Blink as you head through wheat and canola fields to the foot of the Soetmuisberg and you might miss the Overberg’s captivating Napier. Meet the village people…
Words: Keri Harvey
Pictures: Keri Harvey and supplied
Napier has driven Dominee Barend Smit up the wall – and down again, dangling from a thick rope. “It’s all about passion,” says the dapper and smiling dominee, who has just started an adventure sport business. Barend preached for seven years from the pulpit of the yellow Dutch Reformed Church that is the apex of Napier, and says he will still give the odd sermon.
“But adventure also teaches life lessons,” he says. He’s pretty much exchanged his vestment for sports gear and will be taking adventure seekers mountaineering, abseiling, wall climbing, hiking and trailing around the Overberg. This was always his leisure, now he’s going to live it full-time.
The Dutch Reformed Church is, of course, in Kerk Straat in this quaint Overberg town, and looks like a giant butter sculpture, stoically pointing heavenwards. It’s said to be built in the style of a Greek cross and has a teak interior with a pipe organ of yellow copper to match its paintwork.
Napier couldn’t be more peaceful but that’s since the church was built, back in 1838. Before that, two neighbouring farmers – Michiel van Breda and Pieter Voltelyn van der Byl – waged war over where to build the local church. Both wanted the church on their own farm, and neither would back down. So a church was built on each and a town sprang up around both churches – Bredasdorp, and Napier, named for Sir George Thomas Napier, the British governor of the Cape at the time. Problem solved.
Even today, almost everything in Napier happens in the shadow of the yellow church, and down the main street called Sarel Cilliers. It really is the jugular of the town.
If you’re looking for something tasty to eat or interesting people to meet, a vintage place to sleep, or where to buy that special chess set or working miniature steam engine, just keep going along this runway-wide road.
Sarel Cilliers Street is lined with century-old homes, many with brookie lace edging their deep verandas, and rainbows of flowers in their gardens. Set further back are more modern homes along steep streets of patchwork tar and gravel, and in between are newly planted vineyards along with horses picking at bales of dry lucerne. It’s a medley of country village and countryside right in the town, with barefoot children playing in the street and townsfolk stopping to chat on the pavement. Here everybody knows everybody.
“The diversity of people in Napier astounds me,” continues Barend, whose rugged good looks suit his outdoor exploits. “Living in Napier are people from Norway, Zimbabwe, the UK, all over – it’s not just a gathering of South Africans wanting to live slower lives.”
Lorna Young, who owns Peace Valley Luxury B&B and Guest House, is from Ireland, for instance. She welcomes us to stay with a fusion of warm-hearted Irish-South African hospitality and says the first time she saw Napier, about ten years ago, she wanted to live here. So she immediately started making plans to do just that. She agrees, this town is about the people. “They’re interesting and kind and generous.”
Marlene Fourie was born in Napier more than 70 years ago and says that’s precisely the reason she loves it here and still lives in Napier. “It’s a ken-mekaar-dorp [know-each-other-town],” she says, “and I love the quiet here too. What’s nicer than waking to a cock crowing in the morning and you’re not even on a farm.” Marlene still works every day at Napier Farm Stall, making delectable fresh bread, quiche and pies for visitors (do try her bran muffins). She clearly remembers growing up in Napier. “Everyone was the same. Apartheid never came to Napier. It was wonderful.”
Ilse Vos owns Napier Farmstall, and is just back from a yoga class. She joins Marlene for a cup of tea on the shop veranda and says the sense of community struck her when she first moved to Napier from Cape Town 17 years ago.
“Napierians are an eclectic bunch. They are stalwarts and they watch each other’s back,” says Ilse. “I wanted to live in the countryside for the quiet and peaceful lifestyle it offers, but I didn’t actually come to Napier for any particular reason. It really happened by default. Napier found me.”
And it found Kevin Doveton’s wife, too. “One holiday the wind was blowing so hard at our home in Pringle Bay, my wife and I took a drive up the coast, and when we drove into Napier she said, ‘This is a place I could live in.’ Four months later we were here.” Wisely, Kevin adds, “You can’t ask your wife to live somewhere she doesn’t want to be. Your life will be miserable forever. So we moved to Napier.” That was more than 20 years ago.
Just off the main street that is without a single robot, you’ll find Kevin in his chaotic workshop crafting miniature steam engines that run on methylated spirits. He’s known across the globe for these magnificent handmade replica steam engines, which are sought after by collectors and enthusiasts. Kevin has even created the tools necessary to build these miniature beauties. “My life is simply about engines,” he says, blue eyes twinkling under heavy brows. “Any engines. I love them all.”
Kevin makes three different models of steam engine – a horizontal steam engine that was previously used to power factories and generate electricity, a Stirling hot-air engine that used to pump water, and a vertical steam engine for general purpose work. These gleaming little engines take quite some time to create and Kevin jokes that he could earn more chopping wood.
Further down the main street at Napier All Sorts, Leon Visser is also in his workshop – underground. A major in his previous life, he’s a military man on the outside, and a little eccentric on the inside. His private military museum in his basement is a dishevelled collection of memorabilia from World War I and II and the Anglo-Boer War and, in the corner, he sits in his little workshop and crafts military chess sets by hand. Yes, if you can think of a battle or a war, Leon has likely made a chess set to match – more than 200 sets to date, from the American Civil War to Robin Hood. “It keeps me out of trouble,” says Leon. And of course, lovers of the unusual snap up his one-off chess sets.
A few doors down from Leon is Leona Giliomee, a relative newcomer to town – just three years ago she was an interior decorator and an artist in Cape Town longing for rural life. She’s another living example of what Barend Smit calls “the atmosphere of restoration” because so many people here create new things out of old. Metal becomes
a steam engine or chess set and people refurbish anything from old buildings to furniture.
Napier Nostalgia – home and work to Leona – is behind a door marked with a heart of red roses. She’s not even open today, but welcomes us in, offers us coffee and apologises that there isn’t freshly baked cake. But cake is not on our minds as we enter this whimsical world of vintage glamour, with antique dresses and handbags as wall decor, and tables holding clusters of beautiful treasures Leona has collected.
In between running her vintage-style guest house and shop, Leona holds creative art workshops and fashions one-off mosaic memory pieces from trinkets or shards of tiles dug from dumpsites. Her creations are flamboyant and unique – vases and urns encrusted with life stories told through mosaic. “Recycling with drama is what I call it,” she says with flair. “I like giving new life to old things.”
Many others in Napier feel much the same, and all have crafted unique and unusual lives fuelled by passion. An inspiration are the townsfolk, and a lesson in authentic living.
Must-sees in the Village
- Patatfees (Sweet Potato Festival)
- Voet van Africa Marathon
- Giant sundial at the municipal offices in Nu-Mark Street
- Ox Wagon Monument in Sarel Cilliers Street to commemorate the Groot Trek of 1838.