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Text and Pictures: Keri Harvey. Article from the June 2012 issue of Country Life Magazine.
For those who live there – and for surf riders especially – there’s no place like Eland’s Bay
Back in 1973, thinking the place sounded interesting, Anton Jordaan moved to Elands Bay, up below Lambert’s Bay on the West Coast, to become the barman at the hotel. Today, 40 years later, he’s still there. In a diverse career, Anton has been everything from the town manager to a crayfish transporter, so he knows about most things concerning the village.
Elands Bay consists of two small shops, an hotel, and the petrol pump in between. So it might appear uninspiring – a seaside ghost town with a wild frontier atmosphere. Days usually start out still but by afternoon the wind is howling, few people are around and there doesn’t seem to be much going on. That’s because Elands Bay doesn’t disclose its personality easily. It takes time and local knowledge to appreciate its unique offerings.
Elands Bay Hotel is at the heart of the village, being right on the beach. It has only 14 rooms and was actually a boarding house until 1972, when it was converted to accommodate workers cutting a tunnel for the Sishen-Saldanha railway line through the Bobbejaanberg at the southern end of the bay itself. Mile-long trains still pass right by the village, transporting iron ore to the coast.
“French Huguenot settlers named the area Elands Bay because something about it reminded them of elk, their biggest antelope equivalent back in France,” says Anton. Others say it was named after the Bushmen’s most revered animal, the eland. Caves with rock art, the skeletons of a Bushman mother and child, and mega middens around the town all prove these ancient folk lived here thousands of years ago. “They used to come down to the coast from inland, collect mussels, dry them on sticks and take them back in their steenbok-skin bags,” says Anton.
Referring to the vast (30km) Verlorenvlei, which empties into the sea at Elands Bay, Anton says the Bushmen named it Quaecoma (Lonely Water). More quirkily, back in the 1800s it was named The Pretty Large Lake. Along Verlorenvlei you still find historic vleihuisies (marsh houses). Built of clay bricks, they are long and narrow with all the rooms in a row, each having its own outside door.
The Elands Bay post office was housed in a vleihuisie until not so long ago, and one was once home to Lady Anne Barnard.
Albert and Lana Robertson are relative newcomers, having moved to Elands Bay in 2006. They live right on the shore of languid Verlorenvlei and boast a local landmark, the unique Vensterklip (window stone), on their farm. When their holiday plans fell through one year, they landed up in Elands Bay and just loved it. “We commuted between the Cape and here for years, then took the leap and moved up. We’ve never looked back,” says Lana.
Today the Robertsons live in an historic farmhouse and provide self-catering accommodation in National Monument buildings on their Vensterklip farm. The restaurant and bar are in the farm’s old barn, built in 1728 from rock, clay and dung. Nowadays it’s surrounded by organic gardens. Next in the pipeline is a micro brewery. “And to get off the grid completely,” says Lana. “we want to be a self-sufficient hamlet for guests to enjoy.”
She laughs and says, “Many people don’t even know about Verlorenvlei, and I wonder if it isn’t all in the name (lost marsh). They are astonished to see such a massive expanse of water in front of them. They just don’t expect it. In the old days, ships even used to travel up the vlei to Redelinghuys, the town at the vlei’s head, to trade in spices.”
Today Verlorenvlei is a Ramsar site, protected for its importance as a natural wetland. Around 240 bird species live here, including pelicans, flamingos and fish eagles. “We want to keep it that way,” says Lana, “so we monitor water levels, prohibit motorised watersports and are working with CapeNature to remove the overgrowth of reeds. We also have a project with the community to rid the vlei of alien fish, such as carp.
“I love the lifestyle here,” says Lana. “I pick food from my own garden, eat fynbos honey from our farm, and my daughter grows up in an atmosphere of freedom. Elands Bay is very unspoilt. The air is clean, the beach is beautiful, the skies are clear and the stars are bright. It’s a privilege to live here, and the people are wonderful. For me, it’s a very special place, with Verlorenvlei running into the sea.”
And at the sea is where you’ll find Ricky Thomas any day of the week. He runs the Pili Pili Surf Shack, always with one eye on the waves. Ricky moved to Elands Bay a few months ago to surf because “there’s an unusual left-breaking wave here that’s rated among the top 100 best waves in the world. ‘E-Bay’ is the ‘J-Bay’ of the West Coast,” he smiles.
“Many say it’s actually the best left break around our coast,” he adds. “Capetonian surfers tried to keep E-Bay a secret for a long time. Now the place is packed with surfers over the weekends, up to 50 in the water together. But during the week there are amazing waves and no crowds, which is really wonderful.”
The Bobbejaanberg, with Baboon Point at its tip, is what causes the unusual waves here. A headland enclosing the southern end of the bay, it’s also an icon of E-Bay, named from the profile of the tip which looks like a reclining baboon (actually an ape, but what the heck). The Bobbejaanberg was also the site of the first SAA plane crash (in 1941), and there’s a Bushman cave with paintings high up on its face. Two crayfish factories operate from the Bobbejaanberg, exporting tons of crayfish – caught and packed right here – to the Far East every year.
“Waves seem to run along the point and then turn into the bay as a left break,” says Ricky, “but if the weather is wrong, they bypass the bay completely. Off-shore winds make for perfect waves here, but the left break can be difficult to ride – especially when it’s small and fast. It runs forever though, giving you a really long ride. Winter is best for big, solid waves.”
The local coastline is also prized by windsurfers, stand-up paddle boarders and kite surfers. When the conditions are right, kite surfers launch 50km south of Elands Bay and ride the winds and surf all the way back up the coast. It’s Nirvana for boarders of any ilk.
Actually Elands Bay is utopia for all who love a quiet life lived simply and without pretence Ricky only recently got here Lana isn’t leaving and Anton’s never looked back in years Because in Elands Bay what you see is what you get. That’s why they love it.
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