West Coast wandering

There’s always some reason to take a road trip, but recently there have been so many it would be useful to have a camper van at the ready rather than piling four or five bags into the car just to ensure nothing is left behind. Apart from the requisite flask of tea, hard-boiled eggs and Marmite sandwiches (emergency rations), there are cameras, binoculars, bird books, writing stuff (never leave home without a pen and paper), phone, tablet, charger, and the usual contents of a handbag, bar the kitchen sink. Water and cloths are essential for cleaning the inside of the windscreen, sticky hands and general spillage that comes with eating in a moving car!

Google Maps has replaced the traditional folded paper map, which is a boon for those needing a magnifying glass to read the fine print. However, a good data signal is needed if you haven’t had a preview peek, and in South Africa this can be lacking in the most odd places. A very useful tool is the estimated time to destination, and with many ongoing roadworks in the Western Cape, you are sometimes able to make an informed decision on the route to take.

Despite the four bags of essentials, no road trip is complete without a stop at a roadside farmstall or two. On the West Coast road, the Ou Meul farmstall on the right-hand side as you leave the last of the suburbs behind is an obligatory pitstop. Famed for their pies, be sure to take a full wallet or empty credit card and stock up for the trip with extras for home. The pecan pies are themselves worthy of a visit. At the same time you can take a bathroom break and fill up the tank, and you are then ready to go.

The West Coast road up to Langebaan is excellent and on an Easter Sunday morning a pleasure to drive on with few cars out – it was not yet 8 o’clock – and in no time we were turning into the approach to Langebaan, which I remember as a sleepy lagoonside village. Having not been there for many years, it was sad to see the seemingly endless housing developments, treeless and overwhelmingly ugly (although this doesn’t necessarily mean the residents are unhappy to live there). On reflection and considering the natural vegetation and topography of the area, there wouldn’t have been any trees anyway and there aren’t any views obscured, so it could be worse. The strangest sight was a tiny steenbok standing in an open lot next to a small shopping centre – evidently unaffected by development in its habitat!

Opposite the new housing is a disused quarry where a pair of Verreaux’s eagles have taken up residence, rearing a chick most years and providing bird lovers with incredible close encounters with these majestic birds. A dirt road takes you to the base of the quarry and a short scramble will get you up onto the edge where the pair roost either near the nesting sight on the cliff face or on a man-made structure such as a satellite dish! A pleasant hour was spent in their company before heading towards the older part of Langebaan and on to the West Coast National Park.

The old farmhouse at Geelbek is worth a visit to admire the architecture of this well-restored national monument (built, I believe, by a relative) and famous for once having the largest private wine cellar in the country as the Governor-General at the time was fond of his wine. Having not eaten there in some years, I cannot comment on the restaurant offerings and as stated above, was already amply stocked with refreshments! A little homework on Tripadvisor is useful.

The bird hide at Geelbek is world renowned for facilitating viewing of many species of wetland birds, some travelling from Siberia to escape the harsh winter and enjoy the plentiful supply of food in the lagoon. Many rare vagrants pop in for a flying visit, and if you are lucky to be there when a knowledgeable birder is peering through a scope, you are bound to be able to add some to your life list. We were not lucky and will try another day – no need to find an excuse to visit again. Make sure to check the tide table if visiting the hide; three hours either side of low tide will allow the mudflats to empty and the birds to arrive in flocks.

At a distance of around 90km from Cape Town, the West Coast National Park should be on everyone’s radar.

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