Starry, starry nights at Suurbraak

By Time of article published Feb 20, 2008

Share this article:

One of Van Gogh's most famous paintings is of his bedroom. In the foreground is a plain, straight-backed chair. Another painting, entitled Vincent's Chair, features a chair which takes up most of the canvas.

This is the style that is being hand-crafted at the Suurbraak Skrynwerkers: the wood is canary pine and the seats woven sea-grass, both growing locally. The old "bodging" method is used. To quote from an arts and crafts magazine: "Workers seat themselves on a shaving horse, clamp the wood in front of them, patiently shape the timber into pieces which will finally fit together".

The same method is used for their Suurbraak rockers, barstools, barchairs, highback chairs and footstools.

Suurbraak nestles at the foot of the Langeberg Mountains in the Tradouws River Valley, about 20km from Swellendam. I had the privilege of being taken there by a retired doctor from the area.

As we entered the village, we first stopped at the long, low, thatched building housing the Tourist Information Bureau and spoke to the helpful Maggy Jantjies.

The name Suurbraak intrigued me: why would anyone want to call a place sour when their publicity leaflet describes it as "paradise … nestled among streams and sheltered by giant oaks"?

The explanation is that the Attaqua tribe of the Quena or Khoi people once occupied this area, which lies near their ancient trading paths.

It was so lovely that they called it Xairu: beautiful/paradise. When the Dutch explorers came along, they found many thicket-bracken ferns: in Dutch zuurbraak.

Later, people started to call it "Suurbraak", probably on the assumption that the Dutch were referring to sour or fallow land.

Centuries ago the Attaqua set up their kraal here and in 1809 their chief, Kaptein Hans Moes, invited the London Missionary Society to establish a mission station, which they did a few years later.

Other, non-Khoi people were attracted to the area and later under the apartheid government it was declared a "Coloured Group Area". The whites then had to move out. Now, with those laws repealed, anyone may of course settle here.

Visitors, driving through the village, can appreciate the neat cottages lining the Main Road, although indeed some of the houses need renovating. There are also a few unusual double-storeys.

The upper floors have tiny windows that do not not line up with the ground floor windows. This gives it as someone described it, "a curious squinting look".

Then there are some attractive thatched buildings, like the Tourist Information Bureau, and the nearby 1830s church.

Besides the Suurbraak Skrynwerkers in Manha Road, there are other places to visit: the Xairu Rustic Furniture shop on the Main Road where benches, tables and so on are carefully crafted from alien vegetation.

A separate venture, Xiaru Crafts is housed in the Tourist Bureau.

The valley is rich in fynbos and bird life and one can explore the old cattle paths.

Community guides are available for these hikes and also for ambles round the village.

Peckish? Annamari's Tea Garden alongside the river is in the shadows of the mountain.

It's open from 9am to 4pm, seven days a week.

Die Ou Wawiel restaurant is open from 9am to 9pm Sundays to Thursdays; Fridays until 6pm only, and Saturdays from 7pm onwards. Tel: 028-522-1899.

If you'd like to stay overnight, there are self-catering options: The Green Fig (sleeps up to six people), Nurie's Cottage (up to 10) or an apartment for two people.

Groups of 40 men and 40 women can stay at the church hostel and there's a caravan park.

  • Maggy Jantjies at the Tourist Info will help you. Phone her at 028-522-1806.
  • Suurbraak is accessible from the N2; from Cape Town pass Swellendam. After 10km go left at the R324 Suurbraak/Barrydale sign.
  • Share this article: