Prince Albert. At the centre of a network of endless dirt roads, surrounded by the seemingly unforgiving dry landscape of the Karoo. But people thrive here. The first time I visited was last year for the Prince Albert Leesfees – a vibrant, inspiring festival for writers and readers alike – and I fell in love with the town, its places and people. I promised myself to return this year for the festival in whichever capacity was required, but with the literary event postponed until next year because of the pandemic, I did not anticipate that I would simply come as a tourist.
We stayed at Onse Rus B&B with Neil and Leonard as our hosts. After a long time in the hospitality industry in London, with their experience and expertise, they could have settled and made a success of a guesthouse anywhere in South Africa, but Prince Albert stole their hearts the moment they set foot in the picturesque Karoo town with its rich history and an impressive record of stealing hearts of people who arrive for a visit and stay forever – the inkomers. Onse Rus, with its comfy rooms, lush garden, beautiful pool, generous stoep on the main road where the hosts serve the most delicious breakfasts, including Leonard’s home-baked bread, definitely lives up to its name. No wonder Cat, the now resident black cat, decided to make it his home and adds feline charm to the place. There is also a Spotted Eagle-Owl that hangs out around Onse Rus and hoots comfort from the trees above.
Our hosts recommended and organised two tours for us: a birding excursion with the town’s expert, Gita Claasen, and a historic ghost tour of Prince Albert with the wonderful storyteller, Ailsa Tudhope. Meeting Gita was fascinating, not only because she is an incredible bird guide and photographer (subsequently, we found her work in the Prince Albert Gallery and could not resist one of her photographs on display there), but because her main line of work involves environmental impact assessment on wind energy projects, like the main character of Melissa A. Volker’s Shadow Flicker. When she spoke about her work, it felt to me as if I was listening to the novel’s Kate Petersen. Gita also told us about the fragility of the veld and how long this ancient landscape needs to recover when handled without thought and care. Personal highlights of the birding around Prince Albert: Red-faced and White-backed Mousebirds. We also met a Karoo bush rat and encountered a few mongooses on the run.
The historical ghost tour of Prince Albert did not deliver any encounters with ghosts, but the stories Ailsa shared with us made the beautiful town come alive in all sorts of ways. I asked about SA writers in Prince Albert and found out that J.M. Coetzee used to visit his grandparents here as a young boy. Apparently, he revisited last year to look at the place from his childhood memories.
Culinary highlights of Prince Albert: Greek salad at The Rude Chef (who was wonderfully un-rude), The Lazy Lizard and its famous apple pie, tapas at the Real Food Company (a restaurant with a stunning cookbook collection), olives and snacks at O for Olives, and Karoo lamb of leg at the Karoo Kombuis with its theatrical interiors of note. Leonard and Neil make the most divine afternoon cocktails for their guests – also highly recommended.
I have been driving through the Great Karoo ever since I first travelled around South Africa with my brother in 2004. But until now, these trips have been mainly on well-travelled paved roads. On this trip, my love and I decided to see the Weltevrede Fig & Guest Farm just outside Prince Albert and drove into the Karoo landscape on a still well-travelled but gravel road and it was simply wonderful to immerse oneself in the beauty of the rocky and dry terrain. It is surreal to pass fertile onion seed fields and fig orchards in this context or to find a huge man-made rock labyrinth at the end of the path on a farm just outside the Gamkakloof Nature Reserve. Even when you know that people live here, it is still difficult to imagine that it is possible. And it is. And how!
What is nearly impossible to imagine or comprehend, though, even after seeing it with my own eyes, is the Swartberg Pass. The reality of this road from Prince Albert across the mountain range to the Cango Caves outside of Oudtshoorn, carved miraculously into the steep slopes, defies the grasp of my mind. I was so scared going down the pass on the other side – even though I wasn’t the one driving, and my love is one of the best if not the best driver I know – that I curled my toes in fear until they hurt. Later that night, I lay awake listening to the wind and feeling my sore toes. The only way I will ever get up there again will be on foot. I can hike the pass; I don’t want to drive it again. And this road will forever remain in my mind as something unimaginable made real – while on it, I thought: if we can do this, surely anything is within our reach. Let’s eradicate hunger, fix Eskom and make SAA profitable! Anyone who thinks these things cannot be achieved must simply walk across the Swartberg Pass. Travelling around South Africa, I am usually accompanied by two other thoughts (both connected to the impression the Swartberg Pass made on me): this land is incredibly beautiful wherever one goes, and bountiful, fertile in the most surprising places. No one should go hungry here with all this sustenance – for the body and the soul.
And speaking of food: we made one brief stop in Oudtshoorn at the Café Brûlée and got a few slices of my favourite cheesecake in the world. Still as delicious as ever! Next stop: Rondevlei and Reflections Eco-Reserve.