Images from the trails

To view images go to

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What's jumping in Jakobsbaai?

Situated a mere 90 minutes from Cape Town along the R27 lies one of the younger little hamlets on the West Coast. Situated between Saldanha Bay and Paternoster, Jakobsbaai is characterized by a rugged, rocky shoreline, interspersed with small, sandy bays which prove popular among surfing and diving enthusiasts.

Still sparsely populated, Jakobsbaai is somewhere to which one can retreat to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. If you are looking for a getaway far from the rat race, this is the place for you! It’s secluded enough to feel like a proper resting place, but close enough to Saldanha Bay to make buying supplies easy and convenient. It’s definitely the best of both worlds.

One of the first things one notices upon one’s arrival is the absolute tranquillity of the place. Its charm is self evident, with several iconic little West Coast whitewashed buildings dotting the area, some constructed with locally quarried rock. Almost all of the houses are built in the same style – white walls with either thatch or dark tiled roofs.

The area is rich with indigenous fynbos, and the beautiful wild grass fields are incredibly striking. It’s no wonder that the locals refer to it as “Namaqualand by the sea”. The annual Spring splash of colour from blooming wildflowers is as spectacular here as anywhere on the West Coast. Jakobsbaai can also boast a variety of birdlife that would be sure to keep the most ardent bird watcher coming back time and time again.

There are quite a few guesthouses to visit in this small town, such as Klokkiebosch Guest House and Die Herberg B & B, that cater to a variety of clientele types. We chose to visit one that is perfect for budget holidays. The Jacobsbaai Backpackers or ‘The Plot’ is located to your left, just before entering the town. It can accommodate more than thirty guests and is ideal for those travelling with an eye on the wallet. It has a very relaxed feel to it and boasts a bar, braai boma, self catering entertainment area, as well as a children’s playground.

The only restaurant that I could find was Weskusplek, a seafood establishment owned by local celebrity, Steve Hofmeyr. My visit to Jacobsbaai was unfortunately on a cloudy day, but I can imagine that the azure blue water and fynbos backdrop would be an exquisite site to see in the summer, considering the amazing view of the bay. The menu has a wide range of meals on offer, and is reasonably priced. I thoroughly enjoyed sipping a cappuccino while breathing in the fresh sea breeze.

All told, I consider it very serendipitous to have Jakobsbaai as a feature of our 5 Bay Trail product. We find something to marvel at every time we pass by this way, and whether you’re on a trail or not, I believe that this little slice of heaven is well worth a visit.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The West Coast Fossil Park: Treasure of Langebaanweg

Since the dawn of time the face of the earth has been in a constant state of change. Words such as epochs, periods, and cataclysms were coined to separate different distinctive eras of being but, as climate change in our own time demonstrates, we are constantly evolving and devolving to the next one. There are a few places on earth where conditions exist to create virtual snapshots, time capsules preserved for us to be able to take a peek back at what came before. Langebaanweg on the Cape West Coast is one such place.

I decided to write this blog as an expose of a feature of one of our trails, the Berg River Canooze. The folks at the Fossil Park kindly allowed us to join a group of students for a tour of their facility, so off went our intrepid explorer, Danelle van Daalen, with a notepad, a camera, and high hopes. A few fun facts, a few photos. We’d have our promotional material for the consumption of anyone interested in paying us, or the Fossil Park, a visit. Little did we imagine how rare and precious this site would be, how impacted we’d be by the staff’s passion for unearthing these treasures, or how much pride we’d feel at having a facility such as this in our Biosphere. We were also struck by how we almost lost this place, and how the foresight of a handful of people saved and preserved this piece of our history – our heritage.

In the late 1950’s the first fossils were identified at a CHEMFOS phosphate mine near Langebaanweg Airforce base. From then until 1993, when the mine closed, three different quarries were opened up. 80% of the fossils were destroyed due to the mining, but the remaining 20% was enough to paint a picture of what the West Coast could have looked like long ago. Over 200 species have so far been identified, making this area the richest fossil spot of this time period  in the world. ‘C’ and ‘E’ quarries of the New Varswater mine proved to be a treasure trove of Miocene-, Pliocene-, and Pleistocene- Period deposits, going back to about 10 million years ago. One is necessarily in awe of what has been learned about the changes that have been experienced in this small part of the world over that time period; the ebb and flow of the ocean, the rise and decline of animal- and plant- species. Ultimately, it was the sense of humility at how recently we humans arrived on the scene that struck us the most – and how profound our impact has been, little of it for the better.

I thought of perhaps writing a blow-by-blow of our visit as per the notes I received. After all, our gracious guide, Wendy Wentzel, had told us so much about what has been-, is happening-, and was hoped for- at the site. We were told of species long extinct, others that had adapted and survive to this day. We were shown examples of different geological features and were told  what could be inferred from them. Then there was the museum, necessarily an edifice to- and testimony of- the passion of those people who had made a contribution to this place and had made it possible for anyone to visit and explore it for themselves. To say that it captured the imagination would be a gross understatement.

Ultimately, the Fossil Park’s greatest gift to people can be nicely illustrated by the response we got from Krige Binneman, a tourism student from Boland College, who had also been on the tour:

“I thought it (the tour) was very interesting. Before I came here, I wasn’t very interested in this field (Palaeontology), but after being here, even during the tour, I found it really interesting. People shouldn’t bypass this place, because I feel that people are currently driving past because they don’t know what to expect to see. I learned many new things that I never thought I would.  My favourite part was the excavation site. It’s so much different to see the fossils in real life compared to pictures thereof. It really is amazing. I would definitely recommend the West Coast Fossil Park to other people.”

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

TRAIL DIARY: Eve's Trail, 9 - 11 August 2013 (Mercia Riekert)

Day One

It's a beautiful, warm winter’s day as I drive to the Duinepos Chalets in the West Coast National Park. My clients arrive and we all gather to "meet and greet". What a diverse bunch of people! There's a medical doctor, a psychologist, an ophthalmologist, a couple of volunteers involved in rescuing penguins, a remedial educator, a nurse and a tourism officer. Tongue in cheek, I request that anyone in need of medical attention kindly consult our on-hand doctor -- someone quips: "...or maybe the psychologist!" I just know this is going to be a great couple of days. These folks are friendly and jolly, the perfect kind of group to bring out the best in a Trail. 

Duinepos Chalets

It turns out that one couple, Rob and Sameera, are Muslim. They're celebrating Eid (the end of the holy month of  Ramadan, marked by fasting from sunrise to sunset) on the trail. This is some way to break that fast! I'm quite sure they're not going to be disappointed.

Our itinerary is jam packed from the moment guests arrive, and we soon set off for an afternoon walk through the dunes. My clients are in awe! The vistas we encounter are greeted with copious exclamations of "Spectacular!", "Wow!" and "Awesome!" I simply have to smile. This is the West Coast, folks! They are amazed when I serve them snacks and sundowners, miraculously appearing from nowhere it would seem.

Back at the Duinepos Chalets, Natasha and Caroline serve a scrumptious supper at the Boma and, to put an exclamation on the perfect end to a perfect first day, Oom Eddie entertains them with lovely stories about the whaling station at Donkergat. Then it’s off to bed for an early start tomorrow.

Day Two

After a nutritious breakfast we set off for 16 Mile Beach. My clients are avid hikers, two of them having conquered Kilimanjaro! They're clearly in a different class. We encounter eland, bontebok, and a few bird species such as prinia, sun birds, Karoo scrub robin and magnificent flamingo in the lagoon!

Spring on the West Coast
Lunch Time at Kraal bay is a feast, with my clients basking in the afternoon sun. Then it’s back onto the shuttle to the drop-off point and our walk back to Geelbek.

Andrew & Judy McKenzie relaxing on the beach at Kraalbaai
We stop off at Geelbek Restaurant for pre-dinner drinks and a light snack, and then take a brisk walk back to our accommodation for yet another one of Tannie Caroline’s West Coast dishes. This time we get served in my chalet, which Natasha has turned into a cosy restaurant, candlelight and all!

Geelbek Manor
Day Three

After breakfast we head for the Seeberg lookout point. There is a light drizzle, but it doesn’t last long. It’s low tide when we stop at Gravity to enjoy our snacks. The spring flowers to the top of Seeberg Look out are spectacular and everybody just enjoys the beauty!

The last stretch to Seeberg lookout. The flowers are incredible!
Then it’s time to hop onto the bus and get back to Duinepos where we are joined by Andrew and Judy’s children, Cara and Joel. Joel is celebrating his birthday and after all the birthday wishes have been bestowed, my clients tuck into their indulgent Sunday lunch, complete with Chenin Blanc and Merlot from the Darling Valley before heading back to Cape Town. I discover that my Muslim clients drove all the way from Port Elizabeth, and are now making their way to Wilderness on the Cape South coast for a night or two. What a way to end the Trail!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Awesome Yzerfontein

About 87 km-, or an hour’s drive- from Cape Town, a hidden jewel of the West Coast is laid out around a rocky peninsula, famous for its incredible beauty and year-round sunshine. If there was ever a town characterized by contradictions, it’s this little town with its big, big heart. 

The West Coast holiday town of Yzerfontein can be a buzzing hotspot, bursting out of its seams, or a sleepy little hamlet, depending on the time of year one visits. During the summer months, Yzerfontein comes alive. This is especially true during December when the town hosts its annual festival, renowned for showcasing the best local seafood. Accommodation is readily available out of season but if one is planning a visit during school holidays or between December to February, it is advisable to make a reservation. There are quite a few great restaurants such as Die Stal that one can visit to enjoy the best West Coast cuisine on offer, and for a fun evening out the local yacht club is always a good option. It also boasts fantastic activities for those who enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, and various water sports. A strong westerly wind is particularly welcomed by surfers, windsurfers and body boarding enthusiasts.

As with many other West Coast towns, Yzerfontein’s local inhabitants make their living from fishing the waters off the West Coast. In these parts it’s mostly about snoek and rock lobster but there is a big variety to be had as the region is rich in marine diversity. The annual fish runs are a definite highlight, and the town’s fish market is the place to get your share of the day’s catch, straight off the boat.

The bay, overlooked by Yzerfontein’s beacon Meeurots, or "Gull rock", is a favoured destination for whales who return each year to calve in its tranquil waters. It is therefore a great place for whale watching. Dolphins playing in the waves are also a common sight.

Sixteen mile beach stretches from just north of the main beach of Yzerfontein to the West Coast National Park, close to Langebaan. It is the longest uninterrupted pristine sandy beach on the coastline of South Africa. While it is still very much frequented by hikers, having once made up a section of Eve’s Trail, it was decided by the CWCB Trails to discontinue this due to the danger of disturbing oystercatcher nests along the high water line, as well as the danger of ignorant folk picking up seal pups, thus risking rejection by their mothers due to the human scent left in so doing.

Dassen island is situated a short distance off the coast, and has a resident light house keeper as will as intermittent stays by scientists. It is only accessible by boat. Although open to the public, not many operators go there due to the seasonality of large scale tourism. This, as it turns out, has been a blessing for its other inhabitants as it is a protected breeding site for threatened African penguins (around a third of the Western Cape population), Cape fur seals, white pelicans, black oystercatchers, Cape- and black backed gulls, as well as all three cormorant species. Helicopter flights to Dassen island are available from Cape Town but are quite expensive.

During the months of August and September, the Cape West Coast bursts forth into a kaleidoscope of colours as the annual wildflower season sees millions of flowers bloom. Yzerfontein definitely gets its fair share of this spectacle and is just one more reason to pay the town a visit. All said, Yzerfontein is the perfect place to "get away from it all" on a weekend, or to take the family on a holiday. The locals are hospitable to a fault, and the beauty, tranquillity, and uniqueness of this place will keep one coming back again and again. There is also the option to retire here as many South Africans have discovered. Most of the year-round inhabitants of Yzerfontein are retired folk.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Precious Paternoster

A visit to the West Coast is a bit like a treasure hunt from one's childhood. Like Easter eggs hidden at the bottom of the garden, this part of the world is dotted with little destinations that have remained largely undiscovered. Situated 150 km from Cape Town city centre, about an hour and 45 min drive, is one such gem, the scenic fishing village of Paternoster.

Characterized by whitewashed cottages that dot the shoreline, Paternoster is, above all, a Mecca for great seafood, in particular the West Coast rock lobster. Driving in and out of town, one meets hawkers selling the day's catch along the side of the road with cries of "Marrag Mêrrim, wat van ‘n lekke krief… twennie five rênd ene?’’ Loosely translated, this pitch reads "Afternoon Madam, how about a delicious crayfish… Only 25 rand each?" Of course, this is a predominantly Afrikaans speaking community, and the local dialect adds a certain charm to that which makes this part of the world so unique. Sadly, however, much of the fare on offer has been poached illegally. Poverty, as well as severe restrictions placed on local subsistence fishermen, forces many to run the gauntlet of selling their wares in this way to provide for their families.

In town, it is a different story. Paternoster has a thriving, vibrant fishmarket where one is greeted by eager fishmongers showcasing their wares. ‘’Môre my Lanie… spoil ie Mêrrim vanaand met ‘n lekke seafood dish… My Lanie sallie spyt  issie….’’ (Good morning, sir. Treat your wife to a delicious seafood dish tonight. You won’t regret it.) The people of this community are nothing, if not industrious. Even the local youngsters get in on the act, selling their shell necklaces, while posing with excited tourists for a small fee. The informal market in Paternoster is a thriving source of income for many, in what is otherwise a holiday town.

Paternoster may be one of the oldest villages on the West Coast, but this is not to say that it is run down by any means. A pristine beach, and a myriad of galleries and curio stores cater more than adequately to the annual influx of tourists to the village, offering hours of browsing pleasure, and the opportunity to pick up a souvenir or two. Luxurious accommodation like Klein Paternoster is on hand to provide any visitor with a West Coast home away from home, one's stay underlined by the hospitality of one's host, Pikkie Daniel, as well as her mouthwatering West Coast cuisine.

A visit to the Cape Columbine Lighthouse offers one the chance to see a bit of the natural heritage of the area, as well as the breathtaking sunsets for which the spot is well-known. Spring on the West Coast is world-renowned for its annual explosion of wildflowers, bringing a splash of colour to the area that seems like something from a dream. Paternoster is certainly not spared its share of this spectacle, and between the months of August to September it is definitely a destination to diarize.

As with many other towns in the Cape West Biosphere, the people are an integral part of the experience for the would-be visitor. It’s a big part of the reason why we include these communities as part of our Trails products. Whether it’s Natalie van den Heever, owner of On the Rocks takeaways, regaling you with lovely stories from the little fishing village while you’re served your lunch, or Andre Kleynhans, a long-time local, entertaining you with a recounting of a tale of the area while you sip wine alongside a sizzling fish braai, once you leave this little village you have had a feeling of belonging imparted that will keep you coming back.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Magical Slackpacking

When you close your eyes and think of a trail, what do you see? You might picture unwashed, malnourished thrill seekers shuffling down a mountain side, or making their way through some river gorge that would fill the most ardent adventurer with trepidation. It's all about lugging a ton of pots and pans, dried food and tins of bully beef, right? And who can forget about the prospect of finding some sort of creepy crawly inside one's sleeping bag, having to shake it out before bedtime. There are some that can't get enough of this… but chances are, you're not one of them.

It may well be that you do, in fact, enjoy a day out in the wilderness, soaking up all that’s best about the great outdoors. Whether it’s on foot, on a mountain bike, or in a kayak, you may be one of those folk who can appreciate nature as being one of the best things in life, but would really prefer to finish the day with a great steak and a beer, or two, before heading off to a comfortable bed in a luxurious room. Why can't a trail be a relaxing weekend getaway, instead of a six-day grind? After all, you work hard enough as it is. While a resort just hasn't got the excitement, it would be nice to get four star pampering as well as an adventure that only mother nature can provide. Welcome to the world of slackpacking!

Here on the West Coast, on the southern tip of Africa, we have an area that is rich in biodiversity and culture. In fact, it's unique enough to be recognised by the United Nations. Carrying only a day pack containing a water bottle, a raincoat, and a snack, a slackpacker quickly discovers that the trails of the Cape West Coast Biosphere Reserve aptly showcase this region and everything that is best about it. Employing the slackpacking model, a visitor can expect an experience that has its foundation in the ethos of UNESCO's "Man and the Biosphere" program. Without taking away any of the spoil and exclusivity that is so special about these products, one leaves knowing that one has made a contribution to something that is bigger than the sum of its parts. The unspoiled natural beauty is breathtaking, the cuisine is mouthwatering, and everyone you meet is welcoming to a fault. You've had the time of your life but, unknowingly perhaps, you’ve made an impression that it is far more lasting than your footprints. It feels good to know that what was a holiday to one was also an exercise in poverty alleviation, social upliftment, and the promotion of sustainable tourism. One person can indeed change the world, one trail at a time!