West Coast | Remote, desolate … and neglected
The sea, wild flowers, diamonds, a national park, a Nazi sympathiser, a singer’s holiday shack, and the first sheep farmers in Southern Africa … Barnie Louw takes a hard look at the state of affairs in one of the last undeveloped parts of the West Coast.
Paradise Beach. Sunset Estate. Tranquillity Place. Benguela Vista. That’s what I’ll call my property development here on the West Coast between Lutzville and Hondeklip Bay.
After marking out the prime seafront stands, putting up the advertisement boards next to the N7 and parking a Jurgens as a sales office, I’ll start writing marketing material.
Something along the line of, “The perfect setting on a stunning part of the West Coast! Amazing 180° views over the cobalt blue Atlantic Ocean. A tranquil coastline. Natural beauty with pristine sandy beaches. Magnificent flowers in spring. Beautiful and optimal walk to the beach setting.”
However cheesy this might sound, it’s all 100% true. This part of the West Coast is indeed a place of clichés: a pristine coastline, picturesque little bays, white beaches, breathtaking sunsets, special fauna and flora …
But I’ll keep mum about the nearest town being about 70 km away, the little water here being so brackish you can keep crayfish in it, about the infrastructure comprising a few corrugated iron and wood shacks and a network of varicose vein-like jeep tracks, prospecting pits marring the coastal area like acne scars, and moreover, about the fact that you need a 4×4 to get here.
I will also conceal the fact that anyone can drive around here (on the beaches too), trash the place and leave tracks through the veld as they please.
O yes, and that a part of this coastal area will soon be proclaimed a national park.
Pg 2: Too much beauty
Too much beauty
Piet is right − should you stand between the disintegrating stone cairn and the Telkom mast up here on a Wednesday afternoon, you could indeed see both Saturdays.
From atop Toringkop – the only significant hill for miles in all directions – Piet van Heerde, our guide, points out the track north we’ll be driving today on the last leg of the so-called West Coast Eco Trail to Hondeklip Bay.
Absolute silence and peace envelopes us. Inland, up to the hazy outlines of the Kamiesberg in the distance, all you can see is gray green Namaqualand scrub; on the other side the shiny blue Atlantic Ocean is jiggling.
To the south we can only just make out part of the 100-km long network of tracks we’ve been following the past two days all along the rocky coast from the Sout River.
These tracks zigzag across former coastal farming areas that De Beers systematically started buying in the 1930s after alluvial diamonds were discovered at the Orange River Mouth.
From here atop Toringkop the scrubland of wild rosemary and skaapbos looks a tad grey, but Piet says in the flowering season (July-October) Namaqualand daisies, sorrel, vygies, hondeblomme and harlequin hesperanthas (perdeblomme) amplify the symphony of the landscape.
By the way, Toringkop (also called Maclearskop) is quite a historical koppie. The cairn was built in honour of Sir Thomas Maclear (after whom Maclear’s Beacon on Table Mountain was named), who used the hill in the 1800s to measure a meridian arc in the southern hemisphere.
Two days and countless tracks ago we left the tar road and cellphone reception behind in the rear-view mirror when we crossed the Sout River some 70 km northwest of Lutzville.
Don’t expect access gates or signs announcing you are now on the West Coast Eco Trail. You don’t even have to pay, you just keep driving. The only clue is a small sign at the Cawood Salt Works reading “Kuspad/Coastal Road”. And a sign a little further prohibiting quads.
Now you have two options: you either drive along the so-called harde pad (hard road), primarily a 4×2-friendly dirt road running inland all along the jackal-proof fencing separating De Beers’ coastal property from the sheep farms, or you tackle the sandy tracks snaking all along the coastline, past one small bay after another.
If you’re not interested in exploring every twisting track and small bay, you can probably cover the some 140 km between the Sout River and Hondeklip Bay in a day.
However, should you explore like us and stop regularly for photographs and get out every few minutes, stretch your legs and say something profound such as, “My, but it’s beautiful”, it can take you a couple of days, especially if you want to camp right next to the sea, indulge in the sunrises and sunsets, and want to feel as if you’re the only person on the coastline of Africa.
Piet says he has encountered people who got so carried away with the environment and isolation they were playing Adam and Eve, without the strategic fig leaf.
From the Sout River to the Groen River the tracks take us along some of the most scenic 55 kilometres in South Africa, past little bays, fishing spots and crayfish grounds (and maybe diamond grounds …?) with names such as Hardslaapbaai, Malkopbaai, Strandbaai, Hoekbaai, Skurfbaai, Blougat, Geelklip, Volwaterbaai, Bruinklip and Skulpiesbaai.
The beauty seems never-ending.
Every now and again we surprise a steenbok or duiker, while blue-headed lizards bake in the sun and pigmy falcons, black harriers and jackal buzzards swoop around for tasty morsels.
Then the tracks take you past Island Point and the wreck of the SS Namakwa (that ran ashore in March 1876), past places such as Abjoel se Baai where the track slips through the rocks, literally metres from the water’s edge, to the Groenriviermond Lighthouse (the latest of South Africa’s fifty-odd lighthouses, having been built in 1988).
Pg 3: It’s beautiful …
It’s beautiful, but …
Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Wrong. Here your emotions will be a rollercoaster ride: yes, it’s beautiful, but simultaneously, you are sad, then angry, then outraged.
You want to drag the minister of environmental affairs here by her scarf and show her the mess.
Because what I haven’t mentioned is that for many years this coastal area has been a no-man’s-land where access control and policing have been non-existent. Every dork with a vehicle, a tent and a cool box can therefore make or break (especially break) to their heart’s content here. And it appears to be a regular occurrence.
Goodness knows what the attraction is. This is definitely no Mozambique: the fishing is so-so, you can’t launch a ski boat and the water is too cold for swimming. Therefore, if you aren’t a nature lover or photographer, you can dive for crayfish, camp and drink – and judging by the empty liquor bottles littering the place, it’s not predominantly nature lovers that visit.
Who knows, maybe the attraction is that you can do as you please without anyone wagging a finger at you. Moreover, it’s fre
e. West Coast Eco Trail? Fat chance; rather call it the West Coast Trash Trail.
Littering is common almost all the way between the Sout River and Hondeklip Bay, although the stretch north of the Groen River (in the new part of the Namaqua National Park) is markedly cleaner.
Things have gotten out of hand so much that the Land Cruiser Club have been cleaning the coastal area for the past number of years at their own cost. Last year they removed six double-axle trailers chockfull with litter.
Not only do people leave tracks through the coastal scrub as they please, beach driving is apparently just as popular here as drinking.
Of the ten vehicles we encountered in three days, eight left tracks on the beaches like scars after a knife fight − this despite a R2 000 fine (and possible confiscation of your vehicle) should you be caught on the beach.
The R500 fine for littering clearly also doesn’t make much of an impression – why worry about it if there’s no one to bring you to book?
Who should one be angry at? De Beers, whose property it is, or the local government? No, I rather think the irresponsible visitors who are slowly but surely marring this treasure of nature with their devil-may-care attitude.
The solution is also not obvious: do you bar all access, or do you only allow people to visit the area with registered tour guides? Or do you just keep on cleaning up after the boneheads? I honestly don’t know.
Maybe the planned conservation area south of the Groen River is a good start.
This conservation area is a joint project by De Beers, the Kamiesberg Municipality and international conservation organisations.
There is no funding for the project yet, but once it is up and running, it will at least mean stricter access control and policing.
De Beers marked out 13 campsites between the Brak River and the Spoeg River a few years ago as alternatives to the camp-wherever-you-feel-like attitude. This too has evidently been ineffective.
Camping didn’t satisfy some people. They simply knocked together their own “holiday homes” − little more than squatter huts − from planks, drift wood, corrugated iron sheets, asbestos sheets and shade netting. The late West Coast singer Worsie Visser’s patchwork getaway shack is still standing here.
Until quite recently, a whole settlement of these holiday shacks stood at the Groen River Mouth. Some 50 people, including Adriaan Nieuwoudt, the well-known Namaqualand entrepreneur and kubus-scheme kingpin, had built their holiday homes here.
All that still remains of it is a bulldozed piece of land. After thirty years, a high court judgment ended their free holidays in August 2007 when it was ordered that the some 80 structures be demolished. Nieuwoudt was the first to break down his holiday spot in October-November last year.
Pg 4: Ah, that’s better
Ah, that’s better
North of the Groen River things are looking much better. The reason? In November last year, De Beers handed 34 000 ha of coastal land between the Groen and Spoeg rivers to Sanparks, who are expected to incorporate it into the Namaqua National Park this year.
This some 50-km long stretch, says Sanparks, is the only part of the West Coast that is still largely untouched by development and diamond mining activities.
The area is also of conservation importance due to its estuaries, marshlands and the country’s only properly functioning dunelands.
The ribbon hasn’t been officially cut, but Sanparks are hard at work.
And it shows: there is much less litter than south of the Groen River, some of the many tracks have been closed, prospecting pits have been filled up, information signs put up, three game rangers have been appointed and the rehabilitation of the vegetation is underway. And that’s just the start.
Five campsites and day visitor facilities have provisionally been identified, says park manager Bernard van Lente, and building work has already begun.
Moreover, they are fencing the new area, says Bernard, and when that has been done, game that previously ranged here will be reintroduced: springbok, gemsbok and even hartebeest and eland.
There aren’t any boom gates or an official in a Wendy house asking you for a permit or access fee yet, but according to Bernard this will probably be in place next year.
By the way, this new part will increase the size of the Namaqua National Park to 144 000 ha, which will make it the fifth largest national park in South Africa, after the Kruger, Kgalagadi, Addo and Richtersveld.
However, not everyone is happy with a national park on their doorstep. Members of the farming community next to the park whom we spoke to fear the park will become a breeding place for jackals that will wreak havoc among their flocks of sheep.
They are also concerned that the stands Sanparks are pegging out at the new official campsites will be too small for their usual holiday setup, but as one woman conceded, “we are nevertheless grateful for the 30 years we’ve been camping for free.”
Beyond the Groen River the “My, but it’s beautiful” just keeps carrying on, past Galjoenbaai, Kwaas-se-baai, Skitloodsbaai, Breek-skip and other place names that roll off the tongue like the ubiquitous breakers: Skynbaai, Boggerol-baai (also known as Platduin), and Koring-korrelbaai.
Not only does Koringkorrelbaai’s name have a, well … interesting origin (it was apparently named after a man whose digestion was upset after eating too much wheat while fishing there), it’s also the place where Robey Leibbrandt, South African boxing champion and Nazi sympathiser, landed in 1941 on a mission aimed at toppling the government.
From Koringkorrelbaai, the tracks lead past Toringkop, through powder-white dunelands beyond the Bitter River and past a seal colony and a freshwater fountain to the Spoegrivier Caves where the earliest evidence of sheep farming in South Africa have been excavated. Sheep bones around 2 000 years old were found in the caves, which were probably inhabited by the Khoi-Khoi on their southern migration.
At the caves you eventually turn away from the coast. All that remains is a last stretch of some 40 km, past the park’s northern entrance at Swartfontein, to Hondeklip Bay where Attie Hough, owner of the Honne-hokke overnight chalets, can fill you in on the West Coast’s anecdotes, stories, legends and challenges.
When you talk to people such as Attie, Piet or Bernard who care deeply about the West Coast you are touched by their sadness that one of the coastal area’s greatest assets, its isolation, is the very reason why thoughtless visitors can wreck it.
However … a conservation area south of the Groen River and a national park north of the river – could there be any better way of cutting the prats down to size?
Pg 5: Quick facts
I want to go too
Best time to go?
Flowering season (July-October) is the most beautiful, but you can go all year
What do I have to pack?
You have to be completely self-sufficient – you are very far from the nearest Woolworths. Ensure you pack at least the following:
- Water – there is no fresh water. Take at least 5 litres per person per day for drinking and washing. You can obviously always wash in the sea – if you can stand the cold water, that is.
- Warm clothes– the days can be hot, but the evenings cold, especially if the wind starts blowing.
- Tent – it’s advisable not to sleep outside; you’ll get soaked by the sea mist.
- Wind screen – when the wind starts blowing along the West Coast, it blows for all it’s worth.
- Gazebo – there are no trees and therefore very little natural shade.
- Sun protection – because there is no shade, you get sunburnt easily. Therefore, take a broad-rimmed hat and enough suntan lotion.
- Braai wood – there are no trees, and therefore no wood.
- Permits – if you plan to dive for crayfish in season (November-April) you need a permit.
- Personal items– remember your medication, toilet paper and toilet spade.
- First-aid kit – the nearest doctor is just as far as the closest Woolworths.
- Refuse bags – take enough so you can take out your own rubbish and maybe that of others too.
- Compressor and tyre pressure gauge – the tracks are very sandy.
- Recovery equipment – ensure you have recovery points on the front and at the back of your vehicle, and also take a snatch strap and tow strap.
- Apart from the campsites having no electricity, cellphone reception is sporadic at best.
4×2 or 4×4?
With a 4×4 you can drive along all the jeep tracks, but not with a 4×2. If you go in a 4×2, ensure you have the support of a 4×4. Even if you drive a 4×4, rather don’t go alone. The correct tyre pressure is important, and a little 4×4 experience is vital.
You can only refuel in Lutzville and Garies. Ensure you have enough fuel to be able to drive at least 300 km, some parts of which are in low range.
- Always watch the ground for tampans, a type of tick waiting under the sand for you to walk past.
- Look out for the thorny wild pomegranate (driedoringbos) – it can puncture your tyres.
- Beware of sharp roots and stones in the sandy tracks that can also damage your tyres.
- From September the south wind can be very trying, and the north-westerly wind usually brings rain.
If you want to experience all aspects of the Namaqua National Park, drive the park’s 120-km long Rooikat Eco Route.
The trail traverses the whole park, from the Skilpad Flower Reserve, down through the Kamiesberg and then from the Spoeg River south to the Groen River.
Especially in flowering season it should be a treat.
Contact the park at 027 672 1948.
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