PONGOLA, KWA-ZULU NATAL
Visiting Pongola is like attending a bazaar where you get to play tombola over and over again, until you win something really nice. But it hasn’t always been like this. The success and very existence of the town were in doubt until, one day, the wheel stopped on “sugar cane”, and the life-giving crop changed its life forever
Text: Leilani Basson
Photography: Jannie Herbst
A sweet experience indeed. It is impossible to leave Pongola without a feeling of enrichment, fulfilment and knowing that you will be back. Soon.
Apart from the tourist attractions, holiday feel and tropical climate; it is a place rich in history – archaeological, geological and cultural. It’s also a treasure trove of interesting people just waiting to meet you.
Pongola’s roots lie in the severe drought and struggle of the Great Depression, when a water scheme was built to provide jobs – not only for the newly unemployed but also for people who had suffered in poverty since the First World War.
Construction of the dam and canals started in 1932 and the scheme was completed in 1935. It was, however, only ten years later, after many years of agricultural trials and errors, that Pongola’s fate was decided. The region was found to be perfect for sugar cane farming and has since remained one of the biggest producers of sugar in the country.
Today sugar milling is still the artery that gives life to Pongola’s people – directly or indirectly. The town simply would not exist without the TSB Sugar Mill.
Oom Josef and Tannie Petro Reynolds have been in Pongola for 55 years. Willie’s father was one of the workers on the water scheme who received a piece of land from the state in the wake of the Great Depression.
“Most of these people knew nothing about farming,” says Willie, a serious man who seems as tough and durable as the succulents in his garden.
“The would-be farmers, who received lots of land, were really office workers who had lost their jobs. They had no option other than to roll up their sleeves and make a success of what was given to them.
“Farming is not an easy business. Those were hard times,” says Willie. “There were no cars or telephones. If you had a bicycle you were lucky.”
Ironically, Rynold Steenkamp (or Klippies, as everyone knows him) is a farmer who turned into a wildlife artist. Klippies, a lovely man with a zest for life, is a pecan nut farmer.
After a few years of establishing his plantations, he now has the perfect set-up to do what he loves: painting. And don’t think that those hands that can stroke a canvas so gently for hours on end cannot do a real man’s work. Klippies built a beautiful studio cum gallery cum coffee shop on the highest part of his land, ensuring the finest view around. And his Art Gallery Coffee Shop offers the best pecan nut tart you’ll have in your lifetime.
Klippies also turns old and tired Land Rover Defenders into trophy vehicles that collectors and Defender fans would pay a pretty penny for – if only he would sell them!
Klippies laughs about his double life. “I’m proving that it is possible to make a living from my paintings,” he says.
With a degree in political science and experience as a professional hunter in Tanzania, among other things, Klippies has come a long way to reach the point where he can now do what he loves most.
His paintings are snapped up by foreign tourists, and the locals say his work improves with every piece.
Klippies gives space in his studio to showcase other artists. Vintcent Groenewald is one of them.
Pongolites have a knack for making something from nothing. Vintcent has no qualifications, or even formal training in pottery. His father built him his first pottery wheel when he was in primary school, and over the years he has “paid a lot of school fees” in perfecting his technique.
A visit to his workshop is a must for visitors to Pongola. Although he specialises in big ground pots, he makes unusual basins with various designs to order.
“You know you are getting somewhere in pottery when you stop questioning the job and the job questions you,” he says wryly. Many lives and loves are embedded in the wrinkles of his craggy face.
Some of Vintcent’s pots have found their way to Melani Giezing, Pongola’s much loved, flamboyant and eccentric fashionista. Although she is more of a glass artist, Melanie can give a clay pot a luxury look with a special leather “wrap” technique she has perfected.
“Give me a shaving of glass, a shard of ceramic and a piece of leather and I will make you something really pretty,” Melanie smiles.
The gold star in her front tooth, the bulky black ring on her finger and the larger than life charms on her silver bracelet personify her boldness. Her mauve fingernails match the camisole under the black lace number she’s wearing.
Melanie’s clothing range – silky, loose fitting, almost frilly dresses, blouses and skirts — are a hit in Pongola, and many women in town are seen wearing them.
Boutiques from all over the country place orders for her designs. Other special orders include the exceptional riding jackets of the local Cane Riders bikers’ club. It is probably the only bikers’ jacket made of springbok hide.
The thousands upon thousands of beads, bling and buttons neatly stacked in her factory surely serve as an inspiration for visitors. It is hard to resist an overwhelming feeling to “create something” when you visit Melanie.
Another part of her business is making quilts. She has a full team of ladies from the community whom she has trained and who now make a living out of quilts.
Melanie’s work has been featured in quite a few magazines. Garden and Home, Country Life and even Landbouweekblad, have written about her.
Arthur Duvenage is another colourful character. He manufactures boats and collects vintage vehicles. Some of the most sought-after vehicles that collectors can only dream of are safely parked in Arthur’s shed. Many of them were in bits and pieces when he acquired them. He has rebuilt and restored them with patient dedication.
One of his favourites is a 1911 Model T Ford. Arthur recently undertook a 1400km trip in the Ford, which included the Swartberg Pass, as part of the 200th anniversary celebrations for the town of George.
“I was not born here,” says Arthur, when asked about his life. “I was an electronics technician for many years and lived in Kempton Park.
“When television started in South Africa in 1976, it was said that the people of Pongola would never see TV. There were some, well, technical issues, that made it seem impossible to get a signal.
“I decided that I would give these people TV and the pleasure of watching Haas Das se Nuuskas, and moved to Pongola to implement everything needed to make TV happen in this part of the world.”
Arthur built his first boat in 1972, and there was no stopping him after that. He established D7 Boating – a specialist speed, deep sea fishing and ski boat manufacturing company. The name of the company reflects the seven Duvenages in the family — and the venture became a fulltime business now being run by his son, Hansie.
Arthur’s revolutionary – and patented — two-hulled ski-boat design, called Unique, is extremely popular and a trademark of D7 Boating. “Now that I am retired, I only build boats and buy and restore beautiful old cars,” says Arthur.
The steady income from sugar cane has enabled many residents to start up their own businesses. It is difficult not to make the assumption that everyone has a little plantation in the back yard that makes their “other” lives possible.
Pongola Tropical Palm Nursery belongs to Doulina Slabbert. Her Hemelse Koek (toffee, nut and chocolate) and Prentjie-koffie (cappuccino with an image sprinkled onto the froth with cocoa) is the highlight of many residents’ week.
The private forest on the property must be one of the most magical nurseries in SA. It could easily be a place where novels and poems are born.
Another haven of sorts is Dweba Lapa. Laurie and Nicky Bregge bought this lovely piece of land a few years ago as a weekend getaway for their family. Laurie then decided that he wants his own waterfront, so he built a 10ha dam with canals where the family can fish, kayak, ski and do whatever water sport they fancy.
Friends and family fell in love with the place, and it was clear that it had limitless economic potential. So Dweba Lapa (Dweba means “here we catch fish”) was established, with waterfront lodges where visitors can sit on their private stoep with their fishing lines in the water.
Add Nicky’s culinary talents, and Dweba becomes a choice destination for weddings, reunions, parties and special functions.
It is indeed a manmade paradise that offers a three-star experience for anyone looking for a getaway, and particularly fishermen and watersport enthusiasts.
The beauty of Pongola is that everyone knows one another and everyone works together to promote the town as a leisure destination. From the friendly staff at the Pongola News to the manager of the Pongola Country Lodge – just ask, and they’ll point you in the right direction to meet the people and experience the village at its best.
Here’s a list of some of the people and places that “make” Pongola, compiled with the help of Colette Liebenberg and Martelie Combrink at the Pongola News.
Pongola News: 034 413 2199, [email protected]
Klippies Steenkamp: www.rynoldsteenkamp.co.za
Pongola Tropical Palm nursery: 084 510 2136, www.pongolatropical.co.za
D7 Boating: 034 413 1496, www.d7boating.com
Melanie Giezing: 076 549 8252
Dweba Lapa: 082 788 6933, [email protected]
Pongola Country Lodge: 034 413 1352, www.ponolacountrylodge.co.za
Vintcent’s Pottery: 072 749 9928
Tiger fishing info: 034 413 2256, www.sodwanahengelklub.co.za
DID YOU KNOW?
In 1899 the Anglo Boer War brought strife to the region and resulted in the abandonment of the newly-established Pongola Game Reserve. For many years, financial problems, confused boundaries and political arguments made the continuance of the nature reserve a problem. After the First World War, settlers started planting crops, building houses and laying railway lines, but droughts and disease hampered this expansion. For almost three years there was also a bitter struggle to survive against sleeping sickness and the tsetse fly.
Believing that the wild animals brought the tsetse fly, settlers decided to destroy the animals. By 1940 the game was gone but the tsetse fly remained.
In 1948 the war against the tsetse fly was finally won through the use of the DDT insecticide, which later became notorious. Cattle flourished and sugar cane farms expanded along the course of the Pongola River.
The construction of the Jozini Dam in Pongola began in 1970 but it was a flawed venture that caused considerable controversy.
Finally, in 1993, fences were dropped and game was re-introduced into the Pongola area. Elephant herds were re-located into the reserve.
- Source: www.kznnorthhappenings.co.za/pongola