Braving the bokkom

Posted on 5 March 2020

Driving over the Berg River on Carinus Bridge, you’d probably dismiss Velddrif as just another Weskus fishing dorpie; but then you wouldn’t meet Captain Tollie, taste artisanal cheese or sip a poetic gin.

Before the Carinus Bridge (from where this photo was taken) was built in 1959, Veldriwwers relied on a pont system, which tended to be intermittent – particularly on babelas Monday mornings. Image credit: Catherine Hofmeyr

Velddrif, at the mouth of the Berg River, is a place of many smells. There’s the thick salty aroma wafted in from the sea on winter fog; the sulphuric guano stench of thousands of roosting cormorants, and pungent pongs from the mudflats at low tide… On the day I arrived it was the fishy smell of bokkoms.

‘Ours are the best,’ said Bergrivier Tourism manager Yvette Odendaal, by way of introduction. ‘That’s why Velddrif is renowned as the Bokkom Capital of South Africa.’ A bokkom is a dried, salted mullet (small harder) sometimes cut into strips as fishy biltong (and packaged with a breath mint). You’ll find them in various stages of drying in Bokkomlaan, a character-filled track running alongside the Berg River where the bokkom industry evolved. Several of the original rudimentary vishuise (fish houses) are now restaurants or coffee shops, but some are still bokkom ‘factories’.

Lovely Russells on the Port guest house overlooks the marina at Port Owen. Image credit: Catherine Hofmeyr

To turn a fresh mullet into a bokkom it needs to lie in thick brine for three days, then hang in full sun for 15–20 days. I learnt this from tour guide Felicity Strohfeldt, while we watched Leonie Faro thread the little fish through their eye sockets at Bokkom Visserye – something she’s been doing for 50-odd years. Down the lane at tiny Albanie Visserye, Groot Spinnekop and his son, Klein Spinnekop (everyone in Velddrif knows the Heinrichs as that, they told me) were carrying their rods of semi-dried fish out to the styers (drying racks) for the day. The racks are netted to keep the ever-vigilant herons and pelicans from pecking. Heinrich senior told me how he once watched while a pelican, ‘’n hele bos bokkoms ingesluk het, toutjie en al’ (guzzled a whole rod of bokkoms, line and all).

Being a bit of a Weskusser myself, I quite like bokkoms, but let’s just say that for many, they (and their powerful smell) are an acquired taste.

Up the lane, the fish smell was offset by an aroma of coffee from Columbine & Co where Rudolph de Villiers, aka Dante from the recent Survivor series, runs a charming coffee shop in his grandfather’s old vishuis. Israeli blogger Maayan Stern, who writes about travelling the world with her dog Chai, had found Columbine (or was it Dante?) very much to her liking. Chai looked chuffed too.

Captain Tollie is good entertainment value and a fount of information on Velddrif during a Berg cruise; The sights in and around Bokkomlaan – a fishy ‘delicacy’. Image credit: Catherine Hofmeyr

I had breakfast that morning out on the jetty at Ek & Djy Visserye Etc. The restaurant and eclectic shop shares a vishuis with artist Marina Clunie’s River Studio. Regulars stop by in their boats for brekkie or fish and chips. And that’s where I was collected by Rob Gortmaker in his specially designed cruiser, with an upper viewing deck, for a birding trip. Rob filled me in on the excellent catches of elf and kabeljou in the river, as we puttered past flamingos working the estuarine mudflats, a pied kingfisher, egrets, grey herons, pelicans and numerous waterfowl up to the railway bridge. And right on cue a 200-truck ore train from Sichen to Saldanha crossed overhead.

One lane back from Bokkomlaan, I found Kokerboom Kaas where erstwhile chef David Malan ‘makes cheese, watches flamingos and sometimes fishes for elf and steenbras. I’m constantly experimenting,’ he said as he talked me through his current crop of artisanal cheeses. They are all named after local birds and we finished up with his well-matured flagship, Black-Winged Stilt.

Velddrif is essentially a tale of two towns – actually three, if you include Laaiplek, where it all began around 1830. One Carl Stephan built a depot at the mouth of the Berg, to transport wheat and fish to Cape Town. The depot became die laaiplaats (Dutch for loading place), later localised as laaiplek from where his son Carl II ran the cutter Alabama (not the famous CSS Alabama from the seafaring ditty,
‘Daar kom die Alibama’) to Cape Town.

Laaiplek is where you’ll find the SA Fisheries Museum in one of the original depot warehouses. It’s a fine collection of info and memorabilia of the town’s fishing legacy, various shipwrecks and safety equipment such as a wind-up foghorn.

Bloggers Maayan and Chai at Columbine & Co coffee shop. Image credit: Catherine Hofmeyr

Between Laaiplek and the CBD (read municipality, bottle store, tourism office and Riviera Hotel) is Port Owen, a marina development on canals near the mouth of the river. Built in the 1980s, the mostly retirement- and holiday-home complex needed a boost. Enter Russell Foster, on a breath of entrepreneurial air. Russell’s ‘other’ home is a 1720s baronial hall near Durham in Sunderland, England. What brought this affable Englishman to the Cape Weskus, I wondered? ‘I always wanted to have a boat on a river at the bottom of my garden,’ he told me over a Cormorant Stout in Charlie’s Brewhouse. On Admiral Island in Port Owen he has just that.

In Northern England Russell developed a chain of restaurants with boutique craft breweries attached. Now in ‘retirement’ he’s replicating that success with Charlie’s Brewhouse in the marina. It’s a large, communal-tabled restaurant and bar with the micro-brewery visible behind glass at the back.

Just opened next door is Russell’s latest project, the Poetic License Gin Distillery with four botanical-heavy crafted gins. The pale-pink Strawberries & Cream (Picnic), with elderflower tonic and cranberry garnish was a thing of great beauty – and taste.

A lesser flamingo trawls for shrimps (which give them their pink tinge) at low tide. Image credit: Catherine Hofmeyr

I loved my lodgings at Russells on Port, a guest house renovated and opened by guess who? From my second-floor balcony I looked over yachts moored in the marina, watched flamingos in the estuary and marvelled awestruck at thousands (some put the figure at 200 000) of cormorants flying up-river to roost on the salt flats at sunset.

A man who enjoys a good meal (he also sings for restaurant guests on Saturday nights), Russell wanted a fine-dining venue in Velddrif. With chef Charl Coetzee (ex Spier, Alphen and the Cape Grace) he’s achieved that at Russells. Everything on the menu was so tantalising I opted for two starters – fish cakes with poached prawn tails and bacon-stuffed baby calamari with ponzu sauce. My lunch was as good as anything you’d get in the city.

Grey herons and cormorants compete with fishermen for the estuary’s bounty. Image credit: Catherine Hofmeyr

I’m not sure how the indigenous Velddriwwers feel about the uitlander but his entrepreneurial endeavours are certainly putting Velddrif on the map as a weekend destination for city folk. He’s also building a retirement village and medical centre and helps the town’s animal welfare and soup kitchen.

To get the colourful, local low-down and insider tips on Velddrif, take a Berg River boat cruise from in front of Charlie’s Brewhouse at Port Owen Marina with Captain Tollie Bezuidenhout. This effusive raconteur regaled us with stories for the full two hours of the trip up past the bridge. He reckons the Berg is navigable almost as far up as Piketberg in a shallow-draft boat, but like veteran Tollie, you need to know where the sandbanks are.

Velddrif, he says, has minimal crime. ‘The only skollies are the Hartlaub’s gulls which steal your chips right off your plate.’

‘Down here in the estuary the water is salty,’ Tollie dips a finger overboard. ‘Higher up it’s fresh. For a while the two streams run parallel, not wanting to mix initially.’ It’s a bit like Velddrif, I thought, with its three riverside sectors, initially wary of one another before inter-mingling as one community.

Plan Your Trip

Getting There
Velddrif is 145km from Cape Town on the R27.

Where to Stay
Russells on the Port is a four-star (and well priced for what you get) guest house with lovely staff and an upmarket restaurant at Port Owen. From R875 pp sharing , B&B. russellsontheport.co.za

The Riviera Hotel in town has rooms from R465 pp sharing as well as riverfront chalets, from R1 045.
084-445-8806

Heron’s Rest is a peaceful farmhouse and cottage on a smallholding back from the river. From R375 pp.
071-141-7313. heronsrest-veldrif.com

Kuifkopvisvanger offers characterful self-catering cottages as well as camping, overlooking the estuary, on a working farm. Cottages from R400 pp. 083-759-7075

River Cottage, with two en-suite rooms and stoep braai plek is perfect for birders, right on the estuary. From R1,980 (sleeps four). 082-803-3739, wishiwerethere.co.za

The flavours of Velddrif in a farm stall in Voortrekker Street, the town’s main drag. Image credit: Catherine Hofmeyr

Things To Do

Pop in at the Visitors’ Centre on Voortrekker Street. velddriftourism.co.za

Do a cheese tasting by appointment at Kokerboom Kaas – bring your own wine. R55 pp. 082-572-1822

Buy hand-packed Weskus salt (from nearby pans) at the Khoisan Natural Unrefined Sea Salt factory; to do a tour, phone 022-783-1520.

Make a pilchard money tin at the SA Fisheries Museum. R15 adult/R5 child. 022-783-2531

A 90-minute trip with Tollie’s River & Boat Cruises is R150 pp adults/R70 pp children; take snacks.
079-763-6966

Spot some of Velddrif’s 220 bird species on an Extreme Bird Watching & Boat Tour. From R100 pp.
073-832-2923

Browse at Marina Clunie’s art studio. 083-415-9542

Hook one with A&M Fishing Charters. R680 pp (river) or R1 000 pp (sea) 071-550-8491

Don’t miss the Berg River Winter Carnival on 4 July 2020 which coincides with the end of the annual four-day Berg River Canoe Marathon. There will be bokkoms! travelbergrivier.co.za

Russells on the port. Image credit: Catherine Hofmeyr

Eat & Drink Here

Town/Bokkomlaan
Columbine & Co. 061-771-7518
Ek & Djy On the stoep or jetty. 082-781-3878
Die Vishuis for seafood specials in a quirky national monument. 022-783-1183
In town the lovely Lavender & Lime is in a nursery setting off the main road. 022-783-0252

Image credit: Catherine Hofmeyr

Port Owen

Russells on the Port for fine dining. 022-783-0158
Charlie’s Brewhouse, for beer tastings, bar snacks or hearty fare – come hungry if you order the eisbein. 022-783-0448
Poetic License Gin Distillery offers distillery tours, tastings, pairing experiences and a shop.
022-125-0568

Laaiplek

Doepie’s for the best seafood takeaways in town (says Tollie). 022-783-2433
Die Visvlekhuis bar, diner and take-aways. 071-917-4521

 

This article was first published in the January 2020 issue of Getaway magazine.
Get this issue →
All prices correct at publication, but are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion. Please check with them before booking or buying.

 

You may also like






yoast-primary - 1012442
tcat - Destinations
tcat_slug - destinations
tcat2 - Inspiration
tcat2_slug - inspiration
tcat_final - travel