Words and pictures by Grant Spolander.
South Africa’s west coast is best known for its stark isolation and open-air vistas. In this story, our Technical Editor, Grant Spolander, traces the western shore in search of solitude, off-road adventure and an unclaimed wave.
Right now, there’s a storm brewing: a soon-to-be torrent of frothing seas and ripping winds which will blast along earth’s 40° latitude line, otherwise known as the ‘Roaring 40s’.
It doesn’t take long before the wind’s energy is transferred into the Atlantic Ocean, and a wave is born. For weeks to come, this globular ripple will glide through thousands of kilometres of sea, until one day it will rise with the ocean floor and crash on South Africa’s shores. It’s a ceaseless process, a perpetual wave-making factory that almost never stops bombarding our coastline.
Somewhere in my mid-20s, surfing died for me. I think I lost interest when my surfing buddies moved overseas. But perhaps the dust on my board has more to do with ever-increasing shark-attack numbers and my associated reluctance to be a salt-pickled hors d’oeuvre. But maybe the most compelling reason of all is that these days surfing is hugely popular in the southern Cape, and it’s hard to find a wave not crowded with newbie surfers or aggro locals. Which is why a surf-safari tour up the west coast sounded like the perfect plan – a journey of ocean-air camping, offroad exploration and an endless supply of unclaimed waves.
Regardless of your travelling motives, the west coast drums an alluring beat for many off-road overlanders. It’s a sombre song, a blues tune with slow riffs of desolation and a moody cloud of Atlantic mist.
In a very general sense, SA’s west coast can be divided into three regions: the area in the north which requires an entry permit from De Beers; a small portion in the middle that serves as the Namaqua Reserve; and the southern bit, which is open land. We began our journey at the top of the Namaqua Reserve, the coastal region of the park which lies south of Hondeklipbaai and north of Groenriviermond. Unfortunately, many maps don’t show this part of the reserve and only focus on the inland area known for its Caracal Eco Route and spring flowers.
Initially, our plan was to travel northwards along the coast until just south of Hondeklipbaai, when we tack east and catch the N7 home. But, after giving it some thought, we realised it would make more sense to do away with the boring stuff first (N7 all the way up to Garies) and then take a slow off-road drive home, exploring the coast and its many potential surf spots. It didn’t take long. Shortly after entering the park’s northern gate, I was faced with a tough surfing decision: do I venture beyond my comfort zone, or admit that I’m in over my head? At this point it should be said that I’m not a great surfer, (heck, I can barely stand on a skate board,) so when we pulled into our first camp at Boulder Bay I stared in cotton-mouthed horror at the thick slabs of seawater pounding a black-daggered coastline of human-mincing rock. I had visions of a wooden cross erected on Boulder Bay beach, one which would read: “Here lies Grant Spolander, the surfer who bit off more than he could chew.”
Fortunately, my dignity remained unscathed as neither of my travelling companions were keen to brave the tsunami-like conditions. All of us were thinking the same thing: “We’re a loooooong way from the NSRI.” The coastal stretch of the Namaqua Reserve is roughly 55 kilometres long. It’s bordered by the Groen River to the south, and the Spoeg River to the north – which is why this portion of the reserve is commonly referred to as the Groen-Spoeg River section. The park consists predominately of low-lying duneveld which ain’t particularly pretty, but the area comes alive in August and September when millions of flowers bloom.
All the tracks in the reserve are off-road, but you often get to choose between one of two routes – the first cuts a straight line through the park (north to south,) while another zigzags to and from the coast on a sandy tweespoor track. If you’ve never been to the west coast it can be a daunting trip to plan. I battled to find information on the region, and even now – after recently having been there – I’m still not entirely sure what the drill is. There are a few issues. As mentioned before, the Groen-Sproeg River section is seldom depicted on SA maps and it can be confusing as to where you can drive and where you can’t, and what permits are required. Then there’s the area below Groenriviersmond. We called it open land before, but I get the feeling it’s owned by various mining companies and several private land owners. So, when people talk about the West Coast 4×4 Trail, my understanding is that it’s not an official name, but rather a title assigned to the route by the 4×4 fraternity.
The big question is whether or not the track itself is a public road. We’re still investigating this matter, but until then, I think it’s safe to say that this route (often started at Lutzville and ending at Groenriviersmond) is to be considered a privilege, so you must be super diligent about where you drive and camp. In contrast, the Namaqua Reserve is pretty straight-forward. It’s managed by SANparks, so you simply visit their website, choose a campsite, make a booking, and you’re done. When you arrive at the park’s entrance gate (north or south) you tell them your name and they let you in.