It’s the country’s top paragliding venue, is Porterville, and nirvana for nature lovers and those looking for the unexpected…
Words: Keri Harvey
Pictures: Keri Harvey, Janine Carstens and Nathalie Wagenstroom
Fourteen years ago, Bradley Meyer learned to paraglide in Porterville and has lived in this area of the Swartland ever since. “This is the one of the greatest paragliding spots,” he says with clear passion, “Actually the best in the country. Here we are just out of commercial air space, so we don’t have a lot of restrictions but still get daily clearance to fly from a nearby military base.”
Bradley wears two hats – paragliding and tourism – and explains that what makes the paragliding so spectacular are the thermals created by the extreme summer heat, which can reach 45 degrees in the shade. Plus there are excellent launch sites and an 80km-long mountain ridge to fly alongside, or you can go for a record-breaking 242km, as did a South African hang-glider pilot last year.
As chairman of Porterville Tourism, Bradley says the town of 10 000 residents is already well-known abroad among the gliding fraternity. He says that from mid-October to mid-April about 350 foreign pilots visit Porterville, plus there are the local pilots. And then there are the tourists looking for somewhere a little different. Because there’s a lot to see and do in and around town, even if you don’t fly.
Atop the Olifants River mountains that overlook the village is the Beaverlac Nature Reserve, ideal for camping, hiking and breathing deeply. Two rivers run through the beautiful, rugged landscape, home to Clanwilliam redfins and yellowfins (both protected fish species), where visitors can frolic in rock pools and waterfalls. Bird life is plentiful as are small antelope. The rare disa flower also grows wild here and blooms red and yellow in summer.
“And don’t forget Indie Ale,” adds Bradley with a grin. “They’re just outside town, past the table-grape vineyard.” The table grapes are actually a landmark in what seems like an endless sea of wheat. This Swartland is, after all, called the breadbasket of South Africa, one that presents itself as blonde thatch in summer and a velvety green in winter.
It’s the green season that bearded Bernard Kruger loves most in Porterville. He’s been brewing Indie Ale here for the past five years. “It all started,” he says, “when my father-in-law, who owns the property, looked at his orange trees that weren’t doing so well and said, ‘Let’s just make alcohol.’ So I went on a distilling course and started home brewing with a friend’s help.”
The distillery alongside the tasting room produces about 4 000 bottles of Indie Ale a month, all sold at 30 outlets across Cape Town and surrounding towns. The brewing is done a little unconventionally, adding local products like honey and rooibos to produce three different ales, namely 24 River Blonde, Cochoqua and of course Porter’ville Porter, all made with mountain water. This craft beer takes up to seven weeks to make, but Bernard enjoys the creativity. He’s even thinking of adding local figs to his brews.
As we drive back to town, flanked by wheat fields, we find the hilltop fig farm called Eikenhof of Hanro and Karin Knoetzen. Hanro grows export figs and Karin transforms any surplus into a range of nine delectable products – from brandied and cocktail fig preserves to jams and salad dressings, chutneys and dried-fig bites. Karin’s Figfun is part of the proposed Produce Route around Porterville, which will also include olives, honey, blueberries, pomegranates and more for tasting and buying.
Tourism officer Nathalie Wagenstroom explains that Porterville was established in 1883 and was named after Sir William Porter, then attorney-general of the Cape. Danckaert Museum in a 19th-century building shaded by old oak trees in Mark Street. It houses an intriguing collection of antique horse-drawn carts and carriages, a room showcasing health and education from yesteryear, and another depicting the lifestyle of long ago.
The permanent San rock art exhibition of paintings from the nearby Groot Winterhoek Mountains is another big attraction. Yes, rock art is prolific in the sandstone caves of the area, but one painting stands above anything else seen before: a galleon painted in red.
The rock painting was discovered on the farm Noordbron, about 100km from the sea, which suggests local people moved to the coast and back. The painted galleon, from the late 1600s, is Dutch as the flag can clearly be seen. Paintings of large yellow elephants have also been found in the area. While rock paintings of elephants are quite common, they are usually red in colour as it was more complicated to mix yellow dye.
Magrieta van Rooyen, a local storyteller, steps into the tourism office with a broad smile. “She has something interesting to tell you,” says Nathalie knowingly.
“It happened when I was 14,” says Magrieta. “I was at the Berg River to swim, and I saw a mermaid. Others I was with saw her too. She was sitting on a rock combing her long copper-coloured hair. Her skin was pure white and she was a fish from the waist down. I never saw her face, just her perfect body.” Nathalie says Magrieta is not alone as there are other townsfolk who speak of mermaids.
Native to Porterville, Nathalie believes the town really is a well-kept secret. “People from across the world pass through here and are surprised to find it. And then they just don’t want to leave. They say they like the look and feel of Porterville and there’s plenty to do. Did you know there are 22 waterfalls around the town? It requires an eight-hour hike to see them all, except the first one, but they’re there. And we have people doing interesting things in Porterville.”
Ceramicist, Ronel Bakker is one of them. “My name says it all,” she jokes, and adds, “Ten years ago I got off the corporate hamster wheel. I just wanted to sit down and paint and play with clay, surrounded by space and quietness. Sure I started at the bottom again, but I will never go back.”
Working from a farm outside town, Ronel celebrates the strength of women in her work which is usable, functional ceramic art. She supplies galleries and works on commission, but is renowned for her painted-face plates in muted colours and with dramatic eyes. “Every piece goes through my hands, and I really love my life.”
Ronel walks me through the long grass to the workshop of her neighbour Jerald Blaber, a knife-maker, Jerald had a knife shop in Durbanville and moved to Porterville after a close brush with death. “There’s the best of everything here, without the hustle of the city. I really enjoy the peace and feeling of safety,” he says, taking red-hot blades out of his furnace. Jerald crafts the knife blades from old bandsaw blades, and the handles from reclaimed wood. He also makes the leather sheaths.
Porterville is an unusual find in a magnificent setting at the foot of the Olifants River mountains. It’s tiny, with wide, tree-lined streets, neat homes and gardens, and some graciously restored Victorian houses. Among the people there is great diversity of talent for such a small town, which also has all the necessary shops and amenities for easy living. You’ll even find Rastafarian herbalists to consult if you choose. And all against a dramatically scenic mountain, that could be snow-topped in winter.
Bradley Meyer says it well, “I like Porterville because it’s small and you know just about everyone, and if you don’t you greet them anyway. I never thought I’d like a small town so much.”
Neither did I.
Where to Sleep and Eat
- There is small selection of good accommodation and places to eat in the main road, Voortrekker Street. Other accommodation options are just off the main road, and there’s camping at Beaverlac.
- Villa Cho-co-latt is an elegant B&B in a beautiful garden setting, with KoppieKofi on the premises for sumptuous breakfasts, lunches and dinners, and great pizza