On an annual holiday to South Africa in the days leading up to New Year, 2013, I accompanied my brother Gordon and his fiancée to a place which cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as a village. Lemoenfontein, which lies just outside the town of Malgas, is where Marianna’s sister and brother-in-law own a property, on the banks of the Breede River, one of the major rivers of the Western Cape.
Here we indulged in all sorts of water-sports activities, including water skiing, water tubing, kayaking and swimming, involving the kids as much as possible. It is a relaxing location and I am grateful to Gerd and Anita for having me as their guest. Gordon and I took a stroll in the heat of the midday sun, taking in a circular route that brought us back from the high ground running south of the Breede River. Across the river to the south is the De Hoop Nature Reserve, one of the components of the Cape Floral Region Protected Areas World Heritage Site.
Along the beautiful white coastal sand dunes of the De Hoop coastline, home to the African Black Oystercatcher, lies a summer holiday house where the then President of South Africa, FW de Klerk, came to spend his holidays and is reported to have held talks with Nelson Mandela prior to his release. It now belongs to CapeNature and the public can rent it. In fact, it is so hugely popular that one is advised to enquire more than a year in advance. My friend Ralph and his family had booked it once and I joined them in spending a weekend here, filling countless black bags with the jetsam that had been washed up on these beautiful shores.
From Swellendam, the third oldest town in South Africa, a dusty gravel road leads to the mouth of the Breede River. Some 50 km before Cape Infanta, a bumpy road turns off to Malgas. The sleepy little village at the river was founded in 1819 by the English merchant Joseph Barry. At this time, the Overberg region was suffering from a severe drought and Barry managed to transport rice and maize on his ship “Duke of Gloucester” from Cape Town up to the Breede River mouth, from where the goods were carried by ox-wagons into the barely accessible Overberg region. The town was named after Malagas, a Hottentot chief, whose kraal was situated near the site of the Malagas village . The name of the village was changed to Malgas because in the early days of the Postal services, post for the village ended up in Malaga in Spain.
New Year’s Eve was spent at Marianna’s parent’s house in Heidelberg, a town some 50 km east of Swellendam, where I regularly used to visit Ian and Lily when they once owned a cottage there. Heidelberg is nestled in between the Langeberg Mountains and the Indian Ocean on the banks of the Duivenhoks River. Depending on the route one takes from Malgas to reach the town, one crosses a manually-drawn pontoon across the Breede River by up to three men. I suspect that they benefit from any payment made by customers when a ticket has not been issued. The pont, which runs from sunrise to sunset and hauls vehicles, pedestrian and livestock across the river, was a service which was started in 1860 and is still in operation today as the last working example in South Africa.
It is a small world indeed. It turns out that Marianna’s father, Andries, a retired Operations Manager with South African Railways on the Sishen-Saldanha line, an 861 km long heavy haul railway line which connects iron ore mines near Sishen in the Northern Cape with the port at Saldanha Bay, worked closely with my friend Ralph back in the 1990’s. In a further surprise, I discovered that I had worked with Gerd’s brother Wynand at the telecommunications company Plessey in the 1990’s, before he had upped and offed to Ireland. It’s on occasions such as this that I have the opportunity of honing my Afrikaans language spoken skills, which I have managed to maintain despite having spent over a decade in the United Kingdom.
Whilst he puts many hours of work into the large fruit and vegetable garden in his backyard, his wife Aletta has developed a skill making leather garments from her workshop. His enormous pride in his latest crop of peaches was clear to see and he generously picked some for our journey back to Cape Town. Experiencing the simple things in life the South African way the evening we arrived, Andries related his career spent on the Sishen-Saldanha line, whilst braaing corn on the cob out in his back lawn. Aletta later prepared a huge bowl of Smoorvis (braised fish), a dish of Malay origin made with salted fish, usually snoek (sea pike), as well as onions, tomatoes, red chilies and potatoes.
On the morning of the first day of 2013, Gordon and I borrowed Dries’s bakkie and ventured along a dirt road up into the mountains of Boosmansbos Nature Reserve in the eastern Langeberg mountain chain. As soon as one leaves the vast rolling tracts of farmland to venture into the reserve proper, the change in vegetation becomes strikingly dramatic, as one is greeted by various species of fynbos carpeting the landscape as far as the eye can see. We reached a spot where, just off the roadside, large clusters of protea and pin cushions stood out amidst the green landscape that surrounded it.
We reached a saddle where we were able to peer into another world, an entirely different landscape, that of the Karoo. We were not far from where Ralph and I had been on our 3-day Karoo cycling adventure just over a week ago, in temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius. Indeed, the Klein Swartberg Mountain Range lay directly north of where Gordon and I were now standing. The area between Swellendam and Heidelberg along the Langeberg mountains includes many options for hikers, nature lovers and day drives. The Bushbuck and Grysbok Trails offer day walks varying from 2 km to 15 km in the Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve, where I had hiked on numerous occasions. The Boosmansbos Wilderness Area offers over 64 km of paths to choose from and the circular two day route of 27 km is a popular option.
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The day before I had travelled down to Malgas, Ralph and I met up for a day-walk traverse of Paarl Rock, or Pearl Mountain, a huge granite rock formed by three rounded outcrops that make up Paarl Mountain. Paarl Rock consists of intrusive igneous rock i.e. formed below the surface through the cooling of magna or lava. Paarl is the third-oldest town in the Western Cape, after Cape Town and Stellenbosch. Paarl is where the foundations of the Afrikaans language were laid. Due to the growth of the Mbekweni township, it is now a de facto unit with Wellington, birthplace of my late mother, who was of Afrikaans descent.
It was a warm, sunny day as we clamoured up the first of the boulders, via the car park within the Paarl Mountain Reserve, sheltered from the wind. Once on top though, we felt its force, cool and refreshing. We made our way up Bretagne Rock, the largest of the rounded monoliths, the last section with the aid of a metal chain. We descended through a small indigenous forest via an ornate stairway running between Bretagne Rock and it’s smaller yet steeper neighbour, Gordon’s Rock and made our way a long one of the numerous circular routes located in the reserve forming the Klipkers Nature Trail, largely, returning on the service road between Betheldam and Nantesdam. Paarl Rock boasts daring and dangerous routes that have proved popular with rock climbers.
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Upon our return to Cape Town after Malgas and Heidelberg, we sat down one evening to watch the acclaimed documentary Searching for Sugarman, winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for 2013. It tells the story of two South Africans who set out to discover what happened to Sixto Rodriguez, a Detroit-based guitarist who, unbeknown to him, became a musical legend in South Africa in the 1970’s. It’s the amateur film footage of Cape Town during this period that is particularly memorable.