Leaving the West Coast Peninsula and now-familiar places like Saldanha Bay and Paternoster behind us, Bevan and I continued our exploration of the coastline. I was very confused though when I heard talk of Velddrif, Port Owen and Laaiplek - all of which seemed to refer to the same place on the map! It was only after visiting this area and exploring it that I understood the differences for myself. The common thread that ties these three places together is the mighty Berg River, an important estuary and natural harbour that allows for a life and economies built around fishing and the sea.
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Exploring the Berg River from Port Owen
Port Owen is a fairly new residential and holiday settlement built along a series of canals on the Berg River. The area had a definite holiday feel about it - maybe that had something to do with all of the pleasure boats that were anchored alongside the houses' private jetties?
Before learning about the industries and livelihoods built around the Berg River, we wanted to get to know the estuary for ourselves a bit more. We jumped aboard a boat for a cruise on the Berg River. Together with the other passengers, we cruised up the Berg River passing Velddrif and Bokkomlaan before turning a little bit further inland and heading back into Port Owen to explore the canals.
The Berg River is tidal and it is an important estuary system, being one of only four perennial estuaries on the West Coast. Historically the 294 km long river was even home to animals like the hippo but the last animal was lost in the mid 1800s. Upstream the Berg River is home to a number of endemic fish species including the Cape galaxias (Galaxias zebratus), the Berg-Breede River Whitefish (Barbus andrewi) and Berg River redfin (Pseudobarbus burgi), all of which are threatened by invasive species like the Smallmouth Bass (Micropterus dolomieu). A number of important marine fishes use the estuary as a nursery area.
The Berg River's varied habitats (most notably its mudflats) are highly important for aquatic birds that use the estuary to feed or breed. Approximately 127 waterbird species have been recorded from the lower Berg River, these including various plovers, Greater and Lesser Flamingo, terns, the White Pelican, African Spoonbill, herons and cormorants.
Exploring Velddrif and an introduction to bokkom
Velddrif is a fishing town built along the banks of the Berg River. Historically the Berg River was full of fish. Little by little, fishing families established themselves along the river banks and that is the origin of Velddrif today.
Velddrif is famous for bokkom, something that neither Bevan nor I had ever heard of before but after this trip are unlikely to ever forget! Mullet that are too small to be classed as harders are called bokkom, and these are salted and sun-dried into strips of fish biltong. The place to find this is Bokkomlaan, a small road that runs along the banks of the Berg River.
Bevan and I paid this area a visit while we were staying in Velddrif and got to see the fishermen in action. A big concrete floor inside a small warehouse was piled high with fish that had already been salted, and were in the process of being threaded onto roped bunches ready to be hung up in the sun. The deft movements of the workers was amazing, with the pile of loose fish quickly transformed into a collection of hanging bunches. What was also quite amazing was the overpowering fishy smell...
The end product is a small packet of dried strips of fish complete with a breath mint, ready to be sold. They no doubt represented an affordable, healthy source of protein, but to try them for ourselves took a little bit of convincing!
Laaiplek and the SA Fisheries Museum
Laaiplek is closest to the sea, at the mouth of the Berg River, and derives its name from being the place where the boats are offloaded, "laai" being an Afrikaans word that means "load". At the center of its activity therefore is the pier alongside which fishing trawlers dock to offload their catch and berth when they are not at sea. Laaiplek is also home to one of South Africa's two existing dry docks that service wooden hulled fishing boats.
Laaiplek is a very appropriate home for the South African Fisheries Museum which documents the history of commercial fishing on the West Coast. The museum itself is housed in one of Laaiplek's original buildings. In the 1800s Laaiplek was owned by Johan Carel Stephan of St Helena Bay, where he established a trading company that transported grain from the inland farmers via the Berg River to Cape Town.
The museum is a fascinating place to visit. Fishing memorabilia has been carefully curated into informative, interesting displays that detail the main sectors of the West Coast's commercial fishing industry. From the area's whaling history to its pelagic (long-lining, trawling and seine netting) and rock lobster fishery, detailed information is available to the visitor in a variety of displays that include fish processing equipment, detailed replica models of trawlers, photo and video displays.
Just a short drive further up the coast Bevan and I came across a real gem in Draaihoek Lodge and Private Nature Reserve. Our visit here gave us a taste of what the West Coast must have been like before any inhabitants. We walked the short path from the restaurant over the dunes to the beach and were met with a coastline that was vast and breathtakingly beautiful. What was even better, was that ours were the first footprints on the sand! White sand, calm clear water, a flock of seabirds resting on the shore and even dolphins - we felt like we had found paradise.
Once again, we would like to thank Gurshell and the team from the West Coast Regional Tourism Organization for all of their help on this leg.
Thanks too to the great service providers we encountered:
Tollie's Boat and River Cruises for an informative and relaxing afternoon on the water.
The SA Fisheries Museum - thanks Felicity for showing us around.
Skipskop - a great self-catering cottage in Velddrif, just a block up from the river.
Tranquility - an awesome holiday house on the canals at Port Owen.
Draaihoek Lodge and Restaurant - thanks for the amazing stay Marietjie and for a delicious dinner!
What to do next
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