Lamberts Bay is a small fishing town in the Western Cape situated 280 kilometres north of Cape Town and just south of the mouth of the Olifants river. It is an easy and scenic 3 hour drive from the mother city. The town is also known as 'the Diamond of the West Coast' because of its white beaches, wildlife and crayfish. The epithet is also an appropriate reference to offshore diamond mining as Lamberts Bay represents the southern most tip of the offshore diamond mining concessions in South Africa.
We have always been fans of the wild and rugged beauty of the Cape West coast so when one of our colleagues asked us if we would be interested in going to do some landscape photography from the base of his family holiday home there was little hesitation before we packed our tripods and headed out. Thank you Rico!
Lambert's Bay is named after Admiral Lambert of the British Navy who did a marine survey of the bay between 1826 and 1840. In 1887 a Mr Stephan bought the commercial buildings and built the hotel in 1888. Lamberts Bay was used as a lay-up for British warships during the war of 1900-1902. The first crayfish factory was started by Mr Lindström in 1918. The price was one shilling and sixpence per hundred crayfish. Dream on! Now Lamberts Bay consists of a small town nestled along the coastline with 3 or 4 parallel streets overlooking the sea and a light industrial and commercial area around the harbour.
Architecture is eclectic and clearly there are many holiday homes but the old hotel still stands.
Although primarily a fishing town it has become a significant tourist attraction due to its natural beauty, moderate climate and spectacular bird life and is home to a large nesting colony of Cape gannets on the eponymously named Bird Island. Dolphins, whales, seals and penguins also call this place home.
Fishing is still the core trade here. The heart of the town is the picturesque little harbour filled with colourful fishing vessels and row boats and the harbour side is still a working area with fish processing factories lining the quay, large trucks collecting their cargo at all hours.
The fish offal is ejected into a waiting skip which keeps the birds busy and during the day the harbour resounds to the cry of the seabirds as they swoop and dive. No one goes hungry. At night the cormorants huddle on the factory roofs to pick up the rising warmth.
This is the best of photographic grunge, industrial chic bathed in the warm orange of sunset or the crisp purples and pink of sunrise.
The Cape gannet is a particular favourite of ours as we have spent many hours on the ocean following them along the sardine run.
Some of these beautiful birds start that journey here in Lambert's Bay where a large nesting and roosting colony can be found. It is known that this site was a nesting site as early as 1828. It is currently one of only six sites world wide where the Cape gannet breeds and the only one accessible to the public. It is used for scientific research and the population is monitored daily. Eggs lost to gulls and fledgling chicks lost to seals are also recorded as well as information on diet.
The gulls behaviour has been analysed to reveal the meaning of a number of habitual postures and interactions. Sky gazing occurs before the gannets fly from the colony to advise they will be moving through to take off, bill scissoring as a greeting and bowing to pacify. These communications are important in such a tightly packed colony to maintain order and avoid conflicts. They recognise their own nests in the chaos which is a miracle in itself and seems to be a factor of their incredible eye sight.
Happily, at least in South Africa, the Cape gannet appears not to be endangered and population fluctuations mostly reflect fluctuations in prey fish especially the anchovy and pilchard.
This contrasts with the populations along the Namibian coast where they are considered critically endangered with a 84% decline.
It has long been known that the primary source of diamonds is kimberlite pipes in the continental interior. Most of the diamondiferous kimberlite in Southern Africa is between 80 and 120 million years old. In the interval between their formation and the present day many of these deposits have been eroded and the diamonds released for transportation into secondary deposits. A substantial proportion of these eroded deposits have been transported by the Orange, Buffels and Olifants rivers to the sea.
Conservative estimates place the marine diamond deposits at around 1.5 billion carats. These alluvial diamonds also carry a much higher proportion of gem quality diamonds, perhaps as high as 90%, as the inferior stones are often destroyed in the process of transportation. This makes their mining very attractive indeed.
Mining is divided into 3 major areas, coastal and beach deposits, inshore at depths of less than 40m and deeper than 100m. Advanced technology is bringing the third group, where the majority of the deposits are felt to lie, into reach, led by the De Beers marine group. The small harbours of the West coast from Lambert's Bay north all sport a small flotilla of diamond ships which specialise in the shallower prospecting.
Looking like medium sized fishing boats they are recognisable by the long corrugated pipes which float behind in the water. These pipes are activated by powerful suction pumps which are directed by divers at alluvial deposits under the ocean. The gravel is brought to shore and sifted for precious stones. A difficult and hazardous job I am sure but as divers we cannot help but be concerned about the collateral damage to the sea bed and sea life from these techniques. The deeper more commercially sponsored boats even more so.
For now we had to be content with a picturesque shot of the diamond boats silhouetted against the pink morning sky beyond the concrete doloses.
Bird island is 100 m off shore but connected to the mainland by a causeway which was completed in 1958 to facilitate guano mining.
Prior to its status as a nature reserve the island was a prized resource for guano harvesting.
In the 1840's guano became the international fertiliser of choice. During this time discoveries along the Cape coast led to South Africa becoming one of the main players in this industry.
Over the next century the social, economic and political drama of the guano industry played out in a rollercoaster of intrigue, betrayal, money and piracy rivalling the biggest blockbuster ever written. Guano was known as white gold and was just as valuable.
The availability of guano in a particular location depends on the presence of guano- producing seabirds such as gannets, cormorants and penguins. Their geographical location is inextricably linked with a phenomenon called upwelling. Upwelling is caused by the interaction of coastal winds, marine erosion of the ocean floor and the topography of the coastline. During this process, dead plant and animal matter sink to the bottom of the sea where they start decaying to form a very rich layer of compost. This rich compost on the seabed can only be utilised once it has reached the water’s surface. This upwelling only occurs in certain wind conditions, most specifically prevailing south-easterly winds which brings the compost material to the surface.
It is used by fish species such as anchovy, pilchard, round herring and horse mackerel, which in turn serve as essential food for other fish, mammals such as whales, and seabirds like gannets, penguins and cormorants.
During the breeding season in summer, vast numbers of birds congregate to lay their eggs and to roost their chicks on the offshore islands of locations where upwelling occur. At the end of the breeding season they leave behind islands encrusted in guano. Bird island is one such spot. Deposits may be several meters deep
Between 1880 and 1990 guano was mined at Bird Island. Workers were housed in basic huts on the island to dig the guano and often spent months there. Some remnants of these shelters remain. Criminals were sometimes stranded on the islands as punishment for years.
These rocky outcrops are barren and windswept, clearly an incredibly hard, brutal and isolated life. Some were reputed to have gone insane. A drift wood statue on the island of a guano miner commemorates their bleak lives.
In 1990 it was proclaimed as a nature reserve and now is an important scientific research site. Cape fur seals occur on the rocks and cormorants and turns nest here as well as the Cape gannet colony.
Penguins used to use the island for nesting and are slowly returning encouraged by specially constructed breeding structures.
Wining and dining and generally making merry.
Lamberts Bay sits on a windswept coastline with miles of white beaches, undulating kelp beds, dramatic rocky outcrops frothing with surf and glassy rock pools.
We only had 2 days there which were filled with running between harbour side attractions, birds, rock pools and boats in the golden hours of light, frustratingly short.
And so further attractions must wait for another time. It looks like a leisurely drive along the coast would be rewarded with even more beautiful vistas and pristine beaches.
At the right time of year the flowers should make an appearance and surely the photographic cup will truly runneth over.
Our experience of eating out was similarly limited and, to be fair, it was hard to drag ourselves away from the harbour side cafes of Isabellas and Weskus Combuis.
There is something special eating out over looking the water, the boats and birds and the sea food was fresh and unpretentious.
8km down the coast is Muisbosskerm, a beach restaurant constructed from wood, reeds and beach debris. Rumour has it they serve a tasty buffet of seafood delicacies but we were sadly too late for the food and only imbibed the alcohol. Pretty good though and the view, as advertised, was spectacular.
Note to self that trying to set HDR exposures after half a bottle of wine is not the best recipe for success! The tripod kept falling over in a weirdly unexplained fashion.
So this has wetted our appetite for the west coast of our beautiful Cape province and you can be sure we will be back with photo updates on all the other landscape opportunities it holds. Practice practice practice after all........!
Thanks to the Van Wyk family for the generous hospitality. You definitely own a small slice of paradise. Hang on to it.