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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Fields of Gold

By Jac Dowling

Susan Hill’s The Magic Apple Tree, read for the umpteenth time during a particularly dreary and icy few days recently, set me thinking of a country year we had some years ago, in rural Warwickshire. And rural it truly was. Our rented cottage apparently dated back to early Tudor. T 6a00d83451584369e2019b0037cc29970d-800wihe outside walls thick local stone, golden and totally weather-proof, the roof thatched: little windows peeping out from beneath heavy reed fringes were latticed with old lead work and the inside walls formed from traditional lath overlaid with daub and limewash. The owner, Norman, was a gardener at Ann Hathaway’s Cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon and finding it a bit of a hike into work each day, so he let it to us. The garden, as one might expect, was a mass of flowering shrubs and roses: an ancient apple tree stood in the centre of the lawn while on the other side of the boundary fence, milking cows grazed the days away and ducks swam on a neighbouring muddy pond. Just up the road an old cider mill had been turned into a local craft centre. A village green, Saxon church, village shop and pub completed the picture.

Arriving in spring, we had the full benefit of the Vale of Evesham’s magnificent blossom time. The trees so heavy laden their branches, in many cases, touched the ground. Pear, pink cherry, apple and plum as far as the eye could see. And fruit for the picking from the many farms in the area, as long as you were prepared to pick your own. Spring segued into summer when our bedroom window up in the roof opened onto fields of corn gold and lush. One night in August a huge harvest moon hung low, glowing deep saffron over the fields. So close, almost within reach – just a hand-span away. Whenever I hear Sting’s Fields of Gold I think of those magical times and how the seasons cast their individual character and palettes of colour across our small part of England.

On fine days I’d walk the two miles along the river bank with our small son who attended the local nursery school. Golden kingcups floated on the quiet water. Mallards and coots busied themselves among the reeds, and plump Hereford steers kicked up their heels against the gad flies biting their rumps. Clumps of gold buttercups sprinkled the fields: we watched calves being born. Two tiny hooves followed by a slightly tilted head, slid to the ground with a bump. Mothers licked the little creatures and guided them gently to their feet. Very soon they were suckling and flicking their tails. And on we went, over the stiles to school.

Our stretch of the Avon was popular with narrow boat enthusiasts, some of whom didn’t read their river maps carefully and either catapulted over the weir, with unfortunate results, or teetered on the edge yelling for help, rescue, a rope, something… We came across one such stranding which was actually very funny – from the bank. A large Welsh family were well and truly stuck, right on the brink of the weir, plumb middle of the boat rocking back and forth whenever anyone moved. The plan was to somehow ditch Granny, the tank of water, all the fuel and food, thereby lightening the load sufficiently for the boat to slide gently down the water-fall. At least, that’s what they thought. Granny wasn’t in full agreement with the first part of the plan, and there was a strong warning notice about polluting the river and she, at 99yrs+ had lost the knack of swimming against the tide. We eventually hauled them off with a steel cable attached to a Land Rover and sent them on their way, still arguing at full throttle.

Autumn came and went. Fallen leaves crackling with frost under our feet. And the east wind brought the snow. Our little world lay silent,deeply pillowed in white. We walked down to the river one night, crunching pristine snow under our boots. The moon shone silver-cold, snow sparkled and shadows purpled. There was no-one out, just us and a black cat tiptoeing along the bank, leaving tiny paw marks as it moved. We built snow-men, rode trays down the hill and tobogganed for hours, down to the now frozen Avon. It was very cold.

But – here in the Overberg, we have many fields of gold. It’s called Canola and is one of the most beautiful sights in spring when a whole valley turns brilliant yellow, the sun shines and the cold winds of winter move to another part of the world. It’s a good place to be!