Pat and I have been wanting to head out to South Africa’s west coast for some time. Our selection of images of this area in the Africa Imagery Image Bank is not on a par with the rest of our coverage of South Africa and in any case it seemed like a nice adventure, so plans were hatched and off we went.
We put our ears back, got the first part of the trip (from Howick where we live to Kimberley in the Northern Cape) over as quickly as we could. We have done this part of the trip a number of times while working on our Lion Book. It was the area beyond Kimberley that appealed… We stayed at our usual spot in Kimberley – 4 Carrington, a very comfortable B&B close to the historic Halfway House Hotel where, reputedly, Cecil John Rhodes ordered beer from outside the hotel, still seated on his horse.
The road from Kimberley to Upington is fairly bleak and featureless, and much longer than one imagines. The numerous “stop and go” controls for roadworks do not help but, due to the low number of vehicles on the road at the time, the waiting period was not too bad. I had glanced at one of the tourism brochures at 4 Carrington and had taken note of a historical bridge over the Vaal River and presumed it was the old bridge at Schmidtsdrif some 80km to the west of Kimberley. When we got there I realised that it wasn’t the right bridge but we spent some very pleasant minutes photographing it and the surrounding scenery anyway. The Vaal River at this point is very slow and languid, with goats nibbling the thorny vegetation along its banks.
It was our original intention to spend the night at Upington before pressing on to Augrabies where we were to spend a few days, but in the end we just did a quick food shop and refuelled before heading to Keimoes and The Overlook B&B. An interesting spot, run by a New Yorker (!!!???) where we had a very comfortable night, disturbed only by some idiot who seemed intent on destroying his car by revving it to the limit for what seemed like ages.
Both Pat and I prefer to do the by-roads as much as possible, avoiding main routes so with this in mind we took the dirt road that hugs the southern bank of the Orange River to Kakamas. Wow! What an amazing stretch of road! it winds its way past farm houses, the first Kokerbooms (Quiver Trees) of the trip, stands of Aloe gariepensis or Gariep River Aloe and the Orange River itself. Marvellous! We stopped at one point to photograph a lovely Kokerboom alongside the road and just as I was heading back to the car I heard the sound of a large single cylinder motorbike being ridden hard. I was right. He soon came whistling past – a guy on board a 690 KTM – and disappeared in a cloud of dust. Must say it brought a smile to my face. A few kilometres later we passed him on the return journey…
Kakamas is a tiny town situated on the banks of the Orange River. Established in 1898, it was originally called Bassondrif, located where the Orange River was easy to cross. The origins of the name Kakamas vary, some saying it’s from the Korana word T’Kakamas, meaning “place of the raging cow” (It seems that there was an incident with a rather irate cow at some point). Others say it’s from the Khoi word gagamas which means “brown,” referring to the clay used by women to put on their faces. Today though, the region is a prime exporter of table grapes, raisins, and other dried fruit to the UK and Europe.
We checked into De Oude Stoor Gastehuis (the Old Shed Guest House) on a grape farm (it seems that everyone farms grapes here) just outside Augrabies, where we were to spend a few days exploring the area. Our main goal was Augrabies National Park. It is here that the Orange River has carved out a deep and spectacular 56m deep, 18km long gorge, forming the Augrabies Falls in the process. The Khoi people called it “Aukoerbis” or “Place of Great Noise” with good reason as, when the river is in flood, there is, er…, a great noise as it thunders down into the valley. There is also spectacular scenery there (Moon Rock, Swart Rante, Ararat to name just a few locations) as well as wildlife like klipspringer, hyrax, Verreaux’s (black) eagles and giraffe. When you’ve done all this, take a bottle of the local wine to the top of Moon Rock at sunset and marvel at just where you are…
While browsing the tourism brochure at De Ou Stoor, an item caught our attention: Riemvasmaak. Riemvasmaak ( meaning “tighten the strap”) is well worth a visit and comprises of about 75 000ha of mountain desert wilderness. It really is very spectacular and like nothing that we’ve seen before. Actually, it’s probably worth spending a few days there in the great looking chalets. Deep in the valley, where the chalets are located, there are some hot springs where one can bathe. What we hadn’t realised is that, if you have a reasonable 4X4 you can make a “round trip” of it, approaching from the Kakamas side and then continuing past Riemvasmaak, crossing the Orange River on a new bridge before returning to Augrabies. All together a fabulous way to spend the day.
We’ve never been to the northern part of South Africa’s west coast before so that was our next stop – Port Nolloth. En route we stopped off in Springbok to have a quick coffee and a look at the “Blue Mine”, a copper mine that was South Africa’s first commercial mine, and then a little further up the road to Nababeep which has an abandoned copper mine (I have an interest in rocks and stones) that one can visit. Mining began here in the 1850’s and the ore was taken to Port Nolloth for export. All very interesting and we spent a few hours amongst the ruins, marvelling at its deserted atmosphere, the old machinery and all the blue-hued stones and rocks lying about.
Port Nolloth was freezing – a combination of a recently arrived cold front and a westerly wind whipping the white horses on a very chilly Atlantic Ocean. The port was originally used to export copper from the Okiep and Nababeep mines near Springbok, later as a fishing harbour and now, principally, it supports the diamond mining industry. We stayed in the historical Bedrock Cottages and clearly the owner was some sort of rock hound as the were many interesting and varied stones and rocks on display. It seems that the house and cottages of Bedrock Lodge were built in the early 1880s and today it offers comfortable accommodation and views out to sea. Everything in Port Nolloth is in walking distance and we had a number of really great dinners at Anita’s Tavern (just the straight fish and chips is pretty awesome) as well as at the Vespetti Restaurant.
One of the highlights of the time we spent in Port Nolloth was the Shipwreck Tour that we did with Dudley Wesssels (booking is through Diamond Coast Tourism). It involved quite an early getaway to make the meeting spot at Noup (Yes, I’d never heard of it either!) some 50Km south of Kleinzee which in turn, is some 60km south of Port Nolloth. The weather was overcast and cold, rain threatening as we hurtled along the good dirt roads. Dudley and Martinus and Joey Nel (the only other people on the tour) from the Northwest Province were waiting and within minutes we got involved in what were new plants for us – Sand Lilies, Babiana hirsuta (thunbergii), growing in the dunes on the side of the road and gorgeous in the early morning light as the sun peeped through the clouds. As we headed down to the coast to our first wreck, Dudley kept up a continual and interesting commentary over the two way radio that he had handed to us at the start of the tour. Seven ships have been wrecked along this part of the coast since the early 1900s, succumbing to the thick fogs, dangerous currents and high seas. We would see only 5 during the trip as the other two are below the waves but in spite of this, evidence of the wrecks can be seen in the flotsam and jetsam washed up on the shore.
It was an amazing day. We searched for and saw the most wonderful array of plants, birds, rocks, wrecks and scenery. Dudley was entertaining and very knowledgable, our fellow participants, Martinus and Joey, adding to the knowledge and banter. If you find yourself in the area it’s one of the things you have to do!
We had mixed feelings about driving the 80Km from Port Nolloth to Alexander Bay on the South Africa/Namibia border. Some people had said it was not worth the trip – it’s just an old, virtually deserted, mining village and not much else. “And really, you cannot get to the Orange River mouth anyway”. Well, we decided to do it – it was unlikely that we’d get back to the area anytime soon and in any case, we heard of a koppie, just outside Alexander Bay, that was covered in lichen. Surely not?! It was a great trip and well worth the effort. As you head north you get closer and closer to the diamond mining operations that look very interesting and sure enough, there on the eastern side of the road was the orange, lichen covered koppie. We stopped, shot a bunch of pix and marvelled at the sight.
There is not much happening in Alexander Bay itself. It’s pretty much like Kleinzee – just a virtually deserted mining village. We did get to the mouth though and that was fascinating, the whole area covered in beautiful, burgundy coloured sedges with flamingos feeding in the many shallow pools and ponds that have formed on the Orange River floodplain. Was it worth the drive? Yesssss, I think so. But don’t expect everything to be handed to you on a plate – you have to get out there and find the interesting spots and sights yourself. And be prepared to take a wrong turning or two…
Our next stop was Lambert’s Bay a long drive south towards Cape Town. Friends, Marius and Leana Wiese (owners of the delightful La Piazza Bistro in Howick where we live and who know the west coast area and its flower season well) suggested that we stop at the Garies Toeriste Stal and ask Sonja for information about the flowers and things to do. (“Sonja knows everything”, Marius had said). So we had some tee en koffee en skuinskoeke (tea and coffee and skew cakes – a delicious little traditional cake) and asked Sonja…
“Head south out of town”, she said, “and make for the Groenriviermond. You’ll come to the lighthouse and then take the track along the shore. Continue along…… and you”ll end up on the Transnet private road to Lambert’s Bay. Enjoy the flowers…” Well it was all a bit of a blur but we found the light house. And the track. And off we went. Four hours later we were still on this little track (no sign of it on the GPS!) and to top it all, when we briefly hit mobile phone signal, a message from the B&B in Lambert’s bay appeared on the phone enquiring if we still intended to take up our accommodation! And still the track and the stunning flowers and scenery continued, the fuel gauge looking a little tired at this point.
A fork in the road appeared. Mmmm. Left or right? Left, which took us, a few kilometres later, to a tarred road that was on the GPS and to a sign pointing to Lutzville and fuel! The rest was a doddle which left us, as we drove into Lambert’s Bay under cover of darkness, marvelling at the stunning beauty and remoteness of some parts of South Africa. Who needs the N7 anyway? A reasonable 4X4 and a vague sense of direction is all that is needed.
There were 2 things we really wanted to do in Lambert’s Bay: One was to visit Bird Island to photograph the thousands of gannets that nest there and the other was to have dinner at Muisbosskerm as a bit of a birthday celebration. Muisbosskerm, South Africa’s original, open air restaurant has derived it’s name from the shelters built from a bush called “Muisbos” by local herdsmen in the past as they migrated in search of grazing and water. Today, Muisbosskerm serves delicious seafood and traditional food in an al fresco environment. What a wonderful evening we had, with boere musiek and the sound of breaking waves in the background, the fish going down well with one of the local Chenin Blancs and all of this in the most stunning setting.
Bird Island is located about 100 metres off-shore at Lambert’s Bay and is one of only six sites world-wide where Cape gannets breed – as many as 25 000 of them! It is also the only breeding site easily accessible to the public and well worth the short walk and R40-00 entrance fee.
We were desperate to visit the so called Knersvlakte, a region of hilly terrain covered with quartz gravel in the Vanrhynsdorp area. The name is said to be derived from the sound like that of gnashing teeth caused by the hard quartz stones as the old ox wagons travelled over them. It’s the succulents that attracted us and after spending some hours marvelling at the thousands of different species on the heights above the town we found ourselves at the gates of the Kokerboom en Vetplant Kweekery (the Quiver Tree and Succulent Nursery). Now, even if you have no interest in these fascinating plants it is still worth a visit, if only for the coffee and cake. We were blown away! If you do have a interest in these plants you’ll want to spend the day there and be sure to take plenty of cash or a nice fresh credit card because you are going to buy. You know that!
Just outside the village of Nieuwoudtville on the road to Loeriesfontein are the Nieuwoudtville Falls and a little further, the Kokerboom forest and both are well worth a visit. These villages lie on the Bokkeveld Plateau, where the Cape Fynbos meets the Hantam Karoo, Boesmanland and the Knersvlakte. What an amazing place to play. We were on the home run now and, alas, were limited to the late afternoon if we were to get to the Boesmanland Pub and Grill in Loeriesfontein by nightfall. And the pub and grill was everything you’d expect a place with that name to be. We loved it! Simple. With great Boesmanland food and service, we enjoyed our evening in the pub and it was with reluctance that we headed out early the next morning, taking the R357 dirt road to Kimberly via Brandvlei, Vanwyksvliei, Prieska and Douglas. It’s remote country this: kilometres and kilometres and simply nothing but open spaces and vistas. The road was mostly great, only the section between Vanwyksvlei and Prieska being a little corrugated in places.
People have said that the 5 300 kilometres we travelled for a birthday dinner was a tad extravagant. We disagree. It was an amazing trip into parts of South Africa that we hadn’t been before. We would love to go back to the Augrabies and Riemvasmaak area and explore this rugged region in more detail and the same applies to the Loeriesfontein and Nieuwoudtville surrounds. We arrived home with a new insight into the Namakwalanders and their part of the country as well as with thousands of new images for our Image Bank. All in all, a damn fine trip!