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Ghosts, grapes and garments

27 May 2011

Text: Leilani Basson
Photography: Jannie Herbst

After winding through Meiringspoort, entering Prince Albert is like falling into a rabbit hole – an Alice in Wonderland experience where things seem rather surreal, magical and almost animated. It’s far removed from the South Africa we see on the daily news that is rife with service delivery protests, violence, victimisation and general decay.

Prince Albert is pristine – as are the hearts of the people who stay here, making a living from what they believe is possible… against all odds.

Prince Albert is a town of dreams. Many locals migrated from the Sodom and Gomorrahs of the world to this untainted place rich in culture, character and charisma. Entrepreneurs and opportunity seekers utilise every inch of earth for the betterment of the community, the encouragement of tourism and their own prosperity.

Even the shadowy graveyard at the doorway to the town, stretching to the sidewalks, is a testament to Prince Albert’s industrial spirit. It has been turned into a business. A ghost tour led by Ailsa Tudhope – storyteller and accredited guide – has been going for seven years and is mostly fully booked.

Past the graveyard, the main road meanders through meadows with downy donkeys gingerly grazing about. A bright pink signboard catches the eye: “Lah-di-dah”, it reads. “A Fancy Farmstall”.

Yvette Breedt is as fancy as her farmstall. Her soft eyes sparkle with pride as she serves customers and hurriedly dishes up a little chat with locals. She’s been here since 2008 – an import from Joburg. Hubby is a production designer for films in Cape Town. His movie props and other film paraphernalia give Lah-di-dah the kind of flair that is hard to emulate.

The decor had been collected over many years. Gorgeous handbags and flirty summer dresses that put Sandton boutiques to shame decorate shelves and hat stands with other must-have items from who knows where.

The restaurant side is buzzing. Yvette’s famous burgers are paraded from the kitchen and carefully laid out on the wooden tables on the stoep by friendly staff.

“Lekker eet, Mevrou,” says Truitjie. “Maar volgende keer moet Mevrou een van onse lekker pies ook eet.”

While we are taking pictures of the old-world display on the lawn, a bald, bearded but beautiful man strolls past – as if on air. He seems weightless. Wearing white shorts with a matching pashminah elegantly dangling down to his knees, he is the epitome of eccentricity.

“That’s David Blackie,” says Yvette. “He’s a Buddhist artist. You must speak to him. His serenity makes you think, doesn’t it? ”

A while later, we find David (perfectly-postured and legs crossed) on a wooden bench on the voorstoep of the True Karoo Gallery Shop. He keeps his composure when he greets us, and shakes hands without getting up.

David’s voice is as tranquil as his surroundings. He hosts meditation and sounding workshops to help “lost souls” reconnect with their inner voices – to find the resonance of their true selves.

He is also a picture framer. He has a connection with wood – with the earth, as it were.

While we’re talking to David, an unconventional-looking Denise Potter, boisterous owner of Karoo Kombuis, pops in to collect her framed picture. She has pink hair, and her lips are even pinker.

Gallery CafĂ© is huddled in the gracious Victorian building across the road from the Tourist Info Centre – The Seven Arches. It looks more like a hotel than the actual Prince Albert Hotel does. The bottom part of the building is a gallery; the top a grand restaurant. Both belong to Brent Philips-White, a subdued executive chef and local entrepreneur.

Brent is a “locavore” in every sense. He uses only local figs, cheese, cream, honey, lamb, game, chicken and vegetables to create the tapestry of tastes that has earned his reputation. Desserts include Belgian-style chocolates and a selection of homemade ice creams and sorbets.

There is no menu. Every day is different. Brent arrives at the table with a framed chalkboard giving the day’s fare. There’s a faint smile and a tinge of excitement as he explains every dish in detail. Brent is all show… and not really tell.

One of the downstairs rooms of The Seven Arches is where Yolande Singery shares her love of ostrich eggs with those in the market for something different. Her business is called Karoo Hues and the products she sells are from the Avoova range.

“Hundreds of shards of broken eggshells are painstakingly selected and placed in individual designs, ranging from bangles and buckles to bowls and furniture,” she explains. “Anything ostrich is a great souvenir of a trip to the Karoo – especially for overseas visitors.”

The gallery section is where we bump into JP Meyer, an artist specialising in abstract, repetitive themes. What makes JP interesting is that he started his artistic career at 36. He left a job in aviation and enrolled for a degree in fine arts. He is now 51. A good 51. There is a youthfulness about him, a carefree element that makes you feel you also want to pack up and leave the big city to pursue your dreams even if, like JP, you have to work as a waiter at night to help make ends meet.

“A trip to Australia in 2009 and an encounter with Aboriginal artists and their work convinced me to move back to the Karoo, after I’d lived in a Buddhist hermitage for three years,” says JP.

“The Karoo is one of the richest archaeological areas of the world. I’m fascinated by the relationship between landscapes and humans – how each affects the other; how geology and palaeontology can illuminate the mysteries of human evolution.”

In his modest house at the foot of the koppie, JP spends his incense-filled days in a room with a pressed ceiling and Oregon pine floors. There are bare canvasses, white animal skulls, dried bushes and wet paint brushes. Life in Prince Albert is a blessing, and it produces people like JP.

In the one and a half day we spent in Prince Albert, we also stopped at the Karoo Slaghuis for a chat with Johan Fourie; we dropped in at SoetKaroo Wine Estate, where grapes are grown on a one hectare town farm and wine is produced in a garage – by a woman. Susan Perold redefines the concept of “hand-crafted”. She’s a character worth spending more than just an afternoon with.

At the local spinnery, Karoo Looms, we rub shoulders with Petro Klaasen, a real life hand-spinner who has been pushing the pedal of a spinning wheel for the last 16 years. It’s fascinating to watch the klossies of goat’s hair turn into yards and yards of yarn. Rumpelstiltskin comes to mind.

We stop at Mix – an eclectic coffee and vintage clothing and accessory shop – for some homemade ginger beer. We buy sweets for the road from Wimpels Takeaway, and then, as we are leaving the town of dreams, we are brought to a stop by a blue 1967 Cadillac Sedan de Ville behind the gates of a residence guarded by two lion statues in the same metallic blue.

Oom Gabriel Breytenbach is a vintage vehicle collector. He owns more than 14 epoch cars, among them a few Model T Fords that are more than 100 years old.

“My cars have been used in many films and TV adverts,” he boasts.

Under canvas covers in the back yard, many more “waiting-to-be-restored” vehicles can be found hibernating for the time being.

Oom Gabriel is also clock maker. Though he is 74, his work is flawless. “Give me any piece of wood and I will turn it into a clock,” he laughs.

Time was ticking and we had to rush to reach our next destination by nightfall. The combination of characters, architecture, culinary craftsmanship and unique concept stores in Prince Albert demands at least four or five days to be fully unearthed.

We never got to meet the ghost lady, attend “Art after Dark” hosted by Hennie Boshoff, go on an astro tour with Hans and Tilani Daehne, or take a nature walk. We didn’t get to the wine tasting at Bergwater Vineyards, try Gay van Hasselt’s Guernsey cows’ cheese or visit any of the fig and olive farms.

The gurgling water canals, channelling their way alongside us as we left, added to our gloom. Water is the very reason for the existence of the town.

We never made it to the museum that tells the tale of its humble beginnings. Recording modern history is, however, what we have tried to do. For the earlier history of Prince Albert, remember to Google before you come – on that extended stay, of course.