Into the back of beyond! I’m Louvain it!

Image : Jim Freeman

This might sound strange to you, but I’m convinced there’s a Travellers’ Chapter of the Flat-Earth Society and that its headquarters is in the Western Cape.

Why else would people who venture down one of the most scenic and interesting roads in South Africa, the R62, seldom venture past Ronnie’s Sex Shop (temporarily closed) between Barrydale and Ladismith? It’s not as if there’s a sign just beyond the popular bush pub that proclaims “Here be Monsters!” or that the veld tumbles away into an abyss.

Lovely though the R62 is between Robertson and Barrydale,there’s a hell of a lot more to the Klein Karoo in terms of roadtrip destinations than Ronnie’s or Diesel and Crème. Most of it lies to the east and (other than by pilgrims to Oudtshoorn’s annual arts festival) is largely ignored because more travellers en route to the EasternCape choose to follow the N2 up the Garden Route.

Image :Jim Freeman

To be blunt, I am not and never have been a fan of Oudtshoorn itself. This does not mean, though, that I dislike the Klein Karoo. It’s a region of under-stated beauty, redolent with history. Curiosities and surprises abound and a journey along the R62 always promises adventure … and seldom fails to delivers on that promise.

Less than 100km beyond Ronnie’s (372km from Cape Town) is Calitzdorp, “capital” of the Kannaland municipal district and a surprisingly arty little oasis in the Klein Karoo.

Image :Jim Freeman

Should you want to browse the numerous antique and collectibles shops, have a meal and do some serious sampling of the region’s famous wines, I would recommend staying over at one of several elegant small hotels or guesthouses such as the four-star Calitzdorp Country House (www. cchouse.co.za). Boplaas (www.boplaas.co.za) has been in the Nel family since 1880 and was named best South African Producer at last year’s Michelangelo International Wine and Spirits Awards.

In addition to its acclaimed ports and brandies, Boplaas has branched out into craft gins and a single grain whisky that the 2018 Michelangelo panel judged to be the best whisky produced in this country.

I managed to spend time with winemaker Margaux Nel who literally cut her teeth on used corks as a baby and assured me that her young son (the arrival of her second was imminent at the time of my visit) had done the same. Other than its fortified and distilled products, Boplaas is known for Portuguese wine varietals such as Tinta Barocca and Touriga. Nearby De Krans Wines is equally worth a visit.

True to form for that stage of lockdown, I arrived at Boplaas on a Friday to collect some brandy for friends in Somerset West but was unable to make any purchases of my own. My disappointment was somewhat alleviated by the yuppie with an expensive mountain bike on the roof of his vehicle trying to park under one of the winery’s steel carports as I was leaving.

I reached my destination, Louvain Guest Farm (www.louvain. co.za), midway through the sunny afternoon after an amiable bumble through a countryside that was more lush than I’ve seen it before, proof that the season’s good rains in the Western Cape had broken a five year drought-cycle.

Where the earth wasn’t green with grazing,vineyards and orchards, carpets of vygies and daisies provided vivid splashes of colour.

Situated between Oudtshoorn and Uniondale on the N9/R62 in the district originally named Ezeljacht (now Eseljag – “donkey hunt”), Louvain lies near the top of the 160km-long Langkloof valley that stretches from Herold to Humansdorp.

The farm is popular as a wedding, sporting (trail running and mountain biking), corporate and team-building venuebut its chief attraction for me were the 4×4 trails to which I wished to subject the vehicle I’d been loaned for the week; Volkswagen’s limited edition Amarok Canyon doublecab bakkie. Louvain covers about 2 500ha which includes about 200km of 4×4 trails.

One of the more challenging trails is an old Voortrekker track that heads inland from Hoekwil just north of Wilderness and crests the Outeniqua Mountains above the Louvain homestead.

The sea and Sedgefield are nearly 30km away but clearly visible from the trail’s highest point (944m). The Ox-Wagon Route is the signature trail; a 21km bush and mountain scramble administered and maintained by Louvain in partnership with Cape Nature, SAN Parks and the Department of Forestry.

Louvain manager Morne Jonker was cellarmaster for golfer Retief Goosen’s wine-making enterprise on a neighbouring farm before selling his shares and eventually moving to Louvain.

The previous owners had begun developing the farm as a tourist attraction as well as a working farm and Jonker, whose family had been on adjacent Schoonberg for decades (originally the two farms were part of a larger entity), was intrigued when he heard
they wanted to sell.

“My father initially wasn’t interested. He’s mainly an exporter of ostrich products and felt tourism would offer inconsequential returns on the investment and effort required to develop Louvain. “I kept working on him and was helped when another of farmer decided the two of them could merge their farms and create anew business with Louvain as its tourism affiliate.”

The purchase of Louvain went through in April 2018. The holding company, Langkloof Farms (PTY) Ltd, owns about 25 000ha of contiguous farmland– extending about 40km from end to end in the valley – which, says Jonker, means visitors to Louvain feel safe even though the spot is relatively remote.

“We place strong emphasis on the history of the farm. Our clientele is exclusively South African and, of this, about 80% is attracted by the history of the area as well as its
natural beauty and the activities we offer.”

Care is taken in ensuring that the restoration of the various buildings on the property is architecturally authentic to its nearly 200- year history.

“Its history actually goes back to when Bishop Grey – the first Anglican bishop of the Cape and founder of Bishop’s School – was instructed to increase the Anglican Church’s influence throughout the Cape Colony and Natal.

This he did by having more than 90 churches built including the one on the property here, St John the Baptist in the Wilderness, of which we are custodians on behalf
of the diocese.” This period of “increasing the Anglican Church’s footprint”, says Jonker, began in the 1830s and it was during this time that the farm Schoonenberg was established by Peregrine Richardson, an Anglican lay preacher.

“All buildings were constructed in the Anglo-Saxon style with ridged roofs but several of these were replaced with Cape-Dutch gables in the 1940s. We’ve restored these to the original style. “Louvain was originally Ganskraal and a part of Schoonenberg. “Schoonenberg – now Skoonberg – was bought by Helgard Raubenheimer in 1878 and remained in the family for a century.

“One of his grandsons found himself fighting for the British forces in Belgium during World War I and came across a destroyed village called Louvain.

On his return from the war, he found Ganskraal completely gutted by fire and the visual connection prompted him to rename it.” Jonker and I managed several adventures over the next few daysbut the two highlights were an early morning microlight aircraft flight (he’s an accomplished pilot) over the pastures and mountain slopes, and a drive to De Vlugt.

De Vlugt is a tiny settlementabout 20km from the northern end of Prince Alfred’s Pass. The 77km-long pass is one of the most scenic in South Africa and the road was in superb condition, having recently been graded as a result of the heavy rains.

At De Vlugt is something of which many people have heard but few have ever encountered:
Angie’s G-Spot. Bikers and bold road-trippers will know of what I speak…

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