We first came across Oulap, near De Rust in the Western Cape, late in the afternoon. As we followed the road beneath the formidable Swartberg Mountains, we became increasingly excited. Clearly, this would be a destination to savour. Imagine our dismay when, on arriving, we found it was closed for the winter months.
Dejected, we retraced our steps to the main road and a bed in De Rust.
I made a point of being in the area again in summer, and this time phoned ahead to make sure I would not be thwarted again. When I mentioned to someone where I would soon be spending the night, she got all excited. “That’s Jans Rautenbach’s place,” she exclaimed.
That was a name I remembered well from the early South African film industry. Rautenbach directed such gems as Katrina and Die Kandidaat, to name just two. I seem to remember the film censorship board was not exactly thrilled with his depiction of the effects of apartheid on family life.
This was going to be an interesting stay. Controversial figures can make for a fiery recipe, and indeed there were no bland moments during my stay at Oulap. Not only was the setting spectacular, but the conversation around the dinner table was fascinating.
Jans and Almeri, along with their four children, built Oulap out of stone gathered in the Swartberg. This was broken into usable sizes applying the old-fashioned building technique of heating the rock with fire, then shattering it by pouring cold water on it. The place resembles a castle in the veld. As the Rautenbachs also had to build the road and a dam, it took 13 years to complete.
“I saw this (Oulap) as mirroring the Afrikaans film history in the 1960s,” says Jans.
The dining room has an enormous yellowwood table and a Gordon Vorster painting fills one wall. The library has large racks of books. Stained glass windows and antiques all shout character. One of the remarkable doors was used on the set of Die Kandidaat.
Passages lead to the five old-world en-suite bedrooms. In mine, the bathroom was reached via a steep, small staircase. It had interesting murals and colourful bath mats, while the porch opened on to a scene of the mountains. Another room had fun bunk beds high under the ceiling.
The inside is cool, though the heat outside in January is challenging.
Chatting to Jans kept me on my toes. He feels there is a dearth of English writers and film directors.
Interestingly, he said his father, a crusher on the mines, thought films were sinful.
Jans switches the conversation to the poverty many miners experienced when he was growing up, and how school feeding schemes were a lifesaver for thousands of miners’ children.
At tea, I found two of the guests were from England. They return regularly to Oulap and told me they were looking forward to some stimulating dinner conversation.
When they retired to the front lawn, with its stupendous views of the mountains, I took a quick dip in the pool on the other side of the house – with a view of farmland in the valley below.
With a cool breeze wafting in, I took a stroll among the fynbos. Almeri had already shown her guests photographs taken in spring when Oulap transforms into a garden of colour and busy bees. Even in January vestiges of that floral wonderland remain.
Curled up with a book in the study before dinner, I learn that Jans was the first official criminologist in the SA Prison Service and once headed the Witbank prison.
In the film industry, he worked with the likes of Emil Nofal, Jamie Uys and stars such as Stanley Baker, Juliet Prowse, Jim Reeves and Ken Gampu.
He says his favourites were Cobus Rossouw, Don Leonard, Reghardt van den Bergh, Jill Kirkland, Katinka Heyns and Sandra Kotze. The depth of their performance and ability to assume different characters impressed him.
A founding member of the popular Klein Karoo Kunsfees, Jans is now an honorary director of the festival. He is involved with Kyknet, is a patron of the national Afrikaans film festival and, for a while, served on the Western Cape Tourism Board.
Particularly fascinating was his approach to international guests. He told me that just before they arrive he goes on to the internet to learn the latest news relevant to their country. “You need to be mentally prepared to communicate with your guests,” he says.
Almeri is no slouch either. A member of the SA Chefs Association, she turns out tasty treats from the kitchen. She has an intimate knowledge of the floral kingdom and often takes visitors for walks in the veld.
Jans finds time to involve himself in the Oulap Foundation, which raises funds in Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium to support the Vlakteplaas school – voted the best farm school in the Western Cape.
Oulap is a restful base from which to visit the Cango caves and ostrich farms or drive through stunning passes in the Swartberg and Outeniqua mountains.