Snow-searching in the Ceres Valley
Words & pics Aimee Dyamond
It’s very late August, the last day of winter. The word is out about the snow. It fell on Thursday, they say, and soon it’ll melt. City-dwellers hastily pack their 4X4s and gumboots (nobody’s got snowshoes in Africa) and head off in search of the mythical white blanket that has enveloped the upper reaches of the landscape.
Many mythologies exist around these mountains. With their majestic passes masterfully cut into the rock face by the hands of convict labour, scenic routes and plunging ravines, they contain a wealth of human inheritance dating back aeons, to when the San and Khoi peoples inhabited the Tanqua Karoo. The great buttresses slope into the Ceres Valley, a fertile pannier where cherry and apple orchards blossom in summer. The fruit exported from the Valley accounts for more than half the country’s total export. I start to wonder if its residents enjoy a diet rich in Vitamin C.
Gateway to the North
Bain’s Kloof Pass is a veritable feat of engineering headed by Andrew Geddes Bain, one-time resident of Wellington, amateur palaeontologist, engineer and road-builder extraordinaire. Like several other mountain passes in the Western Cape, the Pass was built by the hands of convicts. The 28km winding stretch of road, after being chiselled, blasted and scored out of the unwavering berg, was finally completed in 1853. On the one side, a sheer drop plunges into the Witte River, now enraged into torrential rapids fuelled by the persistent winter rains. Waterfalls spill over the palaeolithic rock formations like tears seeping from eye sockets. The mountain is weeping.
We pass underneath the height restriction barrier at the beginning of the Pass, its swinging rods like sinister marionettes suspended in the low mist. The warning has a reason: some kilometres on, an overhanging granite rock juts out of the mountain-face. Like a deprecatory human nose it protrudes, dripping rivulets into the road below. Dacre’s Pulpit (Dacre se Preekstoel), it’s called.
A landmark of the Bain’s Kloof Pass, its pious namesake marks the place where one Reverend George Dacre once delivered a sermon. A stubborn natural barrier to human progress. I’ve heard stories of vehicles getting stuck at that point, unable to continue and having to turn back. You’ll find another religious denotation nearby: a Kramat, located close to one of the bridges, marks the gravesite of a mysterious sheikh. Little else is known about him. We pass the thatched tollhouse and the Bain’s Trading Post, a small shop which sells brass kettles, porcelain and other innocuous bric-a-brac.
Halfway up, we encounter a mist so thick, our car’s fog lights can barely penetrate it. The drive is spooky. It’s probably a good thing that I only discovered after our trip that the Pass is supposedly haunted by a girl called Lettie de Jager, who drowned in a flash flood in 1895 while climbing the Sneeukop summit. On dark nights like the one we arrived on, her cries are said to be heard on the wind. The next morning is freezing. It is so cold that lighting the gas-powered refrigerator in our cabin isn’t even necessary to keep our milk fresh. Rivers have burst their banks, drowning small trees. We descend the Pass and take the road to Ceres.
Rumours of snow
Ceres lies in a low-lying cleft accessible from the scenic Michell’s Pass if you’re coming off the N1. Here, in the cradle of the Cape Winelands, is one of the country’s most fertile valleys. The Dwars River, abundant with trout, traverses the town. The outlying hamlets of Op-Die-Berg, Wolseley, Prince Alfred Hamlet and Tulbagh to the north are its smaller cousins. The 1969 earthquake, perhaps a violent political gesture on Mother Nature’s part, damaged more than half the homes in the White section of the town, many beyond repair, and in an instance of natural iconoclasm, the spire of the NG Kerk toppled over.
The town itself is like many other farming municipalities in the Western Cape – a high street lined with furniture shops, a funeral parlour and a taxi rank.
The townspeople are out despite the rain, crossing the main street carrying parcels of shopping and frantically withdrawing money at the ATMs. The air is crisp and frenetic. The petrol stations are bustling with snow-hunters filling up for the trek up to the only place with reachable snow: the Matroosberg Mountain Range. There’s a mood of anticipation present in the town centre that Saturday morning. I’m not sure if this is because of the prospect of snow, or the fact that it’s payday.
The rumour has spread quickly. “Ja, daar’s sneeu, op die Matroosberge!” say the locals to the visitors, who look toward the snow-capped peaks north of the town. The gentlemanly petrol attendant laments the rainy weather, yet smiles at us despite it. When I ask if everybody’s here for snow, he says: “Yes, mostly. But you also get people coming for the Vleis Fees in Calvinia. It’s on ‘til Sunday.” Vleis Fees. All the Karoo lamb you can eat. I imagine it getting stuck in my teeth and pull a face.
Cars travelling down the winding Swaarmoed Pass have grubby snowmen perched on their windshields, as if positive confirmation to approaching visitors that there is indeed snow to be had in the lower-lying foothills of the Matroosberg mountains. Raptors soar overhead in search of road kill. We pass a sodden rugby field, its posts toppled over in some recent storm. It’s not long before we reach the first spattering. Cars are parked on either side of the road and people are clambering out, slipping through the barbed wire fencing onto somebody’s private property. An ice warning appears on the dashboard as the outside temperature plummets to three degrees Celsius. A pulmonic chill enters my lungs. The real cold is setting in. The fabled snow looks like congealed white sugar frosting, but it’s still magical. Crystalline flakes begin to fall, but nobody seems to notice. Snowmen of various heights and body shapes have sprung up in the fields. I duck to avoid a snowball or two.
Baboons, bikers and storiekos
Satisfied with our gambol in the snow, we head to Die Tolhuis on Michell’s Pass for a warm drink. Others seem to have had the same idea, because as we arrive, several bourgeois-looking families are exiting their large German cars. A family of baboons has settled near the chimney, keeping warm beside the kitchen smoke. A baboon on a hot tin roof. Inside, it’s cramped and homely. A fire glows in the hearth. Though we don’t eat, I glance at the menu: roosterkook (farm bread), skedonk-burgers, ‘newspaper sausage’ and other ‘storiekos’ (food with a story) are the house specialities. The meat is supplied by a butchery in the nearby Prince Alfred Hamlet. Take note: they don’t accept cards. Its sister restaurant, the Harvest Table Bistro at the Winterberg Inn, is located on the R43 in the Wolseley direction. The cuisine here is more cosmopolitan, with French, Zimbabwean and Argentinean influences.
After a spell of pretty confused service and diner-style coffee, we begin our journey back to Bain’s Kloof. Evidence of the fire of January 2012 is still present. Blackened foliage scars the mountainside and charred vineyards serve as a reminder of the devastation caused by fynbos wildfires to agriculture in the region. We stop at the Calabash Bush Pub for a modest lunch. A troupe of bikers and classic car drivers have gathered here for a pit stop. We arrive to see patrons standing casually by the fireplace, or leaning over tables eating wood-fired pizza. A row of bike helmets lines the stone wall. The Bush Pub is popular with locals and passersby and serves a lamb spit braai on Sundays. Our final stop is on the R44 en route to Stellenbosch, at The Red Star Farm Stall. It’s a popular road-side destination for a hearty farm breakfast. The wind-chimes and dreamcatchers on the porch are a testament to the farm stall's quirky tagline: 'The Bohemian Take on Rocking it Plaas Style'. The restaurant also serves burgers, frittata and widely-recommended mud cakes.
Once we pass the Lutheran Retreat, my cell phone signal flickers back to life. This is the start of the Wellington Wine Route, a charming trajectory bordered by stately properties: Napier, Oude Wellington, Nabygelegen and Bovlei. Men selling bunches of arum lilies patrol a set of stop streets not far from the Wellington turn-off. They’re waving the white flowers like beacons that light up our car’s headlights. We pass a bridal shop. The mannequins in the windows pose stiffly in tulle and metallic organza. I wonder how such an enterprise might survive in a small town like this; perhaps catering for residents’ conjugal aspirations is a profitable business venture. Petrol prices fluctuate from town to town. Cape Town stands at R13.13 per litre, compared to R13.35 in Ceres. The Shell in Wellington was selling at R13.22. It seems the higher one travels above sea level, the greater the fuel price.
The sights become familiar: lonely telephone wires set against the mountainous backdrop, an ugly electricity substation, washing hanging limp in the rain outside the small block houses on the roadside. This land certainly possesses its fair share of mythologies: from haunting tales and tall histories to the spiritual sublime. Our quest for the snow marks another chapter in the history of the lush natural theatre that is the Boland, with its shifting weather and ghostly peaks. I arrived as a tourist chasing rumours of snow. I depart a pilgrim, enriched by what I have found.
Local Lunch Spots
•Witherley’s Bistro: Located at the Ceres Inn, this well-located lunch spot is certainly welcoming after a chilly afternoon in the snow. The Bistro serves home-style dishes, from escargots to pub classics such as burgers, schnitzel and fish and chips.
•Die Tolhuis: Nestled along the historic, formerly impenetrable Michell’s Pass, this characterful padstal has a resident ghost. Owned by two former journalists, the kitchen prides itself on ‘storiekos’, food that’s served with a side of anecdote.
•Baba’s Jêm: Comfortable, farm-style deli and purveyor of fine jams, atchars, chutneys and pickled goods. Discover how to make local favourites vetkoek and mosbeskuit by watching a culinary demonstrations here. Preserve tastings and group visits are also on offer.