This story was first published on 21 April 2016 and was updated on 5 February 2019 by Leigh Hermon.
Chris du Plessis discovers a Klein Karoo enclave with many hidden delights besides port tasting, and lets us in on the very best (and peculiar) there is to be found in Calitzdorp…
The funniest thing about Calitzdorp is Mark Banks. Deftly avoiding Prince Albert, Calitzdorp’s cuter counterpart across the Swartberg, the stand-up comic purchased a retreat in the tiny Klein Karoo town some ten years ago to find respite from the arduous task of helping South Africans retain a sense of humour. He would be the primary representative of Calitzdorp’s funny-ha-ha aspect.
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Funny-peculiar is, however, more broadly represented. For one, the vicinity harbours two examples of relic species that have made this their home for an uninterrupted span of 100 million years. One is a fish still found in the perennial streams of the Swartberg foothills around the town. The other is a so-called gymnosperm – which is not, as the term might suggest, an over-fit fertilising unit (as little as its disturbing official name, Encephalartos horridus, refers to a Latin horror flick), but rather a harmless cycad still found in secluded valleys around Calitzdorp.
Other peculiarities are more recent additions. Among the valiant bunch of souls fighting a brave battle to brighten up the somewhat dismal main road through town, a handful have managed to create two possible Guinness Records: one for the tiniest bar on Earth (seating for two persons max), and the other for the most compacted bookshop (at Lorenzo’s Italian eatery).
A visit to this tiny watering hole comes with the added advantage of being served lunch or dinner by born and bred Calitzdorper, Ockie Calitz and his partner Hennie Booyens. The route to their culinary stronghold leads through the Red Coffee Pot into a shaded courtyard of particular enchantment. What used to be a former synagogue’s inner court, is now a carefully cultivated shambles of Africana, Victorian and classic Karoo décor – complete with pumpkins to hold down the sinkplaat stoepdak. There you can order one of the local ports and wolf down anything from a hefty chunk of finely prepared eland with sweet potato chiplets, to a papadum clam filled with chicken livers, while trying to distinguish the fairy lights from the constellations above.
Later that night, as the Milky Way thickens across the broad Karoo sky, we book in at the ticket office of the old Calitzdorp train station on the outskirts of town. Renovated way past its former glory by owners Cheryl de Villiers and Michael Archer, the old ticket booth serves as the self-catering VIP suite of the new campground and backpackers lodge.
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The defunct station complex, which includes a great bar that pumps on Saturday nights, and a dollied-up warehouse doubling as a primary port-tasting stop during Calitzdorp’s famous annual winter festival, lies in the shadow of a looming sandstone ridge riddled with cavernous nooks. A family of Spotted Eagle-Owls has made this home. And it is a rare pleasure to wait on the platform for a train you know will never come, with a bottle of Boplaas port, beneath a dense carpet of stars. All this before the owls – which sound exactly like you might imagine owls to sound – hoot you to sleep. And if you must get up in the middle of the night, you can negotiate the platform on foot, or hop onto the old jigger, a hand-powered railway cart obligatory to every Western worth its salt.
Dinner and a Show
The town also has drawn a considerable contingent of extraordinary citizens. One such is Noël-Jean Creill, an Anglo-Catholic priest, who sits down at the organ of the large sandstone neo-Byzantine NG Kerk every evening at 6pm sharp to perform a repertoire of complex classical pieces.
Initially, the vision of a neatly dressed Noël-Jean in sandals, and check shirt meticulously tucked into navy blue shorts, explaining the nuances of the Italian masters’ influence on Handel, seems slightly incongruous. But any doubts are rapidly countered as the Sorbonne master class graduate gallantly works through the malleable auditory menu, nimbly hopping off his stool in between the fugues, arias and overtures to offer their historical backgrounds with unsettling aplomb. He brushes away the sheet music when playing his own brooding composition with adequate flourish.
There is no set entrance fee for this extraordinary extramural feature in a cultural landscape dominated mainly by the visual arts (an admittedly impressive line-up of well preserved Klein Karoo architecture, numerous galleries and the likes of ceramics maestro Hilton Nel as resident). Noël asks donations for his 45-minute respite from the cacophonous Friday night imbroglio ensuing around the main road bottle store a stone’s throw away. He’s not the only one of this ilk. The town seems to attract musical men of the cloth.
A few blocks up the road next to the Calitzdorp High School where he graduated, Bertus Jordaan can be found in the octagonal residence left to him by his father. He is the dominee for two NG congregations in Van Wyksdorp, an hour’s bakkie-hop across the Rooiberg Pass to the south. Bertus has two potbelly pigs making eco-friendly mush, plus an owl house, a koppie-full of klip dagga and other indigenous healing herbs, and a wall stacked with books in his living room – complete with eucalyptus flooring that he laid himself. He’s busy renovating the entire house, including the winding staircase to the loft. The 360 degree view over the town from this window and the distant Swartberg range is one of the best the hamlet has to offer.
Bertus does woodwork in his spare time, including large commissions such as the massive cellar doors that dominate the face of the nearby Calitzdorp cellars owned by a conglomerate of local farmers. But his passion is designing guitars. Seated on one of two ancient barber stools in his library/living room, he shows us the intricate inlays on a semi-acoustic prototype. The instruments are constructed from different woods that include karee and mahogany.
Friday Night Lights
On the Friday night Cheryl suggests I try a steak at the Bosvarkie. Too far to walk if you’re sober, the trip takes me a few kilometres out of town on first a cement, and then a dirt road. The owners have recreated a corner of the bushveld complete with lapa, swemgat and makeshift stage for langarm bands. I’m met with a polite smirk by barman-manager Chris de Wit when it becomes apparent I didn’t know such illustrious giants of the opskop-circuit such as Willem Welsyn, DJ Ossewa and Wynand Windpomp.
Sitting in the wood-bedecked barroom, you can sense that a few hearts have been broken there. ‘Skilpad Braai – Min Vleis, Baie Dop’ reads a sign behind the counter. As I gulp down a loopdop, co-manager Carine le Roux, and a regular customer from an adjacent farm called Stefanus ‘Baas’ Zaayman, realise they might be distant relatives.
Back in town at the Neverbetter Bar I nurse a midnightcap while a last game of pool is shared by what looks like a heavy-metal adherent with a blonde ponytail, a neat young Afrikaner in a lime green golf shirt, khaki shorts and Cats, and a bearded, shaggy-maned, rum-and-coke-wielding local called Herman whom, I’m told, never wears anything but the scarlet kikoi wrapped around his waist.
It’s a jovial joint on the motorcycle-friendly Route 62 running past the town, and pregnant with fitting biker paraphernalia, from an antique help-my-trap suspended from the ceiling, to halved scooters built into the stone counter as bar stools.
According to owner Wessel van der Walt, the Neverbetter is named in honour of a friend, James Collins, who died in a motorcycle accident on the Rooiberg Pass. “That’s what he always said when you asked him how he was,” he explains.
A Leisurely Drive
The next morning we negotiate the 50km round-trip of the Groenfontein road leading from Calitzdorp to the Red Hills – starting at the end and doubling back. Many millions of years ago, the continental drift caused massive crustal fractures such as the famous Kango Fault along the Swartberg foothills all the way to Calitzdorp. The result is a series of isolated koppies slightly reminiscent of Australia’s Uluru or the flaming rock formations of the American south. And it’s breathtaking as the surrounding Karoo horizon suddenly bubbles up into a mass of bright red outcrops peppered with molten holes and dripping overhangs.
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Further afield, the dirt road winds through the Swartberg foothills alongside clear cliff-hugging streams, past historical homesteads and classic Klein Karoo facades (even the newer buildings have all tastefully adhered to the prevalent style). We stop for a spanspek smoothie and cheese platter at ridiculously reasonable prices at the renovated Oude Poskantoor, before ending off the trip with a dip in Calitzdorp Dam. As I lie there afloat on my back in the lukewarm shallows, I experience a Spalding Gray ‘Perfect Moment’. Surrounded by quiet hills draped in a dark emerald undercover interspersed with dayglo-green spekboom bursting into the sunlight, it’s as if the countryside has been clad by a marijuana-driven Monet.
And suddenly it is clear that there’s a very sober-thinking side to Mark Banks.
6 Things to do in Calitzdorp
- Taste the best Port: Calitzdorp is known for its port before anything else. The 150-year-old Boplaas on the outskirts of town, and De Krans in the nearby Gamka River Valley (since 1890), are probably the best known award-winning port and wine (and pot-stilled brandy) estates in the area, but there are plenty of others such as Axe Hill, TTT, Withoek and the Calitzdorp Cellar. The latter is special for its location on the town’s highest point, which offers a great view over the valley and mountains beyond. Tasting daily until 17h00 and on Saturday to 12h00. 044 213 3301. A highlight in the town is the Calitzdorp Port & Wine Festival.
- Visit the Calitzdorp Museum: A restored house in Van Riebeeck Street doubles as a cultural-historical museum reflecting life in the village over the last century. Many local artefacts are on display as well as a photographic history showing how the town developed around the Dutch Reformed Church (which also contains an exhibit of wall hangings).
- Meander the Art Route: There are a number of galleries around town with illustrious names, such as ceramicist Hilton Nel, and a quick visit to Marinda Combrinck’s studio is worth it if only to see her Glamour Girls series. With Playboy Magazine’s famous Vargas-gals as inspiration, these retro-vixens are all clothed, but an equal delight to behold. 079 968 1588. Further retro-thrills are to be had just across the road at Die Handelshuis (general dealer) where anything can be bagged from tuisgemaakte appelkooskonfyt and other lekkernye to life-size wooden angels. Good place for a sundowner beer or coffee.
- Rev your engines on The Groenfontein Road: If you wish for a shorter communion with nature than a few days at the Gamkaberg Nature Reserve, take a spin on the 50km Groenfontein road. The amazing spekboom, an evergreen succulent now being eyed for export as a major natural carbo-gobbling entity, dominates the Swartberg slopes surrounding the Calitzdorp Dam – one of the finest spots for swimming, fishing or picnicking. The restored Oude Poskantoor is a choice breakfast spot. Order a cheese platter or a strawberry smoothie.
- Marvel at the Red Stone Hills: Hundreds of millions of years ago, as the surface was mauled and crushed along the Kango Fault line, rejuvenated rivers bearing sandstone and quartzite chips flowed into the basin there. Rich in an iron mineral called hematite, the sediment along the northern shore gradually emerged from its sunken perch and oxidised into a bright red tone in the heated climate.
- Hike The historical Donkey Trail: Before the road was built, this donkey trail, over the Swartberg mountains from Calitzdorp to Die Hel, was the only commercial lifeline to the outside world. It’s a moderate to strenuous 3/4 day trek beginning and ending at Hans and Erika Calitz’s farm, Living Waters, near Calitzdorp.