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Travelling back in time in the Western Cape

We wake up to a gorgeous cloud-domed sky after a night of stormy rainfall. We heard the muffled sounds of raindrops pummeling the roof our warm little cottage throughout the night and felt quite relieved for the upgrade to Bos Huisie after the tinge of disappointment at missing out on the night in a reed hut. We head up the hill, across the West Coast highway for a hearty breakfast at the !Kwha ttu restaurant, run by the San community, just like the lodge, the camp, the museum and the training center, where they teach other San about heritage, culture, nature conservation and provide life skills.

After breakfast Kundino Samba takes us on a tour of the park. We board a truck-like flat vehicle with seats right up to the front bumper and poke the canvas of the roof, swelled with last night’s rain, only to soak our guide, Max’s legs, my backpack and a good portion of Guy’s jacket. It leads to quite a few shrieks but, after the initial surprise, a hearty roar of laughter.

We drive along a short trail on the hillside, where we drink in stunning views of Langebaan lagoon below, the nervy waves of the Atlantic just beyond and, a little further out, Dassie island, a bird conservation spot off limits to anyone but a few scientists.

We then stop at a little replica San village where Kundino teaches the kids how to recognize the tracks of the main large animals they have in the park: eland, springbok, porcupine and the rare and endangered bontebok, of which they host a small herd. He proceeds to explain how a San hunter-gatherer community would have lived in the days prior to the colony. Despite the parts about family life, social rites and organization being really fascinating, the kids find themselves slightly distracted by the bow and arrow that lies on the floor and will illustrate the next chapter on hunting techniques.

On that topic though, helped by Kundino’s storytelling talents – he was once a newsreader for a San language radio in Kimberley after all – the boys pay full attention. They are quickly rewarded by the gift of a practice bow, complete with blunt arrow. Wow, learning is fun all of sudden!

We ask Kundino if San people today are aware of their history and whether it is preserved in their community. He explains that he always knew that his ancestors came from this region. Though born in Namibia, where nowadays, along with Botswana, you find the greatest concentrations of the original inhabitants of the Cape, they had always been told of migrations through the generations, each time further north or further inland to escape the advance of the colony. Curiously, he adds that they had always referred to a very specific date – 1852 - when the San people that stayed behind in the Cape started abandoning hunting-gathering ways of living and either migrated towards other San communities further up north or slowly progressed towards a sad extinction.

A combination of persecution for hunting cattle, disease and forced assimilation into farm life in order to survive became too much pressure for the fragile San societies as they depended on land that was increasingly sold off as private property. He also adds that !Khwa ttu was doing a lot to preserve and teach this history and that he’s learnt a lot more on San history since he’s been at the center. Notably, he’s learnt how the study of San languages, of which there are 3 main different ones, with each having about 5 sub-dialects, is what helps to trace the lineage of different communities.

On the way back, we spot a few zebras lazily grazing in front of the landscape and promptly use them as ideal photographic props. Back at !Khwa ttu, we stare gape-mouthed at the swirling ballet of dozens of weaver birds flying to and fro with grass blades and knitting their intricately delicate nests for a long while before saying our goodbyes to Kundino and rushing to our next destination, the West Coast Fossil Park.

It’s only 25 minutes away but it’s already 12h15 by the time we depart. We are behind on our intended schedule. The tour of !Khwa ttu was supposed to have taken place the day before but it was rained out and kindly postponed to this morning, which means that we will only catch the 13h00 tour of the fossil park and be quite late for lunch at Pelican Post in Velddrift. No matter, the West Coast Fossil Park is fascinating enough to forget about empty stomachs. The kids have a blast learning about the process of fossilization of bones and the species of animals and plants we know to have roamed this earth about 5 million years ago thanks to this amazingly rich find near the mouth of the Berg river.

Guy and Max listen with intent to Wendy’s complex explanations on how we know that gradual climate change probably forced some species to migrate to kinder pastures, others to evolve to adapt to new conditions and others still to become extinct as a result of poor adaptation. Of course, when all the very scientific concepts she expounds are illustrated by a carpet of real life fossils, lying perfectly preserved and exposed in the phosphate rich soil, it really helps the imagination of little boys – and the entertainment value.

It’s well past 14h00 by the time they patiently and attentively listen to the next lesson at the lab, where they get to feel and compare modern animal bones with old, extinct animal’s fossilized bones, magically turned into stone by chemistry and time, and still not a peep about being hungry.

They try on funny-looking magnifying glasses and, with Wendy’s gentle assistance, sift through tiny, tiny frog bone fossils with tweezers. They marvel at gigantic fossilized megalodon teeth. They get to touch and feel a whale’s baleens while being explained that their filtering feeding method is so efficient it allows the biggest mammal on this planet to feed on tiny organisms. By the time we finish the visit in the small museum and they get to see the fossilized skulls of the extinct African bear and a sabre-toothed cat, the kids are literally baffled.

We chuckle as we remember how Guy and Max’s headmaster had heartily encouraged us to go on our crazy adventure when we approached him for advice. He suggested that some home schooling, to make sure they don’t fall behind on the curriculum, would be wise but added quite firmly that we should not hesitate for a minute. “Your trip will teach them a million more things than what a classroom can”, he said.

In Velddrift, we find out that Pelican Post is closed and decide to push on to Elands Bay, a further 40 minutes ahead on the road and our destination for the night. We stop at a farmstall to quell the hunger with a few biltong sticks and stop a few more times for photos – we just can’t resist the stunning views of the sea and flower-laden pastures along the road.

The last bend before Elands Bay is the prettiest. Gently circumventing a large rock head that juts out to sea, it opens up to a wide vlei where dozens of flamingos dot the greyish-green landscape with bright pink dots. At the end of the reed-banked river mouth, the hamlet is nestled between the beach and the cliff. Our lodge for the night is Vensterklip across the vlei, and 5 kilometers into the valley.

A smiling Elmarie and her lively whippet welcome us, tour us through the historic farm and its preserved 250-year-old barn and show us to a lovely little cottage overlooking the vlei: Scott House. Half an hour later, after a bit of exploration and some hide and seek, we are hungrily tucking away at deserved burgers before some quiet time in the cottage. The fireplace and a book are very welcome after such an activity-filled day!

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