Going walking at Langebaan Lagoon on the West Coast with Eddie Papier is like having your own talking encyclopaedia. He’s lived here his whole life, first as a child, later as a ranger with the West Coast National Park. Now that he’s retired from the park, he keeps in touch by acting as a guide, and there’s not much he doesn’t remember or know about the area.
‘When I was a child we thought of everything here as our own,’ he confessed. ‘Farmers used to come to hunt and they’d set their sights by shooting at flamingo in the lagoon. When they left, my granny used to send us kids to pick up the birds and she’d cook them. They taste like fish.’
‘We used to make boats from paraffin tins and sail them in the gullies. We got water from Oostewal farm, which was a long way away. Every day, three of us brothers would have to fill three 25-gallon drums and bring them home before we walked to school.’ One drum was for the donkeys, one for the household and one for laundry. ‘Once a week we also had to get fresh cow dung for our granny to smear on the floors. The cows grazed at Mooimark farm, so we’d set off with buckets on our heads.’ No prizes for guessing it wasn’t one of their favourite jobs.
The Seeberg info centre is a tiny old stone shepherd’s hut that Eddie remembers from his childhood. Now restored, it perches on a huge rock overlooking the lagoon. Inside, information panels tell the history of the area, from farms like Geelbek and Seeberg to settlements like Churchhaven and Oudepost. Eddie helped compile some of the oral history, and there’s a panel devoted to his own family history. Eddie’s father worked on fishing boats and was away for eight to nine months of the year.
After the Langebaan National Park came into being in 1985 (the name later changed to the West Coast National Park) Eddie worked as a field ranger for 20 years. Who better? He knows the area like the back of his hand. The islands of Schaapen, Marcus, Malgas and Jutten are part of the park and he worked on the islands for seven years. ‘It was a really lonely life,’ he recalled. ‘But the worst was that when the weather was bad, you might have to go without food if the supply boats couldn’t get to the island. Sometimes they’d just try to throw a few tins of food.’
He told us how pelicans have caused problems on the islands. Their population grew from about 185 pairs in 1985 to 2000 pelicans in 2007. Since there was no longer enough fish and agricultural offal for them to eat, they took to raiding thousands of nests and eating the chicks of seabirds like Cape gannets, kelp gulls and cormorants. By 2006, the storyboard explained, 'The pelicans had seriously impacted the delicately balanced breeding populations, but they couldn't be shot as the species is listed as near-threatened in the Red Data Book.'
Visit the Seeberg information centre in the West Coast National Park and see for yourself.