How many times have you driven along the R62 and passed through Calitzdorp? Maybe you stopped for fuel? Or maybe even coffee? I'd wager that that would be the limit for the uninitiated.
Then a perfect storm occurred for Shelley-ann and me. Being a recently converted Karoophile, I started looking for new adventures in what had previously been a long haul from Outdshoorn to Barrydale and interesting snippets started emerge. At the same time an interest in wine was drawing me towards the activities of Margaux Nel and Leon Coetzee - and then to top it off it transpired that a dear friend had been "trapped" in the town by the Covid pandemic.
More of that later. I'd wanted my life's partner to share some of my recently acquired enthusiasm for the Karoo and wished to break the long haul from Nieu Bethesda (NB) to Hermanus. Recommendations in the general area of Calitzdorp had piqued the imagination. It kind of split the long haul, leaving us with a relatively leisurely run into our destination so that Shan could have time with her sister, Kerry, to gather her wits before visiting her 92-year-old Mum, Judy, after more than 2 years of lockdown. It was going to be emotional and she needed to prepare.
As soon as I spotted this description in the Greenwood Guide1, a collection of "hand-picked accommodation", I consulted my dear wife and we were hooked on visiting Boesmanskop:
"Tinie Bekker’s small ... farm tucked neatly into the Swartberg ... . Tinie is entirely modest about the two guest rooms he built on account of a billiards table (long story), calling ‘simple farm accommodation’ what more arty types might describe as ‘rustic chic suites’. Rustic in the sense of reed ceilings, wonky wood floors and pebble-stoned showers – and the swallows which dart in and out in the evenings – but chic with their fine white linen and cleverly restored old family furniture ... . Wonderfully unkempt gardens are a kaleidoscope of colours with such novelties (in South Africa) as pansies, while the vegetable garden provides much of your evening meal. But he’s modest about his green fingers... and modest, too, about his ‘paint-by-numbers’ cookery skills, which allowed him to conjure ... up freshly-baked bread and a delicious four-course meal in the main farmhouse."
The actualité was pretty much as the guide had stated and we were treated to a unique experience. The food was fit for gourmets and Tinie produced delightful course after delightful course before removing his virtual apron and announcing:
"And now I would like to invite you to join me in my lounge for coffee and conversation."
He led us into the inner sanctum of his house. He seemed diffident at first (Shelley-ann can appear intimidating) but soon warmed to the conversation, asking us about our trip and then providing unique snippets about the area and his involvement in it.
We'd never had anything quite like this and it was an insight into how guests could be made to feel welcome without all the marketing gloss.
The next morning, fortified by a country breakfast that reset the mould, we set off for Calitzdorp itself.
We were to meet and reacquaint ourselves with Adele. Shan had last seen her in 1987 at the Clanfield Tavern in Oxfordshire (below). Adele had been on a a post-Stellenbosch au-pairing sabbatical in Reading and assured us we'd driven her back to her employers' home after our evening at the pub. At the time she was in a relationship with my brother, Paul. Shortly after her return to the Cape they were engaged.
I had last seen Adele at the scattering of Paul's ashes in March, 1988.
Now, more than 30 years later, she was living in Singapore but stuck in South Africa during the severest part of the global lockdown. Her husband, Johan, and she had bought a house in Calitzdorp many years earlier and returned there for holidays from time to time with their musically talented daughters, Frances and Lara. The young women were making their way back to the US to continue their careers but stricter Singaporean rules together with the fact that Johan had recently been clobbered by Covid, meant that he and Adele were stuck for the time being in the Little Karoo.
We were to spend the day with the van Vuurens. Adele had asked what we'd like to do in Calitzdorp. I mentioned I'd be a happy bunny if I could visit the Boplaas Nel-Coetzee co-op. Johan and she set about organising a tasty, tightly-packed intinerary for us, starting at the Boplaas winery where Margaux was the winemaker and Leon her assistant. The subtext was that the Coetzee-Nel duo had a separate wine production operation, The Fledge, where their roles were reversed.
There was so much to see at Boplaas and such generosity of spirit that we wound up distorting the carefully laid van Vuuren plan to a fair degree. I will accept most of the blame for being in seventh heaven but I cannot entirely exonerate Leon. Margaux had given us a winery tour that would have more than satisfied most wine buffs. I was beginning to think we might not meet Leon, even when we retired to the tasting room.
Then you could feel the energy approaching down the corridor. Part comedian, 100% enthusiastic vintner with seemingly boundless energy this was a fellow on a mission to innovate. I lost count of how many bottles we tasted and completely cocked up any photo opportunity and tasting notes. Adele and Johan helped out with the latter but I have Tim Atkin MW to thank for the first pic below, taken a few years previously when this lovely couple would have been transitioning from Young Guns2 to mature winemakers. Happily, although Leon, during a flight of oratory, was a tad critical of most "pretentious" wine gurus, he had only kind words for Tim. Whew. Margaux sat smiling, quietly benignly, having showed us around the winery where Adele, I and Johan can be seen listening intently.
The wine wasn't too dusty either. The most sincere compliment is always drinking a lot of it after one has departed. Johan and Adele kindly presented us with an assorted case at the end of the day and we had to replenish that several times during our sojourn in Hermanus. The Fledge Riesling was a particular favourite3, a bottle of which mysteriously snuck its way into my suitcase for the return journey. Not only is it an Atkin 93%er, it is also a crowd pleaser. Sadly, unless Leon and Margaux have changed their minds, there won't be any more in the short-term.
Johan and Adele finally managed to extract me from Boplaas and treated us to a delightful lunch at Die Bakhuis before leaping back into the car and heading through the spectacular back roads towards the Swartberg. We were to meet Peter and Yvonne Bayly at their wine farm nestling under the mountains. It almost felt as if we'd gone full circle back to Tinie's place at Boesmanskop. Peter had been a somewhat legendary hotelier in Cape Town and was now residing in rustic splendour focusing on wine specialising predominantly in grapes of Portuguese origin. Much like Boplaas, there was a focus on beverages formerly known as Port4 with a by product of some smashing table wine5.
L to R above: Johan and Adele, Shelley-ann and Yvonne and Peter Bayly
The Baylys were welcoming and informative hosts and it was all too soon that we had to say our farewells. We still had a couple more treats in store. I did mention that the van Vuurens had pushed the boat out to ensure our visit to Calitzdorp would be a memorable one.
Next stop was back towards the town at the Axe Hill winery. We hadn't realised that Johan himself was a bit of a winemaker and, as is the way with many boutique winemakers, aspects of his were being managed at Axe Hill. We were to be treated to a preview, which was pre-launch but was definitely showing signs of future promise. We were there for a while and, while the wine buffs were discussing the finer points of Portuguese grape varieties, Shan slipped out for a sneaky vape and to enjoy the setting sun only to be accosted by a woman who claimed to have been a figure model for Vladimir Tretchikoff. My parents had considered his paintings to be the height of kitsch but they are currently enjoying a renaissance. More of the renaissance in a later blog, involving Carla from Nieu Bethesda again, and my daughter, Kate.
Meanwhile, my wife was being doorstepped by Brenda van der Westhuizen, who had recently been featured in the Boerewors Express6 recounting her encounter with Tretchi back in the day. The pair of them entered the warehouse and we left Brenda enjoying a glass of wine with Mike the winemaker.
We had had a fab day, which was to be crowned with a remarkable meal of KFC. Courtesy of Gary who seems to run a popup restaurant a.k.a. Under the Pepper Tree7, which sports the sign "Books & Bites", giving no indication that you are about to eat like a gourmet in Eastern fusion food. We were the only guests as Johan had requested that Gary opened specially.
As we crunched up the path to his tiny restaurant, Gary appeared in the doorway, leant against the doorjamb with his arms crossed and a big smile.
"Well He-llo," he grinned.
My wife was instantly smitten: "Well He-llo," she responded.
Gary seated us at a table on his verandah. It was a suitably balmy evening. With drinks out of the way, our meal was next on the list. Adele had cautioned us that menu options were limited.
"What have you got for us?" Johan asked our host.
"Well, there's KFC," offered Gary.
He could see that Shan was looking a bit crestfallen. Apart from anything else she was starving and the idea of waiting for a delivery was playing on her mind.
"Korean Fried Chicken," he quipped, sensing her disappointment. She was sold. I was determined to have the dumplings Adele had recommended. Living in Singapore (when Covid-free), she and Johan were well qualified to judge. No-one was less than effusively satisfied
What a full, happy day. We returned to Tinie's place with smiles on our faces and gratitude towards our wonderful hosts for the day. We hoped that Johan would be able to recuperate suitably from his Covid after working like a Trojan to ensure that we had a good time in Calitzdorp.
The Swartberg is a difficult place to leave and Tienie's place deserved a last lungful of air and a draught of the incomparable surroundings. The last frame is of the red stone hills of the Rooikrans that we travelled through as we set off for the coast.
But not before another splendid breakfast from our Tinie, which included a brief chat and that ephemeral sadness that you are left with on road trips. New horizons beckon but the old ones are necessarily left behind. Sensual greed, perhaps?
Last lap to Hermanus
Now that our destination was in sight, we were on familiar territory for the last stretch. We had planned to travel due South from Calitzdorp, traverse the Rooiberg Pass before a brief photoshoot in van Wyksdorp. We had been recommended to do this by several people including Marschant Escórcio, a fellow photographer whose work I'd admired, and Francois Louw, a Calitzdorp local we met in a chance meeting in Elbé van Heerden's restaurant in Nieu Bethesda.
The trick was to find the correct exit from Calitzdorp on its Southern side. Our satnav wasn't being particularly helpful. All it wanted was for us to return to the R62 so we resorted to the age old method that had served us well for most of our travelling lives: ask a local.
We found a likely person who immediately pointed at our Toyota Corolla sedan: "You're not planning to go over the Rooiberg Pass in that," she exclaimed. "You need something with proper ground clearance." She had a point so I decided not to tell her about previous escapades in Corollas in the mountains surrounding Lesotho. Maybe the old Toyotas had been developed and tested in a different South Africa.
Discretion got the better part of valour and we turned back to the R62. There was a small consolation in a short detour into Swellendam for lunch. Neither of us had been into the old colonial town before and it is mightily handsome. Worth a proper visit one day.
And then we were in Hermanus. Beside the sea and with family to hug and relate our exploits to. Tomorrow we would visit Judy, the Deale and Eriksen family matriarch. Shan wanted to do that properly with a full day ahead.
A trip to the Swartland beckons.