De Rust Is Up To You
Words Chris du Plessis, Pics Ben Pretorius
The purple elephant standing in front of Herrie se Plek, a supermarket and eatery on the main artery through De Rust, is not a hallucination. It is one of two prominent town landmarks (the other is a large steel chicken that’s dressed differently every day by the owners of The Village Trading Post up the road).
But the elephant is particularly significant as it, and Herrie se Plek, refers to the imaginary tusker in the famed Afrikaans writer, humorist and lawyer CJ Langenhoven’s famous story Herrie op die Ou Tremspoor. It is believed that this section of the Swartberg, and one of his favourite writing haunts, Meiringspoort, inspired words such as ‘when the echoing crags resound’ in the old national anthem.
And if you thought the historical outpost’s name was self-explanatory you’d be wrong again. De Rust was not so named because it was a place of tranquillity. Rather, lip-chewingly frustrated travellers were forced to wait there for Meiringspoort to become accessible again after yet another flash-flood.
Things haven’t changed in that regard. We barely missed a storm that indignantly heaped sediment and debris from the Groot River across the pathway that snakes through the canyon. The big difference is that, other than when the town consisted mainly of Victorian lock-up-and-go’s for God-fearing pioneers attending Nagmaal, there is ample reason to stay put there these days for as long as you possibly can – even without the odd atmospheric outburst.
Such as pizza nights at the Kaalgat Koedoe every Friday. After a hard week of soaking in the natural beauty and warding off curses by envious acquaintances still treading the mill in South African urban centres, a gregarious mix of veteran De Rustians, tourists and inkommers converge on Henno Paetzold’s tavern for some catch-up skinner, a fine locally brewed ale called Dieks’ Bru Karoo, and a slice or three.
Some patrons sit outside at long tables among renegade lavender bushes. Others stream into the dimly lit bar – a cosy watering hole with a scarlet-topped pool table, stacks of old vinyl LPs and obligatory bar paraphernalia among the sinkplaat and wood finishes. Henno smilingly counters wayward requests for Afrikaans ‘schlager-pop’ with Bad Company or Zappa while he slaps bills and coins into an old wooden ring-till. A poster of musician Piet Botha hangs above the entrance as proof that live music is a preference there.
The long tables outside are conducive to meeting people and my interest is more than adequately arrested by a pleasant elderly Dutch couple, Quin and Theo, on their eighth trip to South Africa, as well as Richard Johnston, a Johannesburg businessman in the process of planting an olive grove on his farm outside town, and Tanya Richter, owner of a tuisnywerheid in the main street called Mrs Moerby & Antie Potgedonner which, as the name suggests, sells all sorts of saliva-inducing home-made foodstuff you won’t find in a recipe book.
My eyes are nevertheless continuously drawn to the massive frame of a man with snow-white hair and beard at the adjacent table. Just as I start believing he simply looks like the man you think you’ve seen before, I’m told who he is and the penny drops.
John van Reenen broke the world discus record in 1975 with a monster-lob of 68.48m when South Africans were still banned from the Olympics. An arts graduate, he left to study graphics at Washington State University, which allowed him to compete internationally, and he returned to the Stellenbosch arts faculty to teach etching. Now sixty-something, he admits to living the life of a recluse in the Swartberg foothills a few kilometres outside De Rust, and spends his days painting in a converted garage on the farm of a friend, Joel Immermann.
Immermann is a reasonably recent immigrant who spills over with enthusiasm about the eco-friendly house he built on the hill overlooking John’s studio. After arriving there the next day, we soon realise he spills over with enthusiasm about everything in life.
“Cool, hey,” he say, pointing to pipes leading to a bio-gas digester some ten metres from his kitchen. The methane emanating from it pops into life as he turns on the tap and lights his stove. “Straight from my bathrooms,” he adds with the self-satisfied smile of someone who’s beaten the system. An eco-friendly, vermin-free veggie garden is next. It didn’t cost him a pretty penny either. And the broad view from his living room over the Klein Karoo below with the Stompdrift Dam in the distance (the largest in the Klein Karoo with a 26km circumference) framed by the Kammanassie Mountains, is priceless.
Views are big in De Rust. Wedged in between the Swartberg and the Kammanassie, the town is laid out so everyone awakes to a fantasy world of mist-clad mountains before it magically morphs into the more familiar semi-desert landscape as the veil burns away.
Some vistas are better than others of course – all with a shocking price tag. Unless you’re exceptionally lucky, like Ben Pretorius and Lanie-Marie Roets who, unlike other hilltop dwellers with an arresting panorama, picked up a prize view for a pittance thanks to this very publication.
Paging through COUNTRY LIFE magazine one slow Sunday at their home near Marble Hall, they saw the ad and decided to buy from the ridiculously wealthy seller at a laughable price. The view came complete with a designer, five-room, furnished guest house and swimming pool, with a state-of-the-art kitchen where Ben can indulge his cooking urges. Calling it anything else but De Rust View would have been nothing short of stubborn.
On the deck between sundowners and the lamb potjie with a fashionable umami salad you can, as I did, watch the massive canvas before you shift from dark and brooding (upset only by a rainbow dipping into the valley) to a kaleidoscope of glowing pastels as the bald outcrops catch fire. Then the shadows lengthen and a sparkling sheet of light is pulled across the black expanse.
All this can easily be missed, of course, as you cruise through the town on the N12 lined with bric-a-brac shops, tea rooms and eateries hosted by an array of colourful citizens. The once lively, sea-green local hotel is now closed for business and occupied solely by the eccentric owner who, it is whispered, keeps the dinner table set for phantom guests, complete with starched napkins and gleaming crystal ware. Art lovers everywhere lust after his collection of paintings.
Up the road towards Oudtshoorn, opposite the old post office that was plundered by Boer forces under Gideon Scheepers in 1905, we pop into Aunt Dora’s Spens. Formerly owned and run by a certain Dora de Villiers since the 1940s, it was the only bread source for De Rust, Prince Albert and Klaarstroom.
The present owner, Ilse Pringle, has presided over it for the past decade and gave it a quirky intimacy. The shop is pregnant with historical paraphernalia, glass work and home industry products, and the flower-filled courtyard with its wood and iron statuettes remind somewhat of the Owl House. “I make 95 per cent of everything you see here,” she says proudly, with a sweep of her hand over the wares.
On Sundays most people with any sense head for the Village Trading Post to tuck in to Niekie Eksteen’s buffet. Over the past six years since he settled here, he’s re-created the eclectic interior of an old general-dealer-cum-furniture-shop with a leafy courtyard leading to a small art gallery.
Niekie and his partner, Soan Jacobs, are concerned with the development of local arts and the aesthetic future of the village. “Here, some 85 people practise arts or some craft,” says Niekie. De Rust is one of the best preserved Karoo towns (it took the Dorp of the Year award in 2011) and Soan sits on the recently founded board that monitors new buildings. “Nobody can just come and build a Tuscan house here,” adds Niekie.
Outside in the courtyard, a keyboard/sax duo offers jazz and patrons heap their plates with bitterballen (lamb mince and veg balls), crumbed pork chops in a coffee sauce and sundried tomato and feta-filled cabbage leaves in mustard sauce, under Niekie’s supervision. “There’s a special energy that keeps you here,” he says, cultivating a faraway look. “We really are one big happy family.”
Source: Country Life