Next stop Calvinia; although we had to get to Kenhardt first. A long and not-very-winding road. Mostly decent gravel and atmospheric with big skies, red earth and occasional tumbleweed. The trail was further enhanced by sociable weaver nests we had first encountered between Springbok and Pofadder, and by the kokerbome (Aloe dichotoma).
There is a sad story about these prehistoric-looking trees. They are dying in their thousands as the Namib migrates slowly south. The leaves are all turning brown in that area and it is far Kenhardt to see how they will continue to survive there. There is a silver lining, though, in that more and more of them are cropping up further South where they look healthier.
The Kenhardt Hotel is a rather fine example of the sort of hotel one expects to find in such a town. It has a particularly splendid pillared verandah and a bar that could easily be #22 on the Karoospace list, despite the serried Jägermeister bottles above the bar.
Time for another digression. Everywhere we went in the Western Karoo we were struck by the welcoming, polite charm of the local people and their competence. The Kenhardt Hotel exemplified this for us both in its staff and patrons. One in particular, a customer in his early thirties, who had had no advantages presented to him on a plate, was brimming over with enthusiasm to engage us in conversation on subjects as wide ranging as solar power and Donald Trump. It was tempting to pause our journey there, drink beer and jaw jaw all afternoon and evening.
But hey, Calvinia was our intended jewel and we still had to get there by way of Brandvlei. Chris had beguiled us with the promise of … nothing. We weren’t disappointed. Richard wisely chose the back seat for this section of the journey and promptly fell asleep. I was driving and needed something to keep my pecker up so I challenged Fed to guess the distance to the next horizon. He almost invariably underestimated. I think it was 25 km away at one point. In a dead straight line. Slightly chagrined, my Italian friend, a physicist, turned his mind to coming up with a formula to estimate said distance. He produced this a week later to charm my wife, Shelley-ann, during a pitstop in Hermanus.
Calvinia was our oasis. More brilliant advice from Chris. We had rented a snore-resistant 3-bedroomed house for 4 nights from the growing portfolio of the Hantam Huis compleks. Fed immediately announced that it was the nicest accommodation he’d stayed in, anywhere in the world, and, boy, has he travelled.
On Sunday I explored Calvinia while the other two walked in the stately Hantam mountains that surround the town.
It wasn’t long before I found myself on Calvinia’s “Street of Art” and a few more moments before I was standing in front of a car door that served as the gate to the Republic of RusticA, bearing an instruction to “Lui die Klok” (See below for translation).
Before I could yank the rope on the verdigris encrusted bell, an imposing looking woman demanded if she could help. This turned out to be Sonja. I told her I had been advised to visit by Chris Marais.
“Are you a friend of Chris’s?” she exclaimed.
“Well I’ve never actually met him but he did send me an email,” I replied.
“Come in,” she demanded. “Hey Dirk, here’s a friend of Chris’s,” she shouted to her other half, who seemed to be the willowy gentleman in a sarong hastily disappearing around the corner. “Have a look down there,” Sonja instructed, indicating a group of sheds at the far end of the site.
I obeyed and eventually wandered into what appeared to be a private living area with comfy looking sofas and the remains of lunch on a table at one end. I was just reversing out when Sonja wafted in behind me. She ushered me back, into what turned out to be a kind of gallery, exhibiting her art. Well, the whole Republic is an art installation and the gallery housed its crowning glory, Sonja’s own paintings and artefacts. Leading off this room was another comfortable sitting room housing an impressive vinyl collection.
“Dirk also has a huge collection of 35 mm movies,” Sonja pronounced, “if you’re around one evening, he might show you some.”
Dirk collects many things. To a lot of people, much of it might appear to be junk but it had become evident to me that everything had its rightful place in the installation. I was hooked. A sign in the yard proclaimed “RESTAURANT, TOILETS, BAR”. I was determined to return with my mates to partake in this bohemian splendour.
I asked Sonja if this might be appropriate.
“Ja, I sometimes do a braai or make pizza. There’s a bit of a collection of wine here, too, but I’m not licensed. Tonight is Sunday. It’s usually quiet but that would mean we have more time for you.”
Armed with this slightly ambiguous information I was champing at the bit to get Richard and Fed back there that evening. We returned at what seemed like appropriate opening time. There didn’t seem to be anyone about but I led the way to the lounge anyway. Two very friendly ladies were busy extracting the cork from a bottle of red. We assumed it was a house bottle and accepted a glass each. The glasses were of the dimension that meant a bottle didn’t quite go five ways. One of the ladies ended up with half a glass. Anyway, it turns out these two were guests of the self-catering arm of RusticA. The wine was their own personal bottle. They were absolutely magnanimous about us quaffing it, though. They were repeat visitors and seemed confident that Sonja would eventually appear, as would more bottles of wine, together with our host’s personal bottle of whisky. We made appropriate donations in the honesty box.
Lively conversation ensued. Sonja showed up and we were in full flow by the time the gentleman of the house appeared.
“Hey Dirk,” Sonja proclaimed, “these are the friends of Chris’s I told you about.”
“Actually … ,” I interjected.
“Why don’t you take them to Newtown with you?” she suggested.
It turns out the van Rensburgs, a.k.a. Dirk and Sonja, owned a bakery. In fact they owned several but this one was also on the premises of the Republic. Dirk still had to go out in his van to collect bread crates from the small shops dotted around the Newtown township, which adjoins Calvinia.
Fed and I didn’t hesitate. What a positive experience. I’m not saying the people there weren’t poor but there was something not too short of an idyll out there. Children playing free in the streets. Young people dressed to the nines performing what Fed would recognise as a form of passeggiata, a kind of parade with courting not too far from anyone’s mind that is commonly found in Italy, Greece and other Mediterranean countries. Big smiles from all the vendors Dirk visited. Of course, it could have been our host’s positivity that encouraged this but I thought there was more it than that.
Then back to RusticA. After a quick tour of the bakery, it turned out that Sonja was cooking pizza, despite her protestations at having a genuine Italian present. Delicious it was, too. We ate it cross-legged in a comfy area until we were all (a few other participants had appeared by this stage) stuffed and Sonja finally agreed to have some for herself.
Back to the lounge for more wine etc. and deep conversation with Dirk. He has a beguiling philosophy. Art and the spiritual goodness of people were core elements. He was a guy any discerning person would want as a friend and he apparently didn’t even drink (apart from fine coffee from a massive espresso machine that is.)
Richard, who hadn’t had the benefit of an alcohol-free tour of Newtown, was becoming tired and emotional so we decided to repair to our lodgings. Upon inquiring as to what we owed for our hospitality, Sonja gestured towards the honesty box.
“I like it that way”, she grinned. “People always give more than I would ask.”
I am going back to Calvinia. The Republic will be my first port of call.