The sight of a massive, pristine sand dune, inland from the Atlantic coast and surrounded by hardy bush, is one surprising sight on the R27 home. Feeling a little bloated from fish coated in a disturbingly yellow batter, and chips which I hope were made from those prize local Sandveld potatoes (hiding beneath the spartan soil), I am bemused by the uncharacteristic grey skies above, which, today, make the whole setting resonate with some cross-dimensional intrusion from an inadequate north European seaside holiday. Perhaps the one I had on my 8th birthday, eating sausages in Belgium in the rain.
If South Africa is the most beautiful country in the world, officially, then the officials probably visited the West Coast/ Weskus in the spring, when a smorgasbord of flowers drown the mixed metaphors of travel writers. At other times of the year, the specialness of the region is a little harder to nose out. And the moonscape close to Koeberg, Africa’s only nuclear power plant, probably needs to be regularly ignored. My daughter reveals that she took this name rather literally in the past, imagining some kind of enclosure for rampant radioactive electricity-generating vegetation. There was a veld fire around here recently, it seems, and the impact on these sandy flatlands is more dramatic than in the mountains: bush cover reduced to charred stumps in the midst of sandbanks. Elsewhere, by contrast, the wind farms of tomorrow are beginning to dart across the low western hills.
Yet there is a precious wildness, when one gets away from Koeberg, or from Saldanha (that dark Satanic mill at the steel-making end of the interminable Sishen train line). Even Velddrif, where we stopped in the Easter takeaway queues for those fish and chips, had its share of gulls eager for the scraps my children threw, while coasting proudly into the windy gusts off the Atlantic, or racing down to the beards of seaweed clutching at the shore. We looked at the ocean and talked of the lives of albatrosses, riding the air in a way so foreign to us landlubbers.
The West Coast has featured rarely in my travels, and perhaps because of this the memories it evoked today were strong ones: riding our way across that bridge over the mouth of the Berg River, here where it emerges so far from larney Franschhoek, spotting the pyramids of salt, and flamingos in the pink pans, like further up in Namibia at Swakopmund. And we pass the game areas: !khwa ttu San heritage park (where I once took 10-year olds on an exciting adventure into Bushman culture); the West Coast National Park, with its riot of birdlife and wetlands. Close by, camping long ago (before children) with my lovely young wife, we’d gone horse-riding on a beach, an experience she was skilled at, and at which I was a complete novice, taken for a gallop, careering up the other rocky side of the beach, and staying on most likely through the sheer folly of not expecting to do anything else. This tale, today, is recounted to my horse-mad children yet again, for I have been led to a fascination myself with these creatures, who I still know so little but who I can see today in a far richer way than was possible back in the class-bound Britain of my childhood (where horses were for toffs, and that was all you needed to know about them).
That distant trip was in spring, of course. I recall a hike through the floral magic of the National Park, a picnic on some granite rocks; our first grateful taste of “corn thins” together, which somehow were superior to the rice cakes and avo we had previously survived on; and a fat puffadder sitting in the tar road in the heat of the day, while we drove past in her brown Beetle, and I wondered casually if a pofadder might be able to leap through an open window.
Today we return home to the warmer waters of False Bay, where organic coffee is easily available, where yoga classes are two-a-penny (and not railed against by crucifix-trundling coastal preachers), and where English is frequently heard. Even here, however, there is wildlife creaking beneath the smiles, and – thank the gods – those grey skies are bringing some serious rain.