Heading north from Cape Town along the N7, I feel like I’m embarking on a pilgrimage. All right, perhaps pilgrimage is too strong a word to use in this context. Still, it’s been seven years since I last visited Calvinia, the Northern Cape dorpie where my mother was born. And my husband, a born and bred East Londoner, has never ventured this far north before. Neither has our son Samuel, although he’s only 21 months old, so that hardly counts.
When we reach the Knersvlakte, the impressive open spaces finally hit home. “Wow, this is amazing,” Gavin marvels. I remind him to keep his eyes on the road, which winds its way to the top of the escarpment. The Knersvlakte (which literally means “gnashing plains”) are thought to derive their name from the sound the wagon wheels made as they rode over the quartz stone found in this area. I prefer my aunt Elise’s explanation: “It was because the poor Voortrekkers were gnashing their teeth as they walked across these desolate plains.”
At my parent’s suggestion, we’ve decided to stay in Nieuwoudtville (pronounced “Newt-ville”) at a self-catering guesthouse called Bokmakierie. There is electricity, gas heating for the water and stove and – a big treat! – an electric blanket on our double bed. We source eggs from the neighbour across the road (you can’t get more free-range than this) and feed the sheep and pregnant goat in the adjacent plot our leftover carrots. There’s a windmill on the property that waters the garden and the day after we arrive we sit on the stoep, like the proverbial oupa and ouma, listening to the blades clacking in the wind. There’s not another sound to be heard in the hot, still air. “So this is what we drove five hours for – to sit and listen to the silence,” Gavin mutters.
“Yes,” I reply. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
We’ve got a day to ourselves before our friends the Rozendaals arrive, so we’re back in the car to visit Calvinia. “This is a lot bigger than I thought it would be,” muses Gavin, who spends some time snapping pics of the imposing Dutch Reformed church in the town. Named after John Calvin, Calvinia is known as sheep country. You can get the best lamb chops in South Africa here and some lekker biltong, too. We spend an hour in the Hantam Huis, a house built in 1854 which has been lovingly restored by Alta and Erwin Coetzee. Laid out in a T-shape, it’s the oldest authentic house in Calvinia. Walking from room to room, you’re transported to what life must have been like for farmers in this area a hundred years ago. The museum’s kitchen is enough to make the modern woman break into a cold sweat thinking about the effort it must have taken to prepare the evening meal using a coal-fired oven.
You can also shop for curios there, stay overnight or tuck into a traditional boerekos meal, although the prices aren’t cheap. We are on a mission, however, to find my grandparents’ house, which we duly locate thanks to my mother’s hand-drawn map, and nose around to take some photos. The house hasn’t changed much, as I remember it, although the huge fig tree is gone. I like the sign outside which says, “Op hierdie werf word kleinkinders bederf” (On this plot grandchildren are spoilt). The owner comes out to chat and suggests we visit Wallace Olivier, who runs a general dealer shop in the main road. He has plenty to say about my grandparents, that they were decent folk who were careful with money and that I can be proud of them.
With Wallace’s words still ringing in my ears, we go to my grandparents’ gravesite to pay our respects and lay some flowers. There are two cemeteries – one for coloured folk and one for whites – clearly an overhang from the apartheid years. Even in death, it seems, separate development was the order of the day. After a quick phone call to my mother’s other sister, Rida, we manage to pinpoint the exact spot where the couple are buried. The backdrop to their granite tombstone is the imposing Hantam mountains, which are a coppery red. My grandmother’s epitaph reads: “In stilte het sy gedien” (She served in silence). I’m sure Gavin can’t say the same about me.
Sadly, there are no daisies on show. It’s towards the end of spring and the rainfall has been somewhat erratic this year. Still, we’re keen to visit the Hantam National Botanical Garden and wander around. Samuel is delighted when he spots a tortoise for the first time.
That night back in Nieuwoudtville we have a braai and eat under the afdak in the garden. The children amuse themselves throwing around the loose dirt and hiding in the toolshed. When the sun goes down, we’re hushed by the huge expanse of space, the throbbing mass of stars, the magnificence of God’s handiwork.
“It’s a long way to drive, but it’s worth it,” Gavin says on the return journey home. I couldn’t agree with him more.
- For more information on Calvinia, visit www.calvinia.co.za
- For more info on Bokmakierie, phone Margie Tromp on 078-161-9369 or e-mail email@example.com. The self-catering accommodation can sleep six people at a cost of R170 per person per night.