Say yes to Yzer
When you’re in Yzerfontein, you’re tempted to sink into a beach chair under an umbrella and stay there until the schools open again. But what else can you do in this West Coast town, besides lying low?
Almost every small coastal town has experienced a boom in the past two decades. As a child, we always went to Still Bay for our December holidays and I watched it mushroom over the years, bringing traffic jams and shopping centres to the seaside. Yzerfontein has also grown up: The old part of town clusters around the main beach, while the new, sprawling suburbs lie further away in a narrow strip along the coast. Each beach house here has a sea view and some are so new the paint is still wet.
Yet despite the new Spar complex and those beach houses – and the crowds of people who flock here – Yzerfontein still feels like a West Coast village.
The people are down-to-earth and hospitable. Order a coffee once and the next day the barista will remember you, and whether you prefer a flat white or a cappuccino. It’s a town with no frills and wide-open doors.
And if you live in Cape Town, Yzerfontein is only 95 km away. Leave after work on a Friday and you can light the braai fire before the kids even start to wonder what’s for dinner. And the next morning, when you go for a walk on the beach, Table Mountain is still visible in the distance.
My daughter Essie (15 months) had just started to explore the world when it went into lockdown. When we could finally travel again after five months, one of the first things on my agenda was to show her the ocean.
And Yzerfontein is just around the corner…
The longest beach in the country
It’s a warm spring morning, but there’s no one in the water at Yzerfontein’s main beach. I walk in up to my ankles – it’s freezing. The cold Benguela Current ensures that the West Coast has wonderful walking beaches…
And you can walk for kilometres on Yzerfontein’s main beach: It’s called 16 Mile Beach and it’s the longest in South Africa, stretching north from Yzerfontein for a whopping 27 km to Tsaarsbank in the West Coast National Park. I look that way and the beach curls off in the sea haze. I see some dots in the distance – walkers who got up earlier than I did.
I want an easier stroll, so I head south to the start of the Schaap Island Hiking Trail – it’s only 2 km long. The trail goes along the rocky coast, over a few low hills and past small bays and fishing spots. The first hill you come across after the sand turns to rock is called Koeskatgat – say hi to the members of the local dassie colony here.
A few photos later I pass the “Vishuis”, the oldest building in Yzerfontein and home to the tourism office. Tourism official Lin Coetzee grew up on a farm outside town. “Life took me on a detour to Namibia for a while,” she says. “But I found my way back here. I missed Yzer too much.”
She tells me about all the things you can do in and around town. “Definitely visit Jojo Pottery for something different,” she says, trying to find their business card.
While we drink coffee, another visitor pops his head through the door to ask where he can go to see wildflowers. Yzerfontein might not be the first place you think of when someone mentions wildflowers, but it’s close to many popular spots. Lin directs the man to the West Coast National Park.
Before I return to the Schaap Island Trail, Lin takes me outside into the garden outside the Vishuis. “I want to show you something,” she says as she looks for a plant. “Look – a brown flower!” The Ferraria crispa seems wilted at first glance, but it’s actually still full of life.
“Have you ever seen anything like it?”
Back on the hiking trail, the path meanders along the coast to Schaap Island, so named because early farmers would keep their sheep on the island where they were
safe from jackals. It’s actually an ephemeral peninsula, connected by a narrow strip of land that is covered by water at high tide.
I walk across and sit on a bench that looks out over the ocean. According to Lin, this is a good whale-watching spot between July and October.
Keep an eye on the tide. If you’re not back on the mainland before high tide rolls in, you’ll be stuck here like a sheep for the night!
Daisies on your doorstep
It’s springtime in 2020 and all the flower talk has inspired me to go find some myself, but first I want to get something for lunch. I order fish and chips at Lulas Food and meet local resident David Coleshill.
“No, man! Don’t go looking for flowers so far out, just pop around here,” he says, pointing to a concrete wall – the Yzerfontein Caravan Park is behind it. “Best flowers in the area. I take my son there to play every day.” I take my wife and daughter along. It’s mid-week outside of school holidays and the caravan park is deserted. The caretaker lets us walk around and every stand and patch of grass is covered in a blanket of colourful daisies. Thanks for the tip, David!
Paint a plate
The next morning, we find ourselves outside Jacobuskraal Nature Reserve, waiting for the electric gate to swing open. We’re on our way to meet the potter Jo Dicks.
Yesterday, Jo confirmed our appointment on WhatsApp and signed off with two alpaca emojis. Now I understand why: The animals in question are watching me from their camp next to the house. Jo introduces me to Storm and Snowy. Storm is a year old and friendly; Snowy is five and a little bit grumpy.
“We lived in the city, but it was just too much,” Jo says. “My husband and I moved to this smallholding more than a decade ago. It’s quieter here; life is simpler. It’s good for you. We’ve never looked back.”
Jo sells pottery from a small shop next to their house. There are plates, bowls, figurines and basins for sale. Some are glazed, but many are a blank canvas for you to decorate to your liking. Never painted a plate? No problem – Jo will show you how.
On the way back to our vehicle, Jo shows us the guest rooms for when the pottery party runs late.
I pet Snowy’s head one last time and we head back to town.
Craft beer at the seaside
Back in Yzerfontein, the hunger pangs strike again so I head to YzerBru for a meal and a beer tasting.
Owner Derick Nel established the brewery in 2018 because he wanted to serve the best local craft beers and offer a nice place to drink them. Two years later and the place is going strong.
“We’re thinking of expanding,” says Derick as he pours six beers into tasting glasses. Each beer’s name is inspired by the region and sometimes you have to know the story behind the story for it to make sense. Pale Whale, YzerBru’s light beer, got its name when a whale washed onto the beach. They also have a Blond Babe, Little Black Betty, West Coast Weiss and Lockdown Lager (of course).
Derick’s co-brewer and newphew, Arno van der Merwe, shows me how the brewing process works. He’s only 18 but he’s been making beer since YzerBru’s inception and he’s currently completing a course to make his skills official.
“Were you brewing beer before you were allowed to drink it?” I tease.
“No, before I was allowed to buy it…” Arno explains the subtleties of temperature and timing, and the importance of good quality malt, grain, yeast and water. He and Derick talk about beer like artists discussing art – and you can taste it in their products.
Melkbosstrand used to be the first West Coast town if you were travelling from
Cape Town, but it has become more of a suburb these days. Soon the city will swallow Melkbosstrand, and Yzerfontein will take its place as the gateway to the West Coast.
For now, it’s still a quiet coastal town where you can show your daughter the ocean. What did Essie do when I dipped her feet in the waves? She cried, of course – the water of the West Coast is freezing!