Writers’ places: Port Nolloth

Posted on 28 April 2020

Words by David Robbins

I have visited the strange town of Port Nolloth three times. The first was 30 years ago. I’d come a long way to get there, having driven all the way from Mtunzini on the KwaZulu-Natal coast.

Image: David Robbins

I approached the Atlantic, descending through huge bald hills standing in tiers around the sweeping turns of Annenous Pass that brought me from the heights to the sandy scrubland heralding once more the sea. The road led straight as a ruler over little dunes towards a bank of fog, in which I finally discerned the vague shapes of a collection of low houses built on the sand.

It was a treeless town, dominated by wooden lampposts. The sun disappeared as I drove into the fog. Now the welcome sign by the roadside slipped past; now the grey world of Port Nolloth admitted me; now the main street showed its attractions. I saw Corner Kafee, King’s Restaurant, Atlantic Fish and Chips and the police station. Then the land fell in
a gradual decline to a sluggish sea. On the beach lay a litter of kelp washed up by a recent storm.

The second time, 20 years later, I went in search of signs of economic development in this town of only around 6,000 people. I found a perlemoen nursery and small fishing boats manned by local fishermen, and slightly larger boats adapted to vacuum the ocean floor for gravel containing diamonds that had sifted down from the mouth of the Orange River at Alexander Bay. There had once been a railway to Port Nolloth carrying copper ore from the mines at Okiep – but no longer.

The third time I visited, I went on a diamond boat and watched men scraping through tables of gravel.

But it was my first visit that left the deepest scars. I say ‘scars’ because my arrival there, with the mist rolling in from the cold sea and the beaches littered with kelp, filled me with melancholy. I felt as though I’d arrived somewhere quite close to the end of the world. Where could one go after Port Nolloth? The town was a termination, as lonely and forgotten as that.

Yet my melancholy had its roots in the beauty of the place. The boats rolled slowly at their moorings, sometimes bristling with birds: cormorants and slim-necked darters. People walked the rough tracks to and from the wharf and I saw a trawler rounding a buoy and disappearing into the fog. A bell on the buoy tolled in the slow-wallowing swell. I heard children shouting as they played cricket on a wet and shiny piece of beach. Outside a fisherman’s cottage, a woman sat on the sand reading a book. I was at the very edge of the world and it brought to me a melancholy that enhanced the loveliness of being there.

When I first went to Port Nolloth I stayed in a little shed. These days, my favourite stopping place is the Scotia Inn Hotel, across the road from the beach and harbour. Next door, Vespetti’s serves fish fresh from the boats. The restaurant is difficult to miss because an old Vespa scooter is parked on top of the modest facade.

• David’s latest book is Powering the Future.

Stay here

Get your fix of Port Nolloth at the Scotia Inn Hotel. From R425 pp sharing B&B. 027-851-8353


This article was first published in the January 2020 issue of Getaway magazine.
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