Go bird spotting at Abrahamskraal water hole
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Langebaan is celebrated for the amazing variety of its bird life, which is attracted by the juxtaposition of several contrasting ecosystems: the rough shoreline of the Atlantic coast contrasts with the millpool calmness of the marine lagoon and the aridity of the fynbos is a sharp contrast to the fresh water environment around the Abrahamskraal water hole.
The Cape West Coast is an extremely arid environment, and the sandy soils of the coastal plain mean that any rain that falls tends to quickly dissipate into the ground. Thus, a perennial source of water such as this (which probably owes its origins to a lens of clay that prevents water from infiltrating downwards) is hugely significant and attracts a wide variety of bird life.
There is a bird hide right next to the water hole, which is the best place for bird spotting (and also a welcome spot to which you can retreat from the relentless sun in this treeless environment). The morning that we visited, there were a variety of water birds (yellow billed duck, coots, grebes, Egyptian geese) and undoubtedly a longer stay would yield some more exotic and cryptic species.
If you're really taken with this spot, it's possible to rent the adjacent Abrahamskraal cottage which should provide enough isolation for even the most reclusive of souls.
Lovely views over the West Coast National Park
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However often I visit Langebaan, this view never fails to thrill me.
This photo is taken from the spine of the Langebaan peninsula, as the road turns westward to drop down to Tsaarsbank. The combination of fynbos vegetation, the white dunes in the distance and the crashing Atlantic Ocean beyond is the perfect West Coast landscape - with the obligatory tortoise located in the foreground to add interest!
Excellent information on local flora and faura
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Most visitors are attracted to Kruger for the primary purpose of game spotting, and as a result, the well prepared go armed with animal and bird guides, but the same is not necessarily true of the West Coast National Park, which many visitors 'stumble across' on a day trip from Cape Town or Langebaan.
Yet this park offers a unique and fascinating peek into the West Coast ecosystem, and it would be a terrible shame not to have an idea of what you're privileged to be looking at.
Happily there is an attractive and informative display on animal and plant life adjacent to the car park overlooking the lagoon at at Kraalbaai, which is most visitors' primary destination. The visitors' map that you are issued with (free of charge) on entry to the park features also features a 'tick list' of animals and birds in the park - complete with photos for identification - which is fun to use: anyone who manages to tick off the three featured snakes is either very lucky or very unfortunate (depending on your perspective)!
Wonderful wildlife along the Atlantic shore
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It's fair to say that Langebaan is best known for its astonishingly varied birdlife, but that's not to say that there aren't some wonderful mammals to be seen as well.
The rugged area of the western side of the peninsula around Tsaarbank is a particularly good place to spot marine mammals. When we last visited, we happened across this Cape fur seal pup sunning himself on a rock whilst his mother hunted for fish in the surf. The breakers also attract dolphins, although we've never been lucky enough to see these.
This is also an excellent place to go whalewatching betwen August and October when southern right whales cruise and breach along the coastline. The whales are attracted to the rich feeding grounds created by the cold Benguela current which moves up the West Coast, and come in to calve in the relatively sheltered environment of Saldanha Bay.
There was once a whaling station at Donkergat Bay (located in what is now a restricted military zone at the tip of the Langebaan peninsula), and there is still a harpoon displayed in front of the municipal buildings in Langebaan town. Fortunately whaling ceased early in the 20th century, and the whales now make a different contribution to the local economy through the tourism that they attract.
A stupendous view from Tsaarsbank
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This photo is taken looking northwards from Tsaarsbank towards the Postberg section of the West Coast National Park at the limit of Sixteen Mile Beach.
The Atlantic coast of the park is less visited than the lagoon (eastern) side of the peninsula, which still receives very limited numbers compared to other national parks. This photo was taken at 10:00 on a Sunday at the start of the peak holiday season, and there still wasn't another soul around on the beach!
The Postberg section of the park is only open to visitors in the wildflower season in August/ September, but check the website below for exact details. Unlike most of the rest of the park, the Postberg has exposed rock outcrop, and apparently provides better (larger) game spotting than the rest of the park.
The unique West Coast Fossil park
You could be forgiven for not envisaging that you would ever be tempted to visit a disused mine site on your trip to South Africa, but perhaps the West Coast Fossil Park will make you change your mind!
The fossil park is located approximately 150 km north of Cape Town (a 1.5-2 hour drive) on the site of the old Chemfos mine which mined phosphate for fertiliser manufacture. During mining, a huge number of mammal bones were unearthed, which provide a fascinating insight into the ecosystem of the region during the late Miocene/early Pliocene (circa 5.2 million years ago) - a blink of an eye in terms of geological time. The mine was finally closed in 1993, and the site was deemed to be of such scientific significance that it was handed over to Iziko (the South African museum).
The phosphate deposit was laid down at a time when the area received more rainfall and supported lush, riverine forests and open grasslands. The fauna discovered at Langebaan is fascinating and includes sabre-toothed cats, short-necked giraffes, hunting hyenas and African bears.
We last visited in 2006 (guess we're long overdue a return visit), at which time the park was just getting going. We found the fossil excavation absolutely brilliant - absolutely bristling with bones - but at the time, the display materials were a little rudimentary. I hope that in the intervening period they have managed to upgrade this, as it is hard to envisage the beasts without seeing some sort of reconstruction or model, particularly for kids.
When we visited, there was only only guided tour a day, so best to contact them ahead of time to check, as it would be a shame to miss out!
There is a small restaurant and kiddies' playground on site. The website below also indicates that there are now cycle paths and opportunities to go riding in the immediate area. Bear in mind that this area is pretty exposed, with little shade, so be sure to bring a hat, sunscreen and plenty of water.
If you are interested in visiting the fossil park, it would be ideal to combine it with a visit to the stark but beautiful West Coast National Park. This park incorporates the turquoise Langebaan Lagoon, which - if you're up for a swim - is probably the warmest water that you'll find in the Cape (be warned that this is a relative term!)
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The Langebaan lagoon has developed behind a line of dunes that form a peninsula that runs parallel to the coastline and creates calm, protected conditions on its landward side. Geomorphologically, this feature is known as a 'spit' (an unattractive term, I know), and is created as sand is moved along the coastline by wave, current and wind action - in this case, from south to north.
The older dunes that form the 'spine' of the Langebaan peninsula have been stabilised by fynbos vegetation and are now pretty well immobile. However, the dunes along the coastline - and particularly those which border the Atlantic Ocean - are still being reworked by wind and wave action, and thus, the sand is still exposed as gleaming white dunes.
Thanks for indulging my geological roots!
The perfect choice of beach to spend family time
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You'd have to look hard to find a more family friendly beach in the Western Cape than Langebaan: in my book, only Seaforth Beach and Boulders Beach come close (and for rather different reasons).
The lagoon is perfect for swimming, and is shallow and calm enough for even small kids. It is also great for other watersports such as kitesurfing and canoeing.
The beach is made of clean, soft white sand and is a joy underfoot. It's just asking for you to play a game of beach volleyball or soccer, particularly when the tide goes out to expose a wide expanse of beach.
The only caution I would offer is that there is very little shelter, and it would be very easy to burn here. For this reason, most people who come for the day bring their own umbrellas or collapsible beach shelters, and I'd strongly suggest that you follow their example if you're planning to stay more than a couple of hours.
There are good toilet facilities (although no showers) as well as braaipleks adjacent to the car park.
Parking is good but limited, so come early to avoid disappointment - otherwise, it is possible to park alongside the road. The beach is easily accessed from the carpark via a series of steps and a short wooden boardwalk - less than a 200m walk, depending on where you're parked.
Take a dip in Langebaan's turquoise lagoon
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Langebaan is the perfect location for a family day by the beach. The lagoon is shallow and largely protected from the open ocean, so unlike the rest of the Atlantic coastline, there is usually little in the way of wave action and currents, which makes it perfect for children and people with limited water proficiency. And then of course there's that gorgeous turquoise colour that just makes the water look irresistably inviting!
The beach is clean, soft white sand and the shoreline slopes almost imperceptibly into the lagoon. There is no sudden drop off into deeper water, and (depending on the tide) it's possible to walk a couple of hundred metres out to sea without the water advancing above waist height. In fact, this can be a bit frustrating if you're a serious swimmer, as you have to wade out quite some distance before the water is deep enough for an adult to swim properly.
But lastly, Langebaan's principal attraction for swimmers is that because of its shallow and sheltered nature, it boasts the warmest sea temperatures in the Western Cape. Unlike the trendy Atlantic beaches - such as Clifton - where the water temperature seldom exceeds an icy 14°C (bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase 'Clifton cool'), the water temperature at Langebaan hovers between 16°C and 22°C (depending on season). This is pleasant, particularly on a hot day, and means that you don't need a polar bear in your ancestry to enjoy a dip!
Spotting oystercatchers is almost guaranteed
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One of the most attractive and distinctive birds you'll encounter along South Africa's coastline is the African oystercatcher. They are endearing waders that mate for life and are easy to identify because of their black plumage and their distinctive orange/red beaks, legs and eye rims. However, in common with other all black birds, they are a challenge to photograph as it's hard to get them to stand out from the background and they generally don't allow you to get very close.
I was surprised to recently read that oystercatchers are listed as being 'vulnerable' because they're a bird that I've never had much trouble spotting. It seems that their vulnerable status is because they are restricted to a very narrow coastal band that must have sufficiently healthy and accessible shellfish populations to support them, and the fact that their nests on the beach are easily disturbed by dogs.
There are a number of resident pairs at Tsaarsbank, so you should be able to spot them poking around the rocks.
Braaipleks with incomparable views!
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With the possible exception of Argentinians, South Africans are probably the most carnivorous race on the planet, so given our passion for meat and the generally good weather, it's little surprise that having a 'braaivleis' - usually known as a 'braai' (and pronounced 'bry') - is a national hobby.
South Africans are purists when it comes to braaiing: whereas Aussies probably won't risk losing face if they resort to a gas barbecue, South Africans would be horrified by the prospect and insist on braaiing over hot coals. The only concession to convenience might be to use charcoal rather than wood, and South Africans have long since realised that a key component of the braai experience is the wait for the coals to burn down to optimum braaiing temperature, which allows ample time for drinking and chatting.
Obviously braaiing is a fire hazard - especially somewhere as dry as Langebaan - so a number of braai areas ('braaipleks') have been constructed overlooking the lagoon and command a superb view. These can be used free of charge on a first come, first served basis - so stake your claim early to avoid disappointment - but you'll have to bring your own fuel, food, drink and braai equipment (such as grills) with you.
Note that there are no shops within the park, so you'll need to plan ahead and stock up before you enter the park.
The best part of braaiing is that (for once), the men are happy to do the cooking - unfortunately that same enthusiasm does not seem to extend to making the accompanying salads or clearing up thereafter!
The wild and windswept West Coast National Park
If you love the idea of escaping from civilisation into wild, challenging surroundings, then the fantastic West Coast National Park is for you!
What I love most about the West Coast National Park is that it is only 120km (and just over two hours drive on a good but slow road) from the hustle and bustle of Cape Town, and yet feels so untouched and remote. This must have been how the Cape appeared to the first Europeans, and you can understand how this beautiful but harsh, parched landscape must have intimidated them.
The park is centred on Langebaan Lagoon, a startlingly turquoise stretch of water that boasts the warmest water I've experienced in the Cape (a relative term!) and is home to thousands of seabirds. The park has RAMSAR status, and many of the birds migrate here from the northern hemisphere to breed in the lagoon and fringing salt marshes, and an abundance of species also live in the fynbos. In other words, a twitcher's paradise, and even non-twitchers should appreciate some of the more 'mainstream' feathered attractions such as flamingoes, pelicans and ostrich.
There are quite a lot of mammals in the reserve (including eland, red hartebeest, Cape grysbok, caracal and dassies), but these species are shy and are often hard to spot, so don't expect a Kruger-like game spotting experience. Also look out for dolphins and whales (in season) off the coast. There are also heaps of tortoises, so keep an eye out on the road to avoid running them over!
The west coast of the park is very exposed, and the sea can be rough. By contrast, the lagoon waters are very peaceful and ideal for swimming and beach activities.
The park is quite large and the various tourist sites are well spaced, so the most practical option is to drive. However, if you have the opportunity, I think that this would be a stunning place to explore by mountain bike, and it is also possible to do overnight hikes (see the South African National Park website at http://www.sanparks.org/parks/west_coast/ for more details).
In springtime, the strandveld erupts into a riot of colour - this is a very popular time on the West Coast, so if you're visiting to experience this glorious spectacle, then be sure to book well in advance, as accommodation is at a premium. In summer the West Coast can get extremely hot, and as the fynbos is so low, there is absolutely no shade, so come prepared with a hat and more sunscreen and water than you think you'll need.
I think that this is a very special place, which has the added virtue of being sparsely touristed compared to the Cape's other attractions - especially if you visit out of school holidays. So relish the opportunity to experience pristine Africa as it would have been before European settlement - there are few places so accessible that feel so remote!
Westcoast Fossil Park
The West Coast Fossil Park, a component of Iziko: Museums of Cape Town, offers students, school children and the general public an opportunity to have an on-site fossil experience. People can learn about ancient environments; the animal life and the climatic changes that occurred in this region 5 million years ago. You can even become a volunteer guide/fossil preparator/assistant curator or clerical assistant.
The many thousands of fossil bones have attracted world-wide interest and a fascinating range of extinct animals are displayed.
There are tours once a day during the week, starting at 11:30. The coffee shop is open from 10AM to 4PM during the week.
Contact details: West Coast Fossil Park:
Pippa Haarhoff -firstname.lastname@example.org
Iziko: Museums of Cape Town:
Tel: +27 (021) 424 3330/Fax: +27 (021) 424 6716
Public Relations Officer:
Medee Rall - email@example.com
This is another of those lovely "boutique" kinda shops in Langebaan. You can buy just about everything here from clothing to wooden signs that you can hang up in your home. Interesting stuff and prices not bad either, else just wander around.
The small church
Just outside of Langebaan before the turn-off to Club Mykanos, you will find a little shopping centre with this little church in the middle. It can seat approx 50 people and is just fantastic for those small intimate weddings