This isolated stretch of land along the west coast of South Africa is one of its richest natural areas. Shell middens and Stone Age artefacts dotted along the coastline suggest that the west coast’s sea and mountains sustained early human life as long as 700 000 years ago, and later supported the San and Khoi people. The Khoi began herding sheep two millennia ago and were well-established herdsman by the time the Dutch settlers arrived in the 17th century.
The Portuguese navigator, Vasco da Gama, is said to be the first recorded European to arrive on South African shores, near the Berg River mouth, in a bay he named Bahai da Santa Elena (now St Helena Bay) after the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great. The west coast is well-known for its shipwrecks, with Paternoster (“Our Father”) said to reference the prayers of drowning Portuguese sailors.
Travelling north from Cape Town, inland towns such as Darling, Riebeek Kasteel, Porterville, Piketberg, Citrusdal, Clanwilliam and Wupperthal lead past a series of mountain ranges and wilderness areas, including the Grootwinterhoek, Koue Bokkeveld, and the well-loved Cederberg. Its magnificent, brooding peaks, crags and unusual rock formations and caverns were the canvases for the San and Khoi people, who left lyrical rock paintings documenting their lives and spiritual experiences.
The west coast has drawn waves of fortune-seekers over the years, with fishing, farming, whaling, guano, forestry and diamonds being among the major draw cards.
In the process, some of the area’s greatest assets were nearly exhausted by human demand, leaving a number of conservation concerns, such as the scarcity of the renosterbos (Swartveld) and the near eradication of endemic Clanwilliam cedars.
After years of exploitation, the Cederberg Wilderness Area now protects these rare and endemic species, as well as the Cape leopard, snow protea and the red and yellow Disa uniflora. Dainty antelope species roam the reserves, as well as baboon, tortoise, caracal, mongoose and bat-eared fox.
Back on the coast, the road leads through fishing villages such as Strandfontein, Lamberts Bay, Eland’s Bay, Velddrif, Langebaan and Yzerfontein. Paternoster, in particular, has maintained the aesthetic appearance and atmosphere of a fishing village, with whitewashed cottages and fishing boats strewn across its beaches, and is popular with travellers as a result.
With blazing blue skies, white sandy beaches and azure seas, the coastal towns have a much-vaunted Mediterranean feel. However, the west coast is different from the warm, easy going east coast, and can whip up a howling, biting wind, or set in with miserable rain and austere, desolate greyness.
After good winter rains, flower-lovers make pilgrimages to the west coast in spring (August to September) to enjoy the colourful splendour, which reaches its full brilliance in Namaqualand in the Northern Cape.