A new, ‘must-stop’ on the R45 between the N1 & Franschhoek

For many years, there’ve been two sad old buildings full of potential on the R45 between the N1 and Franschhoek.  One of them used to house the old Groot Drakenstein post office.

Landscape architect Danie Steenkamp bought the property recently and has given it a new lease on life, selling the one building to Vicki Bell for her antique and collectable shop and keeping the other building for his, an architect’s and lawyers offices… and the Ou Meul Bakery that will become a new compulsory stop on the R45.

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The old Groot Drakenstein Handelshuis, and one-time post office, is now the grand old lady on the R45 from the N1 to Franschhoek.

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Pniel’s home-grown entrepreneur

Elrico Pietersen was born in Pniel on the slopes of the Simonsberg and went to Pniel Primary School and then Kylemore High School, a few kilometres up the road.  “I wasn’t one of the lucky ones to go away to school — my mother is a baker with two children,” he says.

Elico Pietersen and Sammy of Bikes at Boschendal

Elrico Pietersen and Sonny of Bikes at Boschendal.  Elrico is the entrepreneur and Sonny is a bike mechanic/tour guide who has done the Cape Epic and rides for South Africa in MTB cycling.

Elrico ran two businesses while he was in high school, both game shops which sold other necessities in “The Scheme”, the part of Pniel where he lived. “Game shops?” I asked.  They offered video games for kids with little else to do.  Elrico started identifying opportunities early on.

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Snoozy snake survives to slither in the mountain reserves

I wasn’t too thrilled to find a snake in the outbuilding that houses my solar batteries and inverter yesterday afernoon.  And since I know nothing about snakes, I posted a photo of it to find out what it is.  Well… everybody on Facebook seems to know far more about snakes than I do and I was bombarded with suggestions… like “coaxing it into a bag”. Yeah, no thanks.

And then Adele Toua who manages the Simonsberg Conservancy put me in touch with someone and he offered to take it away this morning.  And that’s how I met Kobus Smit of the Cape Reptile Institute.

I don’t know what I was expecting but I think some drama was at the top of the list.  But hardly a minute later Kobus had it in the tube and it was all done.

South African Puff Adder

“A nice big boy” was Kobus’ first comment. But this big boy needed to be prodded to wake up.

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Spectacular Sunday morning first light

If there’s one thing this south-western corner of the African continent really has going for it, it is the quality of light.  Add to the that the confluence of two oceans and spectacular mountains, and one has light displays that are hard to beat.

These were my views from home yesterday morning before the sun had even properly risen… it was at first light.  The first view is across three mountain ranges to the Matroosberg on the other side of Worcester.  The second two are towards Franschhoek.

First light on Boschendal First light on Boschendal First light on Boschendal

What a great little village Pniël could be!

When CapeInfo was deciding on the most beautiful drive in South Africa, Helshoogte came up tops for every reason — the ever changing views in every season, the dramatic mountain vistas and the things to do on the route.  On the Stellenbosch side of the Pass, there are views back to Table Mountain.  From the top and on the eastern side, there are views across four mountain ranges (and all the way to the other side of Worcester.)  The attractions are anchored by Delaire Graff, Tokara and Thelema on the one side and and Boschendal and Solms-Delta on the other.

And in between there’s Pniël — a delightful little village with a rich history… but little to offer the traveller.  Yes, there is the historic church as well as the fascinating Pniël Museum with its peaceful tea garden, but you need to check that they are open if you’re planning to visit — their opening times are erratic.

Pniël Congregational Church

Pniël Congregational Church — the heart and soul of the village.

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It’s time to really start promoting small entrepreneurs

I live close to the villages of Pniel, Lanquedoc and Kylemore outside Stellenbosch.  Now that’s not an area where you find a booklet advertising local services — which is what I really needed when I arrived there.  If there was, the small businesses there are probably so small they probably wouldn’t be able to afford the advertising costs.  So, I ended up using services in Paarl and Stellenbosch.

Then, when my bakkie needed new front disk pads and I really didn’t feel like trekking into Stellenbosch, leaving the bakkie while the repairs are done and collecting it later.  So I asked the security company on Boschendal which seems to know the local community if they knew of anybody. Continue reading

The biggest party in Africa… and a tribute to a legendary party-maker

Have Cape Town’s First Thursdays become the biggest monthly party on the African continent?  On the First Thursday of every month, shops in Cape Town’s CBD stay open till 9pm and the city is taken over by partygoers.  Peak-hour traffic starts at 5pm into the city; pavements are jam-packed, traffic regulations are bent and there is a festive spirit second to none.

Cape Town First Thursdays

Sidewalks are thronged with people enjoying Cape Town’s CBD

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The best gift for your laptop… and yourself!

It’s the best spend I’ve ever made!  For just on R2,000, my 4½ year old laptop is far, far faster than it’s ever been.  Replacing your old hard drive with a Solid State Disk (SSD) is the best thing you can do for any computer.  And you won’t have to hold your breath waiting for things to open.

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What is your favourite Drive in SA?

Deciding on the Most Beautiful Drive in South Africa is no easy task!  Clarence Drive – between Gordons Bay and Rooi Els, alongside mountains and ocean – should be on any shortlist. And so could the Long Tom Pass and Blyde River Canyon in Mpumalanga, Magoesbaskloof in Limpopo, and… well, why don’t you let us have your suggestions?
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View of Simonsberg mountain from Bartinney Private Cellar on the slopes of Botmanskop

We’ve decided the Very Best Drive in South Africa is Helshoogte Pass between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.  You can’t beat the drama of those iconic mountains and row upon row of vineyards and fruit trees – which change from season to season, day to day, and hour by hour.

There are incredible places to eat and stay, wines to taste and mountain bike routes to delight.  It is a gastronomic and visual feast.  Click here to read more

And what is yours?

What’s in a name? Everything!

Only politicians, bureaucrats and the foolish think that when they choose a name to brand a destination, they have the makings of a successful brand. They usually choose what they regard as a “safe” name, catering for all interests, ignoring everything that is already well-established.

And without the budgets of Unilever or SA Breweries, or  a carefully created brand strategy, they believe their new brand will take root just on their say-so.

For some time now, I’ve driven Helshoogte Road (R312) between Boschendal and Stellenbosch almost daily, and I’m convinced that this is one of the most stunning drives in South Africa. It passes the villages of Pniel, Jacobsdal and Kylemore through the Banhoek Valley.  With the anchors of Delaire Graff and Tokara at the top of Helshoogte Pass and Boschendal at the Franschhoek side of the road, and much in between, it is a destination in its own right.

Banhoek Valley from the top of Helshoogte Pass 5km outside Stellenbosch.

Banhoek Valley from the top of Helshoogte Pass 5km outside Stellenbosch.

This area has been named Dwarsrivier Tourism from the name of the river that runs through the valley.  It’s yet another case where tourism is not aligned to the destination.

Dwarsrivier is hardly unique in South Africa and is definitely not the area’s best known feature.  The old Bangehoek (anglicised to Banhoek) and Helshoogte are what most people still refer to when talking about the area.

Helshoogte Pass

Stellenbosch's outgoing mayor, Conrad Sidego, gave me this book yesterday as a thank you gift.  It is a stunning book, and just reinforces our thinking about this area.

Stellenbosch’s outgoing mayor, Conrad Sidego, gave me this book yesterday as a thank you gift. It is a stunning book, and just reinforces our thinking about this area.

CapeInfo has added Banhoek Valley over Helshoogte Pass as a new destination, ignoring Dwarsrivier Tourism as the area’s name.  We have written to the manager of the tourism organisation explaining what we’re doing but haven’t received any response or acknowledgement.

We decided to use Banhoek instead of the old Banghoek or Bangehoek since the conservancy covering the area has been named Banhoek.  And we’ve included the use of Helshoogte for it’s uniqueness and the memory of the old winding pass planted with bluegum trees to stop cars driving over the edge.  (Does anybody have the story of how those trees came to be planted?)

Some people have suggested we should be using the original Bangehoek as the name.  What do you think?

Could Elgin become SA’s adventure capital?

Why is Elgin so often overlooked as a destination? Revisiting Elgin after a long time with a media group really got me thinking. It’s so close to the city, especially the Helderberg suburbs; it has spectacular scenery and natural beauty; there are wine estates of renown; and there are so many vibey places to go.  But it was when Jody Aufrichtig of Old Mac Daddy asked the question why Elgin can’t become the adventure capital of South Africa that I really started thinking.

It was the Cape Country Connect Experience 2016 organised by Cape Country Meander.  Each year they host the event in one of the Overberg towns which form part of the Meander — Botriver, Caledon, Genadendal, Elgin, Greyton, Riviersonderend, Tesselaarsdal and Villiersdorp.  It is a platform where local suppliers from across the Theewaterskloof area have the opportunity to introduce and showcase their products and services to local and neighbouring product owners in the hospitality industry.

One couldn’t have wished for a better scene-setter than The Pool Room at Oak Valley Estate — one of the valley’s largest and most diversified farms with wine, fruit, cattle, pigs and flowers. Really memorable wines accompanied each course and were presented by winemaker Quentin Gobrechts.

Chef Gordon Manuel introduced each dish: Citrus Cured Seabass with Pickled Cucumber & Yuzu Pearls; Acorn Fed Pork — braised Pork Cheek, grilled Loin Chop, celeriac & cider pear puree; Beef Short Rib & Porcini Lasagna with roasted red onion and tomato compote; and Dark Chocolate Mousse, Espresso Ice Cream & Macerated Rasberries.  Yum!

It’s all about “bringing the farm to the table,” Gordon says, “working with the best ingredients from the Valley and beyond.”

It was a most memorable dining experience…

And then the farm tour… free-range everything!  Acorn-fed pigs and Simmenthaler and Waygu Beef.

Pigs on Oak Valley Farm, Elgin

These pigs are huge! The recent introduction of special cages for new moms and their piglets has reduced the number of piglets being squashed by mother pig when they try to drink milk by 75%!

And then it was off to Old Mac Daddy.  Accommodation in vintage trailers in farmlands alongside a dam.  It’s one of those places one just has to visit.  It’s quirky and fun.  It even has a beach and a beach bar!

The highlight of the trip was Jody’s speech during the Cape Country Connect function: Why can’t Elgin emulate Queenstown in New Zealand — NZ’s favourite visitor destination and rated as one of the world’s top destinations.  With a population of only 19,200, it hosts around 2 million visitors a year.  Why can’t Elgin become SA’s adventure capital?

Part of the area’s problem has been its identity… is it Elgin (the Valley) or Grabouw (the town)?  For some years they confused everybody by using Groenberg/Green Mountain for the area, which meant nothing to most people.  The town of Grabouw itself is a rather sad farming village. In some respects it’s a bit like some of the sad villages in the KZN Midlands as opposed to towns like Riebeek Kasteel, Greyton or Prince Albert.

Another problem which I hadn’t been aware of is that there was some antagonism between farmers and the tourism industry.  Very surprising!  The current mayor, Chris Punt, whose term expires in August, did a lot to address this.    Someone needs to drive a shared vision for the Valley.

And there needs to be the political will to do something about the town of Grabouw.  But is Theewaterskloof Municipality up to this?

Next morning, it was breakfast at the Hickory Shack before heading home.

Breakfast at the Hickory Shack

Breakfast at the Hickory Shack

I can’t beat the story they provided, so here it is:
When a restaurant is inspired by an old shed, you can bet you’ve entered BBQ territory. Owner, and Elgin resident, Jay Haupt, had been exploring traditional food production methods for a number of years when the perfect location for a BBQ pit presented itself.

“I saw this old shed with all its character and just knew it was perfect,” says Jay, and with a bit of wrangling The Hickory Shack was born. The cooking happens in the smokehouse but the restaurant spreads out from a cosy interior to a chilled-out balcony and rolls on to a lawn complete with kids jungle gym. Plenty of parking is available up front -– and its likely Jay’s bright red 1958 Chevy pick-up will be parked among the visitor’s cars.

Set on Thandi Farm on the N2, Elgin, The Hickory Shack serves Texas style BBQ made in a cantilever pit. The result is tender, lightly smoked ribs, brisket, pulled pork and chicken. Using mostly apple wood in the smoking process for its subtle flavours, the Hickory Shack’s pit master broods over his craft -– making meat that is done low and slow.

The smoked meat dishes are served with slaw (no mayonnaise here), mash, fries or home-made baked beans. All the accompanying pickles and sauces — from apple chutney to hot bastard — are Hickory home-made.

Local Elgin ciders and Fraser’s Folly craft beer are the biggest attention seekers on the drinks menu which also includes jam jar cocktails, cordials, shakes and Elgin wines.

Whilst ribs and brisket lure in the crowds, the big breakfasts with home-made links (sausages) are excellent fare for travellers needing a refuel or wedding weekenders nursing a sore head.

Open for breakfast and lunch Wednesday to Sunday and for dinner on Friday and Saturday, the Hickory Shack is the real-deal pit stop.

The Intrepid Traveller ticks Elgin off his bucket list, looking across one of the dams on Oak Valley Estate.

The Intrepid Traveller ticks Elgin off his bucket list, looking across one of the dams on Oak Valley Estate.

Do you travel to be inspired? Or for a home-away-from-home?

So many accommodation establishments like to describe themselves as a “home away from home” in their publicity material… but is that what people travel for?  Don’t people travel to experience something different?  Something that is a lasting memory?  To talk about and share with friends?
Please tell us what you think by voting in our poll below.  (And if you have comments, add them at the bottom of this page.)

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Here are some of the really different accommodation places added to CapeInfo recently:

Sleep in an ancient indigenous forest at Platbos Forest Reserve, situated at the foot of Africa. Described by botanist and author, Professor Eugene Moll, as a “unique South African forest jewel”, this is a forest that enchants and inspires all who visit.

Platbos

Platbos — sleeping in an ancient forest.

Situated alongside a lake in the Elgin Valley, less than an hour from Cape Town, Old Mac Daddy offers quirky accommodation in a variety of holiday homes and refurbished vintage trailers. There is also an outdoor swimming pool, a beach with its own bar, guest lounge and a restaurant and bar. Free WiFi access is available.

Old Mac Daddy

Old Mac Daddy — sleep in a vintage Airstream trailer.

Or how about sleeping in a Tepee at Little Wing Teepee Camp near Underberg in the Southern Drakensberg?

Little Wing Teepee Camp

Little Wing Teepee Camp near Underberg in the Southern Drakensberg