Fossils, fairies and fishing towns on the West Coast Peninsula

Posted on Posted in South Africa, Ultimate South African Road Trip, Western Cape

As we discovered early on our journey of exploration on the West Coast, this area is full of surprises and unexpected attractions. We spent some time exploring the West Coast peninsular region and discovered all kinds of unique activities.

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Exploring the West Coast Peninsula back in time

For starters, we visited the West Coast Fossil Park and spent some time being shown around the Langebaanweg fossil bed. This site was originally discovered when the area was being mined for phosphate. The mine closed down its operations at this site in 1993 and since then, local and international researchers have been hard at work here. In 1996, a fossil-rich 15 ha portion of the site was proclaimed a National Monument.

Researchers have dated the Langebaanweg fossil bed to approximately 5.2 million years (terminal Miocene/early Pliocene), a period after the dinosaurs and just before the appearance of modern animals. This site is recognised for its well-preserved fossils as well as being the most diverse fossil site from that period. It is particularly important for fossil birds and over 80 species have been found to date.

This site has provided researchers a lot of information about the climate and conditions of the area in those days. In the past, the West Coast had a subtropical climate characterised by grassland and riverine forest. The sea level was also much higher than it is today. Animals uncovered at Langebaanweg include the giant sivathere (short-necked giraffe) and hipparion (three-toed horse), as well as ancestors of the modern elephant, hyena, aardvark and others.

Although active excavations and studies at this site are ongoing, education of the public is a strong focus of the West Coast Fossil Park. Visitors to the West Coast Peninsula can go on a guided tour of the dig site, of which 80m² of the fossil bone bed has been uncovered and the bones left in situ for public viewing.

It was fascinating to be shown around the site by an expert in the field. We played at being paleontologists and tried our best to identify the fossils we could see. We also got shown around the West Coast Fossil Park’s laboratory and got a taste for some of the research that is being done here.

Paleontologist at the West Coast Fossil Park
A resident paleontologist shows us around the Langebaanweg dig site
Paleontologist with fossils
A scratch patch of a different kind – your turn to pick out the bones from the rocks
West Coast Fossil Park Display
Inside the West Coast Fossil Park’s research laboratory

Jacobs Bay and surrounds

Occasionally on our Ultimate SA Road Trip Bevan and I have been invited to join in with bigger groups for specific events (reminiscing about a great trail run pilot in iSimangaliso). We love the chance to meet new people and travel with friends for a change, and enjoy a dinner where it’s not just us and the crickets!

We were invited to join in on a tourism weekend away at the Jacobsbay Backpackers on the West Coast Peninsula. As well as a weekend of fun activities that included evening potjies and drum circles around the campfire, the main event was the unveiling of the Pixie and Fairy Village. This intricately-constructed walk through garden transports visitors into another world. It is a peaceful, wonderful place to visit.

The Pixie Village has been a three year labour of love by Mama Pixie and her husband, Gerrie. It was inspired by Mama Pixie’s childhood in KwaZulu-Natal, where the lush forests and streams made the perfect home for some enchanted visitors. She has lovingly created a home for her pixie friends at Jacobsbay Backpackers that will soon be open to the public.

We were allowed a sneak preview into the village. I was amazed at how intricate everything was, and the obvious attention to detail. Every time we entered, I spotted something new, from a little pixie face cheekily grinning up at me from the vegetation to a tiny footprint on the path in front of me. Plans for the opening of the Pixie Village include a tea garden, and with the option to overnight at Jacobsbay Backpackers I’m sure it will be a popular attraction in the area.

Jacobs Bay Backpackers
Jacobsbay Backpackers
The Pixie Garden Jacobs Bay
Inside the Pixie and Fairy Village
The Pixie Garden Houses
Such intricate detail everywhere you look at the Pixie and Fairy Village

We also took advantage of the opportunity to explore a bit of Jacobs Bay itself. This small town offers beautiful bays and rocky promontories as well as a large sheltered bay that acts as a natural harbour. It felt like the kind of West Coast Peninsula holiday town where a productive day would consist entirely of reading a book and walking on the beach – pure relaxation!

Jacobs Bay Beach on the West Coast Peninsula
Long beach walks on an unspoiled coastline await at Jacobs Bay
Jacobs Bay Harbour on the West Coast Peninsula
A sheltered bay – the perfect place to launch your boat

Exploring Saldanha

In contrast to tiny Jacobs Bay, the West Coast Peninsula’s nearby Saldanha is a bustling town on the shores of Saldanha Bay, the deepest natural harbour in the southern hemisphere. With its early roots as a fishing town, access to the harbour has attracted a lot of industry to the area. As well as a nearby steel mine, most of these industries are based around the sea. For example, Sea Harvest runs its hake trawling operations out of Saldanha Bay and has a factory located in Saldanha.

Saldanha Bay aireal view on the West Coast Peninsula
An elevated view over Saldanha Bay
Saldanha morning on the harbour
Saldanha Bay at sunrise

The bay is also decorated by lines of coloured buoys that bob in the calm sheltered waters. These are mussel and oyster farms, with mariculture being another important industry in Saldanha. Always keen to try something different, Bevan and I jumped at the opportunity to tag along on one of the oyster grower’s boats on a trip out to check the lines.

Oysters and mussels are filter feeders that trap food particles floating in the water. In the case of the Saldanha Bay farms, oyster spat are bought from suppliers and then grown out in the bay to market size over a period of a few months. On the other hand, mussel larvae are naturally abundant in the bay’s waters and are not bought from suppliers, but naturally settle on underwater substrates. Oyster and mussel growers make use of the bay’s sheltered waters to grow the oysters and mussels out to market size.

Farming activities include regularly checking on the growth and sorting the mussels and oysters by size, so ensuring that they are harvested at the right time. This is done by boat, and this was one of the boats that we hitched a ride on.

Cameras and salt water generally don’t play well together and we were initially a little cautious about getting too involved in the operations. Pulling up alongside a string of oysters or mussels, the buoy line and growing crates (in the case of oysters) or strings (in the case of mussels) is lifted out of the water by a pulley and the animals visually inspected before being lowered back into the sea. We also watched a team sorting harvested mussels on a floating platform, separating those of the right size to be sent back to the factory and keeping the smaller mussels that would be restrung and returned to the water.

For Bevan and I this was one of our favourite activities so far. We loved getting to experience a day in the life of an oyster grower. We gained a deeper understanding for the mariculture process and an appreciation of the multiple faces and uses of Saldanha Bay.

Oyster Boat at the Saldanha Harbour
Heading out to check on the mussels and oysters
Oyster Farmers checking the Farm
Lifting the growing strings to check on the mussels’ growth
Saldanha Oyster Farmers offloading mussels
Offloading the mussels, ready for the factory

We would like to thank Gurshell and the team from the West Coast Regional Tourism Organization for their help in putting us in touch with all the right people for our time in the area.

We would also like to say a special thanks to Colleen and the team from Jacobsbay Backpackers as well as Chelsy and the team from Nomad Africa for a great weekend away exploring Jacobs Bay.

Once again, a huge thanks to all those who have helped us and hosted us along the way:

Marriott’s Protea Hotel in Saldanha Bay – what a great location right on the water and a delicious breakfast buffet!

Jacobsbay Backpackers – a relaxed, well-equipped backpackers and now the only one with its own Pixie and Fairy Village.

The West Coast Fossil Park – thanks to Pippa for showing us around the dig and bravely fielding the hundreds of questions we threw at her!

West Coast Oyster Growers – thanks to SJ and his team who were so accommodating in showing us around a working oyster farm. Sadly this is not open to the public, although we think it should be 🙂

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