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.
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…
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.
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.
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.