This town in the Little Karoo is a central point for travellers to Baviaanskloof on the N9, or for those attempting the magnificent Prince Alfred’s Pass to the Garden Route, or heading southwest from Graaff-Reinet to George. It is frequently used as refreshment stop en route to elsewhere, but it has an intriguing personality and attracts interesting characters.
The road between Graaff-Reinet’s “Valley of Desolation” and the Outeniqua Mountains showcases the Karoo’s big sky and rugged dry hills.
Perhaps it is this vastness that gives locals the space to cultivate their quirkiness, because the shops, accommodation and cafes are salted with everything from the slightly unusual to the downright eccentric.
Often, all one has heard about Uniondale before visiting is that it is home to one of South Africa’s most famous ghosts, a young woman killed in a car accident on a stormy Easter weekend in 1968. Her spirit hitchhikes and, when given a lift, opens and closes the car doors at the site of her accident, and disappears, sometimes with a shrill laugh and a cold draft.
Those townsfolk who will talk of the ghost do so with gravity rather than with ghoulish interest and it is certainly not the most remarkable thing about Uniondale.
The sunbleached Voortrekker Street is lined with houses with wide old verandahs, which house restaurants and accommodation. The Uniondale Lodge and Restaurant is also a coffee shop, antique store and art gallery, and a treasure-trove of the rare, weird and wonderful.
The town also boasts South Africa's shortest telephone pole, its largest watermill, the world's first heart-transplant patient and an aloe factory. The surrounding area is lofty, with the Kammanassie, Kouga and the brooding Swartberg mountains (home to leopard and Cape mountain zebra).
The vegetation is a combination of subtropical, Western Cape, grassveld and Karoo flora and has an estimated 2 352 plant species, supporting grysbuck, klipspringer, grey rhebuck, kudu, baboon, lynx, dassie, mongoose and reptiles.
From a cool verandah you can enjoy the architecture and the green, pretty scenery of the town and observe the eclectic mix of weary travellers, from bikers to family holidaymakers, who stop in for a much-needed cuppa.
While there, this intriguing dorpie weaves its magic, leaving a lasting impression, curiosity and a wish to stay and find out more of its secrets and quirky surprises. For those already enchanted, there are lovely self-catering in cottages and guesthouses in the town, run by welcoming hosts.
Look out for
Seven national monuments and beautiful historical buildings - restored Anglo-Boer War forts; the Anglican Church on Voortrekker Street designed by South Africa's first female architect, Sophie Gray; a synagogue; the Nagmaal huisies with high verandahs so that ladies with long dresses could easily embark and disembark carriages; the Dutch Reformed church, built in 1886, with bells so heavy that their original tower broke in 1896 (it was rebuilt with fixed and muted bells and a clock mechanism that has lasted until today).
The nine-hole Karoo Golf Course lies on the outskirts of the town with seven grassed greens and two sand greens, offering 18 tees in all. Children are welcome and there is a licensed club house that serves drinks and light meals.
The Scenic gravel roads are wonderful for walking, cycling and motorbiking – 300 kilometres of old ox-wagon trails can be ridden. The 100-kilometre Karoo to Coast mountain-bike race from Uniondale to Knysna through Prince Alfred’s Pass is held annually in September.
Hiking – nearby guest farms offer hiking and walking trails, farm dams for summer swims and freshwater angling (bass fishing).
Birdwatching – there are 150 bird species, including Verreaux’s eagle. In November 2009, a rare Red (Grey) Phalarope was spotted on a dam near Haarlem.
Horse riding – the Uniondale Agricultural Show is held every October. The Saddle Horse stud, Deugas Looch, has horses available for guided rides on the farm and Karoo veld. You can bring your own horse with you and stay at Zeru House.
Local caves have been home to owls, swallows, bees, small mammals and humans, sheep, goats, and cattle and preserve San painting dating back 3 000 years.