Exploring the West Coast | 240km

The West Coast of South Africa.

Saldanha

Saldanha is the first destination on your South African holiday along the West Coast. It has a long, interesting maritime history dating back to 1601 when Dutch sailor Joris van Spilenberg sailed past the bay. Mistaking it for Aguada de Saldanha ('the watering place of Saldanha', after the Portuguese admiral António de Saldanha) - the early Portuguese name for Table Bay - he recorded the name Saldanha in his logbook, while the bay originally named Aguada de Saldanha was renamed Table Bay.

In 1670 French warships sailed into the bay, attacked the Dutch outpost on Schaapen Island and hoisted the French flag. Eleven years later, four Dutch cargo ships lying at anchor in the bay fell into the hands of an English fleet, and in 1799 the Dutch admiral Engelbertus Lucas surrendered his fleet of 14 vessels to the British. During World War II, the bay was used as a staging point for Allied convoys and became an important naval base for South Africa.

Saldanha is an important export terminal for iron ore, which is transported from Sishen in the Northern Cape along an 860-km-long railway line. The ore tipper station in the harbour has a capacity of 8 000 tonnes an hour. Just outside the town is Saldanha Steel, a R7-billion steel mill, which has a capacity of 100 000 tonnes of hot-rolled steel coil a month.

Langebaan

The history of Langebaan is closely related to that of nearby Saldanha. Founded around 1870, the name Langebaan is translated as 'long track' or 'long course'. The origin of the name is somewhat obscure, with no fewer than four explanations. In 1909 a whaling operation was established at Donkergat, northwest of Langebaan, across Saldanha Bay.

Following the demise of the industry in the 1930s, fishing became an important economic activity. Langebaan is a popular resort town, Club Mykonos and the Strandloper restaurants being two of its attractions. Langebaan Lagoon 3 and Saldanha Bay offer a variety of watersports.

West Coast National Park

Centred around the Langebaan Lagoon, the West Coast National Park covers 30 000 ha of wetlands, strandveld and unspoilt coastline. The 5 600 ha lagoon ranks as a wetland of international importance and supports up to 50 000 waterbirds at times - regularly, there may be as many as 30 000 migrant waders present. For birding enthusiasts, there are two bird hides overlooking the lagoon and one in the salt marshes.

Nearly 250 000 coastal seabirds are attracted to the five islands in Saldanha Bay. Malgas Island is one of only six breeding colonies of the Cape gannet (Morus capensis), with up to 20 000 breeding pairs, while the Saldanha-Langebaan area supports 12 per cent of the world population of the African black oystercatcher (Haematopus moquini). Marcus Island, in turn, is home to the largest African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) colony in the world.

The Postberg section of the park is famed for its magnificent display of spring flowers, especially its gousblomme, a collective name for several species of the genera Gazania and Arctotis. This section of the park is open only during the flower season (August and September). The lagoon is popular with a variety of watersport enthusiasts, and most watersports are permitted in the multifunctional zone at its northern end.

The focal point of the park headquarters at Geelbek is the Cape Dutch manor house dating back to 1860. The Geelbek Gold Fields Environmental Centre offers a range of courses for educational groups.

West Coast Fossil Park

The fossil-rich area of Langebaanweg is internationally known for its wealth of fossils of extinct animals, dating back between seven and five million years. At this time, the shoreline extended to Langebaanweg which was situated at the mouth of an early Berg River, and the prevailing warm and moist climatic conditions supported lush vegetation.

Fossil bones of over 300 species of vertebrate and invertebrate animals have been unearthed to date; among them are mammals such as a bear, sabre-toothed cats, three-toed horses and short-necked giraffes, as well as fish, birds and reptiles. The site was mined for phosphates until 1995, and a 14-ha area was declared a national monument in 1996. Since the park is still being developed, visits are currently by appointment only, but guided tours will be conducted on a regular basis once the park is fully operational.

Tours last about two hours; during the winter months excavations are carried out. Visitors on a South African holiday have the chance to view the process of uncovering the fossils. A number of interesting fossils, including a cast of the Saldanha skull, is displayed in a small, fascinating information centre, which also includes information on the rehabilitation of the phosphate mine.

Velddrif

Situated about 6 km upstream from the mouth of the Berg River, Velddrif has been an important fishing centre for over a century. The town is especially known for its bokkoms, a typical West Coast delicacy. Harders (mullet) caught in nets in the Berg River estuary are salted and then dried in bunches, an activity that can be seen at the drying sites upstream from the town.

The lower Berg River is an important wetland for waterbirds, which constitute just over half of the 250 bird species recorded to date. At times, over 20 000 birds are attracted to the estuary and its floodplains.

St. Helena Bay

...was named after the mother of Roman emperor Constantine the Great by the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama, who landed here on 7 November 1497. A monument was erected just east of Stompneus Bay in 1969 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Da Gama's birth, while the Vasco da Gama Nautical Museum at Shelley Point depicts his voyage around the Cape of Good Hope in search of a sea route to India. St Helena Bay is the centre of the country's fishing industry and is also noted for its catches of rock lobster and snoek.

Paternoster

...a typical West Coast seaside village with small whitewashed fisherman's cottages, is known for its crayfish. The Latin name means 'Our Father', and it is generally assumed that the village was named after the prayers said by shipwrecked Catholic sailors. The earlier name, St Martin's Paternoster, was used on maps until 1693.

Cape Columbine Nature Reserve

This scenic reserve, with its rocky bays and granite boulders, covers 263 ha of sandveld vegetation and is especially attractive in spring. Dominating the reserve is the Cape Columbine Lighthouse, which has been in operation since 1936. Built on an outcrop known as Castle Rock, the lighthouse features an unusual square tower instead of the more conventional tapered round tower. The picturesque Tieties Bay, immortalised by the Afrikaans writer Pieter Pieterse, is a popular summer holiday destination.

Vredenburg

The last leg of your South African holiday on the West Coast leads to Vredenburg, located in the centre of a prosperous wheat and wool farming area. It was laid out in 1883 near the site of a freshwater spring that gave rise to constant quarrels between two neighbouring farmers. In 1875 a church was built, and, as the church often had to settle disputes, it was decided to rename the village Vredenburg ('town of peace').

In 1975 the municipalities of Saldanha and Vredenburg were amalgamated, and since then St Helena Bay, Paternoster, Jacobsbaai and Stompneus Bay have been incorporated into the West Coast Peninsula area, at one time South Africa's largest municipality.

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