Explore the Overberg

by Jacqueline Dowling

Leaving Cape Town’s rush hour traffic, cresting Sir Lowry’s Pass, we drove through a moonscape of flattened fynbos, granitic rocks, felled conifers and scrubby grassland.   Suddenly, a whole vista of trees and  orchards  brilliant with roses opened up before us.  The Elgin Valley, Appletiser country, where the hills are literally alive with fruit trees as far as the eye can see, and where The Overberg begins.   Spring in this area is bloom time:  the trees covered in  white and pink froth of blossom, vineyards in early buttery leaf and roses everywhere, climbing along fences in a riot of colour,  grown to give early warning of soil deficiencies or insect infestation. Late snow ices the surrounding peaks . Simply put –  it’s stunning.

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There are three popular farmstalls between  Sir Lowry’s and Houwhoek: Orchard which has a restaurant, art gallery , bakery and small winery: Peregrine, a bit further on boasts a fine bakery , restaurant and selection of wines, farmstall products and the local info desk.   Carry on along the N2 to Houwhoek where farmstall and the oldest hotel in the country, Houwhoek Inn, nestle in a green valley surrounded by old and shady oaks.  The inn, built originally in 1779 on a tollgate in the days of the Dutch East India Company, is a good stopover for lunch under the trees in summer.  A quaint collection of whitewashed buildings comprise the body of the inn which overlooks a two hundred year old gum tree growing outside the pub and acres of grassland rising up through forests to high mountain peaks, .  Situated in the Kogelberg Biosphere,  a world heritage area of outstanding beauty, Houwhoek is said to have taken its name from the early wagon drivers who, having crossed the mountains and begun the steep descent to the then Houwhoek village, would shout ‘Houw’ which meant put the brakes on or we’ll all go over the edge

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Over Houwhoek Pass and you’re almost in the centre of The Overberg, where there are picturesque, historic and peaceful places to explore, not far away.   The name Overberg means Over The Mountains, Over Het Geberghte in Dutch the language in which they were originally named.   It stretches from Elgin/Grabouw to the Breede River at Cape Infanta: the northern boundary formed by the Riviersonderend and Langeberg mountains, with the villages of Genadendal and Greyton slumbering in the foothills. Rolling wheatfields silver-green in the sunlight rush across hills and along valleys, chased by shadows and the gentle prevailing wind.   Geese follow ploughed swirls across an Impressionist’s palette of colour.  A panorama of valleys, mountains and rivers where blue cranes and guinea fowl peck in furrows.  Springtime  brings brilliant daisies, fields of yellow canola, purple lupins and lush grass where Merino sheep graze,  peering through thick creamy fleeces.   The original stock, according to legend,  were imported from Spain two hundred years ago.   They thrived and the news got back to Spain which ordered that ‘the original stock ‘ be returned forthwith.    This is sheep country, one of the most densely stocked in South Africa and the cradle of the wool industry.  The Cape Agulhas Light was once fuelled by oil from local fat tailed sheep.

Between Bot Rivier and Caledon you’ll find a quaint farm stall and restaurant – Dassiesfontein.  Famous for its traditional Boerekos, bread made with stone ground flour and baked in wood ovens,  vintage kitchenware, a selection of Welcome Dover stoves, Africana collectibles . . . the list is long . We stopped there on a cold day in early Spring:   a tantalising aroma of wood smoke and coffee in the air.  Inside, a fire burned in a wheelbarrow, coffee came in a big old enamel coffee pot accompanied by two enamel mugs, handles thoughtfully cloth bound, and a basket of hot new bread.  A browse through the various ’boutiques’ had me making lists of things to buy on the way back.   Shelves groaning with local Overberg produce added yet more items to the list and a determination to return.

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The  R406 turnoff to Genadendal and Greyton is on the left, shortly after Dassiesfontein.   Genadendal (Valley of Grace) ,  the oldest Moravian Mission on the continent, was founded around 1738 and is run as a community project.   It’s a wonderful place to visit: the square, surrounded by old ochre and yellow Bavarian style houses, boasts no fewer than twenty five national monuments and a beautiful, dignified Moravian church: the pipe organ the oldest in South Africa.   On Sundays the square is filled with every conceivable form of wheeled transport including donkey carts and horse drawn buggies.  The animals wander the lanes undisturbed during service, and on certain Sundays a brass band plays under the oaks.

The Genadendal museum has been declared a National Cultural Treasure.   Here you’ll find the first fire engine in the country, a fine collection of musical instruments, early  Cape and hand-made goods and furniture.   The Old Print Shop contains one of the earliest mission printing presses in South Africa and the water mill has been restored to working order.   Flour is stone ground, baked in open air ovens and sold.   The Genadendal weavers’ work is rapidly finding a secure place in its genre throughout the country, and abroad.

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Return to the R406 and turn left to Greyton.  Named for Sir George Grey, the village is the last in the valley and straight out of a book of English water colours.    Thatched houses in colourful gardens, oaks and canals line streets where ducks and donkeys are a common sight.  A Saturday market is held on the village green and the annual Rose Festival happens in October .  Many artists and crafters have made their homes here – it’s a great place for treasure and craft hunters.   Not only is Greyton a desirable week-end getaway,  it is also a centre for mountain biking and hiking.

This is just a small taste of The Overberg – there is so much more.

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The Book Collector

By Jac Dowling

It’s been a busy and extremely interesting time at our Bhuki Cafe lately. Yours Truly woke at 2am on a Road to Damascus and had an epiphany – whatever that means in today’s argot. What happened was, I had a good idea (like Pooh), which was immediately taken to our core committee at our favourite coffee shop, and they liked it. Possibly the mountainous scones and coffee softened the moment, add homemade jam and butter and you’re away.

The Antiques Roadshow was a stalwart of the BBC for many years, still is probably. So I thought, why not have a Bhuki Booktiques Roadshow and invite Benadė, our Book Collector, for muffins, coffee, assessment and valuations? So we did, and it was a huge success, except that he didn’t get to eat his choc muffins and his coffee went cold, but never mind, we had some happy punters and sold lots of teas and munchies while people waited.52007

It was so successful that we’re repeating the exercise in July and, if there’s another inundation, it may well become a monthly happening. Benadé has a shop absolutely stacked and groaning with books, how he ever stocktakes will probably remain a mystery, but he loves books and is happy to see what members bring to The Bhuki, chats about the provenance, assesses and, if required, values. Fascinating except that we now have to put a time and number limit on who brings what because one dear soul arrived with a box full, and that took TIME – which was when the coffee cooled! So we thought max 2 books and ½ an hour because we only have the facility for 2.5 hours each Friday before it returns to the reference section. Having recently read The Shadow of the Wind, I’m even more fascinated by the concept and just so happy that books are once more coming back into fashion.

‘A book should serve as an axe for the frozen sea within us’

Kafka.

typeremingtong-graphicsfairy002Anyway, we have our very excellent free local newspaper The Village News firmly supporting our literary efforts, two book pages once a month, a Bhuki piece and lots of great art, wine and restaurant coverage. They keep away from the grizzlies that occupy all our papers daily, and publish a very special fortnightly paper . After all, Hermanus is becoming a serious arts centre and we’re proud of our small town’s achievements.

On a different, but still book note, I was presented with a 1986 large, and I mean large, Wind in the Willows in which each page is most beautifully illustrated. It will go to a loving home at Christmas, in the meantime I shall continue to feast on what it has to offer. And may you feast on whatever takes your fancy until next month. I didn’t mention the limited edition history of the Rhodesian army – bound in elephant hide and gold metallic borders, slip case et al. The elephant, the owner was quick to explain, died of natural causes and was not hunted or poached!

Mud Mud Inglorious Mud

By Jac Dowling

Several interesting happenings lately in this part of Africa where, it seems, I’m the one lonely Scribe.  But never mind. Recently Arch Desmond and Mrs Tutu came to retire in Hermanus and we are delighted to have their company.  He recently did two one hour sessions at Bargain Books signing copies of his and the Dalai Lama’s Book of Love.  The queue seemed to go on forever, hence his decision to spend another hour the next day.  It’s a remarkable book and has nothing to do with mud, which is what this blog is meant to be about. . .and it certainly wasn’t Western Cape mud since we have not had rain for ages and Cape Town’s gasping.  Secondly, Kobus Moolman is launching his new volume of short stories at Hermanus’ Fynarts festival in June, which is really good news.

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So, to the mud bit. We hired a 58 foot narrow boat some years back and decided to explore the Oxford Canal.  Set off up the Thames in good spirit, First Mate at the helm, Skipper (me) hanging out for the first lock which, fortunately, turned out to be manned by lock keeper and electric gates so there was no jittery jumping onto slippery steps and winding two heavy gates open and I was mightily relieved.  Doesn’t do to make a pampoen of oneself at the first opportunity.  Just after navigating the busy Oxford stretch of river, we saw a little sign under a willow which read Oxford Canal so we turned right (starboard??) and entered a world of quaint cottages, daffodils in gardens, washing blowing in the breeze and an extremely muddy towpath.

First Mate and I decided to share the opening and closing of locks, which meant hazarding the mud, slippery steps and one of the deepest locks in the canal system. Be warned all ye who enter here, pushing open heavy lock gates is best done using derriére as a cushioning tool and pushing backwards.  And a pair of strong arms to key open the locking mechanisms.  Pub lunches and suppers were the order of the day, cosy fires et al and on we went, skirting weirs, giving way to other craft and generally having a jolly good time afloat!

I became quite adept at leaping ashore to tether the boat each time we stopped, always on the towpath side, this required nosing in to the bank, leaping gracefully ashore, tethering the bow then niftliy reversing the stern alongside and tethering that bit next – First Mate got quite good at this until we came to a weir that was flooding and got caught up in the current. Much reversing and swearing later, we avoided disaster and I stood ready in the bow, rope in hand to leap (gracefully) – except the bank collapsed under me and I was up to my chin in muddy canal water, slipping ever further under the boat on the muddy bottom. FM couldn’t work out where I’d got to until he saw the lock keeper racing towards us, by which time the bow was pinning my shoulder firmly to the collapsing bank and I hadn’t a clue what to do.  Being hauled out was a tad ignominious I’ll admit, plus I was soaked and filthy.  But we couldn’t hold up traffic any longer so into the lock we nosed, I emerged onto the quay and wound the ropes around two bollards, and the water gradually left the lock with us dangling above it because I’d left the ropes too short. Cupboards opened and crockery crashed to the floor, I had pondweed in my hair and. . .

I rest my case.

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Kobus Moolman

An appreciation of a fine South African poet and writer

by Jacqueline Dowling

 Kobus Moolman has had a profound effect on my writing;  his imagery and stark use of words, creating  pictures and sensations in minimalist form, choosing only that which carries both sentiment and image straight to the soul.   Certain of his poetry contains echoes of Pablo Neruda, Dostoevsky and, possibly, Chekov.   Dark in parts but always sweeping his canvas with vivid and emotive observations and portraits.   Life stripped down to its  bones.   Seeing people and places in a different and realistic light.

‘Time like Stone’, a collection of poems and prose written during his time in Nieu-Bethesda after winning the Helen Martins Fellowship, traces the poet’s struggle for language over silence – .   The great open spaces of the Karoo: his thoughts and senses.        

 From Silence and the Stones:

Silence and the stones
speak impenetrable codes
loud as emptiness…’

 And Viewpoint    

‘…and now a solitary bird, wide-winged
rides slowly the lonely railroad
of a neighbour’s sky.’

 Finally The Wind of Bethesda           

‘…All day the doors on the street
are closed against the dust,
the wooden window-shutters too.

Only the sun seems not to mind,
and an old grey donkey
that chews slowly an old rose bush…’

Tactile, emotive and immersed in the otherness of life in a different place.   See the infinity of sky, hear the soughing wind and the high keening of a kite; feel the gritty dust in your mouth and nostrils, and the texture of an old scruffy donkey whose coat has seen many seasons, his tired body drawn many carts.   The paucity of grass and shrub.

Perhaps Karoo Notebook, to me anyway, is Kobus’ magnum opus.   The extracts from the journal kept during his stay in Nieu-Bethesda for me, are echoes of feelings and emotions that go so deep into my soul that it’s hard, at times, to express them.   But he does…minimalist, saying only what he sees, hears and feels.   No frills.

 17.10.1998

Wrestling with the thought: what is selfishness?
In a place like this – where one is largely an unkown element
(even to oneself), because, significantly, so much alone – one is
continually moving into areas of oneself that had not been known
before
Even a simple expedition to the corner trading store, then, to
buy a loaf of bread and a piece of smoked wors, becomes a journey
of discovery.   We are our own Columbus or Eric the Red.

I have lain on sunburnt rocks under an infinity of night sky, high in the mountains of the Klein Karoo, the stars so close you could hear them crackle.   Below, in a kranz, a river chuckled its pebbly way to the sea, a jackal barked and was silent.

21.10.1998

Sitting on the low verandah wall at night.  A vast plain of stars
above me.   The darkened street around (Bethesda has no street lights)
with the deep outlines of trees tossing in the wind, and
sighing.

Then the low bubbling of water in the village furrow.
Apparently, in all the history of this village, the spring that feeds
these street furrows from high in the hills has never run dry.
The creak and clank of the wind-pump in Tannie W’s yard
opposite.

13.11.1998

A wind lifts the curtains slowly
in the room,
a warm wind with the voice of crickets.

Other lives happen all around us, but we do not have eyes to see…

I have learned, through Kobus, to open my eyes to the unusual, to store moments, scents, sounds and emotions.   And not ever to be afraid to listen to the music in my soul.

Time like Stone
Kobus Moolman
University of Natal Press 2000
ISBN: 086980 979 2

For my signed copy – thank you Kobus.

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The Houw Hoek Pass

Pulled Up To Heaven Like Elijah

by Jac Dowling

Cresting the Houw Hoek Pass one early summer’s night, a huge golden moon swinging low over the Bot River valley, bathing fields of canola and young wheat in a soft ephemeral glow, I  rewound  to 1798 when Lady Ann Barnard and her entourage traversed this  route from Cape Town to Swellendam: ‘Another tremendous hill . . . a tolerable road but tedious.’   She found neither the comforts of today’s Houw Hoek Hotel, nor the various farm stalls, wineries and guest houses, double carriageways and comfortable travel.   Instead ‘twelve fine, stout, beautiful oxen with horns which spread from pole to pole… and could carry us up to Heaven like Elijah…’, various covered and open wagons, and a team of unruly and cruel drivers completed their caravan. For the use of the oxen the Barnards were charged twelve Rijksdaalders, silver coins first minted in the Netherlands in the late sixteenth century.

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The animals clearly disliked their task and, according to Lady Ann ‘lowed most piteously’ when finding themselves yoked to the wagons.   The upwards trek, in excess of two miles, was  perpendicular, with almost impassable sharp rocks and boulders which split wooden wheels, broke disselbooms and dislodged luggage and equipment.   Flanks heaving with blood from whips and knives used by the drivers, the flayed and exhausted oxen collapsed bellowing and kicking at the bottom of the pass.    But the hazardous trail had yet more in store before nightfall; at dusk a traverse of a steep hillside with precipice beneath had to be negotiated with overloaded wagon and eight horses, exhausted passengers and drovers who had neither the will nor strength to carry on much further.   Various names have been given to this treacherous summit, the most likely being ‘ter houw komen‘ being the corner where oxen required rest at the top of the pass.   Another theory is that Hou(w), the khoi word for cattle, was tacked on to Hoek, thus returning to the original Rest Corner. 

In the event, the Barnard party finally found shelter in the farmhouse of Jacob Joubert, a mere boor, whose wife Lady Ann described as about thirty-five, plain, stupid but civil, yet who managed to serve a boiled fowl dinner fit for an Emperor.   Away from the farmstead a slave was noted cooking her humble mess over a fire.

This farm, built in 1779, the original stopping place for resting travellers, soon required considerable expansion to accommodate the growing numbers and this was the origin of the present day Houw Hoek Hotel, recently sold for +-R42 000 000,holder of the first South African liquor licence(1834), and the oldest hotel in the country.   A small village grew up around the hostelry consisting of a school, butcher, general stores and post office.   All of which were later incorporated into the main building, site of a toll gate in the days of the Dutch East India Company, and the first coaching inn in the country.   Handy for the passing mail coaches, carriages and ox-wagons, it was in 1861 still part inn, part farmhouse, small with clay walls and spotlessly clean according to one Lady Duff Gordon who was charged the equivalent of 90c for dinner, bed and breakfast .

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In 1902 the Houw Hoek railway station was built and the trains from Cape Town to Caledon stopped at the inn at lunchtime when passengers were served, in style, on the platform while the engine was coaled and watered.  

Sitting under shady trees, on the lawns of the hotel recently, I mulled the adventurous and bloody history of the area.  A road was built by Andrew Geddes Bain in 1863, later replaced by a pass running along a ravine – later replaced by . . .and later still by today’s double carriageways from which remnants of the old roads may still be seen, twisting, turning and climbing ever upwards, if one knows where to look.

Pulled up to Heaven like Elijah?  I don’t think so, not me, not just now.  The countryside is idyllic; birdsong, clear high skies, spring leaf and flowers carpeting the mountainsides.  My glass of sauvignon chilled and inviting – I’ll stay firmly grounded thank you and raise a glass to those brave enough to either Hou Hoek or plunge straight down.

Where have all the whales gone?

By Jacqueline Dowling

In 2014 I wrote the following piece in response to Penny leaving out a pom pom in The Little Drummer Boy.

This year, things have changed – a bit. The Christmas decs popped up all over our local retail stores, thankfully sans carols and groaning Crosby, at the moment. October 15th. So, when I enter the hallowed (by xmas trees) precincts, I turn right, away from the toys and toys and toys and get down to cabbages and grapes (or similar). Much more satisfying nutritionally. . .

So what’s changed? The whales have gone elsewhere, that’s what. We haven’t seen one close in this year. The boat cruises tell us that they’re far out because of warmer water – maybe, or perhaps they’re lying on a slab out east. I hope not. There was a timewhen we counted twenty five really close in, leaping, playing, mating. This year – uh uh. Nix, nada.

This is what I wrote, and I hope I’ll be able to write in a more positive frame of mind next season. I miss hearing them blow in the still of the night, and their mighty leaps out at sea.

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The day was hot, no white Christmas in sight. Red nosed reindeer and jingling bells wilted in the heat.

Glitzy trees flashed their signals – Come and Spend spend spend. Only nine hundred and sixty shopping hours left ’til Christmas.

And then I heard it, very faintly through the hubbub and clatter of trolleys, the cadences easy and gentle. ‘….And he smiled at me – pa – rup -a -pom -pom…‘ suddenly my hectic materialistic world, for a moment stood still.

I left the noise, the bling and frenetic Come and buy buy buy of the stores and went down to the cliffs. To the sea. To the birds and whales.

The rocks were warm, the sea just a summer whisper of clear aquamarine. Sapphire pools filled with tiny darting fish and huge waving sea-anemones where flocks of oyster catchers strutted their scarlet way, their high pitched wheeeee carried on the southerly breeze. Across the bay Southern Right whales spouted and lolled, glossy black; lazy in the swells. I was quite alone, blissfully detached . But still the haunting lyrics of The Little Drummer Boy stayed with me, like a carousel going around and around – and around.

A shadow moved into the pool at my feet, silently slipping through the kelp. A large shadow, followed by a much smaller one. It was a whale cow with her newly born calf. She came to rest within metres of my rock, nudged the little body towards her and suckled it. I watched, awed by the love between these two gentle creatures, by their grace and utter trust.

This African nativity- no shepherds, no kings or wise men. Just a timeless and beautiful reminder, suspended, for a moment in the crystalline waters, of a humble birth, so long ago: and what it has come to mean to us.

Then, in one swift movement, the mother thrust her calf to the surface and blew.

Twin spouts of warm oily mist drifted towards me as she raised her head, opened her massive baleen jaws – and smiled.

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Until next season – when I so hope this will ring true again…

On the rocks

by Jacqueline Dowling

Early Portuguese navigators called it Cabo de Bon Esperanza (Cape of Good Hope), rounded Cape Point and, depending on the weather, either sank or sailed on to lands of monkeys and exotic spices. Or, they called it Cabo Tormentosa (Cape of Storms), and simply sank. There are some 3000 wrecks along the Southern African coast and, after shivering through our present and extended winter, it’s not difficult to imagine why.

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Recently, the lagoon breached in a volcanic fury of mud, bushes, trees and a wall of water which swept away all intersecting sandbanks and clashed with breakers of the high spring tide sending columns of sea and fresh water high into the air , and a river of sludge heaving along the coast. It was an apocalyptic sight: especially when viewed from a car park rumoured to be built on the rubble from the old Birkenhead Hotel, named after a Royal Navy ship wrecked in 1852, with the loss of 450 lives, off Danger Point , at the southern end of Walker Bay. The Birkenhead, at the time, was the largest iron ship of the Royal Navy, en route to the Frontier War.

Today the force and anger of the lagoon is gradually sending the spirit of Birkenhead on yet another journey, undermining the car park in the process. It’s a crowd gatherer, no doubt about it: we stand in the teeth of a winter gale, leaning against the yellow safety barriers and rubber-necking in time with the surging and crashing of the tide. At times it’s almost balletic to watch the human movement, a motley collection of bodies swaddled in polar gear swaying hither and yon as the sea sucks and swells, woolly hats bobbing to the rhythm of their feet.

Recently the Atlantic exploded with such force against the sea wall in the fishing harbour that gates were washed away, windows in the diving ‘hut’ smashed and a trawler sank at its quayside moorings. Seaside homes had boulders delivered to their living rooms, bedrooms and garages on the back of brutal waves which smashed everything in their path. Tents and marquees erected for the annual Whale Festival landed up in trees and out at sea…and everyone agreed that it was the worst winter in living memory.

In time the gates were recovered from the seabed, slightly misshapen, but restored to their rightful place nevertheless. Divers fitted sliding sea-proof shutters to their hut and the pier was strengthened with vast quantities of concrete blocks: chunks of rusted boat were dredged up and sold as scrap. Now there are no more trawlers in the little harbour.

The sea is an icy bottle green: hail pounds the roof of our car as we battle to find a sheltering Milkwood: waterfalls race down mountainsides into the lagoon which, once again has reached saturation point. My mobile buzzes with a text from the municipality warning of heavy rainfall over the weekend , high winds and severe flooding.

It’s the first day of Spring.