Wednesday, January 13, 2010

January 12, 2010 - West Coast Adventure

The lineup at Elandsbaai

Last Friday we had two goals: file our visa extensions and pick up a rental car. We took the train up to Wynberg and arrived at the Home Affairs office at 4:10, ten minutes after closing time, just in time to be turned away by a grumpy security guard. I explained that we just wanted to drop off our paperwork and passports, but she wouldn't let us in. She wouldn't speak to me, just pointed to the sign on the door that listed the hours of operation, including Saturday morning. So we made plans to come back in the morning before heading out to explore this corner of the country.

We managed to make it to the rental car office in Cape Town before they closed, and had some cheap and tasty Indian food before driving back to Simon's Town via the road along Chapman's Peak. Looking down at the spray flying off the water as bullets of wind tore off Cape Point, I turned to Sten with visions of knockdowns in my head and said "let's leave on a day when we have to motor around this cape." He readily agreed.

Saturday morning we picked up our laundry, loaded up the car, and drove back up to Wynberg, where the grumpy security guard was absent from her post at the door. We walked through the metal detectors and up to the counter where we found out that the officers who process visa extensions are only there on weekdays. Gosh that would have been good information to know . . . before we made a second trip. We tried to leave our passports and paperwork with the lady behind the desk, but she wouldn't take them. So we have to go back another day.

After grabbing a quick lunch from the grocery store, we sat in the car for a few minutes to eat and figure out what we were doing. It felt like we'd wasted half the day. And Sten realized that he had left something on the boat. So we talked about just going back to the boat for the night and getting an early departure the next morning. But it seemed like a waste of a day with the rental car, so we spread out the map and picked a spot to head towards.

We thought we might spend the night in Darling, as there was a vineyard restaurant there that we wanted to checkout. But as we drove Northwest from Cape Town towards it, I read that the restaurant was only open for lunch. Then we figured out that all the vineyard tasting rooms in the region closed early on Saturdays and were closed all day on Sundays. So we kept driving north, through a stark, glaringly bright landscape, arriving in Paternoster, a fishing village full of whitewashed, thatched roof holiday homes around 3pm.

That's when we discovered that rocking up in one of Cape Town's favorite weekend getaway destinations on the last weekend of the December - January holiday season without dinner or lodging reservations is about as smart as showing up in Newport the last weekend of August without prior arrangements. After calling all the guesthouses in town, we wound up out at the Beach Camp in the Cape Columbine Reserve. After driving out the sandy road, lined on either side with dry strandbos (weird cactus-like succulents and dusty grey-green plants with tiny leaves and startling bright orange flowers), we pulled up at the camp. With the blowing sand and somewhat military look to the place, it felt like we'd found ourselves in a scene from Beyond Thunderdome. We made our way through the windbreaks, to find someone to register with. While I would never have chosen to spend the night in a tent in a sandstorm, it turned out to be a very memorable experience.

After booking in at the camp, we headed back to town and managed to get a reservation for the first seating at the Voorstrand, the oldest restaurant in town. We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling the strand (beach) and sucking on blackballs (Sten's new favorite candy, discovered at the little winkel (shop) in Paternoster where we also stocked up on local wine from some of the closed vineyards we'd driven by). After an early dinner of seafood by the seashore, washed down with an unapologetically fruity and effervescent chenin blanc, we headed back to the Beach Camp.

While we had been in town, the rest of the campers had gathered around the big braai pit to roast their dinners. We grabbed a bottle of Riebeek shiraz and joined them. We were the only folks there who weren't Afrikaners, and the rest were only too happy to introduce us to their foods. We were offered tastes of whole grilled chicken, served with mushrooms and onions cooked in a potjie (a black pot pronounced "poy-key"), gemsbok shot in the Kalahari (which would have been delicious with a berry glaze), and crayfish curry, also cooked in a potjie. We felt awkward having nothing to share, but everyone else just seemed tickled to have some Americans in the camp.

Cape Colombine

When we went to bed, we wrapped ourselves in all the sheets and blankets we had with us, and a few beach towels for good measure. Overnight the wind died down and once the tent walls stopped flapping we slept pretty well. In the morning we drove down to Saldanha Bay to visit our friends Toni and Darren on Ovation. We had coffee with them and learned that they had found the quiet town of Saldanha a good place to get their yacht ready for the Atlantic crossing. They suggested a nearby fishing village for us to check out. So after wishing them well we headed towards Jacobsbaai.

Imagine waking up and finding this parked in your front yard

Driving over the hill and down into Jacobsbaai we were shocked to see a stack of shipwrecked barges dwarfing the quaint little town of black and white, thatched, whitewashed holiday homes and fishermen's cottages. Apparently this is what happens when you try to round the cape in winter and a serious storm sets up against a three plus knot current. After a really delicious calamari (known hereabouts as white gold) lunch at the hotel restaurant (the only game in town on a Sunday afternoon) overlooking the lagoon, my normally rule abiding husband was so curious about the wreck that he ignored all the yellow tape and "no beach access" signs to get a closer look.

While Sten was off ogling the wreck, I called a bunch of guesthouses in Elands Bay, the home of an excellent if somewhat fickle left hand point break, which according to the forecasts, was expected to start working the next day. Having learning a lesson from our accommodation hunt the night before, we decided not to head further up the coast, where the towns get smaller and smaller, unless we had a place to stay. I was starting to get discouraged when Katrina from Still Waters answered the phone. She seemed as excited as I was about the fact that she had a self-catering room for us in an annex to a 150 year old farmhouse on the edge of the Velorenvlei (lost lake) for 300 Rand a night (approximately 40 USD and less expensive than the very basic tent in which we'd spent the prior night). So I booked two nights for us, which would give the swell time to build.

Driving north through the harsh, desert-like landscape along the coast we passed only a handful of cars. Cresting the Bobbejaanberg ridge we were treated to the sight of a lush, green valley below us spreading out from the reeds, pelicans and herons lining the banks of the Velorenvlei. We drove out to the south side of Elands Bay to check out the surfbreak (which was so not working in the small swell that we couldn't even find it), before heading over to Still Waters to check out our room. We quickly decided the little guesthouse was perfect and moved in. Then Sten made us a round of BLAT's for dinner.

The following morning, as we waited for the swell to build, we strolled on the beach and watched the fleet of at least 100 cray (small clawless lobsters) fishing boats (powered mostly by oars) head out into the protected bay to set rudimentary traps for the apparently large local cray population. Then we went up to the slipway to watch them offload their catch. As the boats were pulling in, the swell built, so Sten decided it was time to give the wave a try. He put on his full wetsuit for the first time since New Zealand, and paddled out. He was having a good time until his exposed feet and ears started to seriously suffer. After an hour, he had to get out.

We headed back over to the slipway and purchased five small crays directly (and probably illegally) from the fisherman for $12 and had a lovely afternoon feast at our little cottage complete with an extremely nice Sauvignon Blanc from Lambert's Bay, just a few miles up the coast. We both got a few deep gouges in our finger tips but it was worth it. The meat wasn't quite as good as New England lobster, but it was the best clawless lobster we have had. Really cold water makes all the difference.

That evening, the swell peaked at around 5 meters. The southerly wind was howling, which made things difficult, but Sten gave it a go. The combination of cold water and wind caused his surfer's ear to flare up. A hood and some booties would have made a big difference. While he was off surfing, Katrina's partner stopped by with a bowl of crayfish salad for each of us. What a treat.

Cold water . . . good for lobster, not so good for thinblooded surfers

In the morning Sten got up at the crack of dawn to go check out the break. But he was disappointed to see that without a stiff offshore breeze to hold up the wave it was collapsing upon itself and very disorganized. So we packed up and headed south towards the Swartland wine region, which is known for its shiraz and olives. After trying a few wines and buying a few bottles we stopped for lunch at a deli. Over lunch I was reading a local wine magazine, and learned that 2009 was a stellar year for Sauvignon Blanc from the Durbanville region. So we detoured through there on our way back to Cape Town, where we needed to trade in our rental car for one with functional aircon.

Back in Simon's Town, where Mata'irea was safely tucked into the marina, we didn't even bother to unload the car, as we were taking off the next morning to head east towards St. Francis and Jeffrey's Bay. As we battled our way down the docks in 45 knots of wind, loaded down with a dozen bottles of wine for the bilge, the chilli bin and an overnight bag, we saw a couple wrestling with their roller furling jib. We asked if they needed a hand, but they said they had it under control. So we kept going. A few minutes later, Sten heard the sound of their jib snapping in the wind and shot out the companionway to help them. Before the rogue sail could be contained, a good third of it had been shredded by the howling wind.

Above us on the hillside a fire raged towards a ridge, beyond which a house sat helplessly in its path. Earlier in the day a swimmer had been taken by a Great White shark in Fish Hoek, just a few miles away. Under its veneer of civility, the Cape is still a wild place. As we climbed into bed (fully appreciating our latex mattress after a few nights away from it) we both put in earplugs to help us fall asleep over the sound of Mata'irea's straining docklines.

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