Nestled between the mountains and the sea, Kalk Bay is only a 30-minute drive from Cape Town’s centre, yet it seems a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
If the cobbled streets, cozy coffee shops and antique stores aren’t enough, then the charismatic snoek fisherman, who have plied their trade through the harbour for centuries, are certainly enough to lure the intrepid traveller into this quaint harbour village. The place is a creative maverick’s paradise. Art stores, pottery studios and bric-a-brac shops also line the narrow roads, and secret alleys running up the mountainsides take you on adventures into dusty bookstores and the endless chronicles of the early traders and fisherfolk.
It’s hard not to delve into a bit of history to see where the Kalk Bay name originated. One of the earliest recorded visitors was Simon van der Stel. He stopped over in Kalk Bay en route to Simon’s Town, and discovered an ideal fishing spot with which to supply his men stationed at the castle. The fishing flourished, and as an offshoot of this, the families who inhabited the area were encouraged by the Dutch to establish lime kilns at Kalk Bay. It was from these lime (kalk) kilns that Kalk Bay obtained its name.
As a cultural experience for travellers, it has blossomed in recent years.
“It is still one of the smallest and quietest harbours in the country,” says long-time harbour master Pat Stacey. “A few years ago we had about 38 wooden fishing vessels that regularly docked here. There are fewer big hauls of fish nowadays, but the fishermen and boats have remained.”
Apparently, there is still a loyal market for fish, especially the commonly sought after snoek – a long, bright, silver fish armed with a formidable set of razor-sharp teeth. It’s caught using a hand line method passed down through generations of fishing lore.
“Witnessing this is a cultural experience,” says Alan Wellburn, who runs traditional snoek charters from Kalk Bay. “You can spot the experienced fishermen easily – the old hands of the sea. Sturdy fishing gut is used with a large snoek hook and a half-pilchard to catch fish, and there are other skills peculiar to snoek fishermen, like the traditional method of hauling the fish into the boat.”
Snoek are vicious predators and put up a strong fight. Their teeth are covered in an anti-coagulant that will cause a bite mark to bleed for some time. Because of this, the fish needs to be dispatched as soon as possible to prevent it thrashing about and inflicting harm. The traditional method is to tuck the body of the fish under an arm and snap its neck.
The flesh is tender and rich in flavour. It is deep-fried, smoked, dried, or prepared by the local community in the traditional Cape Malay style – the options are endless. For about R35 (you can haggle it down if you’re up for the challenge) you’ll get a shiny, fresh snoek cleaned, prepared, and wrapped in newspaper.
The life of a Kalk Bay fisherman has always been a spartan one. In days gone by, the men would have to rise at two in the morning, row or sail out to sea, fish until the afternoon, and then haul their boats up the beach slope to avoid storm damage. Cold weather and rough seas only increased the hazards.
These days, that lifestyle is still prevalent. Skippers and crew typically set off before dawn, day in day out. It’s hard work with sometimes little reward. But working conditions are vastly improved and the romantic notion of setting out to sea remains.
“I was born in Kalk Bay 36 years ago into a family of fishermen, so the sea will always be in my blood,” explains Alistair Boltman, skipper of the aptly named Alistair. “We get here in the early hours of the morning, and depending on the weather, will head out almost every day. It’s a tough but rich existence.”
“I feel calm out at sea,” one of Alistair's crew says with a quiet serenity. “No one can disturb you. The hardships and hassles of society are a distant memory. The sea is my comfort zone – at least most of the time!”
When it’s not, the icy Atlantic waters and violent storms and the occasional 'big creature' is a reminder that life on land isn’t so bad. “I’ve seen some weird and wonderful sea creatures,” Achmat, the crewmember, adds, “But plenty scary ones, too, like huge sharks (quite often the feared Great Whites, which are common in False Bay) and giant tjokka (squid), which make you start thinking…”
Most of the fishing community are Cape Coloureds and renowned for their quick-witted humour. They can be heard at their best among the crowds as the community bids for the day's catch at the end of the day. Equally as colourful – and equally established in Kalk Bay folklore – are the fishermen’s boats.
You only have to stroll along the harbour wall to see how colourful these vessels are. Bright blues, reds and yellows are the norm, and a miniature model of any boat would make a boy’s dream toy. Names like Star of the Sea, Amber Rose, and Antoinette tell of the high regard with which these sailors hold their vessels. The majority are wooden creations.
“The same core design has remained unchanged since the late 1800s,” harbour master Pat Stacey continues. “At that time the vessels were oar-powered or fixed with a mast and sail, but now those have been replaced with inboard motors. One of these boats was still in use a few years ago and quite a few boats used today date back to the 1940s.”
As far as seaworthiness is concerned, the boats’ shallow draught and stable hull are ideally suited to sea conditions and fishing in and around False Bay.
“The old fishermen swear by the wood-constructed boats for reliability and performance,” he adds, “and they certainly are better-looking than their fiberglass counterparts. But the truth is that these days, it’s extremely expensive to repair wooden boats compared to fiberglass, so new ones are in short supply.”
The one factor affecting fishermen more than anything else is the reduction of fish in False Bay. The reasons given for this vary from the movements of currents and warm 'blue' waters, which are now further out to sea, to the trawler vessels, which have bigger carrying capacities, and can spend longer times at sea. The end result is that less fish make it into the bay.
But it’s hard to imagine the fisher folk and their heritage will disappear, as fishing is still relatively good. With the salt of the sea in their blood and Kalk Bay as their spiritual home, one can imagine they’ll be around for many years.
And that’s good news for travellers the world over. For anyone visiting the Cape, the Kalk Bay Harbour and surrounding area is a must-see item – even if it just means watching the boats come in with their catches at the end of the day. The charm of the fishermen and harbour can never be forgotten.
Kalk Bay – a visitor’s guide
If you’re an avid shopper you may feel you have stumbled upon a gem in Kalk Bay – especially if antique stores, art galleries and cozy coffee shops are your thing. For a photographer, the possibilities are endless.
Few places offer a better whale watching than Kalk Bay. The best place to view them is along the main coastal road between Kalk Bay and Fish Hoek during the winter and spring months.
The harbour wall offers an interesting dive, but there're plenty more spots in the area.
Contact Table Bay Diving on 27 (021) 419 8822.
The Kalk Bay Theatre and restaurant is located in the restored Kalk Bay Dutch Reform Church, which was built in 1876. Performances are from Tuesday to Saturday night.
Contact 073 220 5430 for bookings.
The well-known Brass Bell restaurant and Bar is as close as you can get to the waves without going for a swim
Contact 27 (021) 788 5455
The Polana Restaurant serves exquisite Colonial and Portuguese cuisine
Contact 27 (021) 788 7162.
A stroll down the main road will reveal more culinary delights.
Spend a day fishing from a traditional wooden snoek boat where your guide will teach you how to catch these fish. Upon arrival back at Kalk Bay, your fish will be prepared in the traditional Cape Malay style. Sport and game fishing is also available.
Contact Sunscene on 083 517 9383.
The fishing community conducts a walking tour of Kalk Bay. Overnight stays with families in the community; lunch or tea in their newly built centre provides a true Cape experience.
Phone 073 211 4508 for more info.
Article courtesy of Avis South African Magazine.
By Paul Winter