THE MILD, WILD WEST


The windswept West Coast and its arid Sandveld interior, wedged between the blustery Atlantic and craggy Cederberg ranges, have long tempted travellers with many a down-to-earth charm. Jacques Marais went exploring in this Land of Sunsets and discovered a mellow tourism mecca brimming with opportunities and activities.

Whether you want to go mild or wild, you won't make a mistake by heading out West. The dreamy Atlantic shoreline and the seemingly desolate Sandveld plains, stretching away towards the craggy Cederberg skyline, belie an extraordinary wealth of tourism treasures. Monster crayfish, late afternoon seafood beach braais, the kaleidoscopic blooming of the flower season and the legendary hospitality of small platteland dorps ... these are just a few of the pleasures perks of West Coast cruising. The region has a huge and warm heart though and an endless range of active and leisure opportunities abound ... and to find them, you might have to occasionally venture off the beaten track.

Start off your journey of discovery along the coastal strip, using Cape Town as a expedient point of departure. From the Mother City you would cruise along the gentle curves of the R27, passing through an endless landscape of beaches and coastal scrubland enveloping sleepy little towns like Melkbosstrand, Atlantis and Yzerfontein. Continue until you reach the turnoff to Langebaan and look out for signboards indicating the West Coast National Park, a world-renowned wetland and coastal fynbos conservation area stretching along the Langebaan lagoon.

This little-known and under-utilized national park must rate as one of South Africa's best kept marine conservation secrets and, with the idyllic aquamarine estuary at its centre, the scenery will transport you to far-away days on remote and romantic Mediterranean islands. Clear, cobalt waters, the lazy ebb and flow of rippling tides and wheeling flocks of seabirds banking against an amber sunset makes for memorable days in what must rate as one of the jewels of the West Coast.

One of the best ways of exploring the unique marine environment and rich bird life is by booking a sea kayak trip with one of the local operators. West Coast Guided Trails offers half-day and full-day kayak safaris in the area - explore the Langebaan Lagoon system or venture further north up the coast to experience the off-beat character of Paternoster. From here, you will be able to strike out into the waters of the Cape Columbine Nature Reserve to play in the swells with inquisitive and sleek members of a colony of Cape fur seals.

In between seals breaching over the bow of your kayak, it might be a good idea to keep an eye out for other underwater creatures. There is also the distinct possibility of close encounters with ponderous southern right whales, gigantic sunfish and some of the more than 250 species of resident and migratory birds that frequent the region. If you prefer to get your kicks on terra firma, go wild with Downhill Adventures on the sand dunes at Atlantis. Their day-trips into this coastal duneland have become legendary with the boarding tribe who can kick butt on sand as well as they do on the snow slopes.

Accommodation options in and around the West Coast National Park are varied enough to suit all tastes. At the upper end of the market, you could choose to ensconce yourself in the luxuriousness of Blue Bay Lodge situated right on the Atlantic surf line - this fully catered guesthouse offers safe swimming, an excellent base for flower watching and superb access to Saldanha's water sports paradise. Or you may decide to let the tides lull you to sleep on one of the houseboats anchored on the placid Langebaan lagoon. You get your own little tender boat for this break-away with a difference, allowing you to paddle out to your floating cabin from where you may swim, braai, sail or snorkel to your heart's content.

And when you finally decide to tear yourself away from the ocean's embrace, slip back into the rural heartland of the Sandveld where people will welcome you with a distinct dialect and their rough-and- ready brand of Cape country hospitality. Millions of years ago, these sandy plains bordering on the Swartland were covered by the ocean which stretched inland to where lesser mountains now claw skyward as if to impress the Cederberg looming in the distance.

Head into these hills on a detour to Aurora, a smattering of houses dominated by a church spire spearing aloft against the slopes of Piketberg. The unhurried pace, dozing locals on the stoep of the general dealer and fresh scent of fynbos on the mountain breeze will conjure up images of a bygone era as you meander through the village, setting course into the convoluted sandstone cliffs above.