Beneath its famous landmark, the Sleeping Beauty mountain, this small agricultural town in the Southern Cape stirs with new energy, says Marion Whitehead.
Maybe the moment of change came when Louise Malherbe turned the big rusty key in the lock at Riversdale’s Old Jail, dusted out the cobwebs and turned it into a laid-back community meeting place, complete with coffee shop and ‘cells’ of collectables, clothing, decor and desirable items.
Or perhaps it was when local artist Marilise Lombard was inspired to paint pictures of cheerful chickens, dainty ducks and festive folk, which her neighbours snapped up to hang on their walls. Whatever the reason, Riversdale, the Sleeping Beauty of the Western Cape’s Hessequa region – the area bounded by the Langeberg and the Indian Ocean, and the Breede and Gouritz rivers – is stirring. The town awakens to a new flow of creativity that is changing the way people do things here.
What’s G(r)o(w)ing On?
Even the farmers are trying new ideas. Piet Muir of Oudebosch Guest Farm feeds his Dohne Merino sheep barley sprouts to get them into prime breeding condition, and Baleia Bay recently followed a trend started by Chris Scholtz of Edenberg Cellars, to launch the second boutique winery in the district.
In town, municipal manager Johan Jacobs is leading by example and has reduced waste at his wife’s Fynbos Guest House by more than 200 per cent thanks to recycling and composting, while ex-Pretoria architect Danie Crafford has gone totally ‘green’ and built a magnificent house on a breezy koppie – completely off the grid and that cost him less than R2 500m².
Riversdale remains a typical, small Cape country town dominated by the large, centrally placed Dutch Reformed Church and the little stone Anglican St Matthew’s Church on a rise. You can park your car and easily walk to all the shops in the two main streets, where the largest retail chains are notably absent – but venture off this axis and there are delightful surprises.
Take Long Street, the oldest road in the town, laid out in 1838 with long, narrow plots fed by an irrigation furrow linked to the Vet River. This is where you’ll find architectural gems dating back to the late 19th century, their graceful gables built by craftsmen proud of their trade. CJ Langenhoven House is where the famous poet and writer, who also penned the Afrikaans verses of our national anthem, boarded when he attended high school in the dorp.
Opposite is the grand old parsonage built in 1880, now the Sleeping Beauty Guest House, and one of my favourite stopovers on the N2 between Cape Town and the Garden Route. Owners Jinja and Monica Jarmain are certainly keeping this old beauty shipshape since buying what was the first guest house in Riversdale, and have added a labyrinth to the back garden to help guests wind down after long hours cramped in a car.
Floods culminated in a severe downpour and presented them with their biggest challenge when a section of the front gable collapsed and demolished the veranda underneath. “She’ll be good for another 100 years when we’ve fixed her,” vows Jinja, a former engineer and surveyor, as he outlines plans to restore this piece of the town’s heritage with a more authentic, curved veranda.
The neighbouring Cats Paw pottery studio is the newest addition to Riversdale’s art route. Fans of ex-Gautenger Robyn Learmonth will recognise her quirky cat-decorated mugs, jugs and teapots from her days at the Bryanston Organic Market. She now runs pottery classes for local kids. “And this year,” she says, “I’ll do the sculptures I’ve been planning for ages.”
Further down Long Street, inside what was once the town’s bioscope, is the brightly decorated Paddavlei Kunsgoete. Marilise Lombard has her studio at the back of this shop, selling a variety of local arts and crafts, from colourful hand-painted cushions made by the disabled residents of Mosaïek, to hand-spun wool and Marilise’s own eye-catching naïve acrylic on canvas works.
“It’s the small, simple things in life that give joy,” says Marilise, explaining her ebullient style of painting that caught the attention of the Jong Dames Dinamiek, a national women’s empowerment organisation, when, as a relatively unknown, self-taught artist, she was asked to illustrate their 2004 diary. “It’s a talent God gave me. I get ideas from life as it happens.”
Apart from four years spent in Ireland, Marilise has lived in Riversdale since 1995 with her husband and three children. “It’s not about making money in a small town like this, but the quality of life you enjoy,” she says, pointing out a bright poster she compiled featuring local businesses and tourist attractions.
The cherry on the town’s art offerings is the remarkable collection of internationally recognised art and antiques at the Julius Gordon Africana Centre, also in Long Street. Julius was born in 1892, was raised in Riversdale and studied medicine and law, but made his money in the diamond fields of the West Coast and, in the 1960s, was able to indulge his taste for South African art and unusual antiques, explains curator Johan La’Grange. Julius died in 1974 and bequeathed this collection in trust to the people of Riversdale.
Wander through the rooms of this beautiful 19th century house and admire the impressive collection of works by the likes of Pierneef, Tinus de Jongh, Gregoire Boonzaier, Irma Stern and Maggie Laubser, plus one of the largest collections in this country of paintings of early Cape scenes by Thomas Bowler.
Just around the corner is Louise Malberbe’s Old Jail/Ou Tronk which seems to have changed the way the town interacts and even perceives itself. The ghoulish old gallows was used only once before the jail was closed down in 1979. Louise inherited it from her father, who had bought it to store farming equipment.
Determined to turf out the ghosts of the past from one of the town’s oldest buildings, Louise opened the doors five years ago to a community meeting place where it’s a pleasure to be ‘detained’ for an hour or two, wandering from cell to cell to see the eclectic mix of fine china, clothing, jewellery, plants and health products on sale, or to gawp at the replica of the old gallows and then restore your equilibrium with a cup of tea and their famous carrot cake.
Wild and Wonderful
Riversdale is the centre of a floral wonderland and fynbos farmers such as Pierre Vermaak export flowers and foliage to as far afield as Russia. You can see his fields of proteas, restios and pincushions behind the Sleeping Beauty peak, on the northern slopes of the Langeberg mountains at the top of Garcia Pass, the northern entrance to Riversdale.
Olives also grow well on this side of the mountain and you can stock up at Muiskraal Farm, where Henry and Jenny Chamberlain are moving their press from an old dairy into a smart new facility and farm stall beside the Ladismith Road. Hiking these mountains is the best way to see the fynbos in this section of the Cape Floral Kingdom World Heritage Site. The most popular trails are the Sleeping Beauty and Crystal Falls hikes in Boosmansbos Wilderness Area, starting at the top of Garcia Pass. Spring is the time of most abundant blossom, but with fynbos there’s always something in flower.
From my cottage on Oudebosch Guest Farm, I have an enticing view of the Langeberg mountains and the western section of the Sleeping Beauty trail, and need no second invitation from owner Piet Muir, who offers
to show me the hike. We cross a stream above a magnificent waterfall and see proteas, ericas and a dwarf agapanthus with almost violet blossoms, as well as a dainty blue disa orchid. A Cape Sugarbird and Orange-breasted Sunbirds are easy to spot in the fynbos.
We shelter from the midday sun beside a clear stream in a cool kloof of a stinkwood forest, and revel in the natural beauty around us. I reflect on the friendly folk I’ve met and how well art and agriculture have come together in Riversdale. Marilise’s paintings keep popping up all over place: in the tasting room at Edenberg Cellar, in Danie Crafford’s open-plan kitchen and in Enya’s Coffee Shop.
But most surprising was the Rose & Crown, where the local tobacconist also sells animal feed. The different types of feeds are indicated by a bright painting of a cat, dog, parrot or chicken in the unmistakable style of Marilise Lombard. Yes, in Riversdale art mixes very comfortably with agriculture.
Words and Photography Marion Whitehead