On the West Coast where the Bergriver flows into the Atlantic, economic drivers such as fishing and tourism have been devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic and a harsh, stormy winter.
But in Velddrif and Laaiplek, like the seasonal wild flowers, hope springs eternal.
The Laaiplek harbour on the northern bank of the river mouth is home to the local fishing community. From here, they go out to sea on their trawlers, sometimes for long periods before returning to offload their catch.
The fishing crews have been hard hit by Covid-19. Crews usually include 10 or more fishers who perform tough and physical work, at times on treacherous seas. Their living quarters below deck are not conducive to social distancing and masks offer little protection. Hence, many of the fishers, have been sick with Covid-19.
The need to fish, however, runs in these fishers’ veins and is part of their identity.
But locals are positive that like the weather, conditions will change and more fishers will be vaccinated against Covid-19. And the promise of better times are ahead with the return of tourists.
In Velddrif and Laaiplek, don’t expect to find any commercial tourist touches. Instead, if your timing is right, you’ll experience a treasure of rare and real West Coast living and culture.
Visitors can stroll along Laaiplek quay and enjoy the crisp ocean breeze and sea views. Further down the river bank, the smoke stacks rise from the Amawandle Pelagic fish factory. Here, it’s business as usual even when the local catch is insufficient.
Fish meal is still being made and fish canned. Sometimes, the fish get trucked in from as far afield as Mossel Bay.
The people of Laaiplek and Velddrif have realised that there is strength and hope in alliances.
Further inland, along the northern river bank of the Bergriver, is Bokkomlaan a historic road, that runs parallel to the river. The road is the first ever built in Velddrif, is also where bokkoms (fish biltong) was first made.
At times during the winter some of these bokkom factories could not rely on the local catch. And mullet, the fish from which bokkoms are made, are brought in from Paternoster or elsewhere until conditions permit local fishing.
Bokkomlaan is peppered with bunches of bokkoms which are hung out to dry. From here the bokkoms are distributed to merchants in town, to points along the main road of Velddrif, towns nearby and cities faraway.
Couple Gert and Magdel Aggenbach own Ek En Djy Vissery, a restaurant on the riverbank on Bokkomslaan. They have felt the change brought about by Covid-19 and the pandemic’s impact on tourism.
Gert and Magdel’s imaginative display in front of the restaurant looks compelling from the road as one drives by and draws one in. Gert agrees with other restaurateurs in the area that the alcohol bans have had an immediate negative impact on business. Nevertheless, it was never a consideration to close the doors of Ek En Djy Vissery.
“People have less money to buy and they are still careful of Covid. The flowers usually bring the people,” says Magdel. “The recent long weekend and Bergriver canoe marathon also helped.”
Wendy Wentzel owns two self-catering units on the river bank. She also owns and operates her famous river boat cruises from The Crackling Rosie river boat. She says her accommodation bookings have dwindled to a sorry state during the height of Covid-19 and she has had to bring in a cheaper river cruise since many people could no longer afford the price.
Wentzel ’s resourcefulness has kept the Crackling Rosie afloat during rough times.
Recently, much to the delight of the tourism community, Mother Nature has had a change of mood. The sun came out, the seasonal flowers emerged and turned their faces to the sun.
The accommodation bookings streamed in. The cars started pouring in. At Teyana’s restaurant they brought in a singer. Hordes of people filled the broad stoep overlooking the river. Waiters like Dominic le Clus are making money on tips again as business in restaurants and pubs like Teyanas and Ek En Djy Se Vissery were busy again.
At Teyana’s restaurant near the harbour, Dominic le Clus said he has been serving a steady flow of new customers.
“This month my tips will last until the last week of the month!”
In the Dagbreek Bokkom factory, workers are preparing bokkoms.
“I love the close teamwork and togetherness of my job,” says Vino Constable, an employee at the factory on Bokkom Laan.
“Better times are ahead” is not just a blind belief for the town’s residents – it is a sentiment that gives many hope.