Vital harbor: Christmas in Vleesbaai

Vital harbor: Christmas in Vleesbaai
Vital harbor: Christmas in Vleesbaai

When I first met Petra in 2018, weeks after arriving in KwaZulu-Natal to begin teaching with the Peace Corps, she invited me to visit her home on Western Cape. This Christmas, I finally took Petra up on her invitation. After a long layover in Singapore, then a short domestic flight, I rode with Petra’s sister and family for four hours from Cape Town, across the mountains, back to the coast.

We arrived in Vleesbaai late Monday, just in time for Christmas dinner. Petra and her husband Preben outdid themselves with lamb and steak grilled in the fireplace, alongside a spread of salads, savoury sides, and cherry cake. We watched twilight creep over the water as I dusted off my Afrikaans to greet old friends and new acquaintances.

After the sun had set, Petra blessed everyone with goody bags – handmade totes stuffed with sweets and mementos. As much as I treasured my time in Kyoto last Christmas, nothing could replace the warmth and joy of celebrating around the table together.

The next morning brought another reunion, with the family from the grape farm in Northern Cape! What a gift to hug them all hello, after three years since our last meeting. Renate laughed that we had thought our first good-bye, in Christmas 2019, would be the last. To crown the occasion, they had packed her incomparable farm breakfast: all handmade and harvested, from the family honey and home-baked bread, to fresh cheese and butter from the farm’s own goat herd.

Another friend from afar, my dear Talitha, stopped by the next day to introduce me to her new baby girl. We savored Preben’s smoked chicken and cheese baked bread while swapping stories of coding projects and reminiscing about our days teaching in Ingwavuma.

As if the people weren’t enough, Vleesbaai showered me with natural treasures as well. Since the family has been gathering there for years, Petra’s niece Eloise knew all the beautiful walks, all the exquisite views. She guided me to the tidepool, a clear prism the size of a small swimming pool, sheltered from the crash of waves. We dabbled our toes in the water and picked our ways across the rocky rim, admiring the endless horizon.

To the beach, we hauled snorkeling gear and a foam sheet for my first exercise in boogie boarding. The rough current stirred up too much silt to enjoy the underwater goggles much, but Eloise coached me on catching waves. Mastering the pinpoint timing meant all the difference between riding the current and falling flat in the surf. Only once did I triumph perfectly, but it redeemed all the missed opportunities: a glorious sweep, carrying me all the way to the sandy shallows.

Petra and Preben begin their mornings with an intensive bike ride up the dirt road to Fransmanshoek. They spoiled me with robust mountain gear, designed for utility and comfort: a magnetic sunshield, biking gloves, cushioned seat. I was reveling in the freedom of charging over rocks on the toughened treads of the reinforced tires, when the road broken open before us. Sun, wind, sky – I could have touched the clouds.

We soared as if on wings down to the seaside cliff, where Preben whiles time fishing and once sighted a whale breach. Refreshed from the wind and water bottles, we turned to brave the incline back home.

The Christmas holidays brought seasonal guests to the little town in force. Once a farm, Vleesbaai now features a mix of modest housing and luxurious recent additions. One evening, Petra and I stole away from the bustle to her place of prayer, a wooded sanctuary. Afrikaaner settlers would rest their wagons there, drawing water from the natural well.

The family treated me to an early birthday celebration, with a lavish dinner and thoughtful gifts. Eloise helped me bake a coconut cake then serenaded us all with Ed Sheeran on guitar.

At the end of the week, we took a day trip to Mosselbay, a city not far east. We had an eye on the zipline (the longest over-ocean line in the world), but high winds had shut it down for the day. A cliffside hike mollified our disappointment, following the path to the starting point of the zipline itself, along what turned out to be a stretch of South Africa’s famous Garden Coast. The views floored us, the wild grandeur rendering Vleesbaai quaint by comparison.

Afterwards we imbibed some local history at the Bartolomeu Dias Museum, which houses a reconstruction of the ship that voyaged around Africa’s southern point. Not only built to scale, the replica undertook the very same journey (albeit with electricity and other creature comforts allowed for the modern crew). Outside the museum, a bench and inscription marks the site of the Post Office Tree – where an explorer purportedly delivered a letter hundreds of years ago by hanging it in a bottle from the branches.

Eloise, surpassing herself as my personal tour guide for the week, proposed a sunset hike for our last evening. We traipsed up the road to Fransmanshoek, detouring into a path for the delicate bush deer, before alighting on the massive rock formations ringing the coast. Eloise exercised her telephoto lens — we both laughed when we spotted four other photographers doing the same.

Everyone else (including the dogs!) joined us just as the sun set. We unpacked the hamper and feasted on buttered corn cobs in its fading glow. Then Petra poured sips of marula (a South African liqueur), for us to toast the new year, and prayed blessings on our journeys to come.

farewell to Vleesbaai

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