Uniondale, deep in the Kammanassie Mountains of the Western Cape, is so much more than a couple of spooky roadside legends rattling around in the night.
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First stop: The mechanic
Our venerable Karoo Space bakkie nearly gave up the ghost exactly 20kms north of Uniondale, when the gears seemed to suddenly freeze up in terror.
Laden with the dust of four weeks on the road, many bottles of padstal preserves jigging away at the back and a grave sense of financial trepidation, we limped into Uniondale to our lodgings at the Ou Werf Guest House.
New owners Michael and Antoinette Müller were sympathetic to our woes. Antoinette brought us a jug of iced water and Michael guided me off to the Uniondale Petrol & Diesel (also trading as The Cracklin’ Rosie Restaurant) workshop where mechanic Lood Eksteen diagnosed the problem as a clutch plate issue. “It will take a day or so to get the part and do the labour,” he said. “In the meantime, you’re welcome to use my bakkie.”
That would be the first of four vehicle offers to come our way from friendly Uniondale. Maybe that’s one of the signs of a Karoo town’s true soul, I later suggested to Jules. “Because, you know, a bloke’s wheels are precious commodities,” I said. “Not to be lent out willy-nilly.” But we decided instead to hoof it around Uniondale, get a sense of the village and let Lood & Co mend the ailing Isuzu.
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The first thing I felt as we left Ou Werf and strolled down the main drag in the direction of The Hungry Ghost restaurant, was a flashback to the American autumn of 1981. Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, to be precise. Part of a long-ago journey in another life.
I looked up and saw a graceful row of very tall palm trees. I almost expected Jack Nicholson and Nick Nolte to be hanging out on the corner, shooting the breeze. Almost, but not quite.
“Little known fact,” I mused to Jules. “The palm trees of LA are old and beset by South American weevils. But these ones mostly look in fine fettle, don’t they?” Never mind the fact that Uniondale’s 25 palm trees don’t quite stack up to LA’s 75 000-odd palm trees. Yay, Karoo.
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We came upon a typically platteland hybrid of a shop, where you could buy all kinds of stuff, get a micro-loan, and visit an impressive model-car museum one floor down. I spied a little diorama of a couple of mechanics working on an old vehicle and had anxious thoughts of my bakkie in the workshop down the road, with its innards strewn on the floor.
That night we met up with Rico Claassen of Uniondale Tourism over a huge plate of snacks at Ou Werf, with Michael serenading us on his guitar. A glass of red wine later we were both jamming and yodelling into the dark night. Yay, Karoo.
The next morning Jules and I waited at Palm Tree #1 of the newly-dubbed Son of Hollywood Boulevard for the arrival of Dirkie Coetzee and his trusty tuk-tuk. I wasn’t expecting much more than an arbitrary ride around town on a pimped-up lawnmower. However, this turned out to be the surprise package of our Uniondale experience.
A tour in a tuk-tuk
Bang on 7am, Dirkie puttered to a halt next to us and so began a fascinating two-hour trip made wonderful by our guide’s quirky sense of humour. His big yellow tuk-tuk can take six skinny people if you pack them right, but he normally limits the ride to four passengers so they can sit comfortably.
He chugged up the hill past the Moederkerk to the Anglo-Boer War fort from where the Khakis used to scan the higgledy-piggledy mountainscape for signs of Jannie Smuts, Denys Reitz and their very rough riders.
En route, we stopped at the town cemetery where the old graves stood. Nudged up against them were rows of more contemporary graves lovingly graced with flower-filled two-litre Coke bottles. We’d never seen such distinctive grave decorations before.
At the old stone fort, Dirkie unpacked a brief history of Uniondale. From here, we could see the village, cupped in the hands of the Kouga and Kammanassie Mountains. North lay sheep-farming country. To the south lived the apple farmers.
We remarked on the well-preserved old buildings in Uniondale and learned that the late great author Dalene Matthee had led the local restoration effort. “At the time, some people thought she was being a bit of a pest,” said Dirkie. “But today those same people bless what she did for the town.”
He gave us each a mug of coffee and a couple of rusks. Mmm. Turns out Dirkie and his wife Thea, in true country tradition, have a number of income streams and one of them is a little bakery, which forces them to rise at three every morning. We’re quite well known for our little milk tarts,” he told us modestly. “Some of the people in town are mildly addicted to them.”
So, upon our insistence, we made our way to the family shop via the row of nagmaalhuisies (Karoo-style cottages once built as in-town accommodation for outlying farmers), the disused soda factory, the old water mill that Ms Matthee restored, the erstwhile synagogue where a Russian lady was busy with a yoga class and the absolutely gorgeous Anglican church, the oldest place of worship in Uniondale.
The shop is called Die Skoonheidsentrum – the Beauty Centre. It’s an intriguing mix of home industry, pharmacy and stationery offerings with a selection of rather handsome used coats imported in bales from Europe. Walking around the shop, Jules noted the irony of all the sweetness for sale, right next to the various liver tonics and antacids on offer. I took note of a sign below a plate of the famous Coetzee melktertjies, ‘Cake doesn’t ask silly questions. Cake understands’.
I’ll say it again. Yay, Karoo.
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Finding art in Uniondale
We went off to find Rico Claassen and discovered that his office is also a rather grand little theatre where The Vagina Monologues was once performed to a full house, no fewer than three nights running. With matinees, nogal. These days Rico and his 18-year-old daughter Carla sometimes play there as a duo. She sings, he tickles the ivories.
Rico loaded us into his little Corsa bakkie and off we went on a winding road into the Kammanassies for an afternoon of inspiration. The first stop was Kannabos, where Allana Willox Fourie builds with straw bale, grows succulents, and paints when in Cape Town or somewhere exotic, while working on a movie set with her husband Pierre.
She grows plants like the calming Sceletium tortuosum (kannabos) and then paints them. Allana brewed us coffee while Spanish guitar music flooded the gallery space, along with the fresh, clear light of a sunny day in the mountains.
We spoke of the sets she had built on movies like Judge Dredd 3D, The Mummy and The Dark Tower, and her artistic life at home. “I love the daily challenge of the weather and the mountains – it’s always dramatic,” she said. “There are fewer distractions out here and I can be more creative.”
About 20 minutes away by Corsa bakkie lives Sheena Ridley the sculptor. She works in the unforgiving medium of ferro cement and her hands are powerful. Sheena bends the steel of the armature (skeleton), welds the covering mesh and adds layers of fibrous ferro cement, constantly keeping the sculpture wet so it becomes stronger.
“Some of these figures have lasted for decades,” she said. “However, the girl-sculpture at the gate, her name is Joy, once fell over and broke her arm. She was very easy to fix.”
We enjoyed a delicious fresh-picked salad lunch with Sheena, had a last lingering stroll around her sculpture garden and, as we were about to leave, she gave Jules a sachet of lavender. It was the kind of gesture that makes for a fond memory.
Meeting a hero
The following day was all about my personal indulgence – a passionate love of steam trains and supernatural tales. In doing prep work for our visit to Uniondale, I had discovered that one of my photographer-heroes actually lived here. His name is Allen Jorgensen and he co-produced (with Charlie Lewis) a classic coffee table book entitled The Great Steam Trek (Littlehampton).
I own two copies of this book, and had brought them along in the hope of an author’s signature. I received much more: an afternoon of Allen Jorgensen and his memories of life along the rail reserve, complete with cameras, comrades and a Combi.
Sharing ghost stories
Finally, let’s speak briefly of the ghosts and the ghouls of Uniondale. Rico told us about The White Lady ghost aka The Hitchhiker ghost of the nearby Barandas Road. The most famous local ghost, said to haunt the Uniondale-Willowmore road. Some call her The Lady of the Karoo.
This is followed by the legend of the Klein Karoo Water Maiden, distantly related to the one that haunts Meiringspoort. Then there’s the tale of the Weather Bird, which flies in overcast conditions and kicks you in the back as it passes. Also the Baboon Rider, a scary dude that leaps up through ceilings and makes rattling noises on your roof.
I, in turn, told Rico about the nearby Steytlerville Shape Shifter who goes by the local name of Bawokozi – Xhosa for ‘brother-in-law’. He can change from being a man in a business suit to a farmyard pig to a fruit bat in a matter of seconds.
This stuff can make you crazy, we both agreed, in a most delightful, spine-tingling way.
Words and Photography Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. www.karoospace.co.za