This exquisite, isolated stretch of land along the west coast of South Africa is one of its richest and most prized natural areas. Breathtaking mountain ranges are constant travelling companions along the Winelands and West Coast routes. The magnificent, brooding peaks, crags and unusual rock formations and caverns were canvases for the San and Khoi people, who left lyrical rock paintings documenting their lives and spiritual experiences of the land. The mountains now attract rock-climbers and hikers. The west coast’s cold, nutrient-rich Benguela current ensures that its Atlantic waters are teeming with marine life and its shores, although seemingly dry and grey out of flower season, nurture an incredible diversity of plant and animal life. Unesco has deemed the Cape Floristic Region an area of such incredible biodiversity that the Cape Biosphere Reserve has been formed to protect the land from Milnerton to Velddrif.
The West Coast route encompasses both inland and seaside villages. Travelling north from Cape Town through inland towns such as Darling, Riebeeck Kasteel, Porterville, Piketberg, Citrusdal, Clanwilliam and Wupperthal leads past a series of mountain ranges and wilderness areas, including the Grootwinterhoek, Koue Bokkeveld, and the well-loved Cederberg. The route winds through vineyards, wheat fields, olive, citrus and dairy farms, and friendly towns that have a pastoral serenity. After good winter rains, flower-lovers make pilgrimages to the west coast in spring (August to September) to enjoy the Cape floral region’s colourful splendour, which reaches its full brilliance in Namaqualand in the Northern Cape. Darling, Porterville, Clanwilliam and Hopefield are especially well known for their flowers and flower festivals.
Once sated with the marvels of the Cederberg, tourists can meander down the coast through fishing villages such as Strandfontein, Lamberts Bay, Eland’s Bay, Velddrif, Paternoster, Langebaan and Yzerfontein. In the 1600s, Jan Van Riebeeck rejected the west coast as unsuitable for settlement because of the lack of fresh water and the area remained relatively undeveloped. However, in the past 15 years, fresh water supply has been ensured and tourism has boomed. Paternoster has maintained the aesthetic appearance and atmosphere of a fishing village, with whitewashed cottages and fishing boats strewn across its beaches, and is particularly popular with tourists as a result.
The west coast paints olfactory pictures as compelling as its beautiful scenery. Inland areas can be startlingly fragrant, with orange blossom, rooibos, fynbos and buchu, whereas the fecund, fishy, kelpy marine smells of the coastline are quintessential to the Cape. Then there is the mouth-watering aroma of west coast rock lobster (crayfish or kreef) on the braai (barbeque) … and the stench of Cape gannet guano at Lambert’s Bay’s Bird Island. All the senses seem heightened in response to this area, perhaps because of its ancient wilderness.
The coastal towns have a much-vaunted Mediterranean feel and moderate temperatures that attract holiday makers and retirees. With blazing blue skies above, white sandy beaches underfoot and azure seas, you can feel as if you have been catapulted onto a brilliant Greek isle. However, the west coast is different from the warm, easy going east coast, and can whip up a howling, biting wind, or set in with miserable rain and austere, desolate greyness.
Shell middens and Stone Age artefacts dotted along the coastline suggest that the west coast’s sea and mountains sustained early human life as long as 700 000 years ago and later supported the San and Khoi people. The Khoi began herding sheep two millennia ago and were well-established herdsman by the time the Dutch settlers arrived in the 17th century, leading to disputes over territory. The Portuguese navigator, Vasco da Gama, is said to be the first recorded European to arrive on South African shores, near the Berg River mouth, in a bay he named Bahai da Santa Elena after the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great. The west coast is well-known for its shipwrecks, with Paternoster (“Our Father”) said to reference the prayers of Portuguese sailors.
The west coast has drawn waves of fortune-seekers over the years, with fishing, farming, whaling, guano, forestry and diamonds being among the major drawcards, but some of the area’s greatest assets have been nearly exhausted by human demand, leaving a number of conservation concerns, such as the scarcity of the renosterbos (Swartveld) and the near eradication of endemic Clanwilliam cedars.
After years of exploitation, the Cederberg Wilderness Area now protects these rare and endemic species as well as the Cape leopard, snow protea and the red and yellow Disa uniflora. Dainty antelope species roam the reserves, as well as baboon, tortoise, caracal, mongoose and bat-eared fox. Sunbirds and sugarbirds thrive on the fynbos.
Southern right whales enter the west coast’s sheltered bays from July to October in order to calve and can often be seen quite close to the shore. Endemic Haviside’s dolphins also roam the waters, as do dusky dolphins, great white sharks, penguins and Cape fur seals. The wetlands and estuaries in the region are a bird-watcher’s paradise, with tens of thousands of birds, including (in summer) northern hemisphere waders.
When to go
Cape Flower Route – geologically, the region has remained relatively unchanged for five-million years, resulting in its unique fynbos and astonishing plant variety.
The 71 000-hectare Cederberg Wilderness Area encompasses famous rock formations (Maltese Cross; Wolfberg Arch and Wolfberg Cracks), caverns with fine rock art sites (Town Hall/Stadsaal Caves) and peaks (the tallest of which is the Sneeuberg at 2 028 metres). Streams, waterfalls and ravines and the amazing plants and animal diversity attract bird-watchers, nature-lovers and hikers who revel in the 254 kilometres of trails.
Langebaan Lagoon is the centre of West Coast National Park, known for abundant birdlife, beaches, the Postberg Flower Reserve (open from August to September) and Buffelsfontein Game Reserve, with resident black and blue wildebeest, bontebok and eland. Near Kraal Bay are the “footprints of Eve” - early hominid footprints preserved in the sandstone.
Cape Columbine Nature Reserve, known to Paternoster locals as “Tietiesbaai”, has the last manual lighthouse in South Africa.
The West Coast Fossil Park between Langebaan and Velddrif yielded a fossilised skull dating back to the Stone Age and showcases the ancient prehistory of area, including extinct animal fossils of toothy bears and tigers. Tours, mountain-bike trails, flower walks and coffee are available, +27 22 766 1606.
San Rock Art sites are a testament to the rich spiritual and community relationships of the San and Khoi and quirkily detail the creatures they encountered (even white settlers and ships). The Cederberg region has more than 2 500 sites.
Quaint villages - neat, charming Clanwilliam is famed for bouldering, flowers and Rooibos tea. Tannie Evita Bezuidenhout (South African satirist Pieter Dirk Uys) has made a cabaret theatre out of the old Darling station, called Evita se Perron (Evita’s Platform). Riebeeck Kasteel is known for olives, wine, eateries, pastoral friendliness and vibey food, arts and culture festivals. Citrusdal’s hot springs are an amazing natural phenomenon (www.thebaths.co.za).
Birdwatching - Langebaan Lagoon; Verlorenvlei (Elands Bay); Berg River Estuary and Rocherpan Nature Reserve (near Velddrif). Bird Island Nature Reserve (Lambert’s Bay), a 19 000-strong Cape gannet colony.
Activities - angling, diving, sailing; windsurfing at Saldanha and Langebaan Lagoon; surfing at Eland’s Bay; canoeing on the Berg River; paragliding and hang-gliding at Porterville; Langebaan Country Estate’s scenic 18-hole links-type golf course, designed by Gary Player.
Hikes and walks – numerous trails available, with attractions specific to every area, whether crayfish, rock art or flowers. Enquiries: Cape Nature, +27 86 122 7362 8873, or local Tourism Information offices.
Seafood - West Coast villages offer delectable culinary experiences in unique settings, traditional South African dishes and unsurpassed seafood, such as seasonal crayfish, snoek and bokkoms (dried salted fish).