A sign stating Bokkombedryf will lead you to the famed Bokkomlaan in Velddrif where bokkoms – dry, salted fish biltong – are still prepared and hung up to dry just as they were a hundred years ago.
The vista of wooden jetties, small fishing boats swaying lazily in the afternoon sun in this unique setting of reeds and river and birds and pelicans soothe the senses and revive the spirit.
No wonder. The Berg River estuary is alive with thousands of Curlew Sandpipers and Plovers while the otter and the mongoose makes its home along this tidal river which is navigable for many kilometres upstream. Flocks of feeding pink flamingos add a sense of surrealism as one enters and leaves the town.
The roots of this fishing community dates back to 1693 when the Dutch ship De Gouden Buys stranded along this coast. Norwegian and Portuguese seafarers too threw anchor on this coast, Vasco Da Gama being the best known. By the time De Gouden Buys had reached the Cape most of its original crew of 190 died of scurvy and exposure. (A few bunches of bokkoms on board would have prevented that..)
The Bokkomlaan is both famous and infamous.
Infamous because of its steamy and seamy tales, most of which slumber in the graves of the fishermen that propagated them. Still, should you shoot the breeze with any elderly fisherman at a Velddrif tavern, these tales-from-the-grave flow effortlessly after a couple of brannas.
Famous because it is the home of the dried fish industry in South Africa and because the towns of Velddrif and Laaiplek were birthed due to fishermen having settled here on the Bokkomlaan..
Surf the net and you’ll happen upon the desperate postings of an individual or two appealing to the cyberspace community to put them in touch with the purveyors of this unique tidbit so synonymous with the Bokkomlaan.
And netting is how the Bokkomlaan originated when there was no Velddrif, merely a farm named Oudefontein owned by the Smit brothers. In summer fishermen dropped their nets in the river for harders, Steenbras and stompneus while the winter saw them setting out to sea for snoek in two-man rowing boats called visbakkies or twenty-foot vessels called trekskuite. Fishing during donkermaan yielded the best catch as shoals of wish were easier to detect.
The harders (mullet) were placed in barrels of water called souttenke into which copious amounts of salt was thrown. When the fish floated to the top, presses were placed in the barrels to submerge the fish for another day or so, after which they were rinsed, threaded together in bunches and then hung outside onto racks called vissteieers. At dusk the bokkoms were carried into purpose-made warehouses called vishuise.
After two days in the souttenke, the bokkoms were ready for haning out to dry. The fishermen and their families would gather crates and stools and sit around giant heaps of bokkoms. While the adults talked and threaded the fish into bunches, the children swam or listened to the old folk tell heroic, sometimes bizarre, stories of their conquests of the sea.
The fishermen sailed up river to barter their bokkoms in exchange for fresh produce from farm labourers who survived on this fish biltong during the stormy winter months when fishing was limited.
Fishing in the river is no longer allowed as the estuary is a nursery for marine species and therefore ecologically sensitive. Moreover, because of its large open spaces and a big blue unpolluted sky the whole of the west coast has been designated a biosphere reserve. This project is volunteer-run by key environmentalists, their objective being to foster human development that is ecologically sustainable and to conserve the landscapes, vegetation and species of the west coast.
There are a few historic dwellings as charming and as innovative as a west coast fisherman’s cottage. The fishermen’s houses progressed according to their affluence: furst a reed house, then a one-roomed house (a kitchen by day and a bedroom by night)and finally the langhuis, which comprised a series of rooms built onto the kitchen as the need arose. Wooden shutters covered the windows in lieu of glass. These houses were constructed with chimneys built into the south walls and without windows in the north walls due to the battering they received from the brutal north-wester. Despite Bokkomlaan having had its own fresh water sprint those days, each house was fitted with as many water tanks as it had rooms to sustain the household during the long dry summers.
They built their houses from the resources in the area: wood and gum from the Bluegum tree, animal dung instead of floorboards homemade sand and shell bricks called skulpgruis, and a fluitjies roof. The English translation of this is ‘whistling reed’, so named because of the sound of the wind through the reeds.
Subsequently, all along the Bokkomlaan stood- and today still stands the vishuise and directly behind them, the langhuise.
All along the Bokkomlaan flows the Berg River mud flats and flood plains supporting exceptional populations of plant, bird and animal species.
Alongside the fisherrmen, lived the farmer. Thus it was when Theunis Smit first took his stock through the drift in the veld that the name Velddrif was given to the town in which the Bokkomlaan is situated.
In 1899 a pont was built across the river, later replaced by the Carinus Bridge in the fifties making Velddrif accessible to the outside world, after which the west coast blossomed into a multi-billion rand industry. Nevertheless, the recent fishing restrictions have left many people jobless and the preservation of the bokkom-making industry under threat as young people leave to work in the cities.
Bokkomlaan – similarly rich in history as it in fish and birdlife.
While archaeologists circle the site in a Cessna and dredge sandbanks under the sea searching for De Gouden Buys, tourists travel the R27 highway, over Carinus bridge, take a right turn at Velddrif, then right again at the Bokkombedryf signpost to sip a cup of tea while Father Time and experience the golden age of fishing past.
Written by: Wilna Jensen