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Calvinia: Town in a Time Warp

20 August 2014

* In this new regular feature sponsored by Toyota Hilux, we visit some of South Africa’s most interesting towns. In this  installment, Editor Jannie Herbst visits Calvinia.
Read more about our Toyota Hilux #Where2next? competition.

The Karoo town of Calvinia, nestled in the Hantam Mountains, is a place where you can allow yourself to be “transported” to the past while still having the best of modern society at four fingertips. Jannie Herbst, camera in hand, spent a weekend visiting this gem and its people

A topic that is often debated by those of us who earn our daily bread at Leisure Wheels is why so many South Africans holiday overseas, at great expense and with lousy exchange rates, when there is so much to see and do in this country.

Whoever it was who coined the phrase ‘a world in one country’ hit the nail on the head. It would appear, however, that a vast majority of our citizens don’t take advantage of the treasures that are to be found a little off the beaten track.

This is unfortunate, for a number of reasons. Apart from the scenic wonders our country has to offer, exploring locations that hitherto have been names on a map provides travellers with a South African history lesson, brings them into contact with some wonderful characters and does the economy no harm.

In recent issues we have explored Groot Marico and Kakamas, and this time around our Toyota Hilux took us to Calvinia, 470 kilometres north of Cape Town by tar road, in the Northern Cape. Our route took us from Johannesburg via Upington to Calvinia – a small town cradled by the Hantam mountains.

As is the case with many other small South African towns, Calvinia was founded by a Dutch Reformed Church congregation which purchased 1 200 hectares of a farm owned by Abraham van Wyk. Hantam is a Khoisan word but when the town was officially established in 1851, the first reverend of the congregation put forward the suggestion the town should be named after religious reformer Johan Calvin.

With accommodation at a premium that weekend courtesy of a group of American bird watchers, our first port of call was the Tarantula self catering complex. At R290 per person per night it turned out to be great value and, with the cold front in mind, the air conditioning unit was the first appliance to attract our attention.

A drink to wash away the stains of travel was also indicated, and we paid a visit to the local pub at the Calvinia Hotel where we made acquaintance with barman Sas Lochner. According to Sas knowing your beer brands, and the ability to pour a double brandy and coke, are the only qualifications you need to be a barman in Calvinia.

We point out the shelves are also stocked with brands like Remy Martin, Contreau and other alcoholic delights. Sas merely shrugs.

“Those brands have been on the shelf for as long as I can remember, but even my boss does not know what I should charge,” Sas said. If we want we can have a shot of Remy at R15, and he tells us of the time a group of “young girls from Transvaal” ordered a round of Black Russians.

“I had no clue what they wanted, but said they could mix the drinks themselves,” said Sas. “In this part of the world we always make a plan!”

The next morning we were advised to pay a visit to Dirk and Sonja van Rensburg. We were told to look for a “scrap yard looking place” on the left in Stigling Street – and stumbled on one of the most unusual dwellings you will find anywhere.

The sidewalk and the walls, windows and roof of the house are decorated with anything from old shoes to bits of bicycles and old road signs. We find Dirk in the back yard working on an old Lister engine, and with his long hair, beaded jacket and hippie jewellery he reminded us of the early 60s.

Dirk and Sonja arrived in Calvinia in 2000 to find calmness and fill a void. It worked for them and Dirk has transformed into a collector of note.

“When we got here Dirk felt sorry for the locals and started offering them cash for the wonderful items they perceived as junk,” said Sonja. Every nook and cranny in the house is taken up by bits and pieces and, if you are into vintage bric a brac, you will feast on a treasure trove.

One of Dirk’s favourite pieces is an old gramophone. He cranks the handle, places an old 78rpm disc on the turntable and carefully lowers the needle onto the vinyl.

As the crackling sounds of the Elis classic “Are you lonesome tonight?” fill the room Dirk’s face lights up with joy.

“Isn’t that wonderful,” he beams. “I could play all these old records all day long.”

The house also has a ‘party’ area with a huge fireplace and barbecue with the walls decorated with artwork. Dirk proudly informs us that all the works are Sonja’s and that American artist Norbert H Cox – best known for his religious works – travelled all the way to Calvinia to look at the paintings.

“Norbert stayed here for more than four months, and was later joined by his son,” said Dirk. “Since we got here we have not stopped playing.”

But it is not all play for Dirk. He is also Calvinia’s bread and pie baker, and in the bakery adjacent to the house staff is preparing dough for the following day’s orders with deliveries over a wide area in the Hantam.

There is also a story attached to the 1994 Toyota Hilux that covers the delivery route. Bought as a farm pick-up the Hilux has an astonishing 550 000 kilometres on the clock. “And at the end of June this year it has delivered 2, 016,445 loaves of bread – and thousands of pies too.”

That sets Dirk off on another tangent. The famous ‘Oom Daan Pasteie’ mutton pies are synonymous with the area, and are a hit with travellers who pass through Calvinia.

Dirk’s three sons owns bakeries in Kakamas, Williston and Kenardt – all of them trading as Bakes Bakery – with one of them acquiring the ‘Oom Daan’ recipe. So impressed are travellers that they often buy the entire stock – sometimes up to 50 pies.

As we take our leave Dirk notices two homeless people sitting on the sidewalk. Each of them is given a loaf of bread.

“We make sure that every day we also bake enough bread for the have nots,” said Dirk. “There is always someone who needs a loaf of bread.”

Later that evening we were to make acquaintance with the jewel in Calvinia’s crown, and meet a remarkable couple who, almost singlehanded, have restored much of the town to what it must have been like in the mid 1850s. Dr Erwin and Alta Coetzee turned their backs on big city life in 1980, and bought a smallholding on the outskirts of Calvinia.

Three years later the Coetzee’s bought a rundown old house in Hope Street. Hantam Huis dates back to 1854, making it the oldest authentic house in Calvinia, with the interior of the building in remarkably good condition.

Over the next 10 years Erwin and Alta painstakingly researched the restoration of Hantam Huis. As far as was possible the craftsmen employed on the restoration project used the same tools and material available way back in the 1850s.

As far as Erwin is concerned restoration is not about how much money you throw at a project. Too much money can, in fact, ruin such an undertaking.

“Restoration is not money but love, dedication and attention to detail,” said Erwin. “You must not lose sight of how the original owner intended his home to function.”

Hantamhuis is now a national monument and incorporates a thriving restaurant, a museum and curio shop. More important, however, is that Hantam Huis takes us back in time, and provides a nostalgic peek into the South Africa of yesteryear.

Our dinner at Hantam Huis was superb. Mutton pie and mutton green bean stew – accompanied by the obligatory merlot – were followed by cheesecake with Erwin and Alta delightful dinner companions. The Hantam Huis restaurant caters for breakfast, lunch and dinner and is also the ideal venue for family or corporate functions.

It is no surprise to learn mutton on the spit is a favourite choice for family and corporate functions, and there is a wide choice of home baked breads, cakes and other goodies. The museum provides an insight into the history of the area, while the curio shop is stocked with a wide range of mementoes and handcrafted goods.

Erwin is the Calvinia district surgeon but not content with restoring Hantam Huis to its former glory, he and Alta have bought and restored a number of other historic buildings in the town. Dorphuis and Tuishuis have been transformed into luxurious guest houses fitted with period furniture, which offers a stunning contrast with amenities like electricity, hot and cold running water and satellite television.

Apart from the historical value of the restoration projects they also provided job opportunities and extra income within the local community. For their conservation efforts Erwin and Alta were rewarded in 1993 when they were awarded the Cape Times Centenary Medal, and their work has been a boost for Calvinia’s growing status as a tourist destination.

As predicted by the locals the cold front, instead of moving on, appeared to have settled in. Our final day in Calvinia started with sub zero temperatures, with the Toyota Hilux’s heater called into service on our way to pay a call to artists Jorg and Corne Genzmer, who live in a house that takes up an entire block.

It is not difficult to work out that Jorg is originally from Germany. He and Corne arrived in Calvinia by way of Nambia and Johannesburg with extensive experience with advertising agencies as creative illustrators, graphic designers and photographers.

Nowadays their combined artistic juices are channelled into designing and making unusual and incredibly beautiful wooden ‘African Window’ frames. Their work is inspired by African tribal cultures, and they utilise items like beads, copper and shells to adorn frames made from wood from northern Namibia that is guaranteed not to crack.

The frames are works of art that take months of painstaking work to complete. Jorg is responsible for conceptualisation and the carving of designs, and says he draws inspiration from tribes from throughout Africa.

Once Jorg is finished with his side of matters, Corne takes over and this is where her design talents and huge patience come to the fore. Each frame is adorned with fastened or free hanging beads, shells, Makalani palm nuts, Nguni horns or engraved copper.

The pair work side by side winter and summer. In winter they work near a big fire with a variety of dogs and cats scattered around, and in a Karoo summer a fan is indispensable.

The finished window frames are carefully packaged for destinations like the United States and a host of European nations. They even have customers in Greenland.

Our little trips with the Toyota Hilux to towns like Groot Marico, Kakamas and Calvinia have been food for the soul. Among the locals, however, there is a common feeling that travellers see small towns like Kakamas and Calvinia purely as overnight destinations.

There are always historic and unusual places to visit in areas around small towns, and an extra day or two exploring hidden South Africa is a pleasurable break from city life. The next time you sit down to plan the annual family holiday forget about the Costa Bravo, the Algarve, exotic islands, fancy game lodges and Durban and Cape Town.

Grab a map book of South Africa and get out there and explore a new world that is right on your doorstep.


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