Mossel Bay is so cool the original humans camped here. So did the first Europeans and thousands of seafarers since then. Today, visitors come to see pirates singing, dive with sharks and drink tea dressed in vintage fur. And up the stairs of the region’s only public lighthouse, on a clear day you can see forever.
WORDS Denise Lloyd and Athane Scholtz PHOTOGRAPHS Desmond Scholtz and supplied
The history of Europeans at the tip of Africa did not start with Dutchman Jan van Riebeeck in the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, but in Mossel Bay on 3 February 1488 when intrepid Portuguese sailor Bartholomeu Dias and his crew missed the tip of Africa and came ashore at Munro Bay.
Several extraordinary experiences are intricately linked to Mossel Bay’s connection with Dias and the town’s convenient position for sailors circumventing Africa. The natural spring from which Dias replenished his water supply still runs today. The Milkwood tree – believed to be South Africa’s first ‘post office’ in which passing sailors left letters in a shoe since 1500 – is still there and a ‘shoe’ post box now serves as a receptacle for those wishing to post a letter or postcard from this historic site. While it sounds quite ordinary to visit a museum, the Dias Museum complex houses several surprising exhibits, including the largest shell collection in the southern hemisphere. www.diasmuseum.co.za
St Blaize Lighthouse
The only lighthouse open to the public in the Southern Cape, St Blaize offers a unique view of the bay up to Buffalo Bay point. The keeper will take you on a tour, tell you how the original mechanism worked, how it has been automated and other interesting titbits of bygones. Access is via Montagu Street. Monday to Friday 10am-3pm, excluding public holidays. A new, unique opportunity to overnight in the keeper’s old cottage next to the lighthouse can add to your extraordinary to-do-list. While basic self-catering facilities are available, you will have to bring your own bedding. More upmarket accommodation is also available nearby. Booking is essential. 021 449 2400 or firstname.lastname@example.org
While the life size replica of Dias’ caravel in the museum is well-known, it is not common knowledge that the dry dock hall in which it is housed has exceptional acoustics and is a regular venue for classical concerts. The caravel has even served as impressive ‘stage’ for a Gilbert and Sullivan Society production of Pirates ofPennzance. Future concert information from organiser Cedric Downard at email@example.com
First-time visitors to Santos Beach may be forgiven for thinking they are in Brighton in England. The twin of this world famous silver domed Victorian beach pavilion was built in 1906. While it may no longer attract royalty such as the Prince of Wales, who visited in 1925, the impressive structure is worth at least a photo in your album. Restaurant 044 690 4567
In the days before floods caused irreparable damage to large sections of the scenic train tracks between George and Mossel Bay, the town used to be a regular stop for the stately Blue Train, and home to the world-renowned Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe steam train. Mossel Bay remains, however, the home of three remarkable track-related experiences.
The Diaz Express, which consists of three restored railway trolleys, offers booked group excursions for up to 32 passengers between Mossel Bay and Great Brak River. In high summer season the service also runs regular return shuttles to Hartenbos. www.diazexpress.co.za
Santos Express Train Lodge, a set of old railway carriages right on the edge of Santos beach, is listed in the Top 10 Quirky Hotels in South Africa. Last year they added two beautifully restored upmarket Royal Suite railway coaches to their backpackers’ accommodation portfolio and restaurant. Dating back to 1919 and 1921 respectively, the en-suite coaches offer king size comfort – two of which boast real Victorian baths. The owners plan to add a silver service dinner carriage. www.santosexpress.co.za
The eclectic Blue Shed Coffee Roastery in Bland Street is housed in the old workshop for petrol-driven railroad trucks. The long table, which forms a focal point, covers a pit where the mechanics used to work under the trucks. www.blueshedroasters.co.za
Quay 4, better known as the harbour wall of the country’s smallest working port, has become a tourism hotspot with new eateries and unique offerings. In addition to the only shark cage diving experience in the region (www.whitesharkafrica.com) and the town’s oldest tourism product, Romonza boat trips to Seal Island (http://romonzaboattrips.co.za), fresh fish and chips are now served from a red London Bus (www.londonbus.co.za) and the Mossel Bay Oyster Bar (www.mosselbayoysterbar.co.za) offers shellfish and champagne with an unsurpassed view of the bay.
Movies at Monroe
Should you be in Mossel Bay on a Thursday night, the weekly old movie night at Monroe Theatre showcases old, mostly black and white, movies and includes a light meal. See our story on Page 58 about the theatre and adjacent Déjà Vu vintage shop and tea room. 7 Marsh Street 082 415 9588
Historical Mossel Bay on Foot
Few coastal towns can boast 69 beautiful historical buildings and sites within easy walking distance. If history and architecture is your thing, pick up the detailed and well-researched guide from Mossel Bay Tourism on the corner of Market and Church streets and put on your walking shoes – you will not be disappointed.
There are two out-of-town offerings that should also be on your extraordinary to-do list: Back in time
In 1997 scientists came upon caves so archeologically important it changed the way science views the origin of humans. The Point of Human Origins Experience at Pinnacle Point is led by one of its discoverers, archaeologist Dr Peter Nilssen, and promises to be scenic and informative. 071 690 8889 www.humanorigin.co.za
Simulator or real deal
Renowned for training air force and commercial helicopter pilots from around the world, the Starlite International Aviation Training Academy in Aalwyndal was the first in Africa to boast a twin turbine helicopter Elite simulator. Ultra-high resolution graphics of Mossel Bay and most of the airports in South Africa will ensure your simulator experience feels extraordinarily real. R1 350 for 30 minutes. Real helicopter flight lessons start at R1 250 for an introductory flight. Tailormade sightseeing trips start at R400 per person, minimum three people. Elsabe Carstens 044 692 0006 or 074 933 0570