Vintage Valleys of the Western Cape

We had left wheat country and Ouma's rusks behind with Malmesbury and shucked the city's mud from our boots and her chill from our bones. Cape Town in winter is not at her warmest. We sought more convivial climes. And didn't have to go far to find them.An hour-and-a-half's drive north-east, found the vineyards of Tulbagh sweating autumn leaves of ruby, claret and burgundy. Dense, riverine forests of oak paraded in golden splendour. Somehow, this valley had slipped Winter's mind. Time, too, seemed to be having some trouble.Church Street in Tulbagh has the most historic houses in one road in the country. Freshly polished National Monument plaques are everywhere. The green trim that daubs the lampposts and dustbins, shutters and doors of the street help create the impression of an outdoor museum. Yet, there is a darker tale lurking behind this little slice of history.On a September night in 1969, the residents of Tulbagh and neighbouring Wolsely and Ceres caught a glimpse of hell. One eyewitness whose story was published in The Argus the following month, offered this account: [I saw] 'a bright object hurtling across the valley through the night sky and as the bright object crashed into the mountains, a shower of flames shot up into the air and then we had the tremor.'Whatever the cause, the earthquake measured 6.3 on the Richter scale and released as much energy as four atomic bombs. Durban, 1 175 kilometres away, felt the shock. There is an exhibition dedicated to the disaster in one of the museums that line Church Street. It has a picture of a fourteen-year-old, khaki-clad, Louis Smit, sitting in the ruins of his bedroom and gazing up into the sky above his bed.Out of the rubble, rose a Church Street resurrected in the finery of previous centuries. All thirty-two buildings were restored according to historical records. The result is a mish-mash of architectural styles and periods. Low-slung settler homesteads with new thatch, gleaming Cape Dutch facades and Victorian verandahs afford one a literal stroll down memory lane.The street captures in brick and mortar the colonial history of one of the earliest white settlements in the country as does the church from which, unsurprisingly, Church Street gets its name. The oldest in the country, it was built in 1748.But the church, like the people who built it, is a relatively recent addition to the landscape. The first European to glimpse the verdant valley was Jan van Riebeeck's surveyor. Diligent as he obviously was in pursuing his master's territorial ambitions, he couldn't find a way into the valley. That had to wait for the Nuwekloof Pass and the first settlers of the Het Land Van Waveren in 1700. Their impression remains stamped on the landscape to this day.The early settlers found a land teeming with lion, rhino, zebra and ostrich. Today, the strapping oaks and cultivated fields more closely resemble the European countryside from which the early settlement took its name. The Witzenberg Mountains that shoulder the village still bear the name of a long-forgotten Mayor of Amsterdam.The old cemetery, a little way out of town, traces the waves of colonial settlement in names and dates and burial plots. Huguenots, Dutch, English and German bones lie side by side. Mrs Birta Carolina Van Ludwig was born a Reynolds. There's a Smith and a Bennet among the De Klerks and Retiefs and Malans. The Therons hold sway in this city of the dead and even today, their descendants remain influential.Like the Therons in Tulbagh, of those early residents, the Malan family remains. Yes, those Malans. Back over the Nuwekloof pass, in Riebeeck West, D.F. was born on the farm, Allesverloren. Something of a misnomer this, as all five generations have done well over the years, although, these days, great-grandad's ghost might agree.There are other names that bear the weight of the past here. The second of six children, Jan Christiaan Smuts was born at Bovenplaas in Riebeeck West. To visit, you have to pass through the security check at the gates of the PPC cement factory. An incongruous sight, this, in the midst of fertile farmland. However, the long, low gable farmhouse has been faithfully restored. The old mud floors fashioned from ox-blood and peach pits and dung, the white-washed walls and roughly-hewn timber roof-beams suggest humble beginnings.There is no hint here of the Cambridge Chancellor, the international statesman and Prime Minister that was to come. One of the outbuildings has been converted into a Smuts exhibit and there are pictures of him in those later years posing for a photograph with King George and a trim Queen Mum, flanked by her daughters; Elizabeth looking impossibly young and demure. There is another of him with Winston Churchill, reclining on a bench in easy camaraderie.As a boereseun of twelve, Jan was sent away to school for the first time; the same school in Riebeeck West that the young Malan attended. The two families regularly visited each other. Was there any hint then of young rivalries, it is tempting to wonder? Any sign of the political rift to come that would see Malan defeat Smuts as Prime Minister in 1948 and usher in South Africa's darkest colonial years?Beneath these spreading oaks and tranquil skies, pieces of our past survive, as signposts for the future. The present, however, encroaches. Nearby Riebeeck Kasteel too, is catching up with the times. The inevitable church steeple commands a picture postcard view of ochre and sienna vineyards and concertinaed mountains painted on a pale blue sky. Such vistas have not gone unnoticed by the new wave of European settlers to this now easily-accessible garden of Eden.Bottle-blondes with mohair ponchos sweep past in Cherokee jeeps. There's even an artist colony in residence. We saw signs of their habitation - a funky house fashioned to look like an Ancient Egyptian temple, its massive door flanked by guardian deities and a crystal ball where the birdbath used to be.

These are cosmetic changes, however. In these African valleys of transplanted fruit and trees and men; the graves and buildings, museums and mountains all bear white men's names and the land is stitched together in white men's farms. The times, it seems, they ain't a-changing, much.

Copyright © 2002 Laurianne Claase. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.
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