West Coast Heritage – Not just a bunch of fossils

Heritage is not just about history, bygone eras, traditions and old bones – it does embody those very things but it is also about people, cultures and communities that make a place special. That so special place is the Cape West Coast that hugs the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, littered with legends, shipwrecks, fossils and the forgotten.

Five million years ago the landscape looked very different – evidence suggests that the region enjoyed higher temperatures and rainfall than it does now with lush vegetation and abundant wildlife.  Fast forward a few million years to when van Riebeeck first laid eyes on the West Coast and said, “There is no land in the whole world so barren and unblessed by the Lord God.” Today, the area is relatively dry, with less rainfall, higher temperatures and is more than a tad windswept, but this does not detract from its down-to-earth charm and beauty, and that of its people.

Capetonians are said to be “cliquey”, referring to not being so welcoming towards outsiders, but perhaps the word stems more from the friendly “clicky” sounds typical of the Bushmen, or GuriQua and SonQua, who roamed these sandy shores and witnessed the comings and goings of Vasco da Gama with warm smiles and curious chatter. 

Saldanha Bay provided safe anchorage for vessels and was a ‘pantry’ of sorts for the VOC settlers who bartered with the indigenous population in birds’ eggs, fish, seal and penguin meat. Much of that time saw the Dutch and French attempting to occupy the area and one of two naval engagements of the Boer War is alleged to have taken place there. 

The West Coast Fossil Park pays tribute to the many species that roamed the area, presenting a remarkable number of different fossil animal species, families and fauna, uncovered during phosphate mining in the Langebaanweg area. Researchers from far and wide came to work with these collections that are now resident at the Iziko South African Museum where you can meet Hipparion, a 3-toed horse that moved into Africa some 12 million years ago, and Gomphothere, an elephant with long, spiralled upper tusks, the earliest known ancestor of woolly mammoths (imagine seeing that roaming about from your car window)!

Whales are a common sight in spring, but often strand themselves along the shore in areas known as cetacean straps – these are areas that have offshore reefs and where minima in the earth’s magnetic field cross the shoreline. St Helena Bay, or more specifically Slipper Bay, is one of these traps where the Khoikhoi are said to have feasted on whale meat – not so much a delicacy today.

Small towns have become big towns where families have chosen to settle and raise their children and the area has seen an economic revival – small business is flourishing, most notably guest-houses, boutique wine farms and hotels. You will find many restaurants and eateries dotted along the coast serving local produce and fresh fish, caught by the generations of fishermen who have plied their trade in its icy waters. Petrus Munro, General Manager at BON Hotel Shelley Point, says, “The West Coast provides a smorgasbord of options for families seeking nearby, affordable accommodation, and with the many scenic routes to drive through, and a multitude of things to do in the area, the trip is all the more worthwhile.”

The West Coast is exceptional in terms of its natural beauty, biodiversity, heritage, culture and location, but the future of the area requires special care if it is to prosper.  Government has recognised that with the rapid increase in housing estates, industry and increased traffic through the area, its integrity and character could very well be destroyed, so the decision was taken to declare the Cape West Coast Biosphere, to promote a sensible and strategic approach to the development of the population and the conservation of biodiversity in the region.

You too can be part of its history and preservation. Just head out on the R44, put your feet up on the dashboard and take in the glimpses of sand dunes, crashing waves, meandering footpaths, abundant game, wind turbines, deserted buildings, train tracks and windmills – and if you close your eyes you can almost imagine what walked and roamed there before you did.  

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