There is a rugged stretch of coast between the Overberg and main Garden Route that’s mostly bypassed by travellers. It’s a magical world of fishing hamlets, shipwrecks and hidden estuaries. My partner and I decided to explore this corner of the Deep South, from the Breede to the Gourits Rivers.
We set off from Cape Town, the car packed with cooler bags, surfboard and beach toys. Our first overnight stop was Breede River Lodge in Witsand, a popular haunt on the east bank of the river. This Cape Dutch style resort of thatched cottages has its own harbour and a restaurant with a fabulous sundowner deck. From there, you can watch the play of evening light on the river, the coming and going of boats, birds and seals.
Next door stands the Barry church, build by this renowned family in 1849 when Port Beaufort was a flourishing harbour for Barry-owned ships plying the route between Cape Town and the Breede River. We explored the graveyard, packed with the Barry clan, and came upon a monument (and propeller) to a famous local ship, the SS Kadie, wrecked in the mouth of the Breede in 1865.
The hamlet of Vermaaklikheid lies half an hour’s drive northeast of Witsand. This rural community, strung loosely along the Duiwenhoks River, holds its secrets close. Driving its country lanes, you come upon tucked-away cottages with thatched roofs, squat end-chimneys, vine pergolas and fig trees.
We’d booked a few nights at the quirky House of Eels, set 100 metres back from the river. Built by local draughtsman Jackson Andrew, the house has a unique relationship with the natural environment. There’s a sunken garden, a turret bedroom and the design is inspired by the flora, making clever use of reeds, bluegum logs, local stone and discarded ironwork.
We explored the river by canoe and rowing boat, and swam in its tannin-rich water. At every bend we could make out houses hidden among the trees. There were rope swings over the river, private jetties and boats tucked among the reeds. It was a Huckleberry Finn world, snug in the enveloping curls of the Duiwenhoks.
The lime-white road east was long, straight and lovely. We stopped in at Stilbaai tourist-info centre (which doubles as a museum) to find out what was what in the area. Its museum has an excellent exhibition of the findings at nearby Blombos Cave. We trawled through a few hundred thousand years of Stilbaai history and learnt how the excavations at Blombos have yielded vital information on the cultural evolution of humans. A replica of the famous chunk of engraved ochre – the Rosetta Stone of this coast – lay in a cabinet. The scratches on this tiny artefact are believed to be the earliest known drawing done by a human.
On we pressed, ever eastward. Gourikwa Nature Reserve lies on a wild and rocky stretch of shoreline. Our villa suite had sweeping views of a valley and ocean beyond, where a southern right whale waved its fluke at us. That evening, we braaied on our deck watched by a quartet of zebras and a Cape eagle owl, who oversaw proceedings from the chimney top and was later joined by her fluff-ball baby.
It was time to bend for home. However there was one last hideaway we wanted to try: a beach camp on the farm Koensrust near Vermaaklikheid. It’s reached along a track that becomes a path, then a steep flight of steps down to the base of a cliff. The Beach Shack has a dramatic situation on a ledge above a cove that’s awash at high tide. Simple white interiors, driftwood art, sea-egg chains: it’s all Robinson Crusoe charm in a setting to leave you spellbound.
We explored the coast at low tide, peering into rock pools impossibly rich with sea life, and interrupted the snoozing of seals among the boulders. The beach was beautiful; ours were its only footprints. Braais on the deck were conducted to the roar of spring-tide waves against the gabions, star reflections jiving in the shore break.
Eventually, it was time to drag ourselves away, take the gravel road north and join the trail of traffic bound for the Mother City.