Founded in 1838, Riverdale is the seat of the Hessequa Local Municipality in the southern Cape.
Despite its spectacular natural setting at the foot of the Langeberg, and proximity to the sea, the town is somewhat off the well-beaten Garden Route tourist track. But it’s a fascinating place to visit, with a welcoming, and somewhat wacky populace. Danielle McDonald, who grew up in the town, gives some insights into its wonderful characters.
1. A friendly town
Riversdale is super-friendly. When you drive into town, other drivers will always greet you, no matter how many times you drive past them! This greeting ritual applies to drivers and pedestrians alike, and the friendliness always surprises guests and out-of-towners.
2. A fairytale town
The town, also known as ‘The home of the Sleeping Beauty’ has three churches. If you look at the photo of the Dutch Reformed Church you’ll see that the time on the clocks is different. Don’t think the townsfolk haven’t noticed. No-one wants to be accused of being behind the times.
3. Find beauty in the macabre
Die Ou Tronk, a beautiful old building on the edge of town by the river, is a great place to visit. It’s owned by Louise Malherbe, whose father bought the building when the big jail in Oudtshoorn was built. They still have the execution room complete with gallows. These are not the original gallows, as Riversdale didn’t have its own. Rather travelling gallows used to come from Swellendam (where the magistrate was based) on an ox-wagon whenever someone had to be hanged. It is a replica of these travelling gallows that you see now in the room. In recent years Louise has turned the old building into a beautiful coffee shop/café. You can sit under the trees in the jail courtyard and enjoy her famous carrot cake.
4. Get a buzz on
Andries Grootlieg (he tends to exaggerate a lot, hence the name) from nearby Vermaaklikheid makes a drink called Karie from the honeycombs of young bees. According to Andries, his Karie, which you can sample in his tasting room (next to the post office) in Vermaaklikheid, has an 80 per cent alcohol content, but that’s probably not quite true. He also swears by drinking a cup of Karie a day for health reasons. “But just one cup. As jy meer drink dan val jy om (If you drink more you fall over).”
5. A famous visitor
It is rumoured that Princess Diana was in Vermaaklikheid for a few days when she visited South Africa. The family of Josey Borain (who used to be married to Princess Diana’s brother) has a farm there, so the story could be true. Andries Grootlieg and his wife don’t agree on whether Princess Diana actually spent time in Vermaaklikheid though. Andries swears that he saw her with his own two eyes but his wife says she was never there.
6. Oom Frikkie’s watermelons
Then there was Oom Frikkie who lived in Langstraat, the oldest street in town. He used to have a big watermelon garden in front of his house and the local kids kept stealing his fruit. One day he decided to put up a sign that said ‘1 van hierdie waatlemoene het gif in’. The next morning someone scratched out the 1 and replaced it with a 2. That left Oom Frikkie with a very questionable watermelon harvest!
7. The centre of medical research
Oom Frikkie was the neighbour of Hannes van Wyk (Danielle McDonald’s grandfather, widely known as Hannes Vark). Hannes used to go to the Sleeping Beauty mountains to catch baboons for Chris Barnard’s heart-transplant research, which led to the first successful heart transplant. He once tranquilised a male baboon and put him in bed with his wife while she was sleeping. As you can imagine, the poor woman almost had a heart attack when she woke up next to the beast. That would have been ironic.
8. The town’s big cheese
Thirty kilometres outside Riversdale is the Kasselshoop family farm, where traditional, handcrafted cheese is produced. In the early days of their cheese making, co-owner Kassie Kasselman, an ex-rugby player, doubled as the cheese press. Guests can watch a short digital presentation explaining how Cheddar and Gouda are produced from the milk of the farm’s Jersey cows, and enjoy a cheese and wine (or cheese and beer) pairing in the Old School building.
9. Making history
The most southerly skirmish in the Anglo-Boer War took place just outside Riversdale on the Still Bay road on 12 September 1901. A century later a monument was set up at the exact place, on the Klein Soebattersvlakte farm, where the battle took place. It was a resounding Boer victory with the Brits recording severe losses at a cost of only two injuries to the Boers.
Words Fiona McIntosh
Photography Fiona McIntosh and Danielle McDonald