Local, Travel

West Coast Wander: finding gold in Elands Bay

Georgia East
In a new House and Leisure mini series, writer and food stylist Georgia East travels along the West Coast in search of unique stories and recipes. Here she delves into the fascinating history of Elands Bay, the coastal gateway to the Cederberg mountain range and one of the most prolific potato farming regions in South Africa, which, in turn, inspired this recipe for potato thermidor. Read the previous entries on St Helena Bay and Velddrif.
The enduring charm of Elands Bay is aided in part by the fact that other than surfing, Sauvignon Blanc and afternoon siestas, nothing much happens here. After crossing over the Berg River and passing through the sleepy suburb of Dwarskersbos, one finds a skinny road heading north; its tarred surface faded by the years and only a haphazard line of electrical poles standing sentinel alongside it. For the first time since Bloubergstrand, the R27 peters out and is replaced by this weathered highway that hugs the coastline. Unusually empty, this reticent route inspires drivers to, for the first time since the West Coast Road, slow down their pace and breathe in the sea air. Compared to other towns on the West Coast, Elands Bay is by far the smallest, featuring only one hotel, two shops and two restaurants. A lengthy stretch of bleached sand separates ocean from land, with the caravan park, the hotel and a handful of guesthouses the only accommodation on offer to visitors. While the latter are mainly occupied by surfers making their monthly pilgrimage to the only left-breaking waves along the West Coast, those in search of sun, sea and solitude can also be found on the lawn in front of the hotel, or eating mussels at the backpackers across the road. Considered the coastal gateway to the Cederberg mountains, Elands Bay can immediately be identified both by Verlorenvlei – a massive wetland home to over 240 species of birds – and by the jutting bluff known as Baboon Point. Named for its appearance rather than the creatures that dwell on its heights, Baboon Point is also home to the Elands Bay Cave – a national heritage site that boasts some beautiful San rock art. Hidden behind a dilapidated radar station from WWII, the cave and the art found within it are easily accessible for those wanting to look back in time. Simply head up the stone stairs or take your off-road vehicle on a rather grueling trip up the 4X4 track to find it. Also known as the Spirit Cave for its shamanic history, the hollow faces out over the ocean, echoing the roar of the Atlantic. Hundreds of tiny handprints have been painted up the rock face and are sure to send a shiver down the spine of even the most doubtful of visitors. When excavations of the cave began in the late 1970s, it was determined that the paintings – a collection of long-limbed humanoid figures, large mammals and the handprints – dated back about 4000 years, and placed the people that originally occupied Elands Bay as hunter-gatherers that ate a combination of seals and shellfish. Speaking of shellfish, the other attraction of the area is crayfish. Known as the West Coast’s Red Gold, the rock lobster is endemic to our shores and has been a prized delicacy for the past few decades. During the early twentieth century crayfish was fished commercially, canned and sent off to France, North America and the East. Prior to that it was considered a nuisance and given to local farmers as fertiliser. Heartbreaking as this thought may be, what is more troubling is how over the last 30 years, the West Coast Rock Lobster has been fished to the brink of extinction. High demand, oversized quotas, unscrupulous government deals and illegal fishing have caused this slow-growing crustacean to be plundered from the coastline with dire consequences. As of this year, the West Coast’s Red Gold is now on SASSI’s red list. Standing a little way out of town, the crayfish factory still processes what little it can catch, but most of the warehouses stand derelict or partly demolished, relentlessly assaulted by the ocean. I’ve seen the photographic evidence of the crayfish bacchanalia my family and their friends used to enjoy in the 1970s and ’80s – the mass of fluorescent orange legs and tails, dining tables covered in newspaper and bottles of Graça and smiles on every face – a true illustration of carefree abundance. During my own lifetime, my only interaction with crayfish has been the occasional overpriced bite of the pathetically undersized specimens on display in seafood eateries. Fortunately for Elands Bay, crayfish is not the only kind of gold it has to offer. Bordering the Sandveld, most of Elands Bay’s unique terroir makes it one of the most prolific potato farming regions in South Africa. Myriad varieties of potatoes are grown here, along with endemic rooibos tea and an array of root vegetables. Shorter growing potatoes like Sifra, Mondial, Electra and Panamera grow well in the sandy soil, have a greater yield and are able to resist the ruthless West Coast wind. The wind itself is one reason to hunker down at a table in the eponymous Elands Bay Hotel, order up a plate of fried calamari and spend a blustery afternoon watching the intrepid kitesurfers out on the blue. Still retro enough to be intriguing, the hotel attracts a few colourful types that can usually be found in the bar. As the restaurant no longer serves alcohol, it’s best to patronise the liquor store next door and buy few bottles of Sir Lambert Sauvignon Blanc to enjoy with your meal. Other attractions include the Peri-Peri chicken livers served at Die Wit Mossel Pot backpackers – their reassuringly rustic restaurant is a favourite with surfers and landlubbers alike. There is also a co-op store of sorts, a giant crayfish made from old fishing nets and, until recently, an abandoned corner cafe that dated back to the 1950s and had Elanda Winkel hand-painted on its wooden façade. Sadly, the small amount of development that has slithered its way into the town demolished Elanda Winkel, erasing the past in order to make way for four luxury holiday rentals. Neither myself nor the backpackers next door are particularly pleased about this modification. Fortunately, one monument still remains: a large fiberglass zebra left over from the days of the Trek petrol station has stood tethered in a private garden and is now as much of an Elands Bay landmark as Baboon Point. Here, having your photo taken with the zebra is almost a rite of passage.
Find Georgia’s recipe for potato thermidor, inspired by the flavours and history of Elands Bay, here.