For that matter, the Cederberg town of Clanwilliam could just as well be Rieldans Central, Rock-climbing Central and a whole lot more…
Words: Ron Swilling
Pictures: Ron Swilling and Rooibos Ltd
“Clanwilliam is famous for its architecture and rock art,” Esther Steens of Clanwilliam Tourism informed me when I walk into the historic tourism building on the corner, where the main road veers towards Clanwilliam Dam. “And rooibos and flowers,” she chirped, while adding some of its other merits. “It’s close to the mountains and the sea and has everything everyone else has – including olives, citrus and grapes.”
In 2014, as Clanwilliam celebrated its bicentennial, I was expecting to see some of the century-old buildings and to brush up on my rooibos knowledge, but I was in for a treat of local culture. My timing was spot on – I had arrived in time for a riel dancing fundraiser. Die Nuwe Graskoue Trappers from nearby Wuppertal had recently made it to the finals of the South African Championships of Performing Arts and were raising funds to participate in the world championship in Los Angeles.
I would be missing Clanwilliam’s Skaapkopete (a feast of roasted heads of sheep, a local delicacy), and the popular annual flower show in the spring, but I was not going to miss the riel dancing, a dance with Khoisan roots and some really nifty footwork. Usually danced in the dust, it’s described by the expression ‘dans dat die stof so staan’ – loosely translated as ‘dance until the dust flies’.
I managed to catch the youngsters at the showground, where the aroma of boerewors rolls, and roosterkoek with grilled snoek and hot chips was wafting over the field. I asked Litichia van Rooy where she had learned the dance. “It’s in your blood,” she replied, before excitedly dashing off to join the rest of the performers.
There was no dust on the stage, but the red vellies of Die Nuwe Graskoue Trappers whizzed and whistled in the wind in the lively celebration of Nama culture. A few modern additions such as Riel Tap and gumboot dancing had been introduced by organiser Floris Smith, and added to the display of fine footwork. Floris had recognised the extraordinary ability of the dancers and fitted them with tap shoes, and the results were sensational. “We are taking Riel Tap to the US,” Floris told the appreciative audience before several of the boys blew those last dust motes right off the stage.
“It’s only the name that’s 200 years old, not the town,” Hotto Marais, curator of Clanwilliam Museum told me as I walked out of the hot sun into the cool interior. “The town started in 1808.” It was originally named after an early settler and was called Jan Disselsvalleij. “In 1814,” he continued, “Sir John Cradock, governor of the Cape, changed the name to Clanwilliam in honour of his father-in-law, the Earl of Clanwilliam.”
The museum is housed in the old jail at the end of the main street, positioned like a large boulder thwarting a flowing river that is forced to deviate on either side. Besides old implements and ox wagons, the history of rooibos tea and the cedar trees that once forested the area, the museum also pays tribute, as does the town, to Clanwilliam celebrities C. Louis Leipoldt – “Poet, medical doctor and a good cook as well,” Hotto told me with a sparkle in his eye – well-known South African comedian, Tolla van der Merwe, and Dr Peter le Fras Nortier, a local medical doctor and amateur botanist who learned how to germinate rooibos seeds and who helped develop cultivation methods to grow rooibos on a large scale. Their names appear in the names of streets – Leipoldt Street, Nortier Street – a shopping arcade called Tolla se Sentrum, and even the Leipoldt-Nortier Library.
Whatever you do, you can’t escape rooibos in this small town, with its single main road, convenient for those like me whose compass spins in strange directions. It has been known as Rooibos Central for its position in the heart of the rooibos belt, the 150km belt in the Cederberg where this fynbos species thrives. Favouring the sandy soil, extreme temperatures and minimal rainfall that would scare away flora of a lesser mettle, the hardy plant has adapted over time with its needle-like leaves and long tap root.
“Like with people, hardship builds character. It’s the same with rooibos,” Marijke Ehlers from Rooibos Ltd told me. The Clanwilliam Tea Co-operative was established in 1948 and in 1954 the Rooibos Tea Control Board was appointed by the minister of agriculture, at the request of the co-operative, to regulate marketing, stabilise prices and improve quality. The board was privatised in 1993, becoming Rooibos Ltd, responding to progress in the industry and the popularity of the tea, locally and abroad. Rooibos Limited now operates a massive processing plant for more than 200 producers, with a series of stringent quality controls to ensure a superior South African product.
Sisters Sanet Stander and Marietjie Smit took rooibos – and Clanwilliam – to a new level when they added a Rooibos Teahouse to their haberdashery shop in Voortrekker Street. “To give people more of an experience than buying tea in a shop,” said Sanet, as we sat on the stoep of the old house, with its attractive selection of old furniture, colourful cushions and tea cosies, and enjoyed a rooibos tea tasting with a view of the Cederberg mountains.
In the garden, customers enjoyed pots of tea and carrot cupcakes smothered in decadent icing. The teahouse represents ten local companies and has a selection of a hundred flavours, which they have classified into seven groups including natural tea, green unfermented tea, flower tea like cranberry, herbal tea like buchu and hoodia, spicy and sweet tea. Their slogan is ‘taste, drink, buy, enjoy’. I made my selection from the many small bottles placed in front of me and watched the different varieties draw in the glass teapot, tinting the water with their rich golden hues.
The town is also the meeting place, the Mecca actually, for boulderers from around the world, those ‘crazy’ rock climbers who gather in the area – particularly at Rocklands on the Pakhuis Pass – to negotiate the craggy Cederberg rock formations without ropes and safety harnesses.
I wasn’t going to test my fear of heights so I explored the pass, a meandering road that crosses the Jan Dissels River from the town, and snakes into the mountains. The first 40km of road was tarred several years ago, making many fascinating destinations accessible to travellers in sedan vehicles, before it continues as gravel into Wuppertal. Satiated with rooibos tea and history,
I ventured onto the pass to visit Leipoldt’s grave, have a bite to eat at Traveller’s Rest and walk their Sevilla trail, a two-and-a-half hour meander with nine overhangs alive with Bushman paintings. As Marijke had astutely acknowledged, “The Cederberg is so much part of Clanwilliam’s character.” Her words rang in my ears as I drove back towards town and watched the low sun turn the sandstone rocks golden and then red.
Just before I left town I paid a visit to one of the oldest shoe factories in the country. “Do you know it has been in
the family for four generations?” Hennie du Plessis asked me, as I walked out of the factory after speaking to his son JJ, with a new pair of Funky Boots under my arm.
Strassbergers has its origins in Wuppertal, where a velskoen factory was established in 1834 by Johan Gotlieb Leipoldt. Reverend Willy Strassberger, a German missionary, took charge in 1904 and developed the business with the help of German shoemaker and tanner, Konrad Buttner. Willy’s three sons founded the company in its present form in 1941, calling it Gebroeders Strassberger (Pty) Ltd, and the oldest son, Heinie, moved the factory to Clanwilliam in the 1950s. His son-in-law, Hennie, ran the company for thirty years before JJ took over the reins.
It was time to leave Clanwilliam, although I had a strong feeling that the Pakhuis Pass would call me back, as would the town, where I could sip and splurge on rooibos, and partake in the lively festivals that keep locals busy throughout the year. “What do you have in Clanwilliam?” I had asked Marijke Ehlers about the town, when I arrived. “What don’t we have?” she’d replied.
Where to Play
- Watersports at Clanwilliam Dam (depending on the water level) for those with boats and jet skis. 027 482 2024
- Walk the Sevilla Trail from Traveller’s Rest to see the Bushman paintings (allow 2½-3 hours for this 5km ramble). 027 482 1824, www.travellersrest.co.za
- Bouldering at Rocklands on the Pakhuis Pass. 027 482 2024
- Try tasty rooibos teas at a tea-tasting at the Rooibos Teahouse. 027 482 1007, www.rooibosteahouse.co.za
- Take a walk into Clanwilliam’s past at the museum. 027 482 2024
- Visit the Strassbergers shoe factory. 027 482 1439 www.strassbergers.co.za
- Go on a historical walkabout through the town with Stephanie Murray. 084 870 0001
- Explore the Pakhuis Pass (Afrikaans for ‘packing shed’ or ‘warehouse’) and visit the grave of C. Louis Leipoldt.
- See the wildflowers at Ramskop Nature Reserve at Clanwilliam Dam, especially colourful in flower season. 027 482 2024
- Enjoy a rooibos excursion on the Rooibos Route, which includes farm stays and restaurants that specialise in rooibos-enhanced cuisine. 027 482 1007, www.rooibos-route.co.za
Where to Eat
- The Dam Bistro is a family restaurant offering pizza, pasta and more. A jungle gym keeps kids entertained. 027 482 2896
- Nancy’s Tearoom for light meals. Eat indoors or outside in the courtyard. 027 482 2661
- Yellow Aloe Coffee Shop offers a charming garden setting for light meals. 027 482 2018
- Traveller’s Rest on the Pakhuis Pass is an appealing setting for a light meal. 027 482 1824
- Reinhold’s Restaurant offers more upmarket cuisine. 027 482 2163
- De Kelder Great has local pub fare. 027 482 1037
- Velskoendraai Padstal offers farm breakfast and lunches, including pies and tripe. 078 364 8785