Gordon’s Bay, Western Cape

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Gordon’s Bay (South Africa) is situated on the north-eastern corner of False Bay, about 50 km from Cape Town to the south of the N2 national road and is named after Robert Jacob Gordon (1743–1795), the Dutch explorer of Scottish descent.

Gordon was born in Doesburg in Gelderland in the Netherlands on 29 September 1743. He was of Scottish extraction with his father being the commander of the Scots Brigade in Holland. Robert Jacob joined the Dutch Light Dragoons as a young cadet in 1753 and six years later enrolled at Harderwijk University, where he conducted studies in the humanities. He did very well there, demonstrating giftedness in intelligence, and had a wide range of interests.

After university he accepted a cadetship in his father’s regiment and soon obtained the rank of lieutenant, followed by that of captain in 1774. Three years later, in 1777, he was posted by the Chamber of Seventeen of the Dutch East India Company (DEIC) to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, to be the captain of the garrison there.

Between 1777 and 1786, during his time at the Cape, he undertook no less than five expeditions along the coastlines and into the interior, for which detailed journals were kept. He was responsible for setting up a collection of maps of the countryside and drawings of its scenery, landscape, inhabitants, flora and fauna. Not only is he responsible for naming the town of Gordon’s Bay, but also the Orange River after the Prince of Orange of the Netherlands.

A painting of Robert Jacob Gordon, 1780 (William Fehr Collection, Iziko Museums, Cape Town)

In the Cape, Gordon was particularly well respected for his intellectual capabilities and the broad cultural interest he showed, and was a hospitable person. He is said to have been communicative and extremely well-informed of local events and situations; agreeable, but at times facetious; tall, stout and soldier-like.

According to an associate he spoke English, Dutch, French and Gaelic, and learnt some of the indigenous languages. He was married to Susanna Nicolet. When the British occupied the Cape in 1795, Gordon found himself under considerable pressure and on 25 October 1795 ignominiously took his own life.

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Read a book review of Ontdekkingsreisiger of soldaat? Die verkenningstogte van Robert Jacob Gordon (1743–1795) in Suider-Afrika here.

Original title of the book: Een Nederlander in de wildernis: De ontdekkingsreizen van Robert Jacob Gordon (1743–1795) in Zuid-Afrika by Luc Panhuysen, Afrikaans translation by Wium Van Zyl (Cape Town: Africana Publishers, 2015 (ISBN: 9780620683463))

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How did the town get the name?

On the October 1777 journey into the interior, Gordon was in the vicinity of Hangklip, along the southern coast of South Africa, and from there found a path used by eland and buffalo. Using this pathway, the travelling party came to a sandy bay with a watercourse up the mountain. This place he named Gordon’s Bay, which is still what it is called today. Before that, it was called Vischers Baaij and has been a fisher’s haven since time immemorial.

Today it is a popular tourist destination, especially for its quaint Mediterranean-like appearance, safe beaches and variety of activities, from bathing, sailing, boating, climbing … to suntanning on Bikini Beach!

But it would be incorrect to suggest that the first fishing was done there as early as the 1600s when Europeans came there for the first time, as for thousands of years before, the local inhabitants living there fished the area as part of their livelihood.

By 1656, there was considerable conflict between these local inhabitants and the newly arrived Dutch, under the commandership of Jan van Riebeeck. Land appropriation by the Europeans caused great distress to the locals, whose economy relied on their free movement to capture small game and, if they lived at the coast, fish.

One of Gordon’s Bay’s gems is its beautiful beaches, in particular Bikini Beach (pictured above), which is a Blue Flag beach. This means that it is safe, clean and has excellent facilities. It is not a big beach at all, and thus at the height of the season can be a bit overcrowded. But it remains a very popular swimming area and attracts visitors from all over the world.

It is speculated that the name derives from the bikinis that the students coming from Stellenbosch University used to wear. Whatever the case may be, the pristine white sands making the beach what it is, is an important feature for the town’s tourist industry. Not just its beaches and scenery make Gordon’s Bay an attractive place to visit, but also its fine B&Bs and exquisite eateries.

Gordon’s Bay has many well-located B&Bs and places to stay. Some of them are higher up the mountain-side whilst others are darted along the seafront, running from the harbour all the way to the central part of the town.

  • Find out more about some of the places available here.

Gordon’s Bay has many well-located B&Bs and places to stay.

A favourite eatery among locals is The Thirsty Oyster Tavern (telephone: 021 856 4457). One of the reviewers of the restaurant said that there they enjoyed “a yummy grilled kingklip and chips meal”. The deep-sea fish kingklip has become scarcer over the effluxion of time.

A choice of fish at The Thirsty Oyster Tavern, in the old harbour at Gordon’s Bay

The writer of this article recalls his family regularly going to the local fish shop to buy it caught freshly early that morning, after which the trawlers and boats would come to shore to deliver it at the local fish cooperative. It was prepared in a very special way. Here follows the writer’s own recipe as he recalls from how it was prepared at home:

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Kingklip a la Birkenhead*

*The HMS Birkenhead was a troopship that went down off the coast of South Africa in 1852. In that area, there are plenty deep-sea fish, such as kingklip, that are caught and brought to shore.

- Take a kingklip and remove the skin altogether.

- Cut into fillets about 3 cm thick, 10 cm long and 6 cm wide.

- Place butter in a saucepan, and heat.

- Dust the kingklip pieces in a little flour with coriander, salt and pepper.

- Place the pieces in the pan and fry for 3 minutes or until cooked through.

- A good way to know that it is ready, is when the batter is nicely golden brown.

- Serve with mashed potato and green peas.

- A typical wine to go with the dish is a crisp, chilled chenin blanc.

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Gordon’s Bay has lovely accommodation, some of it in typical Mediterranean style, and comfortably lodged between the mountains and the sea. For decades, the emblem painted in white against the mountain (see in the photo below), with the initials “GB” on either side of the anchor depicting the town’s close links with the sea, has been there.

Some say that the “GB” emblem stands for General Botha, one of the first military personnel in South Africa and its first Prime Minister.

Within the precincts of the Old Harbour is the South African Naval College (pictured below). This one makes up several training colleges in South Africa that prepare naval staff wishing to make the navy their career.

The one at Gordon’s Bay specifically provides the phase of orientation training for newly commissioned officers to gain practical experience. Candidates who have been accepted undergo a twelve-week basic training course, after which they proceed to the next level, which is their formative training for officers. The College is named after the first prime minister of the Union of South Africa, General Louis Botha.

Still within the precincts of the harbour is the Harbour Lights Restaurant (pictured below). Today it is a landmark, having been there for many years, and can be found on Beach Road (telephone: 021 856 1830).

And still within the precincts of the Old Harbour area is the Yacht Club (different to the Marina – see the link elsewhere in this article), with a shop selling boat wares (Gordon’s Bay Ship Supplies), as well as a landing where shipwrights can repair boats.

The harbour houses a great number of boats and yachts which makes Gordon’s Bay the “St Tropez of South Africa”.

- Visit here for details of the Gordon’s Bay Ship Supplies.

Here are more details about the Yacht Club.

*These venues are not to be confused with the Harbour Island marina.

Not only does Gordon’s Bay have beautiful beaches, of which there are several to choose from, but also higher up in the mountains are the most stunning crystal pools and hiking trails to access them.

Gordon’s Bay is good for a stroll along the beachfront and at the relevant times of the year, tourists and visitors can do the whale-watching thing. Consoling for the bathers is to know that the sea at Gordon’s Bay is warmer than the freezing Atlantic coast.

Along the way, look out for the Ingrid Jonker Memorial, in honour one of South Africa’s great poetesses.  

Whilst the beaches at Gordon’s Bay rank among the world’s best (as already suggested, the St Tropez of South Africa), there are also lovely and quaint eateries that dot the beachfront. One such place is Talla’s Tavern (67 Beach Rd. Telephone: 021 856 3513).

Left: Talla’s Tavern; right: When the writer of this article visited the area, it was too early for oysters ‒ but the breakfast was great, consisting of coffee, two fried eggs, tomato, mushroom relish, toast, butter and jam ‒ all for around R65 (approximately 4 Euro).

This is the view from Talla’s – with Table Mountain across False Bay.

Talla’s is situated on the beach front at Gordon’s Bay.

Go to Trawlers for excellent fish meals (35 Beach Road. Telephone: 021 856 2790).

Trawlers is renowned as a rustic landmark seafood eatery for its seafood platters, calamari burgers, and its fish and chips. The venue is wheelchair friendly and caters for children.

This is an ideal eatery for summer with magnificent views of the sea and spectacular sunsets. A very recent reviewer of this place remarked: “Fish is freshly baked and can be with chips, roll or salad. The sea view is magnificent and gives a relaxed atmosphere.”

Whatever you do, don’t miss Bikini Beach Books, which has books for everyone, in European and South African languages, and for children.

There are places at the venue for the reader to sit and read, and the book shop is in close proximity to the coffee shops, art galleries and antique shops. On the roof of this book shop is the shop’s mascot – a big Mercedes limo – so you won’t be able to miss it!

Bikini Beach Books

Today, the shop is a landmark having been there for the last 25 years. One writer has said: “This is a must visit for every bibliophile. The musty smell and rustle of thousands of books transporting you to another world. Books start at 50c and whilst it may all look a bit chaotic, there is some order to the madness.”

The philosophy for this shop is to come in, browse, search and find! The fiction titles are arranged in alphabetical order, while non-fiction books are grouped by genre. If you are looking for something, ask. The owner will be able to put you onto what you might be looking for. Pack a bit of time into your schedule; you might need it – it’s quite easy to get lost amidst all the books.

Remember Potter’s Pantry for the best coffee. You can’t miss it, as outside is the mascot, a red rhino draped in Ndebele patterns.

And inside where you find the coffee shop is a real retro antique/antiquarian shop for excellent browsing (39 Beach Road. Telephone: 079 624 2171). Next to it is TEG Studio (right) an art gallery displaying contemporary art.

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Other things to do in, and in the vicinity of, Gordon’s Bay

Accommodation | eateries | shopping | festival | nature

♦ Accommodation

  • The backpacker establishment 47 Gypsies is one of many accommodation options for backpackers available in Gordon’s Bay. They have a travel desk where guests can book all their adventure tours.
  • Visit here for full details of all backpacker accommodation in the area.

47 Gypsies

♦ More eateries

♦ Shopping

*For shops worth visiting in Gordon’s Bay, go to no 19 onwards.

♦ Gordon’s Bay’s own festival of lights

An event special to Gordon’s Bay is the Winter Wonderland Festival. This is an annual event, held at the beginning of July.

It is Gordon’s Bay’s own festival of lights promoting Gordon’s Bay as a winter venue for tourists.

Obviously, the town is a favourite summer-time venue for tourists and visitors, but Gordon’s Bay can also be an excellent winter venue. It is not as windy as other parts of the Western Cape.

The event carries features such as fairy lights and fun events for all. 

♦ Nature

Diving | coastline drives | scooter hire | hiking | horse riding

Why not go for a dive? Indigo Scuba diving takes you on a diving excursion, even if you have never dived before.

Take a drive along the breath-taking coastline to the Steenbras lookout point. Check with the B&B/Hotel before proceeding for the correct times. The views across False Bay from there are memorable.

Hire a scooter – take a drive along Clarence Drive between Gordon’s Bay and the next little town, Betty’s Bay. The mountains are on your left, going, and the coastline has spectacular views of the ocean, to your right. And be sure to stop at Stony Point to see the penguins.

Hiking – go up the Gantouw Pass in the nature reserve, also known as Eland Pass. The name derives from the original inhabitants who hunted the eland (in one of the Khoi languages it means eland). The pass is a national monument. From this place, the Voortrekkers left the Cape to move into the interior in search of their independence from the British. You can see the marks in the sandstone where it was cut by the iron wheels of the wagons. Above all, you will find peace being at one with the Cape’s beautiful and spectacular nature.

  • Read here for more more hiking possibilities.

  • Read here for more about horse riding.

*Read here for more things to do in Gordon’s Bay (no 22 onwards)*

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Gordon’s Bay is a gem of a place … you will never tire from the huge amount of options for things to do.

  • All photographs are by the writer, except the reproduced picture of the painting of Robert Jacob Gordon.
Buro: MvH
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