It isn’t only bokkoms that make the town of Velddrif so famous. Enter the West Coast village across the white Carinus bridge that only recently, well historically anyway, replaced the pont across the Berg River and you will also pass hillocks of white, shiny salt.
This is where we get most of our table salt. Any attempt to take photos of the Cerebos pyramid-shaped salt mountains, however, will bring you into contact with the rather surly security guard, who might, if he doesn’t mind the look of you, deign to allow you to turn your car around before you beat a hasty retreat.
Cerebos, the other claim to fame in Velddrif, is not for visitors. And you can forget taking any photographs – there is a sign on the gate that forbids it.
The town of Velddrif is large as far as West Coast towns go. Not as big as Vredenburg perhaps, but it is a sizeable town. It is also virtually indistinguishable from Laaiplek, which gets its name from its rather obvious function as a place to park fishing boats and offload the catch of the day.
Velddrif and Laaiplek lie at the mouth of the Berg River just as it meets the Atlantic. The area has always been about fishing – particularly snoek, pilchards and harders – and claims the very first fishing factory, opened in 1944.
Today, Velddrif is still about the sea and its bountiful catches. We venture down Bokkom Laan to the heart of the village. This is where the seaside version of biltong is produced, dried and then distributed all over the country. Littered along the edge of the Berg River lie a myriad little fisherman’s buildings – one can’t even call them houses, they’re more like ‘stalletjies’ – used to store and dry bokkoms.
The avenue that stretches like a narrow strip alongside a portion of the Berg River is incredibly easy on the eye. My son immediately spies a youngster on the pier, hand fishing. He is fascinated to watch the boy pulling in a catch with only his hands.
Dotted here and there are little wooden fishing vessels, more like sail boats, and a couple of boys swim whilst their grandfather stops in the shade on the stoep of Bokkom Visserye to discuss this and that with the owner, a long-haired local, who doesn’t quite fit my idea of the place.
It’s rather like going back in time. Things slow, all that there is to worry about is the flow of the river, and little fish drying on racks. Guided rides on the river are available down the far end, whilst on the stoep of Ek en Djy, a quirky restaurant, are a couple of shady looking individuals with whom I’m not sure I want to share lunch. By all accounts though, the shop alone is worth a stop.
We’re off to explore Laaiplek, the boats lining its harbour enticing – I’ve already seen the beckoning bright turquoise, red and black fishing vessels against the skyline. En route we pass the Snack Shack and its quaintness – a verandah hung in clobber, the odd scarecrow and a garden filled with pot plants – and our grumbling tummies, necessitate a pit stop.
Its verandah is already buzzing with a meeting of the local Tourism Council, where the Snack Shack’s chef, Leon, is ensconsed, already well on their way through item number four on the agenda. The meeting ensues in a mix of English and Afrikaans that is so typical of South Africans, and I feel immediately at home.
The menu, although not extensive, is a good mix of sandwiches, quiches and the odd homemade chicken or lamb pie (they’re not allowed to do fish per se as the fish shop next door owns the building) – it’s rather like dropping in at your aunt’s place and managing to make it in time to share lunch.
Today’s snoek lasagna, served with a wonderful side salad, is worth writing home about, and our son’s chicken mayo toasted sandwich, exceptional – you can actually see the chicken chunks.
He’s not as impressed however, which has more to do with his having just had a boerewors roll from the local bakery across from the Spar in Laaiplek (if you’re after home-baked bread and farm milk, this is where to get it when in Velddrif!) than the sandwich’s apparent inability to meet expectations.
Whilst we sample his chicken mayo with appreciative noises, my son disappears into the shop next door. Theresa is the local sempstress – yes they still exist – and her endeavour is part book store, part sewing workshop.
I first stumble in here with a pink crocheted hat I’ve just picked up off one of the hooks outside. The mirror I use to judge its suitability is inside the changing partition in which hangs a fairytale wedding gown. Through her shop is a constant stream of people, and my son is soon engaged in pushing the sewing machine pedals with his toes – he’s immensely pleased when Theresa says how proud of him she is.
Theresa promises to fix my broken Elna next time I’m in town, and Christine, Leon’s partner and partner, fixes the bill for the remarkably reasonably priced lunch.
Down on the pier at Laaiplek things are humming. Someone’s just landed a huge catch of elephant fish. I hadn’t heard of them either, but the fishing boat’s owner informed me that we often eat them, they’re just called Cape whiting.
Whilst we watch, our eyes wide, as the fishing team throw out a mound of fish that appears incongruously large when compared to the size of the fishing vessel, a group of kids come down to gawp at the squid the fisherman’s son has in his hands. We get chatting about the current concern that our seas are over-fished. It is interesting to hear a local fisherman’s take on the story.
He describes how climate change has changed weather and subsequently there have been changes in ocean currents and winds – fishermen monitor both of these factors closely as indicators of what type of fish will be biting where. Unpredictable weather patterns mean that fish are no longer appearing in specific places at a given time of year.
A fairly big shark now joins the elephant fish on the quay, to the gasps of standersby. It’s unusual for this to happen. We learn that to get a fishing licence, our ‘noncoloured’ fisherman has a deal with the guys who used to fish for him. They’re now part shareholders in the business, and everyone, including his son, stands to make a percentage of the day’s catch. They all seem happy with the arrangement.
The fish are loaded into a waiting fridge on wheels from Gordon’s Bay, and the crowd disperses. We head back to our sanctuary by the sea, that much the wiser about life in a fishing village.