In this curious village there are artists and entrepreneurs, philosophers and poets, the Baboon Boy and more than enough local flavours. Many also believe it’s the centre of the universe
Words Giselle Hazell Pictures Giselle Hazell and MVD Nouweland
Accorrding to locals, Bathurst in the Eastern Cape is the undiscovered astrophysical hub of…well everything. While Galileo has had us all confused for some time now, the truth is that the universe revolves around a giant pineapple, that ley lines stabilise orbital drift and that fairies roam along the streets.
It can be reasonably argued (depending on how many beers have been consumed at The Pig) that Bathurst is not the centre of the universe, but it is certainly a village born on the banks of a great divide. The Great Fish River held back the spearhead of a giant isiXhosa nation, which to the colonising powers at the time represented a terrifying notion. The burgeoning Cape Colony needed room for expansion and this land was there for the taking.
The Xhosa, a pastoralist people already under pressure from the militant Zulus to the east, and with increasing growth in their own ranks, was moving into what was then a grazing area for their cattle. In order to lay claim to the region, the British proposed a buffer zone, but were engaged in military campaigns throughout their other colonies and could not financially support this tactical advantage.
But they devised a scheme in which they would grant land to all and merry, who would work it. So long as the new landowners checked the advance of the Xhosas. Insert four thousand 1820 Settlers and the stage is set for a sad and brutal conflict that became Africa’s Hundred Years War. With certain poverty at their backs should they return to England, the Settlers had no choice but to remain. In turn, with territorial conflicts mounting, the isiXhosa had no choice but to move forward. And so history dealt these two peoples a cruel, uncompromising hand.
Settler party leader Henry Hare Dugmore wrote, ‘The Frontier country of the 1820 Settler was a harsh land, beautiful in rainy seasons but heartbreaking in drought, and this was where the Settlers had to take root and grow, or die where they stood.’ In true British fashion, one of the first buildings erected in Bathurst was a drinking hole. The Pig and Whistle Hotel. The oldest continuously licensed pub in the country, for good reason. In a climate of farming hardships, a certain flavour of farmer grows. Lee Kernaghan said it best in his country song,
Boys from Bathurst:
We’ve been feeling the heat
You can hear it cuss
We’ve been kissing the fences
Been choking on dust
We curse the rain
We curse the sand
We’re running hot
It’s little wonder that one of the first signs you see in the village is on the famous Pig and Whistle pub, ‘There is no thirst like Bathurst’. One hundred and ninety three years after the Settlers arrived, their descendants are still here and still farming. There is something about Bathurst and its continuity that is reflected in this tenacity of spirit. It is home to the oldest unaltered Anglican Church, the oldest primary school in the country and the oldest-running agricultural show.
These days it is also home to artists and entrepreneurs, one of whom is resident potter Richard Pullen. His open gallery is stacked to the rafters with ceramic artistry meets functional crockery. There are traditionally styled tagines that inspire Moroccan feasts, and his ever-dry salt cellars live up to their name. The shop smells warmly of bubbling wax that he is painting onto freshly kilned pots. He smiles over his work. “I’ve been here for 14 years and the gallery has grown slowly over this time. Sure it’s quiet out of season, we are very dependent on holiday trade. But it is about the lifestyle and it’s a great place to bring up your kids.’’
Just up the road, Donnae Godley of Boredom Busters shares the same sentiment. “This is a wonderful place to raise a family.’’ And her nifty store bursts with creative ideas to keep kids occupied. Her studies in psychology and ‘flow thinking’ have been the motivation behind the designs of her toys that allow children to develop concentration and tactile skills. “We need to enable our future generations to think out of the box,” she says. “It’s a hard world out there.’’
Bathurst truly is a world apart. Where else can you find a 16.7m giant pineapple? This grand structure is like the local pineapple farmers’ pinup. A beacon of hope, an icon of remembrance. Because what was formally a struggling frontier community is, thanks to this humble fruit, the capital of Pineapple Paradise. And if the idea of seasonally sweet Queen Pines doesn’t have you packing your overnight bag, fear not, as Bathurst has much more to offer. Break out the bikes and explore the winding, narrow lanes. The ‘Willie-come-out and-fight-or-are-you-scaaaared?’ birds (Sombre Greenbuls) challenge the dusty silences of the back roads. There are quaint stone cottages, town criers and tie-dyed T-shirts galore, galleries and treasured, second-hand relics. The verges are lined with flamboyant coral trees, shaded with giant figs, bedecked in honeysuckle. There are nooks with books, indigenous nurseries, and don’t forget a swig at The Pig.
There is croquet and boules on the lawn at Kingston Farm, with mouth-watering meals devised and cooked by the Bathurst Country Affairs ‘best local chef’’, Carla Bright. Fred and Carla Bright bought Kingston as a rundown smallholding and saw the potential in the lines of the Edwardian-style villa. They restored it slowly, and lovingly added their unique blend of 1920s bijou to old English colonial charm.
Over drinks in the rose-filled garden, Fred and Carla explain their inspiration behind the restaurant. “The basic premise for the menu comes from the house itself. We could not produce avant-garde futurist food with whacky platings in such a venue. The house has been restored and decorated in a style that is intended to reflect the era of its construction and heyday. We have tried to base the menu around classic English and French dishes that would have been familiar to people 100 or so years ago. The design of the house and its setting dictate this choice as much as does the availability of ingredients.”
Quite a few of their recipes and ideas come from classic cookery books by Constance Spry and Rosemarie Hume. “These are quite often interpretations of dishes that many might have heard of, but are unable or unwilling to cook at home; the dishes are often extravagant, rich and complicated and thus hopefully complement the house and gardens.’’ With Appaloosa horses roaming the grounds, locally brewed Coin Stout on tap and a country cordon bleu menu, Kingston is the most scrumptious dining experience you will find in the district.
For something lighter try ‘the best pizza in South Africa’ as voted by the television show Going Nowhere Slowly. Hans and Maria van den Nouweland of Pickwick’s Oven add a touch of continental perfection to the menu. Fill up hungry bodies on the terrace while taking in the sights of cows mowing the verges, or Baton Rouge-looking musicians wearing snakeskin waistcoats and sauntering up the hill.
To help digest lunch, pop across the road to The Corner Gallery, where the charcoal drawings by owner Tori Stowe capture the essence of Bathurst. The escaped goat, the giddy donkey, the salubrious pig. Tori’s unique talents have earned her a product-design award among other accolades, and her treasures are all available in the shop. It’s a gem of a store, where local artists also canvas their work.
Entrepreneur and employee Nomvuyo Gladys Manayathi has launched her line of quirky stuffed animals called Kuku Craft, also showcased in the gallery. She fondles a Kuku Chook as she recounts its invention. “My neighbour’s chickens kept breaking into my spinach patch just as the leaves were ready to pick. I came home from work one day and was really mad that I had lost another crop.
I sat at my kitchen table thinking of how to speak to my neighbour, when I picked up a pencil and started drawing the naughty chickens in my yard. Before I knew it I had a pattern to sew and here I am today.’’ She laughs and shrugs her shoulders. “The chickens still come and steal my spinach but somehow I don’t mind so much anymore. We all have to eat.’’ Recently awarded funding by the Department of Arts and Culture, she now has two sewing machines and extra helpers, who are in turn learning the trade.
Bathurst may not be well known for its unique artists, fine dining or rich history. Some might even consider it a little rustic, a touch hippie. But the folk here are famous for their hospitality and flair for a party.On a Friday night, if you venture down to The Ploughman there is a good chance of encountering a ‘Boys from Bathurst’ crowd. It’s housed in the Agricultural Museum so don’t be surprised if you meet a few tractor fanatics propping up the bar. Or Nguni cattle enthusiasts, llama lovers and belly dancers balancing candelabras on their heads.
‘The Plough’ is the stomping ground for the Bathurst Belly Dancers, a troop of locally lovely whirling dervishes who practise and display their art for the sheer love of jiggling. Owner David Ford will ensure your home-grown steaks are cooked to perfection and your glass is never empty.
“Some days, driving back to my farm through the village is like being on an LSD trip,” a bearded newcomer to the area confides over a pint of Coin. He hastily adds, “I guess what I imagine one to be. I mean, I’m a bit crazy. Definitely. But the people here are crazier than me. It’s like I’ve finally come home.”
Is that what makes folk move to the centre of the universe? The way Bathurst fits like a glove, even if you are missing a few fingers? Or is it the affordable property market with enormous plots, where donkeys might roam or a few beehives buzz at the bottom of the garden. Maybe it’s just the simple acceptance of all who travel along her dusty roads.
So if you make it through a weekend, be sure to swing by the Sunday Farmers Market. Grab a few loaves of freshly baked sourdough bread, Hilda’s poppy seed dressing, locally made cheese and a bottle of crisp ginger beer. Add Eastern Cape-grown, juicy calamata olives and a warm quiche. Then haul your gastronomic booty to Waters Meeting Nature Reserve, where you can indulge in a picnic under the karee trees next to the stream. You might be lucky enough to spot an otter hunting. Or hear the booming alarm bark of a bushbuck ram, echoing in the valley. And as you fall asleep to the Kowie River’s bubbling laugh, you will be sure to have discovered the 1820 Settlers’ secret.
This is God’s Own Country. And it’s hard to leave…