Panty Basson and slap chips on the rocks

We decided to do a quick trip to Paternoster before we head back to Johannesburg. Legend has it that the Meermijn, a ship with a cargo of slaves, came to shore in search of fresh food and water supplies. A Catholic priest on board of the vessel said the Lord’s Prayer (Pater Noster) on the beach to give thanks for the fresh supplies they were able to find. Paternoster is one of the oldest fishing towns along the West Coast, a place of whitewashed houses, fishing boats, beaches and crayfish.  These days visitors come here for the tang of sea air, the sound of breakers, and the romance of long walks on the beach, we have also heard many stories about the legendary Panty Bar and decided that we needed to experience it for ourselves.

We headed towards Vredenburg on the Westcoast highway on the R399 between Vredenburg and Paternoster we came across a broken windmill. Its legs still standing straight and tall but most of its blades are missing and it looks sad and lost. A signage company clearly saw an opportunity for a bit of fun (and advertising too) and erected a huge blue and yellow sign with the word ‘Moertoegepomp’. There’s nothing like a little giggle and a memory to keep forever.

We decided to first stop at the Paternoster tourism office in Seeduiker Street at Die Kom, just up from where the fishing boats are beached, to find out more about the town, its history and things to do. ‘The best things to do here are walks on the beach and hiking in the Cape Columbine Nature Reserve,’ Manerva Clarke told us. If you’re looking for directions, recommendations for a restaurant or even information on surrounding towns, this is the place to find them.

Huge boulders overlook the bay and a long stretch of sandy white beaches is perfect for early-morning walks and spectacular sunsets over the ocean. This is the Atlantic, where the water is pretty chilly most of the year, so none but the brave or mad actually venture in. But there’s plenty of sun and loads of visitors keen to dig in on the beach and make the most of it.

Fisherfolk were going out to sea in little rowing boats to cast their nets. They pulled the boats along the beach without wheels – pretty hard on the wooden bottoms of the boats – or drove their bakkies into the waves to launch them. They have to row out through the breakers until they’re in water deep enough for them to engage the motor and putter past the rocks into the open water.

Along this part of the coast, the sea is almost flat some days, like a calm lake, that day the waves were less compliant. The rowers struggled against the swell and the tiny boats rose almost vertically, looking as if they were going to topple backwards. But they didn’t.

We walked back through the village, admiring houses with their clean Cape fishing village lines and shutters of mauve, sage and blue. I love that there’s a building code here. You can do anything so long as it’s broadly in the Cape vernacular style and you paint the walls white. This has resulted in an attractive town reminiscent of a Greek island – way better than many small seaside settlements where anything goes, including buildings that look like ablution blocks or battered sheds.

In this harsh West Coast environment, water-wise gardens of hardy plants are popular, with crushed shell areas instead of lawns, and an old boat serving here and there as a garden ornament.

The second stop for a drink was the infamous Paternoster Hotel – home of the Panty Bar – was built in 1863 and served as a bank, church, school, library and jail before becoming a hotel in 1940. It’s been in the Carosini family for 43 years, Afrikaners despite their Italian-sounding name. Women’s panties of all sizes and types hang in rainbow disarray, hinting at booze-fuelled parties that may have gone a step too far.

The collection was removed in 1983 when a straight-laced dominee complained about the ‘unholy’ practice but reinstated again in the 1990s. Local gossip has it that the hapless cop charged with removing them was forever called ‘Panty’ Basson by anyone who knew the story.

Hunger struck as the drinks started to flow and the itch for exploration of this island-like town needed to be scratched. We hopped off our barstools and bid farewell to the array of panties and their locals and head off to find some good ‘ol fish and chips at On the Rocks. This little takeaway spot is right next to the fish market where the boats come in and sell their catch. The fish was the real deal and the chips took you back to the days of the corner Cafe’s slap chips with lots of vinegar – the best thing you can add to your chips.

This really is a fitting end to an eye-opening road trip from Johannesburg to the Cape and we once again fall in love with our amazing and diverse country. Before heading home, we stop at Die Winkel Op Paternoster to pick up some memorabilia to take back to Jozi. Outside, a wooden boat and old black bicycle prepare you for the magpie muddle inside. Jams and chutneys cluster side by side with a pram-load of nuts and dried fruit. Rickety dressers are stuffed with crockery, Simply Bee toiletries, olive oil, candles, veldskoen, dolls, sweets and enamelware like soup ladles hanging from the light fixture. Old suitcases and Mazawattee tins are part of the decor, faded tin signs advertise Hubbly Bubbly or Lion condensed milk, and there’s a fridgeful of welcoming cold drinks. Outside there is a small tea garden with a few neatly placed tables and chairs for those who’d like to relax and enjoy a slice of cake.

And just like that our expedition to see the West Coast Flowers come to an end, next week we will be back in Jozi. Where we go next? well you’ll just have to wait and see.

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