Let’s put it this way – we haven’t seen a traffic light since leaving Cape Town. Our exploration of the Western Cape couldn’t start under better auspices: despite the forecast of rain, the sun was still shining. My first trip to South Africa included a visit to Franschoek, the chic wine valley that reminded me of Napa. The Over Berg (Over the Mountain) area, on the other hand, is sparsely populated, the wineries are small, with marketing ideas still in their infancy. Day trippers and mass tourism hasn’t made its way here yet – there are no faux antique stores or ice cream parlors or four course restaurants. This is Afrikaans back country. The few towns we encounter consist of a main street, a few stores and Dutch looking houses in neat rows. Most people only speak Afrikaans, I am sure they understand English but they can’t be bothered or else are embarrassed by their poor command of it.
We arrive by climbing the range behind Cape Town – the valleys at the base of the mountains are wide and in a myriad shades of greens. Sheep seem to have the run of the place with the occasional cow and ostrich. The first settlers must have been dismayed upon finding range after range of mountains in their long trek to what is now Zimbabwe and I wonder if the beauty of the land carried them through the hardships.
The food is homey and typical of Afrikaans communities – at the first place we stop, a cook is busy making brick shaped loaves of bread in an ancient oven. The dessert they serve on this Sunday is an unpronounceable concoction that is explained to me as a layer of cake, a layer of apricot jam topped with egg whites (am assuming meringue). On the shelves are jars of curried peaches, plums in wine, preserved grapes. I am intrigued by it all but we settle for lunch at a small winery instead where the menu is a bit more sophisticated. On the way we explore the homestead of an old lady who is renowned for her simple and delicious food – she greets us on the porch, trapped in a red corduroy one-piece dating back to 1940 no doubt. She seems baffled by our idea of wanting to eat and it is apparent we should have called ahead and warned her. Nonetheless she volunteers some sort of meatloaf with a three bean salad. When my friend Sue, in an effort not to offend her by saying we were not really after meatloaf, explains we are vegetarians, the old nana encourages us to visit the next place over where they serve fish and duck. I suppose vegetarianism is not common around here.
Only the persistence and the ingenuity of my friend could have landed us at Mardouw. There is absolutely no way anyone could happen upon this lovely retreat at the foothills of the Langerberg Mountains, it is so tucked away. We are the only guests staying here and, in this off-season, the rooms can be had for $60 apiece, which includes breakfast. Just before sunset we walk towards the mountains, startling a trio of sprinboks (they look like small and very fast deer) that saunters across our path. The sounds and chirps of unfamiliar birds waft around us. The sun is setting behind a stream of spring clouds, in this African sky that is bigger, wider and lower than any other sky I have ever seen. I believe it’s an optical illusion but anybody who has been to Africa has the same awe-inspiring experience.
I feel so far away. Even from myself.
www.mardouw.com Will resume posting as soon as I have internet again in a couple of days