Tag Archives: Prince Albert

Operation Oysterhood: 22 – 25 September

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.

A literary weekend in Prince Albert

By the time we arrived in Prince Albert, Helen Moffett and I knew we would be publishing a book together. Put two writers in a car, let them travel for four hours through an inspiring landscape, and that is what happens. We drove into the town as the sky burst into crimson flames of sunset. I have never visited before, but when the Leesfees offered us slots on their beautifully curated programme, I jumped at the opportunity to experience the festival that I had been hearing wonderful things about for years.

I have said it before and I will repeat it many times: for readers literary festivals are fantastic opportunities for discovering new authors and interacting with the ones they love; for writers these events offer the possibility of engaging with their fans and introducing their work to new audiences, of course – it is a two-way process after all (a shout out to Ingrid Wolfaardt, Henry Welman and Azille Coetzee – it was lovely to meet you in person!). But for authors festivals are also great for socialising with colleagues: one feels less alone, more inspired, and often such events are the beginning of extraordinary literary projects and journeys. As a publisher now, every time I travel with Karavan Press authors, I get to know them and their craft a little bit more and my gratitude towards them deepens along the way.

Dawn Garisch, Melissa A. Volker and her husband Rick (no doubt Melissa’s greatest fan – he spoke about seeing someone read A Fractured Land at the Lazy Lizard festival café with the same enthusiasm as about the Springbok win!) booked us a table at The Olive Branch that first evening. The food was so delicious and the entire staff so friendly that Helen was ready to propose marriage to the talented chef.

The next day for breakfast, we ended up at the Lazy Lizard headquarters and accidentally bumped into Sally Andrew of Tannie Maria fame. She promptly offered to read us a passage from her latest novel, which features the Lazy Lizard and its famous Full Monty Breakfast as well as the even more famous Apple Pie. Helen and I tucked in while Sally read to us: a surreal literary experience if there ever was one.

Our blood was green and gold that day, but Sally and Fred Khumalo dutifully went off to entertain their Leesfees audiences while I marched off to find the nearest gin bar and cheered and cried with the rest of the crowd gathered there. Oh Captain, our Captain!

High on emotions, I had the enormous pleasure of interviewing Dawn and Melissa about “seeing things differently” next. This was the theme of the festival and these two incredibly talented authors allowed us a glimpse into their imaginations and their literary lives as they aim to entertain their readers while remaining true to their principles of caring about others and the planet we all share.

The next day, I also had the opportunity to talk about environmental themes and the reality of our extremely wasteful and destructive ways with Helen. What I love about her approach to these highly topical concerns is her can-do attitude. Helen does not make her readers despair, she empowers us and encourages to do things differently, with more care and compassion. A true inspiration. And she is so funny, too!

No wonder all her books were sold out within minutes after the talk. The booksellers at the festival, Rosemary and Carmen of Bargain Books George, did a stellar job at getting our books to Prince Albert, but even they could not predict how popular Helen’s little books of environmental wisdom would turn out to be.

Whenever I present at a festival myself or interview authors, I always try to attend other events as a reader. In the morning of the first day, Dawn and I went to listen to Joanne Jowell and Miché Solomon speak to Vanessa Botha about Miché’s remarkable story as told to Joanne in Zephany: Two Mothers, One Daughter. And in the evening, we listened to Helen, Annette Snyckers and Archie Swanson read their poetry. It was the perfect way to end the day. Beauty and calm descended as the poets treated us to a literary feast.

I also attended Jan van Tonder’s talk at the festival. He was interviewed by Pieter Hugo. I love listening to Afrikaans and this was my way of indulging in the language a little bit again. What made the occasion truly special were the accompanying memories. When I first visited André in Cape Town in May 2005, on the day after my arrival he drove me to Oudtshoorn to introduce me to his dear friends, Marina and Gerrit. I met Jan during the visit, too. Two years later, in 2007, we all gathered in Stilbaai and watched the Rugby World Cup final together. Jan reminded me of the occasion when we spoke after the talk and said: “When I saw you in André’s Springbok shirt earlier in the day, I thought it a good omen for the final.” Indeed, both times Jan and I were in the same place for the final, the Boks won. I think we should plan something for 2023 together!

I can’t wait until Jan’s latest novel is translated into English. It sounded like something I would love to read. I will never forget his Roepman / Stargazer.

There was time to relax and to celebrate. Prince Albert welcomed us all with open arms. The organisers of the festival deserve medals for all their fantastic work. Thank you to Linda Jaquet and the Leesfees team! Our hosts were kind in providing us with the most beautiful places to stay. The audiences were attentive and generous. I already promised myself that I will be there for the next Leesfees in whatever capacity: as publisher, writer, interviewer or reader. And next time, on the way there or back, Helen and I are planning a longer visit at Matjiesfontein. There was only time for lunch and the celebratory springbok burger on this trip.

When we visit again, Helen promised to play the piano in the bar of the Lord Milner Hotel! And we might have a book to launch…