5 Things to do in Hopefield, on the Cape West Coast

I’d never been to Hopefield, until my latest house- and pet-sitting gig landed in my inbox. It’s one of those small West Coast havens in the heart of Fynbos country, where people flock to, come Spring, to see the land covered in wildflowers.

wildflowers western cape

In Spring, parts of the Cape West Coast are covered in a multi-coloured blanket of wildflowers that draw scores of snap-happy tourists.

Granted, it’s autumn, so no flowers. And the severe drought we’re having has dried up the river that runs through the town. Still, I had nine days to slow into the Hopefield pace of life, on a plot on a dirt road just outside town. Keeping me company were two dogs, a kitten (!), and shelves and shelves of books. (One of the homeowner couple is also a freelance writer.)

The house had no alarm, and the gates to the property are left open (both rare in South Africa). I worked with the doors open, looking at views of horses and alpacas. Amid all the farm murder and land grab discourse circulating the land, it was a privilege to be in open space, sans high walls, noisy city neighbours, and Cape Town’s howling southeaster. I made a retreat of it by reading very little online, turning off the radio, watching the sunset each evening on the veranda, and walking the property under the night sky.

zoute river hopefield

The oddly soothing view of the dry Zoute River from the main house overlooking horses, alpacas and sheep.

The owners, who rent out a cottage to creatives needing somewhere quiet to work, are great people. We spent an evening drinking wine and chatting under the stars, as they filled me in on the house, pets, and local amenities.

succulents

cottage kitchen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unsurprisingly, the town boasts a Pep store and (more surprising) a basic Spar − which the owners jokingly call “Sparse”. (True, it’s not fancy pants. But the staff are super friendly, and it does stock things you might not see in a city Spar, like a section for wool, and Jigsimur – that vile-tasting but effective aloe drink helping many a tannie’s ailments.)

Other than that, it’s mostly churches (and a newish Internet café where I could do printing and scanning, etc.). Hopefield was started as a church community in the 1800s, and it still boasts a ridiculous amount of churches for the size of the population – including the iconic Dutch Reformed Church built in 1879, where you can still hear the antique Foster & Andrews organ installed in 1911 being played during Sunday services.

Dutch Reformed Church Hopefield

The NG Kerk on Hopefield’s Church Street.

On my first trip to the Spar, I was thinking: This really is a one-horse town, when a man came by trotting on a horse in the middle of “the high street” (Voortrekker Road). So it’s more a one-horse, one-man town 🙂 And therein lies its appeal. Hopefield looks like a Karoo dorpie, but it’s just a 1.5 hours’ drive from the Mother City. You may literally see a chicken cross the road, like I did, and have to let sleeping dogs lie where they are, in the middle of the road in the middle of the day. Another indication on the smallness of the place is that the police station is on Stasie [station] street; the main church is on Kerk [church] street. So you’re not likely to get lost 🙂

Here are five other ways to while away the (slowed-down) time on your visit…

Bees and propolis products

Inside the sweet-smelling Simply Bee shop of affordable natural products.

1 SIMPLY BEE

The morning I left for Hopefield, I’d been admiring the new Simply Bee range of solid perfumes at a health shop in the city, not knowing that the beauty brand is based in Hopefield. The beekeeping family behind Simply Bee are passionate about bees, which is evident when you visit their observation centre, on Church Street. There’s a hive behind glass, and other educational material for tour groups or individuals to browse and observe. Fascinating stuff, and the friendly staff are right there to answer any of your bee-related questions as you watch the activity of the hive. They also stock products for beekeeping, which is becoming increasingly popular as a hobby in the Cape. Next door, there’s the rather pretty Simply Bee shop, packed with their honey, propolis and beeswax products.

farmer market hopefield

Fresh finds — yummo!

2 THE SATURDAY MARKET

Every Saturday, locals catch up at The Mill Country Fair Market, organised by the Merry Widow guesthouse, also on Church Street. It’s a farmer’s market, so you can get fresh produce, yummy breads, homemade condiments and the like. I went with a small shopping bag, but when I saw the wares, I immediately grabbed one of the huge baskets they have for you to fill – which I did in about 15 minutes. The food is seriously good, and seriously cheap. One of the recent locals in town later told me that’s one of the reasons she’s loving her move to the country. Local food is affordable, and she watches a lot of it grow right next to where she lives. I bought biltong, organic meat, a quince, figs, cheese, pesto, wild mushrooms, sweet mustard and more… (the mini milk tarts and mince jaffle griddle toasties are divine, BTW).

Langebaan kitesurfing lagoon

The dreamy, desolate beauty of Langebaan Lagoon.

3 LANGEBAAN

The place where many learn to kitesurf is a 20-minute drive away, so off I went for a day of beach reading and kitesurf watching. The area has seen a lot of development since I was last there, thanks to the influx of kitesurfers, but the beach was still pretty quiet on the weekday I went. I found a seashell shop, called Neptune’s Cave, the likes of which I haven’t seen since childhood, which made my heart happy. And looking at the blue of the seascapes there made me completely get the West Coast’s particular appeal. I had mussels and a glass of vino at the beachfront bar this time, but would recommend going to Die Strandloper, if you’re after a serious seafood feast nearby.

dollhouse miniature

This grand little design beckons you in…

4 THE DOLLHOUSE SHOP

On my way out of town, I spotted a dollhouse outside shop next to Moose, another gift-shop-come-café popular with locals. What a find! Inside, there are haberdashery and craft items, alongside a row of dollhouse ‘box rooms’, including a garage, a fabric shop, a grocery store, and a medieval-style chamber, complete with four-poster bed. The book The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton, came to mind. I asked the owner/dollhouse-maker if she’d read it. (She had.) And she told me about the Mouse Mansion.

“Do you have daughters and granddaughters,” I asked.

“I do,” she replied. “But dollhouses and miniatures aren’t for children. They’re for adults.”

I tend to agree 🙂

tart tapas

5 T’ART

The homeowners were glad to have found someone who takes pet-sitting seriously, but they didn’t want me getting cabin fever, so they reminded me about the new local tapas spot (yes, you can even get tapas in small towns these days). T’Art is situated overlooking the river, at the town’s small theatre, Monte Christo. It’s currently only open on Wednesday and Friday evenings, and it’s BYO until they get their liquor licence. So take a good bottle and select titbits from the blackboard options, while the resident cat entertains you with his antics on the Moroccan-tiled stoep. I had octopus with potatoes, a veg phyllo pastry one, and the most delicious mini burgers I’ve ever eaten – seriously juicy! The chef, Werner, trained as a pastry chef, so if you like sweet things (I don’t), I’m told they’re to die for. (His pretty creations are also on sale at the Saturday market).

Hopefully, I’ll be back in Hopefield in Spring for the wildflowers and annual flower show, and to visit the fossil museum, and have a beer at Die Plaasmol.

EXTRAS:

  • If you’re interested in staying in the cottage of the property I looked after, check out the listing, here.
  • Read more on the architecture of Hopefield (and get a pear pavlova recipe!), here.
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A personal essay on the healing power of gardens, inspired by centenarian author Diana Athill

Athill

For years, my dear friend Rayne has urged me to read the memoirs of Diana Athill, the 100-year-old former literary editor and writer who penned her first memoir at 83.

As the MD of a company that provides catering for old-age homes, and the South African representative for the Eden Alternative, an international non-profit dedicated to changing the way elders are cared for, ageing with dignity is something Rayne is passionate about.

I resisted, and I’m not really sure why (likely owing to some deep-seated ageism or denial of my own mortality). But last year, when I was house- and pet-sitting for Rayne and his partner, I saw his collection of her books in his study, and felt ready.

As I’m facing 40 – single, childless, and not too happy about the state of my personal life – I’m desperate to hear stories of older women who’ve lived full lives despite never being married, nor experiencing motherhood.

So, somewhat reluctantly, I picked up Somewhere Towards the End (Granta), Athill’s Costa-prize-winning account of ageing.

I read it in almost one sitting. (Well, sitting’s not the right word, TBH. I was sun-tanning, butt naked, in a secluded spot in the garden.)

What I read gave me some hope. I appreciated Athill’s frank and upbeat way with words, and her love of earthly pleasures, late into life. Her thoughts on the importance of gardens, and gardening, inspired me to write this personal essay for the Bulbophile magazine…

A GARDEN (NOT) OF ONE’S OWN

In 1929, Virginia Woolf said women needed spaces of their own from which to write. Thankfully, the world has changed, and many women do. But in these urbanised, stressful times, having access to a garden is a luxury that should be appreciated.

It needn’t be your own. I’ve realised this recently. As I’m facing 40 as a single, childless woman, it’s been a year of contemplation, most of which has happened in a garden friends have ‘loaned’ to me, when I’ve looked after their pets while they travel.

Aptly named Shalimar, like the famous Lahor gardens, the garden is large, private, forest-like. It’s high on the slopes of a narrow valley, with views of the mountains across. I’ve relished the refuge it has provided, and the opportunity it has given me to be completely alone in nature, safe.

Shalimar gardens

One weekend, I sunbathed and read a memoir by former publisher Diana Athill, in which she says a garden a relative let her tend was a source of immense pleasure later on in her life as a single woman.

There’s much to be said for the generosity of those happy to share their gardens. When you’re feeling stuck, a garden gives you ‘time out of time’. Gazing over living greenery lets your mind drift, segueing with the rhythms of nature – the dash of a squirrel there, the dart of a bird there. Away from city noises, you become attuned to the tweeps of sociable birds, the cries of the geese who’ve taken over the owl house… it’s a surround-sound start to each day.

Indulging my senses and exploring the garden’s features has eased my anxiety. I’ve sat with my back to the trunk of a large pine and inhaled the scent of its needles; touched translucent leaves; sampled the tastes of the herb garden; watched the sun shine through the fluffy bottle brush.

My imagination has been revived by little details: the fantasy world of a gnarled tree stump; the colourful inside of a granadilla a bird had feasted upon; the potent plumes of a spunky caterpillar. I’ve been charmed by a row of nasturtiums rising optimistically despite being dwarfed by the pines, and bushes of proudly South African pincushions, arranged like a gospel choir.

succulents

Moving within a living ecosystem, like a figurine in a terrarium, has given me perspective. One calm Sunday, one of the dogs killed a squirrel. The flowers I was admiring last week have since wilted in the extreme drought we’re having; but the succulents live on, strong. And it’s roaring with rain as I write. Just yesterday, we evacuated as a mountain fire burned dangerously close. I thought the garden would be razed to the ground. But it lives. As do the little duck chicks I’m watching follow their mother.

Marvelling at the brutality and beauty of if all, in one garden, tells me not to be too sentimental about life’s passages. This garden – this life – is only ever ours on loan.

pine tree and lemon tree

To sample Athill’s writing, read her short UK Guardian article on the pleasure of gardening here.

 

 

 

Why it’s wise to plant a wild peach tree

A guided walk I took through Newlands Forest the other day, to identify indigenous Afromontane tree species, turned out to be uber interesting.

Did you know, for instance, that ‘Oom’ Jan Van Riebeek, the Dutch ‘founder’ of Cape Town, actually lived in Bishop’s Court, not the Castle, as widely believed? That the well-to-do Constantia moms fight with the council to remove bat poop, rich in seeds from the Outeniqua yellowood tree, from their crisp-white walls? Or that the iris was named after the Greek goddess of the rainbow?

Settler history, class gossip and Greek mythology aside, I also learnt a few things about local plants, such as: If there’s one indigenous tree you should plant in your Cape garden above all others, make it the wild peach.

Why?

As our guide Mark Hawthorne (great surname for a tree guide), from Table Mountain Treks and Tours, explained: “With Wild Peach in the garden, you create a whole ecosystem.”

Wild peach tree

Kiggelaria Africana / Wild peach tree

A Peachy World
Also known as Kiggelaria Africana, umKokoko (Xhosa), Lekgatsi (South Sotho), Monepenepe (North Sotho), wildeperske (Afrikaans), uMunwe (Zulu) and Muphatavhafu (Venda), the wild peach is a natural pioneer of the Afromontane forest. If an area is cleared of indigenous vegetation, it’ll likely be the first to return, paving the way for regeneration. They grow quickly, too, and are evergreen.

The wild peach attracts loads of birds and butterflies. On its leaves, we found these creepy critters – the caterpillar larvae of the Garden Acrea (Acraea horta) butterly that pollinates fynbos and has been so prolific in Cape Town of late.

In late October, the Oranjezicht City Farm posted on FB about the buttlerflies being all over their wild onion and trees in late October, getting a lot of responses from others who’d noticed a lot of them flitting round the city this spring.

The spiked caterpillar of the Acrea horta strip the wild peach of its leaves (Picture courtesy Wikipedia Commons)

The spiked caterpillar of the Acrea horta strip the wild peach of its leaves (Picture courtesy Wikipedia Commons)

In nature, things that are poisonous or dangerous often look that way. This punky fella is pumped full of the cyanide that laces the leaves of the wild peach. This is why the caterpillar is not popular snack for birds, apart from Klaas’s Cuckoos – “they’re the only birds that can stomach it,” said Mark.

Another bird that loves the wild peach is the sweet-looking Cape white-eye. And if you watch your tree closely, you may even spot the shy boomslang waiting to prey on it… The tree that brings wildlife to your back garden will last for years, and in its old age it will develop this sturdy-looking ‘elephant foot’.

Wild peach trunk

Majestic wild peach elder’s ‘foot’

Our guided walk ended at the ruins of Paradise (Paradys), the former master woodcutter’s house that later became the holiday house for Lady Anne Barnard, the British socialite, artist and travel writer who lived in the Cape, on the property that is now the Vineyard hotel, with her husband Andrew Barnard from 1797 to 1802.

At varsity I was lucky enough to be taught by Professor Margaret Lenta, one of the editors of The Cape Diaries of Lady Anne Barnard, which documented how the Cape’s ‘First Lady’ overcame challenges to keep living in the style she was accustomed to (I recall the #ColonialProblem of keeping meat fresh for dinner guests in the African heat).

If you fantasise about time travel like I do, you can read some of her writing here and here. SA writer Anjie Krog also became fascinated by voyeuristic traveller back in the 1980s and published a volume of poems titled Lady Anne.

Paradise ruins at Newlands forest

The site of the ruins of Lady Anne Barnard’s home, Paradise. Now overgrown, it once would have had epic views. To the left is a large poplar tree. They were brought to the Cape as a windbreak for the oaks.

Lady Anne Barnard's paradise

Here is Lady Anne Barnard’s drawing of Paradise back in its day.

Lady Ane Barnard's drawing of Paradise, Newlands Forest

Picture courtesy of Wiki Commons

Some other things I saw…

Diospyros whyteana

The glossy leaves of the Diospyros whyteana (bladder-nut tree)

Wild almond tree trunk

The wild almond tree was the first indigenous tree to be propagated by the Dutch. Apparently one of Jan Van Riebeeck’s favourite, it was used to form a dense boundary fence to stop the Khoikhoi from grazing their livestock in Dutch areas and is so seen by some as one of the earliest examples of apartheid. While we were here, we heard a fiery-necked nightjar call. “That’s one for the books”, said Mark, who has never heard one call during the day in his 30-odd years of working in conservation. Eery.

Wild iris

The brilliant blue Aristea capitata

Mark and camphor bush

Our guide, Mark, in front of a camphor bush, which attracts nesting birds. A second later, a crow and a Jackal Buzzard flew by.

Rooiels

The ‘praying hands’ (baby leaves) of the Rooiels (Cunonia capensis/Butterspoon), usually found along river banks and in waterfall ravines. The ‘spoons’ beneath them secrete a kind of sunscreen to protect the baby leaves from UV rays.

Cape lappett

The gorgeous caterpillar of the Cape Lappett moth looks good enough to stroke. (Luckily I learned that lesson in nursery school.)