And other reasons to visit the West Coast National Park…
The West Coast National Park, for most people, is all about the spring flowers.
From the beginning of August Capetonians, or visitors to Cape Town who haven’t the time to drive all the way to Springbok to see the Namaqualand daisies drive out in their droves to drink in the valleys and sand dunes of the reserve – literally awash with colour.
At other times of the year the West Coast National Park seems to languish, like a strumpet whose skirts have long been explored. As if there was nothing other than flowers to attract visitors.
Perhaps this is because we need reminding of the beauty of the Langebaan lagoon – a huge expanse of the most turqoise waters I’ve seen in the country. Captain Semmes of the Confederate raider, the Alabama, on entering Saldanha Bay in 1863 said:
‘There is no finer sheet of landlocked water in the world than this.’
He was right. I don’t know if anything in Africa matches it, bar Lake Retba, the pink lake of Senegal (but perhaps I’m biased).
Langebaan lagoon is the quality of blue you’d expect to find off the island of Mauritius. Its lucid blue against the backdrop of Postberg and the curve of Kraalbaai, with its pretty sandy beach and 4 metre high Pulpit Rock of shell fragments and quartz sand – not only indescribably beautiful, but also an historical relic that dates from 100 000 years ago – is breathtaking.
I do a double-take on a Sunday morning in late January the scenery is so overwhelming. This beauty was once the terrain of strandlopers – Eve’s footprint was discovered in the reserve; footprints of a young girl with a size five foot, who walked diagonally down a sand dune to the lagoon edge, date back to 117 000 years ago.
The lagoon stretches in a wide curve out of sight, its entirety protected by the reserve. If it weren’t for the West Coast National Park, all of this would be exclusive lagoon front property.
Head through Langebaan, leaving the reserve via its northern gate, and you will understand – any view of the lagoon, as you drive through town, is obstructed by gargantuan double-storey, concrete edifices.
We wade out over the lumpy, muddy fine sand of the shore. Under our feet are thousands of breathing holes – these clear waters support over 500 species of marine invertebrates, which has my mind working over time as to whether it is crabs, moluscs or prawns over which I trample.
Across my toes dart tiny fish – the lagoon is also a nursery for fish. The water is heavenly – warm, gentle, blue.
Langebaan lagoon is important. It contains 32 percent of all South Africa’s salt marshes. As such it is richer than most farmland and very easily disturbed. There are even rays and sharks in deeper parts.
Families are setting up their tarpaulin gazebos, for there are few trees to provide shade alongside the lagoon. You can wade out far and still remain knee deep. Up until now the tide has been out. I feel it subtly shift whilst we’re standing there, the waters of the lagoon beginning to ripple as the waters increase their flow into the lagoon. Even when full, the waters remain waist height.
In the bend of Kraalbaai are houseboats for hire and yachts at anchor. One or two powerboats are out on the water and someone hoists their sailboat, in vein as there is little wind. Picnic braai areas become busy as families prepare lunch.
There are reasons other than the turquoise blue lagoon (if you can tear yourself away) to visit the West Coast National Park:
1. Geelbek’s wetlands
Bird watching in the West Coast National Park is a major attraction. Not only is the lagoon a wonderful space in which to sight birds like flamingo, white pelican, knots, whimbrels, sanderlings, godwits and gulls (there are two hundred and fifty bird species around the lagoon), but the reserve also protects wetlands.
There are two bird hides at Geelbek. One overlooking the lagoon and another more isolated hide west of the Geelbek education centre, overlooking a salt pan. Salpetersvlei, the marshes of the reserve, is a great place for birding from the Seeberg hide.
The name Geelbek comes from the yellowbill duck, not from the Geelbek, or Cape salmon, fish.
2. Abrahamskraal water hole
There is another bird hide at Abrahamskraal, the only fresh water in the park, a secluded part of the park perfect for bird watching.
Sit quietly and you’ll hear the clicking stream frogs in the reedbeds. You can hire a self-catering cottage by the same name in the area.
The views from here out over the Atlantic are of the most beautiful on the coast. Visit the park away from the spring flowers, or the December festive season, and you will virtually have the beach to yourself.
Sit awhile and you may spot Southern Africa’s endemic Heaviside dolphin from the shore.
There are a few braai and picnic benches along the shoreline.
4. Seeberg Viewpoint
Take the main tarred road around the lagoon from Kraalbaai towards Langebaan and close to the northern gate is a sign indicating Seeberg Viewpoint. Don’t miss the opportunity of the views from up on the coarse-grained granite boulders of the north-eastern shores of the lagoon, for they are incredible.
At the lookout point is a beautiful old stone house that serves as an information centre.
The history of the building describes how it was built with stones from the base of the hill by a local Dutchman, Bollie Prenz, who was a tanner on the farm Soutekuilen (now Thali Thali). Just north of the hill he had his own vegetable and fruit garden served by a good underground spring.
Note: the MTB trails are in this part of the reserve and one can only access Mooimaak, another viewpoint, from these bike trails.