One Wilderness you won’t want to be delivered from

With a network of lakes, rivers and dramatic hills set between the Indian Ocean and the Outeniqua Mountains, Wilderness is a unique destination.  Often overlooked in favour of the nearby and much larger George and Knysna/Plettenberg Bay on either side, it is a destination in its own right.  So don’t just drive through… stop and explore, as we did.

We were very, very fortunate.  We had social media maven and blogger, Rose Greyling Bilbrough, aka Travelbug Rose (@gotravelbug) as our guide.  She’s also the energy behind Wilderness South Africa, which has become hugely successful with over 10,000 followers.

Yes, Rose is a very enthusiastic flyer, and no, I resisted her invitation to try it. Of course it gives her an unparalleled perspective of the area’s many attractions. It’s just one of many activities you can do.  I think a tandem flight would be a good bet!  Photo: Travelbug Rose @gotravelbug

The Kaaimans River mouth with its signature bridge. There are hopes for reviving the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe, and this route is begging for a return of the old steam train or something like the Franschhoek Tram.  Photo: Travelbug Rose @gotravelbug

Wilderness lakes

Waking up in the morning: View from my bedroom at The Wilderness Hotel. This was the original homestead where Wilderness all started, and it’s within walking distance of the village’s pavement cafes, restaurants and the beach.

The Kaaimans River Waterfall. Photo: Travelbug Rose

Exquisitely beautiful and serene. The Kaaimans River Waterfall. Photo: Travelbug Rose

On my first morning, Rose took me canoeing on the Kaaimans River.  That’s the river one crosses just before entering Wilderness from the Cape Town side.

How many times have I just driven past this… intrigued by the houses alongside the river tucked into the steep slopes behind them!

Kaaimans River cottages

It was just a short paddle to a spectacular waterfall, almost completely surrounded by steep, rock cliffs.  A very, very special place.

Thank you Chris Leggat at Eden Adventures for the use of your canoe!

The rest of the day we explored Timberlake Farm Village — well worth a visit, and do stop at Pause Coffee Roastery.  Wessel Kruger is serious about his coffees and you won’t be disappointed.  The cheesecake was memorable too!

We drove into the farming area between Wilderness and the Outeniqua mountains and along a section of the old 75km Seven Passes Road.  This was the original route between George and Knysna before the N2 opened.  It was built between 1868 and 1883 by Thomas Bain and crosses seven rivers – the Swart, Kaaimans, Silver, Touw, Hoëkraal, Karatara and Goukamma – passing through indigenous forests and river gorges.

We stopped for tea and a snack at Hoekwil Country Cafe — “an unpretentious country secret on top of the mountain”.

Wilderness is a class act.  The Milkwood Centre in the village is an absolute delight hidden behind the Spar and a fuel service station.  The area has enough resident money to support pavement cafes, pubs and restaurants which were lively and well supported, even on Monday and Tuesday evenings.  Pomodoro had a great vibe and served one of the best pizzas I’ve had.

Wilderness pavement cafes and restaurants

Lively pavement cafes and restaurants that don’t disappoint.

I was intrigued that Wilderness had managed to retain its village feel and a sense of authenticity.  It has so many attractions but hasn’t gone the way of George, Knysna or Plettenberg Bay.  (In Franschhoek, I discovered How Franschhoek became such a successful tourist town after asking similar questions.)

I discovered that one of my former prep school teachers — “Masters” we called them then — lives in Wilderness, so I asked Hugo Leggatt if he knew the reasons.  Here’s his reply:

“I’ve given thought to your question about the village feel of Wilderness. There are naturally various contributory factors but I think I could reasonably cull to two.

“In no particular order, the one is that there was no coastal road between George and Knysna until about 1950, when this section of the N2 was completed. The first proper road between the two towns was built by Thomas Bain in the years from c.1868. This was still the road when I first came here in 1947 and is the one now known as the 7 Passes route.

“So one can say that until 1950 one came TO the Wilderness, not THROUGH. Which meant that most houses were owned by retirees or were holiday homes.

“The second factor has to do with the ownership of the land. The property was owned, and named, by George Bennett (English) and his wife Henrietta ( a George girl) who built the initial homestead and ran it as a farm in the years on either side of 1880. After the Anglo-Boer War the property was sold to Montagu White (who had been Paul Kruger’s Consul in London in the years leading up to the war). Montagu lived at Fancourt but had The Wilderness run as a guest house/farm. He had some plots laid out but does not appear to have made any serious attempt to sell them.

“After Monty’s death in 1916 by mushroom poisoning at his Fancourt home, The Wilderness was sold to a new company The Wilderness (1921) Ltd. The main driving force behind this company was Owen Grant (1883-1964) who virtually ran the place for over 30 years. There were strict building regulations – no wooden or prefab houses, for example. Perhaps more importantly for your enquiry, all business was in the hands of the company – the hotel, the garage, the shop – and no guest houses were allowed.

“There is more detail, of course, but the net result was that practically the whole place was “residential”, with such commercial development as there was being controlled by Wilderness (1921).  Things have changed with time but I think those two factors were major contributors to the village feel.

Wilderness is worth another, longer visit.  If the beach, hang gliding (single or taken up in tandem by an expert), abseiling, canoeing, quaint shops and crafts, isn’t enough for you, then the walks and hikes will spoil you.  Have a look at some of the Walks & Hikes in the area.

Thank you Rose for a great introduction!  And for this video!

Solar makes cents, and Boschendal becomes a significant producer

About two years ago, the V&A Waterfront commissioned 4,207 solar panels (7,000m²) installed on the roofs of the main Waterfront buildings, with a total electrical output of 1,093.8 kWp at a cost of R20 million.  It conserves about 1,721,956 kWh annually, significantly reducing the Waterfront’s environmental footprint.  At the same time, Boschendal commissioned its first, small rooftop solar installation at the Rachelsfontein complex.

Then in October 2017, Robben Island launched its R25 million, 666kWp solar farm supported by 828 kWh battery storage, to reduce reliance of diesel which was shipped in for the island’s generators.  Just based on the cost of fuel savings, the Robben Island installation will pay for itself within five years.  The micro-grid on Robben Island is the largest combined solar and lithium-ion storage micro-grid system in South Africa.

Boschendal solar farm

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Bucking the trend in the drought

The Western Cape has faced its worst drought in a century, and this is the third consecutive year of that drought.  Cape Town’s mayor has been at pains to point out that — with climate change — “This is the new normal.”

With dwindling water supply to farmers, crop productions have been slashed and, across the Province, between 35,000 and 50,000 jobs are at risk, excluding an even larger number of seasonal workers.  I asked for the provincial department of agriculture’s stats for produce under threat but received no response!  I am underwhelmed!

Minister Alan Winde’s speeches, however, paint a dire picture which are just a tip of the iceberg.  A month ago, Alan visited the West Coast.  “There’s thousands and thousands of hectares of agricultural land below the Clanwilliam Dam which produces a lot of produce and revenue for our country that’s now under severe water restrictions. They’re going to produce 50% less,” he said.  “Farmers are being throttled and are forced to use 60% less water, with the Clanwilliam Dam level at around 36%.  There’s an 80% decrease in potato crops and a drop in wine and export quality citrus.”  With commercial farmers struggling, one focus for Province is supporting backyard food gardens for workers’ food security.

“In places like Ceres, 80% less potatoes and 50% less onions will be planted resulting in about R40 million less paid out in salaries and wages.  In Lutzville the tomato paste plant will not even open this year.  Some 30 000 animals have been sold as farmers battled to feed their core herds.”

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Against this backdrop, Boschendal started out at the beginning of the drought with a massive planting of 600,000 new fruit trees over a period of three years — which has just been completed. Permanent jobs in farming operations alone has grown from 70 to 287.  Their dams are full and Jacques du Toit, Boschendal’s general manager, said the dams started overflowing on 20 August and he counted 15 streams on the farm running into the Dwars River, on to the Berg River, and out to sea…

A rare sight for Capetonians who have become accustomed to seeing photographs of parched dams: York Dam on the slopes of Drakenstein mountain looking across to Simonsberg mountain.  The photographs of the dams were taken on 30 November 2017.

Normandie Dam is alongside York Dam.

Rhodes Dam on the slopes of Simonsberg mountain.

Upper Vineyards Dam

Mountain Vineyards Dam on the slopes of Simonsberg mountain.

Rachelfontein Dam

Rachelsfontein Dam, the overflow dam for Mountain Vineyards Dam, with the Matroosberg mountain above Worcester just peaking through in the distance.

Cleaning dams

At the end of last summer, the dams were cleaned and silt removed. Farmers may not increase the size of their dams.  (Crazy, huh?)  At York dam, they found underwater mountains of rubble that had never been removed from the dam when it was constructed.

Boschendal dams (and just some of them are shown above) hold 3½ million cubic metres of water — 3,500 megalitres.  Boschendal relies entirely on its own dams for all agricultural water. It doesn’t draw any water from the Theewaterskloof, Berg River or any State dams for farming operations.

Filling the dams and making the water last is achieved by careful and effective custodianship and management of the land — alien clearing does make a very big difference to water flows from the mountains and nurturing soil quality in the vineyards and orchards sees water use reduced by 30%.  Jacques du Toit keeps repeating: “Soil health is everything.”

Jacques and former CEO, Rob Lundie, spent hours discussing and debating innovations to improve the management of the land.  Rob encouraged all managers to research and innovate — and YouTube is full of inspiration for farmers.  They trialled new orchard blocks where cover crops were planted before and after the new trees were planted.  Planting cover crops after the new trees were established won.  The cover crops are a mix of rye grass, turnips, ciradella, radishes, vetch and red & white clover Boschendal’s Black Angus beef herd grazes on the cover crops… leaving their own goodness behind.

Apart from reducing water usage, the good soil quality also reduces the need for fertilizers by 30%.  Using biological fertilizers, although more expensive, is also better for the soil.

Jacques started soil tests at Rob’s insistence and the orchards gave a reading of only 2.  He went up to the Viewpoint to fetch some topsoil for comparison. “One needs a non-disturbed reference as yardstick.  It was rich and full of earthworms,” he recalls.  “The reading from that soil was 21!  Better than good.”  In the following six months, he managed to improve soil quality in the orchards by 400-600%.”

“Healthy soil holds rain water — the statistics show that 300,000-500,000 litres of water per hectare per 1% increase in humus is saved. You need less irrigation and the land seeps for longer, amongst many other benefits,” says Rob.

Computer screen in the office showing the status of the probes measuring moisture.

Computer screen in the office showing the status of the probes measuring moisture.

Boschendal is micro-managed.   There are 300 precision probes in the soil measuring moisture every 10cm to a depth of 80cm — one per hectare in the orchards and one every three hectares in the vineyards — with repeaters to the office.

There is an irony to the “bad” alien vegetation… it is being recycled to improve the quality of the soil in the orchards.  It all goes into a chipper — at a rate of 50m³ a day — and 200m³ of wood chips/hectare goes into the topsoil on the orchards.  It’s going to take another two years of chipping before there will be enough for the whole farm.  Distributing the wood chips was a time-consuming process so Jacques designed a machine to do it more efficiently.

Some of the alien vegetation is used to create biochar, which is added to the farm’s composting operation, using waste from the restaurants and winery.  The worm farm on the Estate has become a dedicated operation.

The beef herd, which peaked at nearly 800 cows, has been reduced to 600 — the number best suited to the farm.  Farmer Rico’s pasture-raised chickens also fall under Jacques’ ambit now and will soon have 4000 lay hens and 2000 broilers.  But it’s the pigs that must be the envy of pigs everywhere!  There are three forested camps each of about 2½ hectares in forests where they roam free.

Boschendal's new solar farm

With Eskom’s future looking increasingly bleak and electricity price hikes almost assured, Boschendal’s massive second solar farm producing almost 1 megawatt of electricity has just been commissioned, reducing the farm’s reliance on the national grid.

Stellenbosch dam above Ida's Valley, with Simonsberg behind

Stellenbosch dam above Ida’s Valley, with Simonsberg behind, was 97% full last week.

What are the lessons from Boschendal?  The most important is that preparation for the drought should have started over three years ago.

The Stellenbosch dam above Ida’s Valley on the other side of Simonsberg was also full and stood at 97% last week,  This has less to do with Stellenbosch municipality and everything to do with the farmers of the Greater Simonsberg Conservancy — who cleared alien vegetation in the catchment area and watercourses above the dam.  Take a bow Tokara and Thelema Estates, for over five years they have continuously cleaned up all alien vegetation.

Cape Town’s mayor is correct when she says “this is the new normal”.  But the City has been preaching Climate Change for nearly 20 years… so why wasn’t it prepared?  Why is the City building temporary desalination plants if this is the new normal?

The mayor recently added alien clearing around Wemmershoek dam to her list of interventions — that’s going to have no impact in the short term because the rains are long past.  Had they started five years ago, clearing alien vegetation in the catchment areas of all Cape Town dams, an expert speaking on CapeTalk radio said the impact would have been the equivalent of building a new full Wemmershoek dam.

The City has failed its citizens, and national government… well… they have neither the competence, the political will nor the funding to make a difference.  The national Department of Water & Sanitation is bankrupt.

Politicians are playing Russian Roulette with the Province’s future.  They focus on politically-expedient decisions rather than long term plans.  I asked one politician what will happen if the drought… the new normal… doesn’t break next winter.  “We’ll all resign,” was the answer.  Now that’s cold comfort!  Maybe a few really good farmers would do a better job of running the City and Province.

Related content:
The Boschendal story
Even the cows have happy lines

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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