Your typical helicopter view of De Rust at the back end of the Klein Karoo ‒ a tiny settlement at the foot of the craggy Swartberg range, Prince Albert lying thataway through the Swiss Roll rock lines of Meiringspoort Pass, on the opposite side of town the road leads to Dysselsdorp with its hilltop church and its switchback Via Dolorosa, past a few million stop-gos, a padstal or two and finally deep into Big Bird Country. Oudtshoorn.
There are dragon’s teeth rows of red-stone hills, pea-green fields of onions, sheep and their shepherds, curious clusters of ostriches, the neatly pleated patterns of the Cape Fold Mountains, swathes of lime-green lichen and, lurking deep in the poort, a waterfall where (the old men say) Karoo mermaids frolic when the moon is full. It’s just another magical dorp in the mountains.
Uplifting the village
Driving into De Rust from the Willowmore side, Ray’s Coffee Shop is on the left. That gang of burly blokes you see on the stoep gathers every day at 7.30am to solve the problems of the world, the province, the Klein Karoo and De Rust in particular. This is where they hatch plans to uplift their village.
Like what to do with the beggars who used to troll up and down the main street and hit on the tourists for small change for white wine. “We recruited the regular beggars and asked the Community Policing Forum to check them for criminal records,” Jan Venter, a devout De Rust Coffee Clubber, will tell you. “The ones who passed were hired as official Tourism Assistants.
They are paid minimum wage, dressed in distinctive vests and issued with walkie-talkies. They run the street and keep it honest.”
A beast parade
Sitting next to Jan is Pieter Schoeman, who farms on both sides of De Rust. Stick around for another cappuccino and you’ll hear the story of how Pieter used to drive his ostriches down the main drag (it’s not called Schoeman Street for nothing) to get from one paddock to the other.
Nowadays, the ostriches travel the short distance in style, on the back of a livestock truck. That’s because, since the bird flu of 2011, European Union restrictions apply. And let’s face it, could you imagine a flock of pecky ostriches dancing down the high street of a chocolate-box town?
“But I sometimes have to run other stock down the road,” Pieter admits. De Rust still has its occasional beast parade, starring red cattle, wool sheep, Pieter Schoeman and his doughty stockmen.
At the same table is Willie Immelman, who has been in tourism for most of his working life and currently has a love affair with the plants of the region, the legendary pelargonium family in particular. A drive with Willie around the outskirts of De Rust, up a hill and down into a little river gorge, will reveal botanical wonders like the stone-mimicking Haworthia bayeri, almost invisible to the naked eye, and the clambering, ivy-leafed pelargoniums with their astonishingly delicate flowers. Willie runs a Facebook page called Willie Loves De Rust, where he promotes his village “pro bono, just for the hell of it and because I love this place so much”.
An iconic rooster
Up the road is Karoo Rouge, owned by the exotic Loraine Burger, who favours interesting hats. Her shop stocks a bit of everything from the platteland, Karoo sheepskin slippers in particular. Right next door is another shop, bearing the jaunty name of ‘Gestewel en Gespoor – Owned by Jan Venter en die Ma van sy Kinders’. If you’re looking for something to buy the man in the family, this seems to be the spot. Especially if he’s in need of a bottle of beard oil or a handmade knife.
Across the road is the Housemartin Guest Lodge, also owned by Jan Venter en die Ma van sy Kinders, Theresa. Jan is a bit of a force of Nature, a rugby man to his roots, and he comes with the obligatory crocked knee from a tackle many eras ago.
Their last stop before De Rust was a decade in Dubai, where Jan was a top-flight Rugby Sevens coach and tournament director. “After ten years up there we’d had enough,” he says. “We bought here for the lifestyle.”
As you stroll about the elegant courtyard of Housemartin, you might notice a pearly white terrier politely following at your heels. That’s Dexter. If you let him, he’ll lie quietly on your chalet stoep all afternoon.
Our De Rust ramble continues up to the Village Trading Post with its iconic rooster out in front. Many motorists rushing through De Rust (silly people) on their way to and from the coast will tell you that’s what they remember about this place ‒ daai moerse hoenderhaan. The owners are Niekie Eksteen and Soan Jacobs, fondly known all over town as “those boys who are the lifeblood of De Rust”.
Both Niekie and Soan have been here for more than ten years, attaining the status of ‘incomer-veterans’. But they say everyone, even the local farmers (traditionally hard-bitten in the Karoo), welcomed them warmly from the beginning. Shortly after their arrival, a local tannie visited and told them, “I hear you’re opening a gay joint in De Rust. I’m not gay, but I really like you guys. Can I come?”
Niekie answered, “I haven’t heard of a gay joint opening up, but if one does, can we come too?”
The ‘boys’ came to De Rust courtesy of an advertisement in COUNTRY LIFE – the house that is now the Village Trading Post was on the market. They are known for their Sunday buffets, traditional boerekos enjoyed by regional locals from as far away as Oudtshoorn, even George. Then there’s the lemon meringue and cheesecake, the pies and the soup, a winter cook-up of mushroom and biltong. Yum, as everyone seems to say on MasterChef Australia.
“I love living and creating here in De Rust”
It’s clear that the members of the De Rust Heritage Conservation Association are doing their best to retain the old-time look and feel of the village. It’s not a job for the faint of heart but, take it from a platteland travel writer with more than 30 years on the road, these are the people who often stand between sanity and utterly bad-taste renovations, which ultimately affect real estate prices, and not in a good way.
Up the hill is the artist Di McLean, who lives in a large house with local vet Garth Ryder, plus a foul-mouthed yet charming African Grey Parrot, 11 cats and five dogs. One gets the feeling Garth brings his work home, so to speak.
Di, who made her name painting portraits of well-known South Africans like Zanele Mbeki, is also striking a rich commercial vein with her line of popular enamelware paintings in hand-crafted old wooden frames. “I love living and creating here in De Rust. I think it’s the quiet – except for this lot,” she says, as her enquiring beasts yap their way into her studio to greet visitors.
On a country drive outside De Rust, you might come across the statue of Petrus Albertus Schoeman, whose wife loved him so dearly that, after his death, had this life-size likeness of him carved in marble, and placed on a rise within sight of the farmstead.
But for fine wine and priceless tales, you need to experience Oom Swepie le Roux of Doornkraal farm. There are few things better than meeting an 82-year-old with a twinkle in his eye, a bright memory, a gift for storytelling and an interesting past.
Out on the stoep of the family ostrich-boom palace, with a bouvier called Dierbaar at his feet, Oom Swepie will crack open a bottle of sparkles called Tickled Pink (he’s the Doornkraal winemaker), pour you a glass and tell you a story about when the feather smouse of old used to visit his grandparents.
The travelling, Jewish feather dealers enjoyed their visits to Doornkraal, mainly because of the famous Le Roux brandy cellar and the dinner fare. But there was always a price to pay.
“My Ouma Maggie had a great ambition to convert a Jewish pedlar to Christianity,” says Oom Swepie. “When they arrived, she would make them take a long bath (they spent many days walking the dusty Karoo) and attend a Christian service. Then she would feed them. Her conversion rate, you ask? Zero.”
After the sumptuous meal, Oom Swepie’s grandfather and the smous would get down to business. The feathers were laid out in rows on the floor, oil lamps were lit and adjusted to soft light so that ‘the products’ were viewed at their gleaming best. And the haggling would begin.
The next morning the smous would be on his way through the hills once more, well-fed, well-brandied, well-supplied with feathers, and with his religion still firmly intact. As are all of us, after a glorious weekend in De Rust.
For Tickled Pink and other assorted estate wines, 2Doorn Equine horse-riding adventures and a monthly Saturday-night feast at Tante Maria se Stal: doornkraal.co.za
De Rustica Olive Estate www.derustica.co.za
Meiringspoort Challenge (trail run and mountain bike): meiringspoortchallenge.co.za
De Rust Heritage Conservation Association www.derustheritage.org.za
Mooi Karoo farm shop, Freda Schoeman on Doornkloof Farm facebook.com/mooikaroo
Housemartin Guest Lodge www.housemartin.co.za
Oudtshoorn and De Rust Tourism oudtshoorn.com