Dawn Kennedy

West coast spring: Fossils and flowers

Our trip starts amid contemporary consumerism: The West Coast Shopping village, with its iconic wind pump situated beside Blaauwberg Hospital, is the first sign that we are on the right route. We travel onwards, alongside the Blaauwberg hills, but there is no sign or plaque to indicate the pivotal role that they played in South Africa’s history. It was amid these rolling hills, on 8 January 1806, that the 5399-strong British army trounced 2049 Dutch and French soldiers, making Cape Town the locale of choice for Anglophiles that it has since become.

However, the Battle of Blaauwberg is a recent blip on the ECG graph of South African history. Research indicates that South Africa’s original inhabitants, the people we now call the San, are one of the oldest genetic stock of contemporary humanity, stretching back over possibly one million years. To find out more about the San we follow a sign near the junction of Darling and Yzerfontein to !Khwa ttu. This cultural centre gives insight into the San’s nomadic past, as well as affording an opportunity to engage with contemporary San people like André, the gatekeeper who welcomes us with a wide, surf-white smile.

The staff of !Khwa ttu are mainly San people who have been given the opportunity to develop skills as tour guides or work in the restaurant and guesthouse. Some of them attend classes at the Hotel School in the Waterfront. They are uniformly positive about the chance that they have to reclaim pride in their culture and share their history with visitors. !Khwa ttu means “water pan” in the extinct |Xam language. In an arid land, water is central to the San way of life, and staff member Baba declares with confidence that “there will always be water for us to drink at !Khwa ttu”.
Kerson Jackson takes us on a one-and-a-halfhour tour during which he shares a wealth of knowledge about hunting, gathering and tracking. I discover how to set a bird snare and store water in an ostrich egg. I also learn about the medical properties of the indigenous plants. Science has recently been confirming what the San people have known for aeons. Hoodia, used as an appetite suppressant by San hunters, spawned a multimillion-dollar industry in weight-loss pills and became embroiled in controversy. Perhaps because the San people received little or no benefit from Hoodia, the recent endorsement from the pharmaceutical industry of another plant, Sceletium, which has been found to successfully treat anxiety, depression and addiction, has led to a profit-sharing agreement between the San, the pharmaceutical industry and the government. But there’s no need for Hoodia (or Sceletium, for that matter) at the beautifully designed restaurant, where Kerson’s wife Afrida prepares the food. Freshly hunted gemsbok wasn’t on the menu when we visited, but I enjoyed a very tasty fresh salad and, to my surprise, a most delicious fresh fruit smoothie.

Along the coast, we slip even further back in time at the West Coast Fossil Park. The first fossils were found here in the 1940s, on the floor of an open cast mine, but not revealed for fear of interfering with commercial operations. Officially launched in 1998, in partnership with Iziko, the park offers some of the greatest diversity of fossils found anywhere on the planet. There are 5 million-year-old fossils of over 200 different animals, many of which, like the sabre-toothed cat, the short-necked giraffe and the carnivorous African bear, are now extinct. Today, a greenhouse-like structure houses the fossil site of Langebaanweg. Inside, a plethora of bones lie scattered like pickup sticks. The 80m² area is divided by string into square-metre blocks. Palaeontologists can spend an entire month inside one block, fiercely training their concentration as they sift through the debris. It’s meticulous, backbreaking work. The softly spoken Pippa Haarhoff, West Coast Fossil Park manager and an acclaimed bird paleontologist, says the park doesn’t only teach us about our past. “The knowledge that we gain here is so important and needs to be shared far and wide. It helps us understand how life on Earth works and helps us not to make mistakes, and to take better care of this planet that supports us.”

For example, there is evidence that serious climate change has affected this area in the last 10 million years. As Pippa says, “There were no human beings then and the big climate change debate today centres on what effect humans are having on the planet. From studies at the park, we can get a good idea of how climate change operated without humans.” As an ardent environmentalist, Pippa is concerned that farmers in the vicinity are all too eager to lease their land for large-scale photovoltaic panel power plants and wind power devices, not taking into account their aesthetic impact.

Another concern is the difficulties faced by the community of 250 people that were left unemployed when Iziko inherited the mine. At least 30 of them now work at the fossil park.

Dinosaurs of a different type are on display in Darling, and can be found in Pieter-Dirk Uys’s satirical garden, called Boerassic Park. Darling became a more theatrically pronounced “Dahling” when Pieter-Dirk Uys decided to leave the spotlights of the city to set up stage amid the wheat fields, vineyards and Victorian architecture of Darling. The old railway station that he converted into a cabaret venue, called Evita se Perron, brings people from around the globe. Pieter, in typically witty repartee, says tourists go “from the sublime to the ridiculous” when they first visit Robben Island and then come to Evita se Perron.

Watching any one of Pieters rib-tickling shows will take you on a trip down memory lane and introduce you to all the main political players in South African history. However, if you don’t catch them on the stage, you can find them solidified in stone in Pieter’s Boerassic Park, which he calls a museum/ nauseum of apartheid artefacts, probably the only satirical exhibition of South Africa’s recent history.

Blooming fact!!
Eighty species of flowering plants along the West Coast don’t grow anywhere else in the world. The best places to see them close to Cape Town are:
Near Darling on the R307: Waylands Farm Reserve, Contreberg Farm, Oudepost Reserve, Klein Oudepost Reserve.
Near Paternoster: Cape Columbine Nature Reserve.
Near Yzerfontein on the R315: Tienie Versveld Reserve on the farm Slangkop, and the Bokbaai-vygie Route, only open in September.
R27: Koeberg Nature Reserve and Rondeberg Private Reserve with accompanied walks (www.rondeberg.co.za).
In Postberg Reserve, West Coast National Park, open only from 1 August until end of September. Lots of game and granite outcrops makes it feel a bit like Kruger by the sea. Drivein, and one- and two-day hikes in the reserve (www.sanparks.org/parks/west_coast).
Further afield the Northern Cape beckons with the best flower displays. Visit www. northerncape.org.za for more information.

Some events in spring along the West Coast:

September: Voorkammerfest, Darling
September: Darling Wildflower Show
September: Tulbagh Horse & Wildflower Show
October: Huisgenoot Namaqua Fest Clanwilliam
October: Rocking the Daisies

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