Do this dreamy seaside route
Once upon a time, the southern tip of Africa was a big deal – the gateway to the East by sea. It turned out to be a tempestuous place. The waters around Agulhas, that southern tip, have officially claimed 129 ships since 1673; the most recent was in 1982. It makes sense, then, that a journey to the deep south should include a visit to the Shipwreck Museum. That’s where I chose to start this road trip, in Bredasdorp, also the ‘capital’ of the Agulhas region. I had originally intended to start in Gansbaai and drive down the long stretch of coast until the tar road ended, at Die Dam, and then cut across the Agulhas Plain to the southern tip. But people I spoke to said it was ‘boring, with nothing to see except alien trees’ and no sea views to speak of. Bredasdorp is easily reached from the N2, giving access to anyone coming from Cape Town side or the Garden Route, or inland from the Robertson valley.
‘It was overcast and the wind had picked up ... suitably appropriate for a visit to the southern tip of Africa’
Bredasdorp’s Shipwreck Museum was wonderfully atmospheric, with a soundtrack of waves and seagulls that made me eager to get to the coast. The road leads straight down the Agulhas Plain, through fynbos that twists and clumps and forms patterns and textures. On the horizon, in an otherwise clear blue sky, a bank of clouds hovered over where the coast was. It wasn’t until I entered Struisbaai that I caught a glimpse of the sea: stunningly tropical-looking water in glorious blue-green hues. I needed to see more, and took a left to the harbour, where an impossibly quaint scene unfolded: a dozen multi-coloured little fishing boats (called ‘chokkas’) at anchor in the calm bay, flocks of seagulls and a golden beach stretching off to the left. People came and went – turns out, Struisbaai harbour is the centre of town, and everyone makes a turn here to see what’s happening (and whether Parrie the famous stingray is there). I walked along the boardwalk behind the beach, past a group doing a sea-yoga class, to a second, much longer stretch of sand that continues for 14 kilometres to Arniston. Back in the car, Marine Drive curls around the corner (evocatively called Spookdraai) alongside a rugged coast dotted with lonely benches. This stretch between Struisbaai and L’Agulhas, due to ever-increasing development, is now practically one town. By mid-afternoon, the weather had turned – the four seasons in a day that locals speak of. It was overcast and the wind had picked up … appropriate for a visit to the southern tip of Africa. To be honest, it didn’t feel like the end of Africa; it didn’t even feel like I was standing on a ‘tip’, but it does have a sense of ‘occasion’. The woman at the info centre in the lighthouse had said that if I walked 10 metres to the right of the monument, I’d be standing exactly in line with the meeting place of the two oceans. So I did that, but there was no obvious sign – no mixing of two different shades of blue. There are plans for developing this site, with a much more monumental, abstract structure involving paving in the shape of Africa. It will surely make the experience feel ‘grander’ but I’d urge people to get here while it’s still a relatively simple place. Before leaving L’Agulhas the next day, I stopped in at the ‘shell house’ up on the hill. Owner Mosie Hope is an anti-plastic and recycling advocate, who turns all the junk she finds on her shore walks into artworks. She’ll happily show visitors around her ‘museum’, containing many amazing things – I had no idea, for example, that shells start out as eggs (which look a little like caviar).
Just outside Struisbaai there’s a turn-off to Elim, a shortcut across the Agulhas Plain taking you past wetlands – including Voëlvlei and Zoetendalsvlei, the second largest wetland system in South Africa. However, it’s gravel and the locals call it the ‘summer road’ for good reason; in winter it all turns into marsh. There is another turn-off to Elim further up, on a new tarred road linking Gansbaai to Bredasdorp. It has increased the traffic through this little-visited part of the Overberg, and opened up access to a new wine route. Black Oystercatcher is the estate most people mention; Strandveld is five kilometres down the gravel road to Die Dam, and Zoetendal is the last estate just before Elim. These farms are not grand and historic, like many in the Winelands, but they’re a welcome anomaly out here and the cool-climate, eco-friendly wine is good. I’d been told in L’Agulhas that the road between Elim and Wolvengat is one of the most beautiful drives in spring when the fynbos blooms; even though it’s the wrong season, I decide to try it out, because who can resist a place called Wolvengat? No other car passed me, there were some beautiful views, and I had a real feel of rewinding time, stumbling on this sleepy hamlet lost to the world. ‘More people used to come this way, when gravel roads were the only way to get around this area, but since the R43 was tarred the traffic here has virtually stopped,’ artist Tina de Roubaix tells me. I’m not sure if she’s glad or sad. Back in Elim I bought a soft-serve ice cream at the Royal Cafe and took a stroll. A mission station founded in 1824, built around an enormous church, it has an old working waterwheel and colourful cottages lining the main street. Sitting under the palm trees in the church garden, I became aware that the church bell tolls every 15 minutes. The passing of time marked gently is something beautiful and sadly forgotten. The following morning I headed back to the coast, passing Baardskeerdersbos, a once-forgotten hamlet becoming more famous thanks to an influx of artists – its fortunes the opposite of Wolvengat’s. This road from ‘B-Bos’ was probably the most scenic of the trip, with welcome mountainscapes, and again I could see a bank of clouds hovering on the horizon. Cresting a rise about halfway to Gansbaai, I saw the sea again and pulled over at a perfectly placed padkos spot right there, with a glorious vista: a great swathe of southern ocean to behold. It’s fitting that my journey would end at Danger Point – another notorious shipwreck spot, most famously where the Birkenhead came to grief. Before I got there, though, I stopped in Franskraal, with its lovely beach and promenade (lesser-known prime whale-watching territory) and, drawn to a whitewashed cottage in the distance, discovered the eccentric Strandveld Museum. Then I kept following the coast, passing Kleinbaai (the harbour from which the shark-diving boats leave, before heading out to the lighthouse. I left for home feeling a little haunted, yet with a head full of magnificent seascapes.
top De Roubaix Gallery in Wolvengat, at the bottom of a garden filled with sculptures. ABOVE A classic seaside treat at Struisbaai harbour. RIGHT A row of mid-19th century buildings in Elim (one of them is the only guesthouse in town).
Baardskeerder sbos Look out for our Getaway issue of story in the July below Peak caps left behind by patrons of Marietjie’s Pub & Grill in Baardskeerdersbos. LEFT Suiderstrand is on a pretty half-moon bay with a pebble beach and wonderful rock pools.