A week on the west coast of South Africa – beaches, mountains, birds and fossils.
Overview: 7 days, 1194 km
From Sendelingsdrift, where we camped for the night after crossing the river from Namibia (see the previous post for our Namibian adventures), it was another sandy gravel road down to the coast at Alexander Bay:
The mouth of the Orange River:
Our destination on Tuesday was the town of Springbok, around 300 km from Sendelingsdrift, which promised some much-needed food shops, a fuel station, and our next camp site:
The camp site was lovely until a large group arrived in a bus. At first, we thought it was a church group as both the bus and the pick-up truck & trailer that arrived with it had appropriate slogans on them. “Jesus is the answer”, proclaimed the trailer. “Yes, but what is the question?” wondered Mark…..
It soon became clear that this was no ordinary church group. A guy wandered past holding a large book and proclaiming at the top of his voice that Jesus was alive. As for the rest of them, they were a really noisy lot. Their group activity seemed to involve standing in a circle and shouting loudly in a way that I can only describe as being very much like a stationary New Zealand haka…..
Wednesday saw us driving further south in search of peace and quiet… We decided to head for Lambert’s Bay, which had been recommended by fellow campers we’d met at Kimberley. Lambert’s Bay seemed to be 50% fishing town and 50% tourist town:
The town did have a range of tourist accommodation, restaurants, a couple of souvenir shops and a municipal camp site.
The online reviews of the camp site were mixed. One reviewer was upset that professional fishermen were living at the site – as indeed they were. Compared to the group at Springbok, the fishermen were a delight. They go to bed at a sensible time, get up early and drive off to work – no repeated 20 second bursts of loud “pop music” from 6am….
The big attraction at Lambert’s Bay is Bird Island, which you can walk to across the top of a breakwater from the harbour. Bird Island is home to a colony of cape gannets:
There were small fluffy chicks, a lot of bigger chicks furiously flapping their wings in an attempt to fly, and adult birds.
Some of the chicks looked ready to take to the skies any day now, running across the beach whilst flapping their wings in a close imitation of the adult birds. One or two were even managing to keep aloft for a few feet. Some still hadn’t quite got the idea – the bird above thought that flapping frantically whilst periodically hopping an inch into the air might be the answer!
We also saw cape fur seals, terns, cormorants and gulls. Terns and gulls:
No penguins though…. Some literature still talks about penguins at Bird Island, and the souvenir shops sell t-shirts with “Lambert’s Bay” and pictures of both gannets and penguins on them. There was a sizeable penguin colony here at one time, but that’s history. The guano they used to burrow into was harvested from the 1840s onwards, seals and land-based predators are a problem, and so on….. They used to keep a few “retired” penguins in a pool in the visitor centre apparently, but that’s currently closed for refurbishment and the penguin pool is empty…. Oh well…
From Lambert’s Bay we headed slightly inland to the Cedarberg. We had the details of a few camp sites here; Mark picked one out that advertised walking trails…. The scenery in the Cedarberg was lovely:
The citrus farm where we camped is just coming into view in the photo above…. By this point, Mark had decided that the temperatures (back up in the high 30s; it had been cool down at the coast) and the terrain were not quite what he’d expected and so he’d happily give the walking trails a miss…
As it was too hot to want to do much, we decided to just spend one day in the Cedarberg then head back to the coast. We planned a brief stop at a place called St Helena Bay where Vasco da Gama landed in 1497. A monument was promised…..
Oh, what a disappointment! It’s poorly maintained, surrounded by rubbish, and in any case, what is it? The inscription on the central stone says that it was sent to South Africa by Portugal as a gift to commemmorate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Vasco da Gama. We have no idea what the significance of the tall stones is. My first thought was that if I’d opened the box from Portugal containing that lot, I’d have been phoning them to ask when they thought the statue might arrive…. Mark commented that he thought it’d be a big statue like the Christopher Columbus statue we saw at Huelva (old post here: holy heck, was that really over four years ago now?).
A bit further down the coast, Paternoster was pretty and clearly very touristy:
We spent Saturday night at a beach camp in the nature reserve just south of Paternoster:
Mark went off to test the water temperature and came back having dunked no more than a fingertip. Unsurprisingly (given that penguins seem quite happy in these waters), it’s cold….
Sunday turned out to be a major highlight of our trip so far. We’d noticed the West Coast Fossil Park on a tourist information leaflet we’d picked up but we didn’t know what it was. First impressions weren’t promising – a small sign, the usual hut and barrier, then nothing visible beyond that. Mark asked the lad manning the barrier how much it was to visit the park – he didn’t know! Oh well…. we registered, carried on past the barrier and down a gravel road, then suddenly came to a paved car park and a very swish modern building paid for, signs informed us, by lottery money!
It turned out that this is one of the richest fossil sites in the world! Why isn’t it splashed across all the guide books? The new building only opened at the end of 2018, so perhaps it’ll be more heavily marketed in future.
Inside the new museum:
We got a fabulous guided tour from the manager and lead scientist herself. This area is where the Berg River estuary reached the sea about five million years ago (sea levels were higher then; nowadays it’s a few km inland and the Berg River follows a different route). It’s thought that animals were carried down the river by periodic catastrophic events (flash flooding, for example) and their carcasses deposited in a small section of the estuary, where they were quickly covered and the moist conditions resulted in great fossilisation.
The site is known because there used to be a phosphate mine here and fossils used to be unearthed in the mining process (and many were, of course destroyed). After the closure of the mine, the site was donated to create the fossil park.
Here you can see the former mine area and a tent covering the dig site:
Inside the tent, we were astounded at just how densely packed the bones are:
Bones were pointed out to us belonging to all kinds of creatures (there are land animals and both fresh- and salt- water aquatic life here; fossils from over 300 different species have been found so far), including now-extinct cousins of the modern-day giraffe and elephant.
Outside, we got to do some sieving in what was basically waste left over from the mining operation. Even this was full of bits and bobs of bone. Mark found a rabbit tooth, which was declared a “good find”; the jaw of a small frog, found by someone else, was a “really good find”.
Our camp site for the next two nights was another municipal site, this time at Langebaan, which is a larger and seemingly quite wealthy town on the coast. We spent Monday exploring the West Coast National Park, which encompasses the Langebaan Lagoon just south of the town.
I had plenty of time to take the last photo whilst waiting for the tiny tortoise you might just be able to make out to cross the road!
Bontebok, eland and ostrich:
Flamingo and spoonbills:
The “information centre” was pretty poor but it did contain this, a cast of the “footprints of Eve”. These are a very rare example of fossilised human footprints, dating back 100,000 years or so:
Apparently, the original was cut out of the rock and is in the museum in Cape Town. I don’t recall seeing it, though if its importance wasn’t clearly explained it might well have passed me by…..
Phew – we’re now very nearly back in Cape Town after our mammoth tour of South Africa. We have six days remaining in which our plan is to check out the Cape Winelands – hic!