa. The cold Benguela Current surges along this coast, bringing to the surface large concentrations of nutrient salts and providing food for huge shoals of pilchards and anchovies. The shores of the bay are lined with processing factories, each with its jetty, fleets of boats and cottages. There are fine sandy beaches, but the bay has little protection from the wind and the water is very cold.
Saldanha - The days when Saldanha was a peaceful little fishing village, with weather beaten men drying their catches on the beach, have gone forever. The shortage of fresh water which held up development of the town was solved by the construction of a pipeline to the Berg River during the Second World War. After that Saldanha began to grow rapidly. Fishing is now a big industry, with factories for the processing of lobster, mullet and tunny for export.
In the last few years, massive harbour works have been undertaken to cater for ore carriers. They are loaded from trains, 2 kilometers long and hauled by up to seven locomotives, which bring iron, manganese and other ores from the mines of the Northern Cape. Despite these developments, Saldanha still retains some of its earlier atmosphere, and is scattered with well-preserved old cottages.
Saldanha Bay - This is one of the great natural harbours of the world. Apart from a narrow entrance, it is completely landlocked and the water is deep enough for large ships. It’s one disadvantage in the past was its shortage of drinking water. But for this, Saldanha Bay would certainly have been the main port of the Cape rather than Cape Town. In fact the name Saldanha really belongs to Table Bay after the visit there, in 1503, by the Portuguese admiral, Antonio de Saldanha.
It was nearly a hundred years later that the Dutch transferred his name to the present Saldanha Bay, which he had never visited. The French seem to have been the first to appreciate the possibilities of Saldanha Bay, with its sheltered water and its prodigious population of fish, seals and sea-birds. French sealers made a fortune from pelt hunts on the islands of Vondeling, Jutten, Malgas and Marcus around the entrance to the bay.
The same four islands were also found to be rich in guano. Ships began to crowd into the bay, and there were outbreaks of fighting as crews jostled for the best positions for excavating the deposits. One grisly reminder of these violent days was the body of a French sailor, perfectly preserved by the chemicals in the guano, which was dug up and shipped to Europe where, for many years, it was exhibited in sideshows. Pirates, too, came to Saldanha Bay and the sea bed is littered with wrecks. In modern times, treasure hunters have made some rich finds. From the wreck of the Meerestyn, sunk in 1707, silver and coins worth more than R500 000 were recovered by one man using a wooden barrel as a diving bell. Another interesting wreck is that of the Dutch warship Middelburg, set on fire and sunk by the British Navy in 1781.
Seaweed, used in the manufacture of gelatin, is harvested from the bay. Factories process great catches of fish and in 1976 Saldanha was opened as a port for the export of manganese and iron. There are still many seals on the islands in the bay, as well as gannets, cormorants and jackass penguins.
Stompneus Bay - One of the centers of the vast fishing industry of St. Helena Bay. Twelve fish processing factories lie along the 25 kilometer curve between Stompneus Bay and the mouth of the Berg River.
The Baths - People suffering from rheumatism and similar ailments have long been recommended to try the supposedly radioactive waters of a hot spring which bubbles to the surface in a thickly wooded valley of a tributary of the Olifants River near Citrusdal. Testimonials to the benefits of the water, some dating back to the 18th century, are inscribed on the rocks.
Tieties Bay - A beautiful but dangerous little bay, named after a Coloured fisherman who was drowned here. There are many fine camping sites along the coast, but few facilities. It is a place of wild flowers, bracing air and rugged seascapes.
Velddrif - A busy fishing centre at the mouth of the Berg River, with boats constantly sailing up the wide river, their holds filled with pilchards, anchovies, mackerel and rock lobsters. Velddrif was originally a fording place across the river for the road across the sandveld from Cape Town. It has now become a combined municipality with Laaiplek (‘the loading place’) which once served as a shipping point for wheat. In 1871, an enterprising Cape Town merchant, Johann Carel Stephan, patched up the hull of an old ship, the Nerie, which had been wrecked in Table Bay, sailed it up to Laaiplek and started a business.
He became known as the Koring Koning (‘corn king’) and for nearly 30 years the tall, gaunt-faced Johann was the trading baron of the coast. He built stores, started fisheries and employed an entire community of Italian and Portuguese fishermen Those descendants still fish and work in the area.
Vredenburg – Is an important centre for the prosperous sheep and wheat farming area. Vredenburg was founded on the site of a spring of drinking water. Rights to the spring led to so many quarrels hat it was originally known as Twisstein, the ‘fountain of strife’.
Vredendal - Vineyards and orchards surround the thoroughly modern little town of Vredendal, a name which means ‘valley of peace’. The area is famous for its spring flowers. From here a road leads to the resort of Strandfontein on the coast.
Wuppertal - The Rhenish mission station of Wuppertal is an attractive cluster of white walled, black thatched cottages, with a church and a parsonage. The setting, on the east side of the Cedarberg, is spectacular. Tobacco and the herbal rooibos tea are grown in the area and a specialized local industry is the manufacture of the tough, comfortable walking shoes known as ‘veldskoen’.
Yzerfontein - The great rollers sweeping into the bay at Yzerfontein make it one of the finest surfing spots in the area. Nearby are the ruins of an ill-fated fish canning factory built just after the Second World War. Its 150 meter jetty provides a lee for surfers and a vantage point for anglers. The rock promontories along the coast are also excellent for fishing.
Out in the bay is the rocky islet known as Meeurots, because of the mewing sound of its colony of gulls. Dassen Island lies to the south-west. The whole length of the road to Yzerfontein is lined with wild flowers, and in spring the exquisite colours of the mesembryanthemums make a spectacular sight.