I’ve always wanted to be one of those people who migrate annually, following their favourite season into an alternative tropic. Unquestionably a fan of cold weather and warming comfort food, I would love to experience winter in a new place each year. Fortunately I had part of my dream come to fruition after I received the opportunity to spend the month of June on my beloved West Coast.
Winter on the Cape West Coast is solace personified. All lashing rain, moody ocean and bruised sky. Level 4 lockdown in South Africa meant that most folks couldn’t travel, but what with our permits we managed to leave the claustrophobia of Cape Town and escape to the little town of Dwarskersbos. Calling the beautiful beach house of Casa Blu’ home for the first part of our trip, we truly felt as if we were the last people left on earth. Wanting to capitalise on this solitude, we awoke each morning to a pearlescent pink sunrise and a beach devoid of human elements – people and their pollution. Treated to no less than three large cold fronts during our six week stay in this seaside hamlet, the pearly sunrises were often interceded by thick salt mists. Then we would get out of bed, quickly pulling on socks and coats for warmth and head out towards the roar of an unseen Atlantic. Dew droplets gathered on cobwebs laced over coastal scrub showed evidence of overnight jewelers whilst the scent of the sea permeated into my hair and the mist turned noses pink from the cold. Having only stayed at Casa Blu’ in the summertime, we soon discovered that the best way to keep warm was by taking a hot shower (replete with twin shower heads if one is feeling romantic and/or talkative) and ensconcing oneself either in front of the living room fireplace or in front of the oven. I opted for the latter and spent many a morning pottering in the kitchen, wrapped in my own cloud of contentment.
The beauty of winter on the West Coast is that one has the benefit of experiencing both sunny days and true Cape storms. On many an afternoon we took full advantage of Casa Blu’s verandah and ate snoek, fatty from winter seas and fried to perfection at the local chippie – Doepie’s – in Velddrif. One afternoon I pushed the boat out a little and bought Argentinian prawns, marinaded them in my signature peri peri sauce, grilled them and ate them with much gusto – crusty bread and napkins close at hand. Featuring possibly the most beautiful kitchen I’ve ever cooked in, Casa Blu’ treats the cook to an uninterrupted ocean view and a fully equipped selection of pots, pans and other accoutrements. From breakfasts of farm eggs eaten on Manna Sourdough to Sandveld lamb chops from the local butchery and braaied to perfection by Dawid, we certainly ate like kings. Getting progressively chubbier on buttery toast, hot takeaway chips and copious cups of hot chocolate, perhaps like a seal, I sense the oncoming cold and fatten up to keep warm. Although judging by the amount of jerseys I own, it’s more likely that I’m just a glutton.
In a poor attempt to keep off these COVID calories, we took to spending hours on the beach, combing for treasures washed in by the tide. Kelp gulls danced on the sand for white mussels, easily unearthing clams with their wide webbed feet and flying high with the unlucky molluscs in their beaks, only to drop the shells on to the hard ground below and ensure themselves a morsel to eat.
I collected the unbroken shells – tiny clams painted in pastel hues – in between finding crab carapaces bleached white by the sun and discovering an intact seal skull amongst a flotsam of seaweed. Once again we were mesmerised with this place, the colours, the scent of salt, the constant roar of the ocean. Speaking of shells, six weeks in the same town afforded me the opportunity to explore corners of Dwarskersbos and Velddrif that I never knew existed. Hidden in the marshland close to Die Plaat, we stumbled upon the bones of a house built from sea shells and river mud.
Gutted of roof, floor, window and door frames, the skeleton stood open to the elements, the flaking plaster painted in nursery pastels the only evidence that someone had once loved it. Down on the Laan, bokkoms were taken out with the sun and brought in with the clouds, the pelicans posed for pictures outside the fishing houses and the Berg River flowed swollen with winter rain from up country. I’ve often mused that the appeal of somewhere like this is that time moves slowly – there is still little development or change to Velddrif and I pray it stays this way.
Part Two of our sojourn saw us move to another seaside sanctuary – the aptly named Deus Benedicat. Settled in the sand mere metres from the ocean, we made our home between its whitewashed walls, settling in to the slow pace that life on the West Coast affords. I received a glut of Cape lemons – the knobbly-skinned kind – and used them to make marmalade as well as a roast chicken flavoured with their juice and fresh rosemary. On a trip up to Elandsbaai we came across fishermen selling fine fat Cape Bream and braaied those with the green chilli and garlic butter from my cookbook. Pizza was attempted in Deus Benedicat’s domed oven but we admitted failure and rather patronised See Kaia – a brightly painted takeaway spot in Dwarskersbos that soon became our local due to their excellent slap chips, massive hamburgers and delicious pizza.
Days were whiled away with explorations down long dirt roads, lunches of roasted pumpkin soup followed by afternoon naps and evenings spent in front of the fire with red wine and long conversation. We visited Aurora – the most picturesque little Sandveld town hidden in the mountains – and I introduced Dawid to Redelinghuys. Fields turned green by the rain hosted flocks of new mothers, their lambs at their sides, soft ears shining pink in the sunshine. Well-covered cows in their woolly winter coats grazed on early suurings (sorrel), although unfortunately June was a little too early for veldkool (wild asparagus). I partook in my preferred pastime of gentle trespassing to get the best angles of abandoned farm houses and once we braved the dirt road up to Doringbaai and Fryer’s Cove. I’ve previously covered my love for this seaside vineyard and cellar – as well as my adoration/addiction for their Bamboes Bay Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. Wine aside, we arrived to witness the snoek boats coming in with the morning’s catch. Little fishing vessels known as bakkies brought in the snoek, with the fishermen carrying the torpedo-shaped predators four at a time to the slipway to be gutted, vlekked and sprinkled with coarse snoeksout to dry out the flesh. Purchasing a snoek directly from these fishermen and taking it back to braai was one of the highlights of the trip – I’d never before eaten snoek that fresh!
While certainly not weather for swimming, a West Coast winter does provide the weary traveller – or in our case, the cabin-fevered – with the opportunity to rest, recharge and rediscover oneself. Devoid of the holiday crowds, towns like Velddrif and Dwarskersbos retreat into peaceful hibernation, revelling in the silence by taking long walks beside a storm-tossed sea.
In a bid to introduce South Africans to the joys of local travel, I would highly recommend eschewing the usual pull of December’s blue skies and sunshine and rather opting to take the time for a mid-winter adventure. Whether the West Coast or beyond, supporting local accommodation, small businesses and artisanal food producers in whichever way we can is so very necessary. In order to uphold our tourism industry, opting to keep your travel local and exploring the smaller towns may make all the difference in keeping independent experiences alive.
Plus there’s the benefit of sampling all that deliciously fatty winter snoek!