The sign says, “beware of bees”, as you enter the West Coast National Park. Bees are not exactly one of the big five, but the park does have caracal (rooikat) – a sort of lynx. It also has red hartebeest, Cape grysbok, and eland. In 2005, the park relocated 51 eland here from the nearby Postberg section. Astonishingly, eight of the antelope swam home, crossing the wide lagoon.
The lagoon itself is an intense turquoise, like copper phosphate, apparently from the exceptionally low tide, on the day I come for lunch.
The fynbos is spectacular all year; pinks and yellows dominating now as spring fades. We pass some ostrich – two prancing males sharing three females, which makes me think of Herschelle Gibbs’s autobiography. One drives under the 50kmph speed limit as the road attracts plenty of tortoises, the aptly named padlopertjies.
Ten kilometres into the park, a line of old gum trees leads to the Geelbek Restaurant, located in a Cape Dutch manor house built in 1744. In the 1920s this was a farmhouse belonging to the Governor General, Henry de Villiers Steytler.
The park is also where the famous “Eve’s footprints” were found, an exact replica of this 150 000 year old trace fossil is on display in the visitor centre next to the restaurant.
One can dine inside in Cape country house style or outside under awnings with a view of the Langebaan Lagoon. You can wander down to the two bird hides built out on silts into the water. Palaearctic migrants have arrived for the summer.
There is usually a huge variety of aquatic and shoreline birds with fabulous names, such as godwits, whimbrels and curlews, but on this day there is a dense flock of flamingos shimmering in the heat mirage.
Birds make their presence felt at the restaurant too. If Hitchcock’s horror film traumatized you, you best beware not of bees but birds. Last time I lunched here, red-winged starlings with bald-faced daring, wings beating past one’s ears, gleefully pinched sugar sachets from the table.
This time Cape weavers and yellow bishops surround us, sitting on the backs of empty chairs. They even hop onto the table, and if one fails to react, they will quite happily snatch food off the plate while you’re eating.
A Swiss gentlemen arrives by bicycle. He’s been peddling around the reserve. Geelbek nearly always has a few tourists. There are some English ladies in hats, and a group of young Frenchmen.
The menu includes a “kiddies” section, also picnic baskets and offers high tea for groups of 20. As the park closes at 7pm, the restaurant is restricted to breakfasts and lunches.
There are dishes for most pockets. The winelist, stocked exclusively with regional wines, is reasonably priced.
A bottle of Mrs Balls chutney on the table lets one know that the kitchen focuses on traditional Cape cuisine with “portions to satisfy a good African appetite”. Dishes include ostrich burger (R110), Cape Malay chicken curry (R80), smoked venison carpaccio salad (R120) and denningsvleis (R120).
The menu pre-empts the service, stating: “You are now in the West Coast Time zone. We tick on tortoise speed. Relax and enjoy”. This time the food arrives promptly, but I have been here a few times before when the place is busy and a forty-minute or longer wait for mains is not uncommon.
For starters, I recommend the snoek paté served with long, thin slices of buttery toast. The paté is thick, has the expected snoeky saltiness, and is pleasantly lifted with mustard seeds.
Keeping traditional, the bobotie (R90) is rather bland, but on the upside it is not too sweet having substituted almonds for raisins. The mains all come with a pumpkin fritter, deep fried roti, tomato and onion sambal, and coriander straight out of the garden. The yellow rice (turmeric not saffron) is flavoured with sultanas.
For dessert, an enormous helping of amarula malva pudding (R35), oven-caramelized, served with vanilla ice-cream, eventually defeats me. An alert fiscal shrike seems to relish the last of it. It was good pud too, and as fluffy as a malva gets.
For its rich flora and bird life, Geelbek is well worth the trip, and it is only 90km from central Cape Town. This one is not just for the birds.
Geelbek Restaurant West Coast National Park, R27, Langebaan Restaurant. Open 9am – 5pm, 7 days a week. Tel: 022 772 2134.