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Tourists rushing through a town might rub shoulders with the locals for a few minutes, and indulge in some idle chitchat. Stay longer, and they might learn some surprising things, including the residents’ thoughts on their town.
So when I stopped to admire a particularly grand old house, during my strolls around Oudtshoorn, an old lady – who might have been peeping at me through the curtains – came outside.
She launched straight into her pet hate. “The people of Oudtshoorn make me cross,” she grumbled, as she stood cuddling the fluffy cat in arms, while the exuberant dog at her feet barked its displeasure at my intrusion.
“They paint their sandstone houses,” she said, waving her hand in the direction of one of the offending homes across the road.
I took another closer look and suddenly realised that, beneath the pastel paints, many of the houses were actually of sandstone. Layers of paint inevitably mean a slow death to these lovely, old homes.
When I mentioned this to another of the town’s inhabitants, he explained. “It is difficult and expensive to access sandstone, so when owners want to make repairs or alterations, many architects have refined the art of producing faux sandstone in concrete. Then they paint over it to hide the renovations.
“Even before we bought it, our house had about 10 coats of paint. Scraping all that off would have done much more damage,” he said.
On previous visits, I had whizzed through the highlights of Oudtshoorn like a typical tourist. But personal circumstances meant I now had time to really get a feel for the town.
One of the things I noticed was how many people sat on the stoep, enjoying the passing parade.
Once a regular feature of country towns, this is something you hardly see any more, as people closet themselves indoors watching television. Hover a bit, and these ooms and tannies will certainly engage you in conversation.
During my many route marches, I soaked up history like a thirsty sponge, as I learned a snippet here, a bit of gossip there – like the fact that the town had had only one expert ostrich plume preparer – a French lady Louisa Pappalardo, who was born in Algeria, where her father pioneered ostrich farming.
She came to Oudtshoorn in 1991 to establish a fashion house. Sadly, in 1996, she shot herself in front of the police station.
CJ Langenhoven is one of the town’s most famous inhabitants. At his house Arbeitsgenot, there is a special Herrie postbox – named for the famous elephant in his book Sonde Met Die Boere.
As this was required Afrikaans reading material in high school for me, memories came flooding back. There is also a statue to Herrie in the gardens, while a newly built entertainment centre in the grounds of Arbeitsgenot is home to art exhibitions and musical programmes.
The old suspension bridge over the Grobbelaars River is fun to walk across.
Everywhere in the town there are splendid views of the Swartberg and Outeniqua mountains. The latter often have a tablecloth of cloud spilling down them. What did surprise me was how roses, mainly in pink, white and yellow, flourish here. I am sure the town could easily rival Addo, with its famous Rose Festival.
The Boys’ High School, which was established in 1886, remained a school until the 1960s. The magnificent building now houses the CP Nel Museum. Some streets away, the Le Roux Town House forms part of this museum, and is typical of the home really wealthy farmers owned for when they came to town for the quarterly nagmaal (communion). Your average farmer’s town house was a much more simple affair.
On the arts front, I learned that the famous Oudtshoorn Arts Festival, the Klein Karoo Kunsfees, was the brain child of Nick Barrow, the owner of the magnificent five-star Rosenhof Country House in town.
Another place which caught my eye was Adley House, which was built in 1905 by Sidney Herbert Adley, at the height of the ostrich feather boom.
In 1948 this glorious home was bequeathed to help orphans of World War II. Here Mr and Mrs Macmoran looked after 16 Polish orphans until they completed high school in the early sixties. The current owners bought Adley House in 1989, and set about restoring it to its current comfortable charm.
The colourful “ostrich palaces” are what define the town. One of them, magnificent Pinehurst, built in 1911, stands in the grounds of a local school. It is now the dormitory for some of the students. Imagine living in such surrounds, while studying.
The stained glass windows at the St Saviour Cathedral in the middle of the town are beautiful and there are many lovely old churches, within short walking distance of each other: the synagogue, which could have fitted comfortably with the architecture of the Crusades period; the ivy-cloaked Methodist Church; and historical St Judes, Anglican Church. “It’s like the Bible Belt of Georgia,” one lady remarked.
Just whom was the town actually named after? Was it Baron Pieter van Reede van Oudtshoorn, the new governor of the Cape Colony who never even set foot in the country. He died on board ship, en route. Or perhaps the honour was that of one of his descendants, Geesje van Oudtshoorn.
A lovely drive, brings the visitor to Schoemanshoek, en route to the Cango Caves. This scenic hamlet was home to some of the earliest white farmers in the area. Tobacco used to be planted here, but now there are vineyards and other crops. Schoemanshoek’s Friday evening market is immensely popular with the locals.
Oudtshoorn is a real garden town, with a multitude of B&Bs and guest houses to choose from. Each one has its own lure, making the choice of where to bed down a difficult one. In one of the newest suburbs, the classy homes are still surrounded by patches of wild flowers, while the doors of each house are a work of art. Everyone seems to be vying to have the most decorative one.
There are many restaurants to choose from. One night I dined at Kalinka, run by a Russian lady. It has masses of character, beautiful roses and fairy lights. Their twice-baked cheese souffle was memorable, and the balmy evening enhanced the dining experience. By the variety of languages being spoken, it was obvious the restaurant is on the international list of “must dine” spots.
Paljas is quite arty. Nostalgie and Jemimas also draw the crowds. One of the waiters at the Swiss Bistro – which is rather like wandering into a tropical garden with rustic nooks – kept me entertained with a multitude of fascinating stories about some of the town’s more colourful residents through the ages. - Sunday Tribune
If You Go...
l Contact: Rosenhof Country House 044 272 2232;
Adley House: 044 272 4533; e-mail: email@example.com
Kalinka: 044 279 2596
Jemimas: 044 272 0808
Paljas: 044 272 0982
Nostalgie: 072 324 0448