Strandloper middens, Port Elizabeth
Did you know?
Tell-tale signs of a Strandloper midden include the presence of artefacts in the pile of shells.
Stone Age middens found along South Africa’s 3 000-odd kilometres of coastline often resemble traces of a rather festive beach party or seafood cookout for 100 guests.
Look closely at the shells lying massed in their sandy enclaves and you’ll be able to identify all manner of molluscs, like abalone and periwinkle, and crustaceans like crabs and crayfish.
Hmm. A glass of white wine, a touch of Tabasco and some lemon butter sauce would complete the modern-day picture of an alfresco gathering at the sea.
But these piles of shells are often thousands of years old, and represent the last signs left by the Strandloper ('beach walker') people, who belonged to the larger communities of either the San (hunter-gatherers) or the Khoikhoi, who preferred a life of livestock herding.
Experts who have studied these middens, including those found on the 8km Sacramento Hiking Trail that starts at Sardinia Bay outside Port Elizabeth, have built a 'lifestyle scenario' of how the Strandloper clans existed within sight of the sea.
Sardinia Bay itself has always been a favoured address. It’s a lovely cove, complete with sand dunes and a protected natural area nearby. Look out to the horizon and there’s always a chance of spotting dolphins on the hunt. At your feet, in season (September to November), are some of the loveliest wildflower blooms in the country.
So when the Strandlopers occupied this idyllic bay millennia ago, they could simply pick their dinner off the rocks that stretched into the waves on the beach. Various inlets around Sardinia Bay lend themselves to being adapted as fish traps.
The women would find some place in the dunes that was protected from the wind, and transform it into the family kitchen. They would shuck the shells and often prepare the food here as well. Pottery shards found at the midden sites indicate items of Stone Age crockery. Shells with shiny mother-of-pearl would also be used as special jewellery accessories by the women.
Sardinia Bay would also have provided a stream of freshwater running out from an inland source, and bulrush roots were available to be beaten into pancake shapes, mixed with water and cooked on the fire.
The men would be somewhere else, possibly closer to the shore. They would be knapping arrowheads, or scraping the skin of a seal carcass they may have come across on their wanderings up and down the coastline.
The families would sleep in simple reed shelters, not unlike the more modern Nama matjieshuise (reed houses) you still come across occasionally in Namaqualand or up in the Richtersveld in the Northern Cape province.
The middens of Sardinia Bay and others around South Africa are historical windows into the lives of the early people of this land.
So when next you pass a pile of shells on a trail along a South African beach, spare a thought for the Strandlopers, who dined on all this brain food ...
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
The Old Cash Store (Sardinia Bay)
Tel: +27 (0)41 366 1211
Cell: +27 (0)83 611 1355
Tel: +27 (0)41 378 1486
Cell: +27(0)72 358 4634
Tel: +27 (0)41 585 6162
Cell: +27 (0)84 552 4414
How to get here
Sardinia Bay lies less than 10km from the Port Elizabeth Airport on the coastal road heading south from the city.
Best time to visit
Visit Sardinia Bay on a clear day because it’s 1 of the most attractive walking beaches in the Eastern Cape province.
Around the area
Visit Cape Recife Nature Reserve for some good birdwatching, and drop in at the Cape Recife Lighthouse for a chat with the staff and a walk around their ground-floor display.
Park at Sardinia Bay and walk the 8km round trip to Schoenmakerskop and back.
What will it cost
The only cost will be your guide’s rates, which vary according to time spent and the number of people in your party. You could budget to spend approx. R450 per person per half day tour.
Length of stay
Ideally, set aside a full day for your Sardinia Bay experience, with a lunch in Sardinia Bay or in the nearby Humewood district of Port Elizabeth.
What to pack
Pack all the sensible day-walking gear you need: water, camera, binoculars, a warm garment for sudden weather changes – and wear sturdy walking shoes.
Where to stay
There are good guest houses and hotels both in Sardinia Bay and in the Summerstrand/Humewood areas of Port Elizabeth. Check the listed Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism website for details.
What to eat
Why not follow the Strandloper theme and find yourself a good seafood restaurant in the area? Try the Old Cash Store in Sardinia Bay – see Contacts.