Hidden Gems

By Stef Terblanche

 

Our regular feature in which we explore some fascinating off-the-beaten-track places and unique experiences you probably didn’t know existed…but which are truly worth a visit.

Kalk Bay Beachfront …colourful bohemian passing parade

If the attraction that draws tourists in their millions to Cape Town is its Big Five – Table Mountain, Robben Island, Cape Point, the Winelands and the V&A Waterfront – then surely, it’s time to add a sixth one to the list: Kalk Bay. Or maybe just declare the whole place a living national monument.

The viby, bohemian Kalk Bay beachfront is truly summer-slip-slops, ice-cream-licking, stroll-with-the-kids, mingle-with-crowds, check-out-the-funnies and have-a-blast country. Here, rolled into one, you will find a bit of Cuba, throwbacks to a bygone 19th century world, Irish pub crawl turf, remnants of the Hippies’ heyday, islands of African street market trading, a dash of rural England, Californian surf culture, Italian sidewalk café life, a splash of Venice Beach’s boardwalk, reflections of the arty Paris Left Bank, and lots and lots of pure laidback, stylish and cool Cape Town.

And it comes without any of the snobbish pretentions of the Camps Bay Sunset Strip on the other side of the Peninsula and mountain next to the ice cold Atlantic. No sir, Kalk Bay’s water is warm, and you can actually swim in it, the occasional shark aside. Prices are affordable and the people friendly. The action is cool. Pets and kids are most welcome too. But parking is a problem (there’s got to be a downside too!).

The village takes its name from the Afrikaans ‘Kalkbaai’, meaning ‘lime bay’. It is squeezed into a narrow strip of land between a mountain and the Indian Ocean, so narrow that it only has three streets running parallel to the sea: Boyes Drive, Quarterdeck Road and Main Road. Carved out into the sharply rising mountain behind, from Boyes Drive down each street is located at least three storeys higher than the other. Main Road is the bustling coastal route that hugs the False Bay coast from Muizenberg to Cape Point. It is where all the action is, with only a railway line separating it from the gently lapping water of the ocean.

Lining Main Road are an eclectic collection of pubs, restaurants, boutiques, art galleries, a treasure trove bookshop, antique dealers, a theatre, sidewalk cafés, delis, cottage industry outlets, bric-a-brac dealers, African arts and crafts vendors, artist’s studios, a bakery and sweet shop, an ice-cream parlour, and quaint Victorian apartments above the shops.

These establishments have names with a truly poetic ring to them. Like the Brass Bell, a lively collection of half a dozen indoors and outdoors restaurants and as many bar areas, literally built on the rocks and in the sea where waves pound against its windows. A true Cape Town icon, it backs onto Kalk Bay Station and can only be reached through the subway underneath the railway line. Then there’s Cape-to-Cuba, another collection of restaurant and bar areas squeezed in between the street and railway line, with the ocean just a few meters away.

With its distinctly Cuban atmosphere and décor, one expects at any moment to see Fidel Castro complete with cigar, and Cuba-loving author Ernest Hemingway, entering in heated conversation through the front door. At Cape-to-Cuba you can sit sipping Cuban-style cocktails on a narrow outside bar terrace overlooking the harbour, with a train rumbling by every half an hour just a few feet away from your nose. Every once in a while, the Atlantic Rail Steam Train also passes here, steam clouds swirling and whistle blowing.

Another aptly-named establishment is Whatnot and China Town, a remarkable little shop filled with beautiful ceramics and chinaware and looking like something out of a grand 18th century parlour. And Kalky’s of course is the famous fish and chips joint in the bustling harbour. There’s also Harbour House, Bob’s Bagel Café, an eatery called Lekker (Afrikaans for delicious), Under The Cypress, and many more interesting and original names attached to the fascinating places here.

In addition, the village also has numerous inns and B&Bs, mountain hiking trails with caves to be explored, a fishing harbour with a fish market and its iconic fish-and-chips restaurant, a working railway station where the train stops every half an hour or so, tidal pools, two churches and a mosque, the famous Fishermen’s Flats, a historical association, the Kalk Bay Reef with mean little left and right breakers for surfers, kelp forests and sharks for divers, a huge bay for yachting and fishing, and many historical buildings.

To top it all, Kalk Bay has one of the most stunning of all Cape views across the sparkling blue waters of False Bay and Seal Island, to the Helderberg and the towering Hottentots Holland mountain range on the other side. Visible at the end of the land mass is the distinctive hanging colossus of the aptly named Cape Hangklip, which translates as Cape Hanging Rock.

Just up the road within walking distance from Kalk Bay you’ll find Rand Lord mining pioneer and one-time Cape prime minister Cecil John Rhodes’ holiday cottage (now a museum) in St James, and Casa Labia, the Venice-styled castle where Italian Count and Countess Natale Labia once lived in Muizenberg. Their descendants have turned it into a multi-functional cultural centre. Going south a short drive away is the historical Simon’s Town with its naval base and the world-famous penguins of Boulders.

But most fascinating of all is Kalk Bay’s rich and diverse history. By 1795 Kalk Bay was already a flourishing village with a thriving whaling station, and by 1883 the railway arrived here – probably one of the more scenic railway routes in the world. By 1919 a much-needed breakwater completed the harbour, for many years the commercial heart of the village.

But a little-known fact is that the Filipino crew of a ship wrecked at Cape Point in the mid-1840s was temporarily settled at Kalk Bay. Pleased with the abundance of fish in False Bay from which they made a living, they stayed. They also in the following years encouraged other Filipino sailors of the American sugar ships anchored in the bay to jump ship and settle here. In this way, the Filipino community slowly grew, and when the anti-Spanish riots in the Philippines in the 1850s resulted in thousands of Filipinos fleeing their homeland, a sizeable number of them came to join their countrymen in Kalk Bay. Some returned to the Philippines after the US took possession of it in 1898.

But a large number of Filipino families remained in Kalk Bay, completely integrated with the local fishing community. And to this day you find their names in the St James Catholic School register: Fernandez, De La Cruz, Menigo and Erispe, while many of their Spanish words are still used in the local lingo of Kalk Bay fishermen. A single tombstone in Kalk Bay overlooks the place where many of these settlers lie buried. Over a century and a half later, the residents of Kalk Bay honoured this community by naming the steep village steps on the corner of Quarterdeck and Kimberley Roads, Manila Steps, after the capital of their erstwhile homeland.

In addition to the Filipinos, many freed Muslim slaves who originated from today’s Indonesia and Malaysia, also settled in Kalk Bay and became an integral part of the fishing community. Over the years many more people from all over the world settled here, contributing to the unique character and multicultural feel of the community. With so many interesting places and so much to do, Kalk Bay should absolutely be a must on your list next time you are in the Cape Town area. It totally completes the picture of Cape Town’s Big Six.

 

Contact Details: Cape Town Tourism Tel +27 (0)21 786 8440 or Tel +27 (0)21 487 6800, or email simonstown@capetown.travel or go to tourismcapetown.co.za, or visit Muizenberg Tourism website www.muizenberg.info.

Great Brak River…charming hamlet on a river and an island

While driving on the N2 highway, about midway between Mossel Bay and George, the road suddenly descends sharply from either direction and crosses a bridge over the wide expanse of a lagoon. You are crossing the Great Brak River, once the eastern boundary of the Cape Colony.

In the vicinity of the bridge you’ll notice a petrol station, restaurant and some other activity. Towards the seaside you’ll see some holiday homes in the distance, and if you look towards the inland side, you’ll spot a hint of a village nestled in a deep valley surrounded by forested hills. Going up the Great Brak Heights on the George side of the bridge, looking down, you’ll see what used to be a railway station and an island full of holiday homes in the river mouth.

But if you don’t slow down, turn-off and explore, that’s all you will see. While viewing this from your speeding car is still as pretty a picture as they come along the famous Garden Route, you will be missing out on experiencing a true slice of heaven on earth.

Over the years the holiday mansions lining the sand dunes by the sea, an area called Southern Cross, and up in the hills above the island have multiplied, and the commercial activity by the bridge was added. But in the little hamlet of Great Brak River proper, not much has changed. Here, around the river in the foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains, the 10,000 odd residents still go about their daily business pretty much in the same way their forebears did, with many of them still living in the little cottages the local shoe factory supplied for its workers. For many years the shoe factory, still producing its famous Watsons shoes, and a saw mill were the commercial core of the village. Today the village forms part of the Garden Route District Municipality.

The village straddles the river that emerges at this point from a deep, narrow valley to widen into a large lagoon. A small bridge connects the eastern and western parts of the village at a junction in the road marked by the Searle Memorial Church with its terracotta roof tiles and Mediterranean look. On either side of this pretty little church you’ll see two large and stately Victorian country manor homes, one on the bank of the river, the other high up on the wooded hill. These were homes in which the founding members of the Searle dynasty once lived.

The Searles were the legendary founders and owners of much of Great Brak River who arrived here from Surrey, England. Richard Searle, a labourer, arrived in South Africa in 1845, and then worked at Great Brak River for the Central Road Board from 1850, where he was soon joined by his younger brother Charles, and sister-in-law Pamela. In 1859 they founded the village of Great Brak River and became the local toll-keepers (operated by private contractors back then, much the same as today’s tollgates on major highways).

They soon established a shop, tannery, saw mill and the shoe factory. More businesses were added and in 1949 the company listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange as Searles Holdings. In 1980 it was sold to Desmond Bolton, becoming Bolton Footwear in 1987. Shoes could not readily be bought in the area back in the 1860s, so like everyone else around here, Charles started making his own rugged leather “veldskoene” – stitch-down boots that he started selling to the operators of the ox-wagon trains transporting goods between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. They proved so popular that soon the shoe factory was established, which prides itself to this day on the fact that all its shoes are handcrafted.

On a personal note, I remember as a small child accompanying my mother on occasion to both of the Searle homes for tea and scones. I distinctly remember the one Searle lady – I no longer recall her name – seeming quite proper and very English with a regal appearance and thought to myself, this is what the Queen must look like. The picture has stuck in my mind.

Today most of the village still consists of the original Searle homes (one is now a B&B establishment), the church plus a later addition by the Dutch Reformed Church, the primary and secondary schools (now housed in modern buildings), the shoe factory, some shops, the timber business, the factory labourers’ cottages, a police station and a camping and caravan park on the banks of the river. The village and the valley are green and lush, with the deep dark waters of the river tranquilly flowing through it, bringing a sense of serenity to the village. The character is still quaintly old-world, much the way it must have been towards the end of Charles and Richard’s time.

More houses, restaurants and other businesses later developed along the road leading down to the sea as well as housing developments on the road going up the hill towards the Outeniqua Mountains and the erstwhile mission station of Friemersheim. In 1869 the Reverend Johann Kretzen of the Berliner Missionary Society established a school and church at Friemersheim on a part of the farm Gonnakraal, which Kretzen had bought for his sister. When she died in 1872, he bequeathed it to the Dutch Reformed Missionary Society, and it was renamed Friemersheim, after Kretzen’s town of birth in Germany. In the 1960s it was sold to the state.

Apart from the original mission church, here at Friemersheim you can still visit the home of the original owner of Gonnakraal, Petrus (Pieter)Terblanche, a direct forebear of this writer. His wife, known as Hanna Agent, was a legendary character of whom many stories are still told although much exaggeration has been added onto the original stories over the years. This house, mostly still intact and lived in, later became a slave lodge when they built a second home for themselves. The slave house was built in the style of a German longhouse, which in turn was based on the Viking longhouse. One current occupant of the house, Aunt Millie Uithaler, and her helpers cook about 100 bottles of delicious jam each day that are for sale. Inside the house one can still see the yellowwood beams that the slaves originally cut down up in the mountain. Preceding Aunt Millie, other more recent occupants of the house included Stegman, a legendary self-taught motor mechanic of the area and his wife, Dollie, and later the indefatigable farm manager of Gonnakraal, Abraham (Tier) Pieters. Looking across a ploughed field from the slave house, the graves of Petrus and Hanna can still be seen in the field.

It is here also that the first Volkwyn arrived in the early 1800s and started making furniture, which later led to the brothers Charlie, Hennie, Isak and Aser of Friemersheim producing their famous Volkwyn yellowwood and stinkwood furniture, a tradition still carried on by their descendants. Most famous of all was their ‘Volkwyn Chair’, also known as the ‘Cape Regent Chair’, a much sought-after antique piece these days.

There are also a number of newly established private game reserves in the area where the owners have reintroduced some of the wild game that once thrived here, as well as a few odd species that never really existed here. Unfortunately some of these reserves have either demolished or transformed many of the original buildings of these farms or built new ones – in one case an entire and very unsightly ‘safari’ village – that have spoilt the original character of the immediate area. They have also somehow managed to ‘privatise’ the gravel road to Little Brak River, a very scenic route that follows the river and is now closed to the public, much to the chagrin of locals who have lived here for generations.

Back in Great Brak River you can cross the bridge to the eastern side where the shoe factory is and then follow the road towards the sea. After passing under the N2 bridge you’ll find the old railway station, now a popular restaurant famed for its excellent food and wine. Nearby is a rickety single lane bridge to The Island, barely wide enough for one car at a time. The island is completely filled with holiday homes, but offers a few lovely, small secluded coves and beaches alongside the river. The river and lagoon are ideal for leisurely kayaking, allowing you to observe the bird and marine life of the lagoon.

Following the road back to the western side and then towards the sea, you’ll pass some lovely sand dunes ideal for sandboarding, although the dunes today look much smaller than when we were kids. Close to the sea the lagoon provides a lovely naturally enclosed corner ideal for swimming. Cross over the small dune to the beach and miles and miles of Indian Ocean fronted beach is yours for the taking. From May to November the sea provides the added attraction of pods of Southern Right and other whales playing just behind the surf.

There are also a number of excellent hiking routes in the area, some along the river, some near the ocean and others making their way through the forested hills around the village. Other attractions in the area include the local history museum (housed in the old school house built in 1902 on Amy Searle Street), the Wolwedans Dam, an art route, cycling routes, the nearby Outeniqua Mountains, a fragrance route (lavender planted in local gardens) and a historic route. There are also a wide variety of excellent B&Bs, restaurants, coffee shops and pubs. Next time you pass here along the N2, do take a day or two off to explore this magnificent little paradise.

Contact Details: Great Brak River Tourism Information Tel +27 (0)44 620 3210 or or go to greatbrakriver.co.za; Mossel Bay Tourism Tel +27(0)44 691 2202, website www.visitmosselbay.co.za, or email info@visitmosselbay.co.za.

Groot-Marico …wonderful stories and a jug of mampoer

Some trivial information. Did you know that Groot-Marico is the smallest town in South Africa that hosts an annual arts festival as well as a mountain bike race? Well, it’s also known for its powerful home-distilled drink, mampoer, as well as the famous South African author Herman Charles Bosman, who lived and wrote many of his books here, bringing worldwide attention and fame to this tiny hamlet in the dry and distant rural Bushveld.

It is of the Marico region that Bosman wrote in his book Marico Revisited: “There is no other place I know that is so heavy with atmosphere, so strangely and darkly impregnated with that stuff of life that bears the authentic stamp of South-Africa”.

Unlike what its name suggests, Groot-Marico meaning Big or Great Marico, is one of the smallest towns in South Africa. It is located along the N4 highway between Pretoria in Gauteng and Lobatse in Botswana. If you drive that way, keep a sharp eye open, or you may just miss it. It really is very small, with much of it hidden out of sight by the typical Bushveld vegetation of the region. Groot-Marico lies about 90km after Rustenburg and about 35km before Zeerust.

Bosman’s stories about the region and its characters – some fictitious, other based on real people – have become a much beloved South African literary treasure. Many of them are narrated by his most popular character, Oom Schalk Lourens, a typical Bosveld raconteur with a gentle, dry sense of humour and a love of mampoer. Later another famous South African, the late actor Patrick Mynhardt, re-enacted these stories on stage to capacity audiences for many years.

Many of the stories were passed on from person to person in the books, relying extensively on gossip at times, which probably was a good way to pass the time in this isolated far-flung north-western corner of South Africa. And it is a tradition that probably continued at least until 2010 when the farms surrounding Groot Marico were among the last in South Africa to still be connected by party (shared) telephone lines via a manual telephone exchange.

This type of exchange required callers to ask an operator to connect them to other telephone lines by pushing jacks into slots. The recipient would recognise the call being for him by the number and length of the ringing, but the catch was that everybody else who shared the line on other farms also did and could quietly pick up the phone to listen in to the conversation. This was a rich source of gossip, and like Bosman’s books, also the source of much humour.

I mention this as it may illustrate something of the kind of rural world we’re talking of here. But, before you form any negative ideas, it is a world of kind humour, rough-and-tumble Bushveld life populated by many amazing characters, a place of great beauty, and a place of hospitality second to none.

The little town was founded by a party of Voortrekkers in the 1850s and was only proclaimed in 1948. In the 2011 census the hamlet, named after the nearby Groot-Marico River, recorded a population of only 3,384. Towns located within the Marico district, part of North West Province, include Zeerust, Swartruggens, Groot-Marico and Nietverdiend.  The majority of its population are Tswana, with Afrikaners, mostly farmers, making up the second largest group. The local economy relies heavily on agriculture, mining and tourism.

The character of its people is well illustrated by the fierce resistance they offered when a large-scale nickel mine was proposed along the banks of the river because of the way large open pit quarries and other mining activity had already harmed the local environment. They managed a successful petition that blocked the mine, and in 2016 they also launched a campaign against new diamond prospecting plans. Although these mines could bring economic prosperity and jobs to the area, its citizens would rather do without and keep their beloved Bushveld just the way it is.

With such a background it is no wonder the little hamlet relies heavily on tourism based on mampoer tasting and tours, story tours, and visits to historical places, such as the home where Bosman lived and the school where he taught.

Groot-Marico offers visitors comfortable accommodation in some excellent B&Bs in the area and in neighbouring towns, has good caravan and camping facilities, some beautiful nature hiking routes, the nearby Marico-Bushveld Nature Reserve and dam, the Pilanesberg National Park a little further away, the Pienaar Nature Reserve, game drives and hunting safaris, mampoer tours to some of the best distilleries, battlefield tours of Anglo-Boer War sites, traditional village tours, and engagements with the Herman Charles Bosman Literary Society based here.

Lose yourself on the Bokkraal Hiking Trail or Schoongezicht Trail, or tackle the Doornrivier 4×4 Trail, go diving in the Wondergat near Mafikeng a bit further away, visit the Kortkloof Cultural Village in the Kortkloof Valley near Swartruggens, or visit the Madikwe Game Reserve a little bit further north. It is one of South Africa’s largest and most popular game reserves and home to cheetahs, wild dogs, hyenas, lion, elephant, black and white rhinos and many more. Also a bit further afield is the Barberspan Bird Sanctuary, one of the largest waterfowl sanctuaries in Southern Africa and a RAMSAR Convention-accredited site. The Botsalano Game Reserve is also nearby, close to the Botswana border just north of Mahikeng, which is about 100km away. Also at Mahikeng is the Leopard Park Golf Club for golf lovers, a real oasis.

Oh, and what happened to Bosman? He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years hard labour for his part in the murder of his stepbrother. Released after 4 years, he went to London for 9 years, returned and worked as a writer and journalist. He died of a heart attack aged 46, but his witty spirit lives on in Groot-Marico where everything revolves around either Bosman or mampoer. Have fun going there; you won’t regret it!

Contact Details: North West Tourism Call Centre Tel+27 (0)86 111 1866 or Email info@tourismnorthwest.co.za; Groot-Marico Information Centre Email info@marico.co.za or Tel 083 272 2958 or 014 503 0085.

Kagga Kamma…delightful ‘cave-dweller’s’ retreat

  • This article on Kagga Kamma was written by Jared Ruttenberg who travel-blogs under the name @JAREDINCPT – you can read more at jaredincpt.com.

In the stark and rugged wilderness where the Karoo meets the Cederberg Mountains, you’ll find Kagga Kamma Nature Reserve. The area was home to San, the country’s first inhabitants, and now millennia later you can enjoy a reimaging of what it would feel like to sleep in a cave – or simply under the stars.

It’s a scenic three-and-a-half-hour journey from Cape Town that follows the twists and turns of the folded Cape mountains ranges. As we drove the final kilometres the characteristic orange and jagged rock formations of the Cederberg welcomed us into the wild wonderland.

A night in the cave units is a must-do: ten of these beautifully crafted units offer you the chance to feel as if you’re sleeping inside the hollows of the sandstone rock, but with the comfort of a bed and bathroom. The units straddle the base of a sandstone cliff and from a distance it’s actually difficult to spot them hiding in the rockface.

For a truly unique and bucket list African experience spend an evening in one of the two Open Air Suites at Kagga Kamma, namely the Star Suite and the Sky Suite. The experience begins at reception where you mount a quad bike and follow the guide through the reserve. After arriving at the Open Air Suite, you’re given a short orientation, and then left to enjoy the wild tranquillity. Before leaving, the guide provides supper for you (either cooked or uncooked) and lights the fire. There’s an outdoor star bath, as well as a natural rock pool at one Suite and a Wood-fired Hot Tub at the other. Both have outdoor showers and both have hot water and views for days.

For the next 16 hours the kilometres of wilderness are yours alone to enjoy. I woke up several times in the night, spending a few minutes each time mesmerized by the stars that hung overhead. If you’re a little nervous of the open environment, have no fear. It is a nature reserve, complete with indigenous wildlife, but the larger animals are shy and rarely gather close to areas inhabited by humans and the smaller critters tend to steer clear due to the boma fire and movement.

If you’re interested in a little more insight into how the San lived, thankfully they left their mark with the rock art and paintings scattered across the area. At Kagga Kamma our guide was able to point out several of these and provide helpful commentaries around the context and story of these early communities’ lives. You’re also able to explore the reserve on mountain bikes, quad bikes or on foot via the hiking trails. There’s a pool to plunge into on the hot Cederberg days and the restaurant provides hearty meals throughout the day.

Contact Details: Kagga Kamma Reservations & Enquiries Tel +27 (0)21 872 4343; email info@kaggakamma.co.za. Timeshare reservations and enquiries Tel +27 (0)23 004 0077, email lodge@kaggakamma.co.za. Website kaggakamma.co.za.