South Africa’s delightful West Coast…a region that offers travellers everything from charming little fishing villages to what could be claimed as the best seafood in the world; from a water sports and recreational playground to endless carpets of beautiful veld flowers; a little bit of Greece to ancient fossils and San cave art set in the beautiful Cederberg Mountains; wildlife and bird-watching; numerous historical and heritage sites. And much, much more.
Just a 20-minute drive out of Cape Town along the R27 takes you to the start of the West Coast at Melkbosstrand, a friendly little village with endless beaches and many fine restaurants. From here the road up the West Coast stretches all the way to Saldanha and the Langebaan Lagoon; on to St Helena Bay with its fishing harbour and holiday mansions, the quaint fishermen’s cottages of Paternoster and the bustling river-mouth fishing harbour of Velddrif; and from here through many captivating little towns and resorts with names like Elands Bay, Lamberts Bay, Doringbaai, Strandfontein, Papendorp, Ebenhaezer, Lutzville, Tietiesbaai, Lepelfontein, Hondeklip Bay and on to Port Nolloth and the diamond mining area of Alexander Bay on the Namibian border.
Along the way one can venture a little inland to the majestic Cederberg Mountains and the surrounding wilderness areas, the Clanwilliam Dam, the Berg and Olifants Rivers, and Namaqualand where every year at the start of spring the rugged landscape erupts in a festival of natural veld flowers stretching in every direction as far as the eye can see.
The West Coast straddles two provinces, the Western Cape and Northern Cape. The landscape along the West Coast changes from the fynbos-covered, wooded mountains in the south, to lush citrus-farming valleys, to the floral plains of Namaqualand, the arid, windswept coastal areas with wild seas and pounding waves rolling in form the icy Atlantic, and to the tranquil, azure waters of many little bays and peninsulas where time stands still.
The climate along the West Coast is mostly typically Mediterranean: summer is warm with February being the hottest month of the year with temperatures reaching a sweltering 40° C. Otherwise dry and mild, but with plenty of wind in the summer months and generally low rainfall. However, with winds coming off the cold Atlantic Ocean, areas adjacent to the sea can get quite cold at times.
Popular holiday destination
The West Coast has become a sought-after holiday destination, equally popular with international tourists and South Africans. It is home to a number of national parks, wilderness areas and nature reserves. For outdoor lovers – apart from the Namaqualand flower spectacle – there are fascinating mountain and coastal hikes; bird, game and whale watching; snorkelling, scuba diving, fishing, kite surfing, kayaking, sailing, cruises, mountain climbing, 4X4 routes and mountain biking; and more. You can also try your hand at some crazy sand boarding down the massive sand dunes at Atlantis, just north of Melkbosstrand.
Just outside Langebaan you will find a little bit of Greece hugging the edge of a blue-water bay: white Greek Island style buildings with bright blue and red trimmings set around the bay and small harbour. Here, at Club Mykonos Resort, you can also try your hand at some gambling in the onsite casino.
Amble through the fishing villages of Saldanha, Velddrif, St Helena Bay, Laaiplek, Doringbaai, Elands Bay and Lamberts Bay with their fish processing and packaging factories. Or browse their many interesting little shops. Sip coffee in a seaside bistro, or eat crayfish in a dockside restaurant watching the boats go by.
Go on a cruise of the harbour and surrounding waters, or across the Langebaan Lagoon with its crystal clear water. Watch as the fishing boats return to harbour with their catch, with flocks of hungry seagulls following, and buy some freshly caught snoek directly off a boat. There’s nothing better than a sunset braai with fresh snoek on the coals!
Diamonds, kite-surfers & whales
At Hondeklip Bay, Kleinsee and Port Nolloth you can watch from the shore as diamond divers work from their boats in search of those elusive sparkling stones, deposited along these shores over centuries by the mighty Orange River, all the way from Lesotho.
In the windy summer months the Langebaan Lagoon becomes home to kite and wind surfers from all over the world, their colourful kites and sails crisscrossing the lagoon as the unruly Southeaster propels them along at often hair-raising speeds. Elands Bay, a bit further north, is a favourite with board surfers. But there are many other excellent surfing spots along this coast as well. And plenty of diving spots for spearfishing, diving for crayfish (legally with a permit), or just casually snorkelling and checking out the underwater action.
Southern Right, Bryde’s and Humpback whales, as well as killer whales, and various types of dolphins, can be watched from boats or lookout points at Paternoster, the Cape Columbine Nature Reserve, St Helena Bay, Yzerfontein and from the West Coast National Park between Yzerfontein and Saldanha.
Parks & heritage sites
National parks and reserves that are within easy reach when travelling up the West Coast include the /Ai-/ Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park straddling the border with Namibia in the north; the Namaqua National Park; the Moedverloren-Knersvlakte Nature Reserve; the Rocherpan Nature Reserve; the Cederberg Wilderness Area; the West Coast National Park; the Cape Columbine Nature Reserve near Paternoster; and the Koeberg Nature Reserve in the south near Melkbosstrand.
The region is also rich in historical and heritage sites, such as the many caves and cliffs containing ancient San rock art. Visit the Goedverwacht farm, and learn about the history of the slave woman and her descendants to whom the farm had been bequeathed by the farmer who had once ‘owned’ her. Visit the Wupperthal Moravian Mission Station with its original church built in 1834 and its leather shoe industry set in the remote TraTra valley. There are a number of other old mission churches at Elandskloof, Vergenoeg (outside Vredendal), Rietpoort, and the Troe-Troe Sending church in Vanrhynsdorp.
Visit the West Coast Fossil Park close to Langebaan, site of the oldest preserved human footprint in the world, and see the fossils of bears, sabre-tooth cats, short-necked giraffes and the many other exotic animals which inhabited the west coast area some 5 million years ago.
Traditional fishing villages
At Paternoster you can stroll along the beach with its colourful fishing boats, or among the well-preserved traditional fishermen’s cottages. At Papendorp alongside the Olifants River estuary there are more quaint, old fishermen’s cottages, while the estuary itself teems with birds, and drying racks full of bokkoms (small fish) line the shore. Near Darling you can visit the !Khwa ttu San Culture & Education Centre and learn much about the original inhabitants of the West Coast.
The West Coast region is also home to a number of stonewalled forts built by the English during the Anglo-Boer War. Saldanha is also the site of the only ‘sea battle’ of that war, when a small Boer raiding commando on horseback, led by General Jan Smuts, started firing on a British war ship anchored in the bay. At the Succulent Karoo Knowledge Centre in the town of Kamieskroon a little further inland, you can learn all about the region’s flora.
To the far north the West Coast route takes you to the Richtersveld World Heritage Site, an experience all in itself, while along the way you can also take in the traditional Nama ‘matjiehuise’ or domed grass huts of the Northern Cape, as well as the many old mission churches, or enjoy local cultural offerings such as the fabulous rieldans, South Africa’s oldest dancing tradition.
There are also some really old lighthouses at Doringbaai, Cape Columbine, St Helena Bay and on Dassen Island, most of which can be visited. Some offer guided tours and/or accommodation.
Less than an hour out of Cape Town, you can stop in Darling for a visit to Evita’s Peron where world-famous satirist, playwright and performer Pieter-Dirk Uys will have you in stitches. Or visit the fascinating museum in Clanwilliam housed in the town’s old jail, while a visit to the town’s famous rooibos tea factory is also a must. From there turn west back towards the coast and Lamberts Bay, passing a famous ghost house along the way.
Seafood & wine
For those seeking a good meal and wanting to taste some excellent wines, there are a multitude of restaurants and eateries catering for every taste, as well as the unique West Coast Wine Route. Being home to the West Coast fishing industry, the region naturally is renowned for its famous seafood – from various types of fish, to the West Coast snoek, crayfish (lobsters), mussels, calamari, oysters, crabs and more. For the very best seafood offerings, try one of the many restaurants in towns like Melkbosstrand, Yzerfontein, Langebaan, Velddrif, Paternoster, Lamberts Bay, and Strandfontein.
An experience not to be missed is a visit to one of the traditional outdoor seafood restaurants, known as skerms (shelters) that have become a favourite with visitors from all over the world. These include the Melkbos Skerm at Melkbosstrand; the Strandloper at Langebaan; and the Muisbosskerm at Lamberts Bay. The latter was the first such restaurant, started by the Turner family to entertain themselves, friends and farmers of the area. It soon grew into a thriving business and set the standard for all the skerms that followed.
Food in these skerms is prepared on open fires and in traditional clay ovens. Apart from a mouth-watering selection of seafood, hungry visitors can also enjoy other traditional cuisine of the region such as waterblommetjie bredie, oven-baked patat, or potato yeast farm bread with moskonfyt or hanepoot-korrelkonfyt.
For wine lovers there are a number of wine cellars that produce the unique wines of the region and offer tasting and tours. Cellars included on the West Coast Wine Route are those at Darling, Vredendal, Lutzville, and Klawer and throughout the Olifants River Valley. Here you will find three of the largest wine cellars in South Africa – Namaqua Wines, Klawer Wine Cellars and Lutzville Vineyards – as well as the country’s largest organic wine cellar, Stellar Organics. A number of smaller boutique wine cellars are also found throughout the region. And just a stone’s throw away is the Swartland Wine Route that starts in Malmesbury.
Many tour options
Visitors to the West Coast region can create their own itineraries around a number of possible tours. These include a flower tour in spring visiting Darling and its famous wildflower show (including plenty of Proteas), the region between Clanwilliam, Vanrhynsdorp and Calvinia, the West Coast National Park, or any part of Namaqualand for the best sightings.
Other options are a whale-watching tour, or an adventure tour that could include one of many 4X4 trails, hiking trails, hang-gliding, microlight flips, parachuting, paragliding, rock climbing, scuba diving or kitesurfing on the lagoon.
This region is also a bird-watcher’s paradise, with some of the best bird-watching locations being the West Coast National Park, Bird Island in the harbour area of Lamberts Bay, Elands Bay and its nearby water pans, the Olifants River Valley, the Rocherpan Nature Reserve, along the Swartland Birding Route, Verlorenvlei and the Berg and Olifants River estuaries at Velddrif and Papendorp.
The West Coast is certain to enchant you, and have you coming back for more, year after year.
West Coast Wine Route, Vredendal Tourism – Tel: +27 (0)27 2013376; Email: email@example.com.
Vanrhynsdorp Namaqua West Coast Tourism Office – Tel: +27 27 201 3371.
West Coast Fossil Park – Tel: +27 (0)22 766 1606; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Langebaan Tourism Bureau – Tel: +27 (0)22 772 1515; Email: email@example.com.