The village that just feels right – Tucked away in a secluded branch of the Breede River Valley, McGregor has a reputation for attracting eccentrics – or are they just people who rejoice in their uniqueness?
Words and pictures: Marion Whitehead
McGregor has a strange effect on some people. Take the eminent Irish poet Richard Murphy, who visited this sleepy village on a dead-end road beneath the mighty Riviersonderend Mountains just once, and decided to donate his extensive library of books to it.
Marvelling at the collection housed in a cosy room at Tebaldi’s restaurant at Temenos Retreat in the town, I notice that the elderly couple at the next table are paying tribute to the poet in their own fashion. Their second course is the same as their first – Irish coffees. Their wire-hair brak sits up expectantly as each round is delivered, and then settles down to bask in the rich ambience created by old books, a warm fire in the hearth and deep conversation.
Eccentric? Well, they’re not the only people in the village who don’t mind being a little different. It’s easy to meet more at the tiny Saturday morning market across the road from the tall NGK church, where silversmith Karien van der Walt’s cooking has happily gone to the dogs: her real-meat Brakkie Happies have an appreciative following and she’s sold out even before Corli van Wyk’s artisan breads fly into shopping baskets.
At Lion House Studio and Gallery, the unsigned pastel landscapes on the wall are attributed to one Dudley van Zyl. “He’s a tramp we once met,” remarks artist Jo Nowicki, “but they’re by Mike Kampstra, the guy I live with.” Her own delicate pen-and-wash drawings and watercolours indicate a person whose perceptions are not run of the mill.
Then there’s the Noddy Bus. In a previous incarnation, it was an Isuzu bakkie. Then Awie Page had a light-bulb moment and it morphed into the town’s most unusual tourist attraction: a plywood box on wheels with benches on the back for passengers. “My pa’s a man with many things on his mind,” explains son Abe as he drives visitors around in the contraption. “It took us just three days to build as he had it all planned.”
Saturday evening is show time at Wahnfried, a home theatre in the double-volume entrance room of a Moroccan-style home, itself an oddity in a village peppered with Victorian and Edwardian architectural beauties. “It’s not very McGregor,” apologises co-owner Michael Mackenzie. “It was built by an American.” Lounging in comfortable swivel chairs with friends, you could watch Puss in Boots, opera or art house movies in high definition on a huge screen, or a musical performance on the baby grand on a small stage with a backdrop of vineyards through the window.
“In McGregor, there’s space for everyone to be themselves, regardless of who they are or where they’re from,” says tourism marketing dynamo Mira Weiner, who is passionate about the village where she grew up and now runs McGregor Country Getaways. “The village has a very special energy and people here are very accepting.”
Artists like painter Edna Fourie and potter Paul de Jongh escaped the bright lights of Cape Town to focus on their creativity without distraction. They chose McGregor because it just felt right to them. It’s a theme that comes up in conversations all the time. Lorraine Piers of African Queen Studio left behind city life to bring up her daughter here. She also started a creative business that’s trained and provided jobs for four local women, sewing kaftans and making chandeliers out of jacaranda seed pods that were a hit at Design Indaba.
Robert and Anette Rosenbach came all the way from Germany and bought Tanagra, a rundown farm next to the Vrolijkheid Nature Reserve, where they make wine and distil grappa from the fruits of the valley – the distinctive smell of lemons hangs in the air when I visit, as the clear 85 per cent-proof alcohol trickles into a stainless steel bucket. “It started as a hobby,” says Robert, “but you need more than YouTube to get it right.”
Fortunately his mentor and good friend is a master distiller in Germany. Corrie and Annelien van der Colff were visiting the village when an estate agent tried to sell them some property. Corrie jokingly replied that if he had a farmhouse with a Cape Dutch gable within two kilometres of the village, they’d take it. Twenty-five years later, they’re still firmly rooted at Rhebokskraal Olive Estate. “When I walked through the gates, I realised I’d seen this place before in a dream,” says Annelien, who has created an extensive range of olive products, which you can taste at her Villagers farm stall in the main road. A fine arts graduate, she also holds spontaneous art classes and offers tours of their farm, and cooking classes.
Jill Hogan is an earthy soul who has transformed clay, straw and sand into a large, rambling home. One of the pioneers in the revival of cob-building methods in South Africa, she’s shared her out-the-box thinking with many on courses at her McGregor Alternative Technology Centre where she has helped scores of people to repair their traditional homes using the same natural materials from which they were originally built. “It’s very exciting to develop alternatives,” says Jill. “Our cities have peaked and we’ve got to find new ways of living sustainably.”
The beauty of the Riviersonderend foothills surrounding McGregor inspires many residents to take a stroll on the hiking trails around it, as part of their daily routine. I join Mary Corpe, a former London dancer, and her schnauzers, on their morning walk through Krans Nature Reserve and get a new perspective of the village, its humble skyline of trees and thatched roofs dominated by the tall spire of the Dutch Reformed Church.
Later I bump into two acquaintances from Cape Town who have walked the 14-kilometre Boesmanskloof trail over the Riviersonderend Mountains from Greyton and overnighted at the local backpackers. I don’t have enough time to walk the return trip with them as far as the beautiful waterfall and pools, Oakes Falls, so instead set off to explore Vrolijkheid Nature Reserve outside the village.
I’m waylaid by a quirky sign beside the road declaring ‘Eat Bray Love’ and discover the Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary. Annemarie van Zijl and her psychologist hubby Johan started this retirement home for asses by default in 2002 when they rescued two depressed donkeys, Vaal and Japie, from a life of unremitting drudgery at a brickworks. Now they have 20 donkeys needing special care and another seven in foster homes.
“I have a horsey background, but now I’ve upgraded to donkeys,” grins Annemarie. It’s a very child-friendly spot to visit and many troubled folk find they benefit from the donkeys’ calm acceptance.
At Vrolijkheid Nature Reserve, I find hardy mountain bikers are the only ones venturing beyond the shady picnic area on a lazy Sunday afternoon as there’s a great eight-kilometre MTB route. But the Heron Trail lures me into veld dominated by succulents, some with tiny bright flowers. It’s an easy three-kilometre walk to the bird hides on two dams, and interpretation boards along the way offer interesting insights into fauna and flora.
Back in the village, people are putting up posters for the annual poetry festival, when creativity brims over into performances, workshops and readings at coffee shops, art galleries, pubs and obscure kitchens. “The whole village comes alive,” explains Mira. “People hang their favourite lines of poetry in the trees lining the roads.”
No wonder Irish poet Richard Murphy felt an affinity for the individuals living here.
- Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary: 023 625 1593
- McGregor Art Route includes African Queen (023 625 1843)
- Lion House Studio & Gallery (023 625 1688), Edna Fourie Gallery (083 302 5538) and Millstone Pottery (023 625 1599), www.artroutemcgregor.co.za
- Wahnfried Cultural Salon 072 601 1616
- Olive tasting at Villagers Arts and Crafts 023 625 1787
- Olive tours at Rhebokskraal 082 896 0429
- Wine and grappa tasting at Tanagra 023 625 1780
- Garden tours at Temenos 023 625 1871
- Hiking, picnicking, birding and mountain biking at Vrolijkheid Nature Reserve, and Boesmanskloof Hiking Trail. Cape Nature 023 625 1621
- McGregor Alternative Technology Centre for workshops and advice on natural building. 023 625 1533
Where to Eat
- Karoux, off a courtyard in what passes for a mall in McGregor, is a real treat, with innovative and creative seasonal cuisine from well-travelled chefs Ryan Josten and Aimée van Hecke. 023 625 1421 or 084 924 3324,
- Tebaldi’s Restaurant at Temenos offers a wide range of dishes in a congenial atmosphere. 023 625 1115
- The coffee shop at Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary makes scrumptious breakfasts and light meals. 023 625 1593
Where to Stay
- Temenos Retreat’s cosy cottages with kitchenettes have a tranquil garden setting. 023 625 1871, [email protected]
- Rhebokskraal Olive Estate’s two rustic self-catering farm cottages are beside groves of olive trees. 023 625 1951, [email protected]
- McGregor Country Getaways offers a variety of guest houses and holiday homes for rent, and info on attractions in the Breede River Valley. 076 411 9477, [email protected]
- Nearly everyone in McGregor grows a few olives trees and grape vines in their garden. And the better the view, the more you pay for properties, says Shaun King of Chas Everett. “This used to be a weekend village, but now it’s more residential.” Buyers are pretty evenly split between South Africa and overseas countries like Holland and Britain. He says small plots of 500m² start at about R220 000, while those of 2 000m² can fetch R900 000. For the average house with two to four bedrooms on 1 000m², expect to pay anything from R1.2 million to R2.7 million.
- Farms start at about R6 million in this fertile valley and smallholdings are scarce. Corrie van der Colff of Villagers Properties has a 49ha property on the Boesmanskloof road with a two-bedroom house on his books going for R1,9 million. Communal shares in a small development on his family’s land, bordering a nature reserve in the foothills of the Riviersonderend Mountains, range from R100 000 to R1,75 million. “It’s a place where it’s always Sunday,” he says with a smile.