I’ve previously mused on my love for the West Coast – that stretch of coastline that runs from Blouberg Beach all the way up to the border of Namibia. Windswept, salt-scented and breathtakingly desolate with the cold Atlantic ocean continuously polishing the powder-fine sand, the introspective quality of the area can often become overwhelming. But for the soul seeking solace, the mournful screech of gulls at the seaside to the call of a fish eagle over the Berg River at dusk can be renewing – a feeling I indulged in during a recent weekend away. Lately I feel that I am drawn to places that seem to be slowly dissolving away over time. I don’t say this as a bad thing, I’m just attracted to a simpler way of life. A landscape devoid of housing developments, parkades, malls and fast-food outlets but rich in thinking space, unquiet silence and harsh beauty.
Velddrif – a small fishing community found at the mouth of the Berg River – played host to the getaway that saw me creating a few new memories. Wanting to take full advantage of simple pleasures, I was happy to discover Heron’s Rest Guesthouse, a refurbished farm labourer’s house that offers self-catering accommodation in the form of four en-suite bedrooms, a plunge pool, lapa and smaller guest cottage. Almost right on the river, and surrounded only by neighbouring farms and a few abandoned yet terribly picturesque old houses, there is not a shopping complex in sight. A dirt road leads you in and even the cellphone reception is sporadic. Of course, who needs technology when you’re able to sit on the veranda under a corrugated iron afdak, watching the gibbous moon rise over the silhouetted bluegum trees and listen to the muted trundling of the distant night train.
To most city folk, the town itself does not have much to offer – there is the usual collection of slightly dated OK Bazaar’s and other convenience franchises along with a few coffee shops and bars, some embracing the West Coast aesthetic by white-washing their walls, offering outdoor seafood barbecues for authenticity and serving bokkoms with craft beer and others that just seem tired – their laminated tablecloths sticky with disinfectant and bottled salad dressing. The only hotels, the Laaiplek and the Riviera, have been redone in that benign, palatable way that has destroyed any resemblance to the retro watering holes that they were in my father’s day. I know that forty year-old carpets in any public establishment is an anticlimax, but part of me wishes that these town stalwarts had somehow remained unchanged. Lack of change is what attracts me to Velddrif, or at least the fact that the small amount of alteration that has taken place is minimal.
Bokkom Laan, situated along the right bank of the Berg River, is one of the town’s most iconic attractions, where the original fishing huts used for processing and drying small harder fish into Velddrif’s most aromatic delicacy still stand virtually untouched. Other than the fish houses that still churn out vast amount of bokkoms each season, a few businesses have sprung up within these structures, but what with historical limitations placed upon them, they have been able to retain their rustic allure and simple architecture. Velddrif is a far cry from the overpriced eateries of Paternoster or the psuedo-Tuscan second homes of Yzerfontein. I am grateful for this. Even as an outsider, it would burn should the wrong sort of developers get their teeth sunk into this particular part of the world. Expansion aside, the river itself is a large drawcard to this little town. Running from it’s source in the Drakenstein mountains, this wide and temperate body of water is home to the most abundant birdlife at the mouth – pale pink flamingos wade over the mud-flats, fishing for sand shrimp, while blue herons and snowy egrets emerge from the reeds that flank the water’s edge. The best way to take in the birdlife is from the river. Taking a cruise up to the railway bridge, past the cottages at another self- catering spot – Kuifkopvisvanger, and the salt flats of the Cerebos and Khoisan companies, to stop at the exact spot where three years before, we had scattered the ashes of my father in his favourite spot along his beloved river. It was in that same spot that we observed a fish eagle – a rare and lucky sight. Sitting unmoving atop a fence and facing into the wind as if deep in thought, seeing the eagle from across the mauve scrub seemed a stronger sign than ever that my father, in some other form, was still there.
There are so many aspects of Velddrif that have not changed at all between my childhood and adult consciousnesses. From the Velddrif Yacht Club house, with its smell of sun-bleached canvas and damp swimsuits, and the small drawing of my late grandfather sulking on the jetty as his boat sank, to the river moss that floats so eerily in the shallows and the primordial mud that squishes through your toes when wading out into the river’s cool green water have all shaped my fondest memories. There is the all-pervading scent of bluegum trees and woodsmoke in the air and the distinctive call of the laughing dove heralds long lazy afternoons spent with friends. Houses are small but inviting, with gardens filled with succulents and bordered by rusting chainlink fencing, their paths made up of crushed seashells. After summertime’s lethargic daytime heat, there is always activity on the surrounding stoeps as people take advantage of the cool evening to braai fresh fish over the coals, share anecdotes and listen to the small old sounds of the night, faint as moth wings.
Time moves slowly here – the Berg Wind that blows over this part of the coast is warm and fragrant, causing small white horses of foam to run steeplechase over the river and the pepper willows to whisper into the dry air. Head through the town to the harbour mouth and walk along the finger of concrete that juts so austerely out into the ocean, the beacon giving a sense of stability to the icy currents surrounding it. Further out is the stilted island fortress that many a childish piratical daydream has been centred around. The last remaining wooden platform was in place to collect guano, but when seen from the shore it takes on a wholly more mysterious allure, as if constructed years before by some marooned traveller. In the centre of the town sits Port Owen – a late Seventies resort featuring manmade waterways and timeshare suites – but also the place where my family first laid down roots along the West Coast. My father had the very first house here. A small retreat right on the riverfront that saw many a summer weekend, crayfish braai, mud fights between my brothers and Dire Straits on repeat. Although the fuzzily-shot film photographs are the only evidence I have of this period in time (I had yet to come into creation), the feeling of anemoia I get from looking at them creates my own interpretation of what halcyon days these must have been.
This is a place of mystery and of extremes – something that was rediscovered through the biting cold of my June stay, the misted sunrises and the amount of stars able to be seen on crisp nights. The stillness of the evenings, the friendliness of the locals, their stories ever at the ready to be told. The history of my family embedded in a place that has the power to simultaneously make one remember the past but yet easily replace old recollections with ones sharper and more distinct. The West Coast has captured my imagination, but Velddrif will forever hold my heart.