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Extreme camping on this stretch of the west coast is wild — and mostly free

Between Brand se Baai and Groenriviersmond in the Western Cape are 100 wild camping spots. Take a tent, a buddy and a 4x4 and get back to the glorious basics

27 March 2022 - 00:02 By Nick Yell
The main campsite in the centre of Tittiesbaai, some 28km north of Brand se Baai.
The main campsite in the centre of Tittiesbaai, some 28km north of Brand se Baai.
Image: Nick Yell

Staring into a rock pool at the limpets, mussels, rock cod fingerlings and various types of seaweed swaying in the current, I realise very little has changed here for nearly 10,000 years. The itinerant San and, later, Khoi visited the shorelines often; particularly when their respective hunting and herding activities were at a low ebb. 

Shellfish, crustaceans, beached whales, seals and sea birds were an important supplement to the San’s more regular diet of roots, berries and bush meat.

My friend Lionel Williams and I last wild camped at Mabuasehube in Botswana’s southern Kalahari about nine years ago, so digging out all the camping gear and making sure it all still worked proved quite a mission — but one I performed happily. Ever since I drove my old 4x4 past the hundred or so wild camping spots between Brand se Baai and Groenriviersmond 18 months back, I’ve been wanting to return and camp here.

Unlike the Namaqua National Park coastal campsites 61km north — they offer toilet and wind-protection facilities, plus wood and water for sale — the designated campsites here are mainly the old holiday haunts of local farmers. You might see the occasional old caravan, but certainly no toilets or wind shelters; those you have to dig and erect yourselves.

I’ve been itching to get back here not only to rediscover my inner Robinson Crusoe, but also because I’m worried this unfettered wilderness will soon be blocked off by the expansion of the mine to the south, or by revitalised diamond concessions; or even commercialised by adjacent landowners. As we discover later, one of these fears is justified. 

Eventually, we find the perfect spot, the main campsite in the centre of Tittiesbaai, some 28km north of Brand se Baai. Imagine a beautiful bight the size of Camps Bay, and you have it all to yourself — surreal, sublime and sensational.

The campsite at Tittiesbaai is on a bay as gorgeous as Camps Bay but you'll likely have it all to yourself.
The campsite at Tittiesbaai is on a bay as gorgeous as Camps Bay but you'll likely have it all to yourself.
Image: Nick Yell

It’s been a long drive from Cape Town — some 413km — and as we wrestle with bendy tent poles and recalcitrant ropes in the fresh breeze, and then wrangle heavy rocks from the beach to hold in the pegs, both of us are feeling our age a bit. But just before the sun melts into the ocean, we are relaxing in our comfortable camping chairs, drinking ice-cold beers from my trusty old fridge and patting ourselves on the back for our deft handiwork. 

Unlike the San, who would’ve harvested as much shellfish and other seafood as they could before the sun went down, we’re grateful for two tins of biryani, which are quickly heated on my new butane “suitcase stove”. Tomorrow we’ll erect our Bedouin-styled awning, but for now our respective air mattresses are calling and we look forward to floating away on the sibilant sounds of the sea.

The next morning we head off north along the beach to explore our territory. In the night, the tide has washed in fresh deposits of kelp and stacked them in front of the rotting mounds of their predecessors. The stench isn’t pleasant, but the kelp flies like to feed on it (they also lay their eggs in it) and, in turn, the many shorebirds feed on them.

Shellfish are found in abundance around Tittiesbaai.
Shellfish are found in abundance around Tittiesbaai.
Image: Nick Yell

SUCCULENTS AND SPOORS

After the pleasant white sands of our beach, we crunch our way over huge deposits of sea shells that pave the area between the rocks. Making our way towards the next designated campsite of Sewejaarskop, we have a close encounter with a massive Cape cobra that slides across the road 3m in front of us. I’ve seen many of these magnificent snakes on my travels, but this one is the biggest by far.

On a detour into the Sandveld we discover many varieties of succulents, the most impressive and prolific being the ice plant (Mesembryanthemum guerichianum) whose detergent-like juices are apparently useful for cleaning one’s hands. We also pick up the spoor of an African wild cat, and make a note to scan our surrounds nightly in the hope of seeing one.

Ice Plants (Brakslaai in Afrikaans) are prolific in this part of the world.
Ice Plants (Brakslaai in Afrikaans) are prolific in this part of the world.
Image: Nick Yell
A succulent grows through a limpet shell.
A succulent grows through a limpet shell.
Image: Nick Yell

On the way back to our campsite we rock hop for a while, noting the treasure troves of marine life encased in their glassy water chests. Limpets, whelks, mussels, starfish, anemones, alikreukels and algae hold us rapt and we think how lucky we are to still have such pristine shorelines to explore.

But, walking higher up on the beach later, this observation is tainted. We collect armfuls of plastic water bottles on the high water mark, some which have come all the way from Brazil, and opine that single-use plastics really need to be outlawed.       

Sitting in the shade of the “Bedouin-styled” awning we’ve now erected — the loo pit has also been dug some distance away — I browse through early Swedish explorer Olof Bergh’s journal in the hope he may have come this way in one of his attempts to find the elusive copper mountain in the north. But neither he nor subsequent European explorers, it seems, followed the coastline. Not only was the going easier for the wagons inland, but trading opportunities and potable water were also more plentiful nearer the mountains.

Lionel Williams is fascinated by the abundance of sea life in the crystalline rock pools.
Lionel Williams is fascinated by the abundance of sea life in the crystalline rock pools.
Image: Nick Yell

Over the next week, we fall into a casual routine where making food, washing in rock pools, playing beach golf, reading, afternoon napping, sipping sundowners and fireside evenings softly punctuate our days. And with no contact with the outside world, we briefly wonder whether we’ll get back to the “real” world and discover Putin has invaded Ukraine.

Like the San of old, whose forays to the coast are evidenced by the many shell middens they left behind, we too eventually act only upon our immediate needs of thirst, hunger and sleep. By the end of the week we are feeling more vital and equally more at peace with our advancing ages, helped along nicely by the quaint wisdom in a quote from Hunters of the Desert Land by PJ Schoeman. 

“When asked how old he was a San fellow called Xameb replied ... ‘I am as old as all my disappointments in life and as young as my naughtiest thought’.”

* From Ruitersvlei se Mond to Skulpbank, the owners of Waterval Farm have commercialised about 70 camp sites over the 19km stretch of coastline on their land. 

GETAWAY AT A GLANCE

Where it is: 385km from Cape Town, the Groenrivier “kuspad” is a unique ribbon of sand that runs parallel to the shore for 61km to the lighthouse at Groenriviersmond. It’s best reached via the dirt road just before the entrance to the mine near Brand se Baai. Take the N7 from Cape Town to Klawer and head through Lutzville (last grocery stop) and past Koekenaap to the Tronox Namaqua Sands mine. Tittiesbaai is 28km north of here.

Where to camp: The many free campsites lie between Brand se Baai and Ruitersvlei se Mond (about 30km) and then from Skulpbank to the Groenriviersmond Lighthouse (about 12km) — they are simply demarcated areas (two gum poles in the sand) on mostly level sand or gravel sites, yet offer no facilities. The 70 “commercialised” sites run by Waterval Farm, also offer little in the way of facilities (though we saw one with a kind of pit latrine contraption) but need to be pre-booked. 

What to take: All your provisions including firewood, water, “porta-potti” or toilet stool (cat method), food, drinks, sunscreen, insect repellent, rubbish bags, sun hat,  first-aid kit, camera, binoculars, books and a toolbox (should include a puncture-repair kit).

What to drive: A bakkie with diff-lock and deflated tyres (1.2 bars all-round) should do it, but a proper 4x4 will allow you the widest campsite selection. 

Basic rules to follow: Drive on demarcated tracks (no beach driving); take out everything you bring in and more — particularly plastic flotsam; be considerate of neighbours; only make fires where they’ve been made before; no pets; no hunting and no wood collecting.

Rates: Campsites are mostly free (for now) but if you want to choose a particular site at a particular time then it’s worth paying Waterval Farm (phone 027-6528709 or Whats App 063-694-5092) the R130 per site per night (max six people).


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