Inside the small West Coast fishing town where Friday n…
Bokkoms are basically mules that are salted and left to dry in the sun. Sometimes called ‘fish biltong’, it’s one of the main delicacies in Velddrif, a fishing town 156 km from Cape Town, straddling the banks of the Berg River.
The name Velddrif originated after a farmer, Theuns Smith, took his cattle to graze across the river and had to cross a “drift” in the veld. The city was officially recognized in 1946 and was declared a municipality in 1960.
Western Cape Premier Alan Winde recently delivered his 2022 State of the Province address in the city, which is known for its hospitality – but continues to struggle with service delivery challenges.
The health benefits of bokkoms, according to Felicity Stroefveld, curator at the SA Fisheries Museum in Velddrif, were recognized as early as the 1400s. Recalling the town’s history, she said farm workers sweat a lot when working under the scorching sun and that the farm owners gave them salty bokkoms to replenish lost nutrients.
Turning off the main road towards Velddrif, there is a permanent stall offering bokkoms for sale.
Retired fisherman Dirkie Smith (75) said Daily Maverick“I still remember the good old days of Friday nights at the tavern. There was nothing better after a hard day’s work than enjoying bokkoms with a glass of Lieberstein. Today we still enjoy it with a glass of cognac.
Stroefveld said fishermen had informally named a road along one bank of the Berg River as Bokkom Laan. Of the twenty or so houses that once stretched along Bokkom Laan and whose occupants caught and processed fish, only four remain in operation.
“Bokkom Laan is now a place where you have art galleries and cafes,” Stroefveld said.
Stroefveld said bokkom and the wider fishing industry were booming decades ago, but it had become increasingly difficult for fishermen to negotiate rights and quotas.
Velddrif’s main industries are fishing, tourism and salt production. There are two large salt pans in the city which supply salt to most of the Western Cape.
Giving an overview of the history of Velddrif and the people who played a role in the town’s development, Stroefveld said: “The building that houses the museum was built by Johan Carel Stephan, dating back to the 1800s.”
A member of the famous Stephan family of St. Helena’s Bay, he built an empire of sorts at Laaiplek near the mouth of the Berg River, establishing a trade route to transport farmers’ grain inland via the Berg River to Cape Town.
According to Stroefveld, Stephan also did business with Italian immigrants who still have family in Velddrif and Laaiplek. He built offices which later became the Hotel Laaiplek, which still exists today.
Another more recent family that has left an indelible mark on the region is that of Johnnie Eigelaar. In 1961 the family started producing Bokkoms Biltong which is still sold throughout the province and can be found in many fishmongers.
In 1978 they bought the Laaiplek and Riviera hotels, which became landmarks among the fishing community. The Eigelaars also built a post office in the area in 1993.
The River Berg, Stroefveldt explained, was an important source of food for the Cape Dutch colony in the 1700s. Back then there were no piers and fishermen got permission from farmers to fish and to store their equipment on a sandy stretch along the river.
Stroefveldt said fishermen were no longer allowed to fish in the river and the estuary had been declared a Ramsar site under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.
The statement came in the wake of World Wetlands Day on February 2, 2022. At the time, CapeNature CEO Dr Razeena Omar said the conservation of ecosystems and species depended on the balance between fresh water and sea water entering the estuary.
He said this balance had been maintained and it was for this reason that the site had been recognized for its outstanding value in terms of ecosystem and species diversity.
It’s not just bokkoms that are synonymous with Velddrif. The annual Berg River Canoe Marathon is a popular event that starts in Paarl and ends at the Carinus Bridge in Velddrif. The first race was held in 1962 and earned a reputation as one of the toughest courses in the world.
The history of the Griqua (Griekwas) who lived in Velddrif in the 1400s cannot be ignored, said Aroon Messelaar, High Commissioner of the Royal House of Griqua.
“Velddrif was part of Saldanha where the Saldanhabaiers lived in the 1400s. History shows that these people did not realize until the 1700s that they were part of the Griqua tribe.
“We live in the 20th century and it is time for the history of Velddrif and the role played by the Griqua tribe to be written down,” Messelaar said.
Henry Charles, former director of the University of the Western Cape Research Institute, pointed out that the omission of the Khoisan story was something that needed to be corrected. SM/MC