The early morning sun warmed my back and cast a golden glow on the landscape. The air was fresh and fragrant, the peppery smell of fynbos mingled with a salty tang from the ocean hidden by the distant dunes. Birds called, creatures scuttled in the undergrowth and my feet kicked up little puffs of dust with each step.
My moving meditation was interrupted by a sharp command to STOP!
Our party of six watched in awe, and a little bit of fear, as two meters of a vibrantly patterned yellow and black puffadder slithered across out path and vanished into the bushes.
Welcome to the West Coast Way Wild Route’s Sustainable Seafood Track where nature is clearly in charge.
My adventure started the previous day with a 180km drive from Cape Town to Rocher Pan, an easy drive in a BMW M240i skillfully driven by Ernest Page. Mad wind tangled hair was a small price to pay for the freedom of an open topped car on traffic free roads as we made our way to the start of the Crayfish Trail.
What is the Crayfish Trail ?
It is a slack-packing trail that uncovers the secrets of the coastal towns and villages of the West Coast situated between Rocher Pan and Papendorp.
Three options are offered.
The Five Day Trail includes a total of 61km of hiking, wine tasting, home cooked meals and excellent dining in local restaurants, visits to ancient caves, bird hides and meeting local people.
The Two Day options cover between 20 and 25 km of walking and some of the attractions listed above, depending on which of the 3 routes you choose.
The third option allows the visitor to customize their own preferred routes from the five days offered, creating a 3 or 4 day trail covering the areas and terrain that interest them the most.
From a budget perspective, guests can choose between the Recreational Package which offers 3 star accommodation and foodie level cuisine, or the Subsistence Package where meals are still good but more casual and accommodation is in comfortable backpackers.
All the options include a guide from the area who will answer all your questions and provide insights into the local communities.
The trail is suitable for anyone with a moderate level of fitness and for children over 12 years of age. The terrain is mostly flat and walked on rough paths, jeep tracks, board walks, beaches and coastal hill paths.
What I loved about the Crayfish Trail.
The light, the air, the astounding views and the diversity of the terrain. The absence of noise, pollution, people and traffic, of all digital intrusion.
The slow living ethos of the West Coast Wild Route where life is savoured in long moments and the only time is right now.
Baboon Cave and Elandsbaai.
On the approach to Baboon Cave, also known as Cape Deseada, stories of the past whisper from the emptiness of abandoned buildings. A soaring concrete platform serves as a reminder of the radar station active during World War 2.
Barracks crumble in shame, crushed by memories of the migrant labourers who were housed here during the apartheid era.
We climbed up the hill to the cave and were drawn into the lives of the San hunter-gatherers and Khoekhoe herders and their ancestors who lived here thousands of years ago. Baboon Point and the cave have been proclaimed a Provincial Heritage Site and is the only site on the entire African continent where rock paintings can be found so close to the coast.
The rocks glowed in orange and red as the last light hit the point. We cracked open some Darling Brews, toasted the past, present and future and admired the views. A bit of yoga silliness followed and then all was still as we got caught up in the magnificence of nature’s art, a West Coast sunset.
The Wit Mossel Pot is sort of a lot of things, but not anything in particular. It is just Die Wit Mossel Pot.
It is partly a surf shop, restaurant, pub, backpackers, curio, clothing, ice cream, coffee kind of place. It also has décor that must be explored. Random signs, peculiar sculptures made from beer bottles and cement, and a piece of driftwood dressed in a bikini are just a few of the things to look out for. It’s a happy hippy retro shack with laid back smiles to match.
The wind almost blew my face off as I explored the cliff paths high above the sea. I could see how these craggy cliffs got their rugged appearance. Rough paths and structured walk ways lead to a labyrinth, a covered seat with endless ocean views, or down to the coves and giant rock accessed via a stony spit at low tide. This piece of coastline is so different to the endless beaches found to the north and south and I could have explored all day.
The harbor is a vibrant, lively clash of noise and colour. Orange and white rowing boats lie on the sand, out of work fishers come for a chat and a shared smoke, birds call and the engine of a boat attached to brightly covered pipes thrums. A converted factory at the start of the jetty proudly announces itself as Fryers Cove winery, not the most expected spot to go wine tasting.
I am no foodie, but this lunch was the best fish pie ever. It was the size and shape of a large chocolate cake, but made from quiche stuff, sort of. Inside was flaked snoek in a creamy sauce that tasted like ocean goodness. It was served with a fresh salad. Simple, divine and filling after a morning walking.
This hamlet of just 200 people should be a thriving community, yet it appears that the world has forgotten these folks.
Papendorp is a tiny settlement on a big river. Set back about a kilometer from the sea the few dwellings overlook the Olifants River, flood plains, salt pans and the abundant bird life. The river opens out onto an unspoiled beach, accessible only on foot. We took a leisurely stroll down the steps and onto the boardwalk that crossed the marshy area and the salt pans before hitting the path to the bird hide. The residents of Papendorp have permission to harvest the salt when the pan dries up during the summer months.
The bird hide is well maintained, and the views are spectacular. After the bright white of the salt pans and the dull brown tones of the fynbos, the burst of green and blue river and reeds viewed from the hide are an explosion of rich colours.
Vensterklip and Verlorenvlei.
Verlorenvlei is a World Heritage site of incredible natural beauty and huge archeological importance due to the caves and rock art found here. It is an IBA (International Birding Area), home to over 170 bird species. The wetland is a RAMSAR site. Vensterklip is a resort on Verlorenvlei owned and run by Jane Louw.
Jane bought the Vensterklip resort recently and while we could not fault anything, she was adamant that it is a work in progress and she still has so much to do. We stayed in the historic Louw’s Manor House, lovingly restored to its former glory. The original wooden floorboards gleam and creak, in perfect harmony with an en- suite bathroom and a modern well equipped kitchen. My favourite spot was on the covered stoep at the back of the manor overlooking the vlei. Sitting in my pajamas, hands clasped around a cup of coffee watching the sun rise and the horses grazing is a memory that will stay with me forever.
It is an idyllic spot for bird watching, horse riding, kayaking, walking, rock art, wild flowers or just relaxing in nature. The comically named “International Pub” is where you will make new friends and the Tin Kitchen, housed in a 300 year old barn, embraces the West Coast ethos of slow living and responsible practices, sourcing all their meat locally, growing their own veggies and serving generous plates of home cooked goodness.
Lamberts Bay and Bird Island
If you want fish and chips, Lamberts Bay is the place to go. The people are friendly, the fish is fresh, and they know just how to cook it. Isabella’s or the Weskus Kombuis are both highly recommended.
There are only six Cape Gannet Breeding colonies in the world and Bird Island is one of them. Access is easy as the island is connected to the mainland by a breakwater. Waves crash against the concrete bollards, but you still hear the Gannets before you see them. Thousands of birds all screeching as loud as they can before the wind whips the sound away.
I loved the design of the bird hide and having two levels is very clever. Thousands of birds are on the ground, necks stretched skywards, wings outstretched embracing the sun or all huddled up looking miserable and cold and they can be watched from the lower level while seated on comfortable chairs and protected from the elements by huge glass windows. It is from this level that I noticed their startling blue eyes, not something I expected in a bird. Pretty as they are, they make terrible models as they do not stay still for a second and photographing them proved to be way beyond my skill set.
The upper level has an open viewing window and the skies are busy. A continuous flow of birds taking off, landing or flying past, near misses can be seen at any given moment. A small museum houses some interesting exhibits but my personal favourite was the “Beach Man” standing about 2 meters high, dreadlocks blowing in the wind as he looks out to sea. He was constructed by the locals from driftwood and is quite beautiful.
At R40 per adult and R20 for children this is great value and a fantastic experience for all ages.
Coming from drought stricken Cape Town, the first thing that got my attention after the natural beauty and solitude, was the waterless toilet. I was fascinated.
The toilet is just the sitting on part, no cistern or flushing mechanism at all. Opening the lid was a bit of a shock initially as it is a deep black, odorless hole. Next to the loo is a small metal bucket filled with compost and a small wooden scoop.
Outside the loo, because yes, I did go to investigate, is a large PVC chimney that looks like this.
A small scoop of compost is added after every use and the lid is closed. No water is added, ever. The sold matter dehydrates, liquid evaporates and what little is left bio-degrades with the help of the compost. I even took a photo of the manufactures details because this is something worth considering, given that a regular toilet uses 8 or more litres of water with every flush. Check them out here
Three of us shared this bathroom and at no point was there any smell whatsoever from this loo. #JustSaying.
A hissing sound was coming from the roof of the carport. Snake, help, was my first fearful city dwellers thought, so I walked as fast as I could, away from the noise. Later that night Daniel called me to the sight of the hissing sound. There was a perfect Barn Owl, her exquisite white face peeping shyly out at us, then retreating and hissing loudly, protecting her young. That was another memorable moment, imprinted forever in my mind.
Rocher Pan is as dry as a bone. We walked to the bird hide about an hour before sunset, weavers chattered, swallows gathered, and a few sandpipers darted on the ground. That was it.
Walking back, we spotted a few bright red Bishop birds, but I think we saw more tortoises than birds that evening, those guys are everywhere.
Back at our chalet we met Sylvia Newman, an inspiring lady and our Chef for the night. Sylvia is part of a project that empowers local women by teaching skills to provide catering services to the tourism and hospitality industry in the area. This was real comfort food cooked with love and flair. Sylvia did something magical with spinach and pap and then produced a stew so hearty we were going back for seconds and thirds. Of course, we all somehow made space for home- made Milk Tart and coffee before collapsing in to bed.
These beaches made my heart smile. They stretched out in endless curves of blue and white, unspoiled by litter, crowds or noise. Just the sounds of the ocean, the gulls and the beating of my happy heart. I could have walked all the way back to Cape Town with a smile on my face.
I loved the roads, and the ever changing landscapes, all beautiful and so wide open, you can just breathe. The alternate routes are gravel and force you to slow down and take in the views. Some hugged the coastline, other followed the tracks of the Sishen- Saldanha railway line that brings iron ore from the North down to the massive steelworks at Saldanha Bay. All are worth exploring.
Weather facts, when to visit
Winter, June and July. This would be my first choice. Fog and mist are more likely to occur than rain and the cooler temperatures mean you can hike all day. Wind is rare in winter, this is good as wind is my least favourite weather. Storms at sea are wild and invigorating. Dramatic, loud, and magnificent.
Autumn is between March and May; cool temperatures make for pleasant hiking conditions and mist and fog create a great atmosphere.
Spring, August to October, is flower season where the region bursts into colour as wild flowers bloom, attracting visitors from hundreds of miles away. The temperatures are mild, but it can get windy, usually in the early afternoon, dropping around sunset.
Summer, November to February, wind is highly likely in the afternoons and can get strong and annoying. The itinerary in summer usually starts early as first light is way before 6 am, hiking can be done in the cooler mornings and indoor activities or relaxation is scheduled for the windy afternoons.
This trail is an all year round option depending on your personal weather requirements.
What to take
A comprehensive kit list is provided when you book. For me the not negotiable items are a camera, a sarong, hat, sunblock, bathing costume and water bottle.
The serious stuff.
The fishing industry is the core of these towns, all which form part of the Sustainable Food Track by West Coast Way and all the fishers here adhere to sustainable fishing methods which are defined as follows:
“Sustainable fishing is harvesting only as many fish as the fish stock can accommodate while maintaining its population at healthy levels.”
While on the trail you can learn about over-fishing, poaching and the plight of the now endangered West Coast Rock Lobster, locally known as Kreef or Crayfish.
These issues have a negative impact on the socio-economic health of the communities, and the guides are able to tell you how it affects their lives and that of their families, friends and neighbours.
Growing the tourism industry in this area is vital to ensure growth and economic empowerment for the people of these West Coast towns.
What I missed and why I will go back again and again.
More stories from Patrick Adonis and Chester Van Den Heever our guides who added such value to the experience.
The 5km hike including Verlorenvlei and a visit to ‘The Vensterklip’ .
Wine tasting at Fryers Cove in Doringbaai.
A visit to the Sir Lambert vineyards a few kilometers inland from Lamberts Bay.
A breakfast Bloody Mary at the Wit Mossel Pot in Lamberts Bay.
An attempt at surfing or body boarding Elandsbaai’s famous left break waves.
Kayaking on Verlorevlei.
A night at the “International Pub” at Vensterklip.
The town on Strandfontein. We were so busy we missed a whole town.
The Sandveld Museum in Lamberts Bay to try on the old clothes and learn about the fishing industry.
Lunch at the outdoor Muisbosskerm restaurant situated as close to the beach as you can get.
Learning about the abalone farm in Doringbaai.
Experiencing the Steenbokfontein farm and Tannie Kitta’s Plaaskombuis.
A traditional fishbraai.
Who would love this trail?
Serious hikers, nature lovers, casual walkers, photographers, birders, surfers, beach addicts and stressed folks needing to digitally de- tox. Families, foodies, eco-friendly people.
The West Coast Way Wild Route is great for car enthusiasts who want a good day drive on quiet roads with interesting stops en route.
Get yourself and your friends into the West Coast Wild Route and the Crayfish Trail.
It’s pure relaxation in nature and your only worry is trying not to trip over a tortoise.
See the video here.
Connect with the Crayfish trail via e mail: [email protected]