Sophia van Taak and Toast Coetzer share 12 lessons they learnt while filming the latest series of Weg Agterpaaie.
Sophia van Taak and Toast Coetzer travelled 3 840 km along the back roads of the West Coast to film the latest series of Weg Agterpaaie. Along the way they also turned inland to explore the Cederberg, the Knersvlakte, Namaqualand, the Richtersveld and Bus
1 Always carry a pocketknife
It’s good to be prepared. If you have a pocketknife at hand, you can join in the conversation when someone like Duncan Theart gives you a bundle of bokkems and shows you how to skin them right there in the restaurant of the Laaiplek Hotel. Sulene Archer from Taaibos Farm Restaurant on Pedroskloof Guest Farm near Kamieskroon also showed us how to cook a sheep’s head. You can use your pocketknife to scrape the head clean and to cut juicy strips of meat from the lower jaw.
2 Someone was here before you
It’s a privilege to see a new destination through the eyes of the people who have lived there for generations. They know which wind brings rain, which gulley is home to the most fish, whose grandfather saw which ship run aground. Stories and traditions keep the history of a community alive. We also got to see many rock paintings as we travelled – the diaries of people who lived here centuries ago. At Baboon Point in Elands Bay (bottom left), we stood before a wall full of waving red handprints and wondered about life under this overhang. On Steenbokfontein farm near Lambert’s Bay, archaeologists from UCT are still discovering artefacts left behind by people who listened to buffalo snorting outside their cave, as they planned how they were going to collect mussels the next morning. Long before C Louis Leipoldt was buried under an overhang on the Pakhuis Pass, a red ochre elephant cow and her calf made a home there. And to the east of the pass, at the Sevilla rock art sites (below), hunters ran with their bows and arrows raised and carried prey over their shoulders.
3 “If you wait long enough, the train will come”
This was the prediction of the first paramount chief of the Griquas, Andrew Abraham Stockenström le Fleur, after one of his visions. Also known as “Die Kneg van God” and “The Reformer”, Le Fleur saw the route the Sishen-Saldanha railway line would follow in his vision, even the exact place where the line would cross the Salt River. And he told a woman that she would one day hear the train but not see it… Le Fleur passed away and years later in 1976, when trains did indeed start rattling down the line, the same woman could hear the wagons approaching, but she didn’t see them because she had gone blind with age. When we visited Ratelgat Farm, a sacred site for the Griqua people, this was one of the many anecdotes that Thys and Valerie Mentoor (pictured) told us. They also told us about Griqua festivals, memorials and the role of intercessors – people who pray on behalf of others – who are called “Die Vog”, meaning fog or morning dew. As we travelled we waited for a glimpse of the train and we missed it a few times until one afternoon in Vredendal. We counted 340 wagons as the 3,8 km-long train sailed by. Le Fleur had many more visions: He saw the British royal family fleeing to the Beacon Isle Hotel in Plettenberg Bay and he saw a great battle in Cape Town that would leave “horses wading through blood”. Time will tell, but one thing is sure: The Reformer was spot-on about the Sishen-Saldanha line.
4 Bakkie is best
If a farmer offers you a ride, say yes! Everything starts to make sense when you get on the back of a bakkie. You’re in the sun and dust and you can smell and taste the farm. A dog will mill around your feet, barking excitedly. When the farmer extends a tanned arm to point to something, you’ll lean over, closer to the open window, to hear what he’s saying. You’ll nod and look and start to understand how devastating the drought is and what a suffering animal looks like. Haffie Strauss took us to see rooibos fields in the Agter-Pakhuis Valley and we joined Julian Melck from Kersefontein as he searched for stray cattle. We drove through green vineyards with Maree Botha in Vredendal and went out with Koos Strauss of Eksteenfontein (pictured) to feed his livestock.
5 Miracles happen when no one is looking
The N7 is the main route connecting the areas we explored. Even though you can see wonderful sights along this highway, the best stories are found on the back roads. We happened to be travelling on the Gamoep road at the right time. This dream of a back road leads from Kamieskroon past a quiver tree forest, where the trees look like nomadic people on a trek to who knows where. Near Rooifontein and Kamassies, the koppies of Namaqualand spill out onto the sandy plains of Bushmanland. The effects of the drought had been evident as we travelled up the coast, but here it was intense. Nothing stirred in Gamoep, but a few kilometres further we spotted white bakkies and small trucks gathered on a farm called Dabeep. Green bales of lucerne popped against the yellow landscape, courtesy of Jan Scholtz from faraway Hartswater, who had organised drought aid for the farmers in the area. Kannetjie Beukes (below left) and Nigel Johnson from the farm Mesklip came to help load supplies. We talked to the Bushmanland farmers collecting the lucerne and some of them were in tears. We couldn’t help getting teary-eyed, too. It felt like a miracle. This is how people support each other, without any fanfare, because they care.
6 Some rocks are cooler than others
You learn a lot when you explore the Richtersveld with guide Rey Janse van Rensburg, including that white quartzite rocks scattered in the veld are about 12˚ C cooler than the surrounding black rocks. “Cooler” is a relative term in high summer, but the difference in temperature means that the endemic halfmens ( Pachypodium namaquanum) thrives on quartzite koppies. The white stones reflect the sun and make the temperature of the soil more bearable. When there is fog or dew at night, water droplets form on the quartzite (which also cools down quicker than the darker rocks) and run down to the root systems of the halfmens plants. Yes, these ancient plants have ingenious ways of ensuring they sustain their growth rate of 3 – 5 mm a year!
7 How to tin a sardine
Ever wondered how the tinned sardines you buy at the shop made their way from the sea to your plate? During a tour of the West Point fish-processing factory in St Helena Bay, you can find out. The sardines are caught near Gansbaai and transported in cold water to keep them fresh. At the factory, the fish are rinsed and sorted and their heads and tails are removed. The sardines are then tinned, sealed and cooked. All this happens in one day! The tins are sorted according to size, labelled, wrapped and transported to a supermarket shelf near you.
8 Surfing is hard on the knees
Who hasn’t stood on a beach, wistfully watching a surfer ride the sloping curve of a wave? But if you’ve never done it, and now you’re going to try in your late thirties, you’re looking for trouble. Suddenly things like balance, fitness and reaction time – words you’d expect to hear on SuperSport, not the beach – come into play. In Elands Bay, Gigs Celliers showed us the basics. We might have spent most of the hour-long lesson falling down like sacks of Sandveld potatoes, but we got to feel cool and free for a few split seconds at a time.
9 Succulents know how to survive
When you travel through the Knersvlakte along the N7 and you look out over the empty plains, it’s hard to imagine plants thriving here. But bend down and you’ll see lots of succulents growing at your feet. Walk in the veld with an expert like Christine Wiese of the farm Quaggaskop and she’ll point out all the different species: bobbejaanvingers, krapogies, button plants, baby toes… small plants as cute as their names and built to survive the hot and dry conditions. Some succulents grow a thick peel or keep their seeds in hard pods to prevent them from drying out; others change colour from green to red to slow photosynthesis and conserve energy. Some even selfamputate limbs they don’t need.
10 Teach a man to fish...
Fishing is the lifeblood of the West Coast, yet the industry – and the communities that depend on it – is struggling. Still, in villages like Paternoster, St Helena Bay, Velddrif, Laaiplek, Doringbaai and Papendorp, it’s how people put food on the table. In Papendorp, we joined fishermen on the Olifants River as they cast their nets for harders. From Bessel Afrika, Vernon Cloete, Oubaas Gertse (on the right) and Patrick Don (on the left), we learnt that fishing is also a way to turn your back on the dark side of life, like the temptation of crime that plagues underprivileged communities all along the coast.
11 Live a little
This is what tannie Alida Lochner (pictured above) from Vredenburg taught us. Alida wasn’t always a tannie – in her younger years she was a “tomboy” from Wallekraal (a farming community near Hondeklip Bay), who climbed trees when she should have been darning socks. Even though she’s grown older, she still has a twinkle in her eye. Alida’s secret to a good life is not to take yourself too seriously. Let your hair down. You only live once and no one can make your life exciting but you. We took her advice to heart and realised that many people on the West Coast live by her words. People here live without pretence. They wear what they want, they say what they mean and they don’t care what other people think. Whether you mine for diamonds or if you lost your farm to the drought, you’re still my neighbour. Your bank balance won’t make me love you less. What matters is whether you’ll join me around the braai fire later.
12 Hope lies to the west
As the towns and cities of South Africa fill up with more and more people, parts of the West Coast still offer refuge for those seeking peace and quiet. Kleinzee, for example, was established because of the diamond mining industry, but it’s now turning into a popular retirement destination. You can start over on the West Coast, leaving your past behind somewhere east of the N7. In Hondeklip Bay, artists like Deon “Villain” Venter and Madeleine Baumgarten (right) told us their stories. It was refreshing to hear how you can change your life completely. The West Coast is patient and allows change. It offers comfort and some light at the end of the tunnel.