Friday, January 8, 2010

Unpolished Eland's Bay

The wind was picking up from breezy to howling. I had been sitting on the beach, enjoying a pleasant moment alone and view of the beach from under my gazebo until it nearly blew away. With one super gust it started to flex and I jumped up to put it away before it could break. It seemed to take forever to fold the frame down and I tried to stay focused even with the flapping of the cover in my face and the wind pulling in all the wrong directions. I must have been quite an entertaining sight to passersby, dealing with all of this on my own, but to my amazement they seemed not to notice me and my flapping gazebo at all, like I was invisible. I finally managed to get the thing down and packed it away to safety, and even though I was covered in dust and sand, and had somehow lodged a thorn in my foot, I couldn’t help feeling a little triumphant.

I turned back to the view of the beach, littered with piles of dried kelp, empty mussel shells and the odd crayfish tail. The sun was setting behind the mountain, a misty haze filtered the air and a set of perfect waves were peeling down the line – one of the best left-breaks around. I was in Eland’s Bay on the West Coast of South Africa, an out of the way place with a subdued charm that would be easy to dismiss at first glance.

A rough-and-tumble town, Eland’s Bay makes no effort to cover up its soul as a true fishing village. The Crayfish Factory at the Point is the center of activity for a salty bunch of fishermen who wear standard-issue green overalls and operate weathered row boats out to sea, the same kind you find being used as decorative lawn ornaments all over the West Coast’s more touristy neighborhoods, placed like maybe they had washed up in that spot a hundred years ago never to be disturbed again.

Church Street holds most of the town – a hotel with a restaurant and bar, and a few small shops where you can buy basic essentials noted on the sign-board outside, like “braai hout” (firewood), “vleis” (meat), “melk” (milk) and “brood” (bread). You can get by with English but if you really want to connect with the locals you’d better brush up on your Afrikaans.

We had planned to camp at the local caravan park, located right at the beach. But with a growing gale-force wind and the sense that I was being exfoliated away by the airborne sand, we needed a back-up plan. We decided to enquire about accommodation and by a stroke of luck there was a cancellation! I wondered if the weather forecast had anything to do with it? The sense of relief was pure joy as we went from feeling stranded outside in a dust-bowl to jubilation.

We stayed in a cabin, more of a Wendy-house on stilts. It was tiny and looked to be built with the love, sweat and tears of the owner himself, nail-by-painstaking-nail. The place had no-frills yet everything you need for a perfect weekend away – a view of the sea framed by the Babbejaan Mountains (“Baboon Mountains”) to the left and Verlorenvlei (the “Lost Marsh”) on the right, one of the largest natural wetlands along the West Coast*, where sunrise breaks through the morning fog to reflect pink, yellow and orange. The peaceful quiet is broken only by the occasional passing of a freight train that runs through the center of town on its way north towards Namibia.

The beach in front our bungalow was a perfect launching point for our kayak, with a few channels of calm-water opening up between the waves. We readied the kayak and our fishing gear, hoping to come back with some of the West Coast’s famed sea-fare, and waited for an ideal moment when the water was at it most approachable. When it was time we took off, paddling hard and fast to get through the arriving set of waves. The walls of water came rising towards us lifting the kayak higher and we crested each one of them but only just in time. Not in the mood for a swim, we kept up the pace and paddled hard with deep full pulls in unison until we reached the backline. After a quick celebration and a few breaths we dropped our fishing line and trolled around, visiting the surfers in the water who were waiting for the next set, and then watching them take off with hoots and laughter. It was nice to experience Eland’s from this vantage point and share in the excitement of the moment.

We paddled back towards the Crayfish Factory and two fishermen in a row boat, about to go off on a mission. They were friendly and chatted with us about our fishing efforts, telling us about some magic spot 5-miles away where we could “definitely” catch the crayfish we were dreaming about. We said maybe next time, it seemed a bit far and they laughed as they began their paddle away.

Back on land we decided to go for a walk up in the hills where you can visit a Bushman Cave, just south of the Point on the “wild side” that’s unsheltered by the bay. You reach the cave after only a few minutes uphill from the road and its opening forms a perfect arch that looks out towards the sea. Inside, the walls are filled with 5,000-year-old** traditional rock art including paintings of antelope like the Eland, sheep, fish and silhouettes of people. The most incredible paintings though, are the hundreds of red handprints, all over the wall, seeming to reach out towards you from another age.

The beach below the cave is a gathering place for what seems like hundreds of seagulls, cormorants and other types of birds. We walked towards them and caused quite a stir, with crowds of them squawking and taking flight as we approached. No matter what direction we took a new path opened up and I imagined, in a mischievous kind of way if Moses might have felt like this crossing the Red Sea. When we finally made our way to the water’s edge I understood what all the fuss was about – a storm had brought up a big swell the week before and with it thousands of mussels had washed onto the beach, still alive and fresh from the sea. The birds were gathering the mussels, flying high in the air and dropping them on the rocks below, breaking them open for easier eating. Some of the shells were as big as my palm, the biggest I’d ever seen – and we immediately took our opportunity to gather a few treats for ourselves.

Happy and sun-burnt we returned to our little bungalow on the beach, grilled the mussels on a hot fire, enjoyed a glass of cool champagne and watched the sun set. A seafood lunch and an amazing view, it was the perfect finish to a West Coast getaway.


No comments:

Post a Comment