The coast guard
Originally published in Cape Etc magazine
‘It’s sunny,’ I say, disappointedly, as we cruise into the parking lot of the Arniston Spa Hotel. Our home for the next two nights fronts on to a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses-green lawn that gives way to a beach, and above the soft white sand is a blue sky unmarred by clouds.
Having spent the previous weekend in the sun-drenched Winelands, my fantasy Arniston getaway included hulking cumulonimbus on the horizon, windswept beach walks and cosy nights eating seafood in front of a fire, the rain lashing at the windows. After all, we’re in shipwreck country now. I wanted a storm. I wanted crashing waves. I may even have wanted a three-masted galley struggling bravely to shorten sail.
What I have is another day in paradise.
Not 20 minutes later, we’re checked in and seated on the large, elegant terrace of the hotel, cocktails in hand, while gulls call to one another and a waiter explains the intricacies of the PSL to a handful of tourists. I’ve swapped my jeans and parka for a pair of shorts and the thought that maybe tomorrow it’ll rain.
Slowly, as I allow the sunshine and Mai Tai to remove the last vestiges of city stress, a dark smudge on the horizon resolves itself into a boat. By the time it’s finally being hauled up the tiny slipway adjacent to the beach, we’re already halfway through our next round of fruit-festooned drinks.
It seems nothing in Arniston happens in any great hurry. And why should it? The dinghy’s owner is more than likely a resident of Kassiesbaai, the 200-year-old fishing village and national monument that was here long before the hotel or the harbour. You can see the cluster of whitewashed sandstone cottages from the terrace; pretty as a picture but as authentic a taste of Southern Cape life as you’re likely to get anywhere. Life in Kassiesbaai remains largely unchanged over the decades, and most of its residents still make a living off the sea.
As we wend our way between the little houses later, the unfriendliest greeting we get is from a brown, shaggy mongrel. Everyone else is all smiles, including a group of youngsters involved in a hard-fought dominos battle in a front yard. Our tummies are rumbling – we’ve heard talk of the best fish cakes on the coast hiding somewhere in Kassies. One teenager pauses, domino in hand, to give us directions.
‘Sien jy die wit huisie (Do you see the white house)?’ he says, without gesturing. ‘Draai links (Turn left).’ Then he slams down his tile and falls about in good-natured laughter – all the houses are white.
One of his companions takes pity on us and directs us to Willeen’s. Picnic tables and flotsam and jetsam dot the grass outside the eatery, but the wind is picking up (to my delight) so we choose a table inside.
Unfortunately, Willeen herself is not in, but her family is holding the fort, and the warm bread, tender lamb curry and fish cakes are all that lunch at the seaside cottage is talked up to be. Art, crafts and baked goods are on sale too, and we end up leaving with plenty of home-made rusks and a pair of crocheted beanies we don’t really need.
Feeling thoroughly nostalgic now, an investigation of the area’s shipwreck history seems to be in order. So we head back along the R316 to Bredasdorp, about 25 minutes inland from Arniston, to the town’s museum.
Its shipwreck hall has a vast collection of fascinating salvage material from the equally vast number of wrecks that occurred nearby – the Cape’s coastline proved too treacherous for many a historical seafarer. In fact, if it weren’t for the sinking of the HMS Arniston in 1815 about 900m offshore of Kassiesbaai, most people would know Arniston by its official name, Waenhuiskrans (‘oxwagon shelter cliff’, after a sea cave so big early settlers declared they could turn an ox wagon and team around inside it).
The rest of the Shipwreck Museum is a replica turn-of-the-century house, complete with sausage makers in the kitchen and a microwave-sized pulpit bible in the study. If you’re lucky, you may be escorted around by a large ginger tom, who seems in particular to like the early 20th-century fire engine in the barn.
Back at the hotel, we toast the fiery orange sunset from our sea-facing balcony with its 180º view, before heading downstairs for a shared seafood feast of oysters, prawns, mussels, calamari and squid heads, washed down with local Strandveld wine.
The next day, the stubbornly bright sunshine finds us standing in solemn silence at Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa, where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet. It’s a strange feeling, knowing that going any further will lead you to nothing but ice and penguins. The chill coming off the water even feels slightly Antarctic so, hugging our jackets closer, we allow the now gusting wind to chivvy us away from the edge and along the boardwalk to the lighthouse. Built in 1849, it’s the second oldest still in operation in the country, warning off today’s sailors with a 7 500 000 candlepower lantern that can be seen some 30 nautical miles from shore.
All this fresh air does wonders for the appetite, and we know just where to find lunch, too. The southernmost town in Africa is the quaint little L’Agulhas, and its tiny harbour does a brisk trade in seafood. Of course, the fishermen are haggling over the day’s catch, and since I’m no sushi chef, we bypass the overalled men and head to JJ’s takeaways for good, old-fashioned, greasy fish and chips, topped off with a soft serve from the ancient-looking stand next door.
An hour or so later and only a few kilometres from the hotel, the Struis Point beacon seems a bit paltry in comparison to Agulhas’s sentinel. But it marks the location of a wealth of rock pools, for those wanting to clamber around and relive childhood memories in search of hermit crabs, anemones and periwinkles. If not, slowly meandering along Otter Beach to the beacon and back is still lovely. The joy of Arniston’s coast is that, although the town is popular with holidaymakers, during the week you can always find a secluded stretch of sand to sink your toes into.
We’ve timed things just right and the tide is out as we crest a dune and then head down the well-marked path to Waenhuiskrans cave, which is inaccessible at high tide. Steps cut into the cliffside lead you down to a small cove, then it’s just a hop, skip and a careful scramble over some rocks until you’re in the sea-facing cavern. While I’m fuzzy on the exact dimensions of an oxwagon, Waenhuiskrans is certainly big enough to do a U-turn with a modern hatchback. Standing in its mouth puts you at eye-level with the waves further out, and the sound of water rushing in manages to be melodious and slightly threatening at the same time. I feel a bit like a pirate stashing her loot … until a family with a Labrador joins us in our oohing and aahing.
We pick our way back around a flung-out finger of rock and up towards the dunes again, turning left to follow the signs to a lookout point. It’s distinctly colder now, and the sky doesn’t seem as bright blue as it did yesterday. At the third sign, a crevice in the rock may go unremarked, unless you know it’s the back entrance to Arniston’s ‘secret’ cave. Slithering through the gap, I scrabble around for a second to find a foothold, then lower myself down to find a perfect, rock-framed ocean view, with the cottages of Kassiesbaai artistically sketched into the bottom left-hand corner.
Far below, the tide is coming in; water swirls around the base of the cliff and sprays upwards. The Lab is barking and children are laughing. But – like the lighthouse, like Willeen’s, like the beacon and like the hotel – I ignore the landlubbers, and instead stand and keep watch out to sea.
And on the horizon a storm is finally brewing.