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Doing Betty's Bay

By J.F. Kloppers

What makes South Africa's Betty’s Bay the perfect holiday destination? All you need to find the answer is a pair of comfortable shoes.

I never thought of Betty’s Bay as being much more than a drive-by town. A sliver of houses wedged between the imposing Kogelberg Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean; a town on the scenic route from Cape Town to Hermanus.

Even the houses themselves are unremarkable; randomly strewn between stands of indigenous fynbos and ranging in style from Spanish villas to bland face-brick structures. Some are bright, some are boring; there just doesn’t seem to be anything distinctive about the place. That is, until you look closer.

Then you notice that each house, no matter the shape, has a patio or a balcony. And it dawns on you that it’s not the town that’s special, but what goes on around it. It was the surroundings that filled my days: hiking, swimming, beach-lazing and ambling over mountains and along the ocean’s edge. But I am getting ahead of myself. First I had to settle the important matter of dinner.

In a town where the only bright light after dark is the petrol station, I didn’t have much hope for a restaurant. I’d been advised to try Tides, but it was completely dark from the outside with no windows to reassure me that this was, in fact, the right place. Entering through a simple wooden door, I half expected to find myself in someone’s kitchen. But once inside, I was enveloped by warmth and friendliness. It was packed, not an empty table in sight and I sat at the bar until a spot in a cosy corner became available. Somewhere between the smoked salmon pasta and the promise of the next day’s adventures, I fell in love with Betty’s Bay.

It’s always nice arriving in a new place after dark because you’re treated to fresh, unexpected views in the morning. Flinging open the French doors of my room at Buçaco Sud, a family-run guest house against the mountain, the morning light glistened on the sea and reflected on roofs, making even the simplest of houses appear magical.

After breakfast, I explored the sandy coastline that stretches along the front of town. Individual beaches aren’t signposted, but follow the green ‘beach’ sign through town to a parking lot and you’ll be at the main beach. This area is watched over by lifeguards and is where most locals and visitors spend the summer days.

I headed west towards Rooi Els and Pringle Bay, and found the last beach before the edge of town. It’s called Silversands (I only know this because a local told me). It’s a favourite among fishermen and they created a striking silhouette, perched on the sandbank waiting for galjoen and steenbras to bite. Silversands is also one of the best places in town to dive for crayfish (this year’s season opens again in November).

My last seaside stop for the day was Stony Point. It was late afternoon when I arrived, but this is the best time of day to visit the African penguin colony returning to the rocks from fishing expeditions. I couldn’t help but smile at the awkward pose in which they stood to dry off. Wings slightly spread, necks skewed to the one side and beaks turned up towards the fading sun.

Having sated my appetite for the beach, the next morning I tied my laces and set off to explore the mountains of the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve that rise behind the town. Little did I know that my laces would be the biggest burden on a trail dotted with swimming holes.

There are two relatively challenging trails into the mountains, but I chose to stay low and swim. The Palmiet River Trail is an easy, level path (you could walk it in slops) that winds along the river with mountains on either side. It’s great for families with kids and most people amble along the five kilometres armed with coolboxes, beach bats, flotation devices and colourful buckets and spades, stopping at a swimming hole or two on the way.

Having grown attached to this clear, cool river, I followed it to its end. Dodging at least one big spider in its web, I picked through an increasingly overgrown trail (this section is less popular than the upper reaches) until I got to the mouth, where the vegetation opens up to reveal a quiet beach as perfectly sandy as the main beach but without the people.

That evening I found myself on a typical Betty’s Bay porch, watching the sky slowly catch fire before fading to pink. And it struck me: it doesn’t matter what your holiday house looks like on the inside – it’s the beauty beyond the walls that makes this drive-by town a very real and honest destination.

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