The wild west

The wild west

Let's get one thing straight. Route 27 isn't everybody's idea of a good time. If you're looking for boutiques, trendy bars and five-star lodgings, then you probably shouldn't pack your bags and wave goodbye to Cape Town, South Africa's 'mother city'.

For some, the West Coast Road, or Route 27, is a long, lonely way. Stretching 250 kilometres north of Cape Town, it eventually peters out into a network of gravel back roads. The distances are long, the roads are ramrod-straight and the landscape is empty and deserted.

And that's exactly why I love it.

To me, the west coast is trying to hide something. It's thrown on a cloak of drabness in order to keep the crowds away. "Move along," it suggests. "Nothing to see here."

But actually there is. And if you're not the kind of traveller that's hooked on instant gratification, then the west coast is the South African adventure you've been searching for.

"Er, why are we stopping here?"

My mate Tim had been searching for a bit of salvation from his ad-industry desk job, and it didn't take long to convince him that a week cruising the west coast was just the ticket he was after. With surfboards on the roof, a map book on the back seat and, well, that was about it really, we were off. Anything else we needed we could pick up on the road north.

"Er, why are we stopping here?" asked Tim, on road that ended with a sharp turn into the West Coast National Park, about an hour from Cape Town.

A fair question too. At first glance there's not much to the park – just some low-lying coastal scrub with the odd tortoise or ostrich. But if you know where to look then this is one of the best-kept secrets on the west coast. The reserve's northern Postberg section is a riot of wildflowers in spring, with the rocky shores of Plankiesbaai a perfect spot for sighting the visiting southern right whales, but my favourite corner is a little less glamorous.

I first visited the bird hides at Geelbek four years ago, and I return whenever I can. Overlooking the aquamarine waters of the Langebaan Lagoon, this is one of the best twitching spots in the south-west Cape.

The lagoon is home to thousands of birds escaping the Northern Hemisphere winter. It's such an important long-haul holiday for these feathered migrants that the lagoon has been named by Ramsar as a 'wetland of global importance'.

Blackberry or Blacksmith Plover

As we polish off a flask of coffee, I point out a few of the star birds to Tim. Long-legged godwits, whimbrels, curlews and greenshank are common, but there are also osprey and chestnut-banded plover if you're lucky.

Birding's not for everyone though, and before long Tim's more interested in his Blackberry than the blacksmith plover, so we hit the road.

I reckon road trips are as much about where you avoid as where you go, and on Route 27, I always keep well clear of Langebaan and Saldanha Bay: these charmless towns are more famous for tasteless holiday homes and iron ore terminals than picturesque scenery.

Paternoster, however, with its empty beaches and quaint fishermen's cottages, is one of my favourite spots in the area. A little over two hours from Cape Town, the village is named after the shipwrecked Portuguese sailors who recited their paternoster (lord's prayer) in the shallows when waves delivered them onto this sandy shore. Today, it's weekenders and semigrants – with their second homes at the coast – that escape here to wander on lonely beaches and soak up unforgettable sunsets.

Tim and I say our own prayer of thanks when local chef Kobus van der Merwe rescues us from our road-trip diet of chips and cola. An unabashed locavore, Kobus has turned west coast produce into a kitchen trademark at his family-run restaurant and farm shop, Oep ve Koep.

"I try and give each plate of food a sense of place, using local produce and food from the field," explains Kobus at our small garden table. Nearby, an old fishing boat enjoys a new lease on life as a herb and vegetable garden. "I don't think there's a typical west coast cuisine, but ingredients like crayfish, snoek and bokkoms are things that really set our cooking apart."

The sun is just dipping behind Cape Columbine Nature Reserve, five minutes from the village, as our hire car rattles down the road to our bed for the night: The Beach Camp.

Luckily, Tim isn't a gown-and-slippers kind of guy, for The Beach Camp is little more than a handful of A-frame wood-and-canvas tents. With gas showers, composting toilets and shade cloth flapping in the breeze, it's more Robinson Crusoe than Condé Nast.

It's rustic, and that's why I love it: no percale linen or satellite TV in sight. We cosy up at the bar by the light of paraffin lamps, while other guests behind us throw fish on the barbeque, or braai as it's known here.

In return for roughing it, Tim and I get front-row seats to the Atlantic and untarnished night skies. Tonight, the beam of Cape Columbine Lighthouse adds a certain charm to an area that can be described as a diamond in the rough.

There's plenty to keep us in Paternoster – kayak tours, seafront restaurants and empty beaches abound – but time is against us, so we're soon on the road again.

We make a stop outside the nearby town of Velddrif. Here, between the saltpans and fishing boats lining the Berg River, we crunch to a halt on the gravel path known simply as Bokkom Lane. This is the heart of the local bokkom industry, where thousands of haarders – also known as southern mullet – are salted and air-dried for sale across the coast.

"The haarders must lie in the salt for two days," explains local bokkom-maker Kiewiet Olivier. "After that we string them up and they dry outside for one week. Well, that's if it's windy."

I pay R8.50 (A$1) for a bunch of 10 and try snacking on them as we head for Elands Bay. They are, shall we say, an acquired taste.

A firing left-hand point-break

Our surfboards are covered in dust by the time we finally reach Baboon Point an hour later. A rare pimple on the smooth face of the west coast, the point bends powerful Atlantic swells toward the small town of Elands Bay. As the swell bends, it slows, peeling off into one of the world's finest left-hand surf breaks. It's cold and full of kelp, but when it fires you'll find surfers from across the globe jostling in the line-up.
Today though, that won't include us. It's an onshore foamy mess and not worth the paddle. We make a mental note to return in the summer and decide to head for the hills.

Two men, two surfboards and a dusty car are an unlikely sight in the flower fields of Nieuwoudtville, but it's hard not to be impressed by the annual display of spring flowers here.

Wandering across fields bursting with millions of tritonia, freesia, ixia, sparaxis and dierama bulbs, we feel like stars in some Afro-psychedelic Sound of Music. The hills are alive with the sight of blooming. Thankfully, Tim resists the urge to break into song.

In the distance, the craggy ridges of the Cederberg are our final stop on the long road back to Cape Town, and Bruce Springsteen's gravelly ballads seem a fitting soundtrack to the afternoon's drive through empty valleys and arid plains. Plains rise up into peaks until the long road delivers us over the Uitkyk (lookout) Pass and into the otherworldly sandstone formations of the Cederberg.

Driehoek farm is my favourite campsite here, and it's a great base for exploring the 71,000 hectares of the Cederberg Wilderness Area. There are quiet trails and high peaks aplenty; all you need is time, sturdy boots and willing legs.

Chatting around the campfire, we wonder if the farmer's dogs are barking because an elusive Cape mountain leopard is around. I've been coming here for 20 years and am yet to see more than paw prints in the sand, but even the mere possibility is a thrill.

These are leopards that keep their secrets to themselves; they play their cards close to their chest. Perhaps not unlike the west coast itself. As I say, it's not a place for instant gratification, but slow down, look a little closer, and you might just catch a glimpse of the wild, wild, west.

First Published: 2012-01-28 Get Lost magazine (Australia)

Who is OnAnotherPlane...

RIchard Holmes headshot web smallRichard Holmes is a freelance travel, food and lifestyle writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. His work on African and international destinations has appeared in a wide range of consumer publications both in South Africa and abroad.