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Town of Trinkets: Heidelberg, Gauteng

11 September 2012

  • Eland in the Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve

Heidelberg is one of those places that have been written about to death. Travel magazines, newspapers, tourist brochures, community handouts – you name it. Notwithstanding this, the quaint little town remains one of eternal potential, with folk tales and history being unearthed – and recorded – all the time

Text and photography: Leilani Basson

In the cradle of the old Witwatersrand, at the foot of the Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve, Heidelberg is a welcome sight in a dreary landscape of smog and washed out “Transvaal” winters. The highway is marked by repetitive signs of a crying antelope, warning about the dangers of veld fires.

It’s hard to imagine that elephants once roamed this valley and that trekbokke by the thousands frequented these plains in summer and trampled the dry, crusty earth to dust on their yearly migration to greener pastures.

While the rich Boer history of the town is well known and documented, the archaeological marvels and folk tales of Heidelberg and its surrounding district are seemingly forgotten, just as it has somehow faded from memory that this was once the capital of the Zuid- Afrikaansche Republiek.

From 1880 to 1883, the ZAR was an independent Boer-ruled state covering the area later known as Transvaal. It was annexed by Britain during the second Anglo-Boer War. Some of the original homesteads and buildings still stand.

In 1885, the Witwatersrand gold reef was discovered in the Heidelberg district and the office of the mining commissioner was established in the town. Today, Heidelberg still has its riches – gems in the form of people who make a difference, quietly go about their business, fight for the prosperity of the town and its future and defend its heritage.

Still very much an Afrikaans dorpie, Heidelberg is the hometown of many artists, entrepreneurs, singers and actors – people who are here to inspire and those who moved here to be inspired.

Inspiration, like dynamite, comes in small packages. Marinda Brown is testament to that. Hei Mev Brown (dit gaan goed) – the name of Laurika Rauch’s best-selling album and equally famous song of 2000 by the same name – is about this precise Mev Brown who lives and “hides” in Heidelberg. Few people
know that Mev Brown is not an enigma or a fictional character, but that she is an ex-Afrikaans teacher from Alberton who inspired a pupil so much that she wrote a song in her name. The songwriter, Marelise Scheepers, is a well-known musician and journalist for Sondag newspaper.

When you meet “Mev Brown” at the Diamante en Goud landmark in Bergeman Street, her undeniable muse-quality comes to the fore, and it’s plain to see that we are in dire need of more Mev Browns in the classrooms of this country. “Diamante en Goud is our favourite place in Heidelberg,” says Marinda. “For lunch, coffee with a friend, a business meeting, a really special piece of jewellery, a gift, a unique hat or scarf… you’ll find it here. “Whenever my husband and I buy gifts for one another, we buy them from Diamante en Goud. We support each other here in Heidelberg and the owners are dear friends of everyone in town.”

Diamante en Goud opened its doors in 1980. Owners Melinda and Christo van der Merwe created a unique trading post that serves as a goldsmith, diamond cutter, jewellery manufacturer, accessory and clothing boutique, bakery, coffee shop and restaurant. They also sell wooden furniture of the highest quality in a separate building on the same premises. Their quarterly night market that’s been going since 1991 lures people from far and near. The flamboyant and feisty Melinda is on the premises six days a week. She’s the sole buyer of all the goodies on sale and takes special care of the music that adds to the ambience that has made Diamante and Goud the respected success it is today.

If you need diamonds to be graded, want to change a piece of jewellery into something new, or have a string of pearls made, Diamante en Goud is your one-stop jewellery store.

Gerda Davel has the charisma of a mayor or politician – a Helen Zille type of presence. A respected businesswoman in Heidelberg, she launched Sucraihe Village Market in October last year. It is an upmarket fresh produce, homemade food and craft emporium that has become the income-earner for many residents. Heidelberg folk are industrious, creative and entrepreneurial, and don’t back off from a challenge.

The market is held on the first Saturday of every month at the famous Victorian House, where visitors can enjoy a glass of wine and plate of cheese on the lawn under the trees while listening to live classical music.

“The market has grown tremendously,” says Gerda, poised on a wooden chair in front of an impressive bookcase. “We are very picky about our exhibitors and what we allow on the market. Its success lies in the exclusivity and high-end feel.”

Jasmyn Kwekery, in Jacob Street, is a quaint little nursery that personifies happiness. Owner Annemarie Deysel is very much hands on and many people come here just for Annemarie. The quiche served at Die Ou Werf Koffiewinkel at the back of Jasmyn is delicious. Their cappuccino is the best. It is also here that you’ll find Mozambican entrepreneur Charles Jonam, quietly turning rusted doringdraad into works of art. In the wink of an eye, pliers in hand, he can create a miniature wire bicycle, a flowerpot, words of inspiration to hang in your kitchen, or a candle holder.

Charles has been “wiring it” for 13 years, and everyone in Heidelberg supports his business. His chandeliers hang in fancy restaurants and guesthouses, and he is often asked to make little goodies for weddings and parties.

“It was really hard to get a job,” says Charles, his smile and gentle manner prompting respect and admiration. “When I was a child, I made wire trucks and cars, and when the children broke their toys they would bring them back to me and say I was ‘the garage’, and must fix them.
“I drew on that and started experimenting with all kinds of wire. I made little things that I started hawking here in Heidelberg.
“I soon got my first order of 30 candle holders that someone bought to sell in their shop in Johannesburg.” He laughs at the thought. “They were horrible, those candle holders!”

Today Charles can’t think of having just another job. “I prefer this one. I have come such a long way and I love what I’m doing.”

A frequent visitor to the tranquillity of Jasmyn – and the palate pleasers on the menu, is Flip van Rensburg, a local artist. His studio used to be here at Jasmyn, but since demand for his work has increased so much, he has moved to the old waenhuis at the historic AG Visser Museum.

Flip is well known for his paintings of especially old suitcases, and his work is sold at galleries and markets all over the country. He does a lot of commissioned work and has the knack of turning old doors and pieces of throw-away wood into the most beautiful art that is suitable for hanging outside on a patio – waterproofed and ready to hose down. Really.