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Suddenly there’s a Valley

Suddenly there’s a Valley

Nov 2013

Words and pics David Shreeve

When American songwriters Chuck Meyer and Biff Jones wrote the popular song Suddenly There’s a Valley in 1955, they penned this verse, 
When you think there's no bright tomorrow
And you feel you can't try again; 
Suddenly there's a valley
Where hope and love begin,
they could have had in mind the Western Cape's beautiful Hemel-en-Aarde Valley (Heaven and Earth). Bisected by the R320 that runs between Hermanus and Caledon, it is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque valleys in South Africa.

The simple appeal of the song resulted in it being recorded over the years by nearly a dozen different singers, and the visual spectacle and natural beauty of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley has, over many, many years, attracted several dozen artists and photographers, who strive to capture the magic that is so exquisitely laid out in the form of rolling hills, magnificent vineyards, neatly proportioned farms and charming homesteads.

But it wasn’t always like this. The valley has a sad segment to its history: it was once the site of a vastly inadequate and sorely neglected leper colony. The isolated institution was established in 1817 on the original farm Hemel-en-Aarde, which was owned by the widow, Susan Niemand, herself a leper.

To begin with, the institution’s medical officer, who was supposedly looking after the health and welfare of the lepers, was based in faraway Cape Town and seldom visited the unfortunate patients. They were cared for largely by Moravian missionaries from the Genadendal mission station near Riviersonderend, which was itself not exactly close by.

According to the knowledgeable author and historian, S.J. du Toit, after some years  of atrocious neglect, the medical officer’s duties were taken over by Dr James Barry, the controversial British Army surgeon,  who was apparently a woman masquerading as a man. She is said to have visited the colony from Cape Town and was appalled at the conditions the lepers were forced to endure.

Dr Barry brought about significant changes and improvements to the colony. At one stage it housed 150 lepers, in some cases along with their healthy wives, children and other relatives.

No structures from this time remain because in 1846 the leper colony was moved to Robben Island, but memories of the institution’s productive gardens linger on through the variety of different crops grown in this fertile dale: raspberries, olives, vegetables, proteas, deciduous fruit and many others. Grapes, however, dominate the agricultural scene and some of the country’s top vineyards can be found here.

The early pioneers in this region ran mixed farms, and were themselves a diverse assortment of characters. S.J. duToit, in her fascinating book Hermanus Stories tells of the ‘quirky Miss Gordon’, who single-handedly farmed a section of the original Hemel-en-Aarde farm known as Karwyderskraal. Her full name was Ella Gordon Dove Colston and – despite being known locally as Miss Gordon – she was actually married, but her husband had stayed behind in Scotland when she emigrated to the Cape. 

She is described as being more than competent with not only the rifle and pistol but the sword. She was also a useful exponent of fisticuffs and apparently thrashed two young farmers whom she considered had insulted her. They must have been awfully foolish fellows to tangle with a woman who could lift a 90kg sack of wheat with ease and toss it onto her wagon. 

Miss Gordon was said to have been, in her younger days, a horse trainer with a circus. She certainly loved horses and referred to them as her ‘children’. When a darling horse died she had it buried in a horse cemetery on her farm and today there are 13 graves – each with its own tombstone, still visible as memorials to her beloved horse-children. What must have been her favourite dog is buried at the head of her grave, but it is not certain whether the dog expired before or after she did. Miss Gordon died in 1958 aged 85 and is buried right alongside the 13 horse graves.

The numerous valley farms laze peacefully on the hillsides of the Onrus and Babilonstoring mountains on the one side and the Kleinrivierberge on the other. Brian and Toni Frost have farmed apples and pears here for over 15 years: “Look, farming is a tough game but if you are going to make the decision to take on the many hardships, what a spectacular setting to do it in.”

One of the first wine estates to be established in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley was Bouchard Finlayson, which produces an impressive selection of top-of-the-range wines. Owner and winemaker Peter Finlayson is an active member of the valley community and is also a patron of the Hermanus Music Society. He makes his cellar available for soirées organised by the society – top calibre music performed by talented musicians among huge wooden vats of quality wine is quite an experience.

The property is some 125 hectares in extent but less than 30 hectares is planted to vines. The balance is fynbos (‘delicate bush’) and mountain country, which offers a somewhat unique opportunity to visitors whether you are interested in wine or not. Bouchard Finlayson is a champion member of the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative, a pioneering partnership between the South African wine industry and the conservation sector. Its vision is to protect and conserve our natural heritage within the Cape Winelands, 95 per cent of which is situated within the Cape Floral Kingdom, the richest (but also the smallest) plant kingdom on the planet. 

As an extension of this membership, the estate offers guided walking tours led by the respected botanist, Frank Woodvine, who will introduce to you some of the 260 plant species, including some that are found only in this area. You will also see many of the 120 bird species found here and you might also chance upon a klipspringer, a grysbok, a troupe of baboons, a mongoose or two or even a honey badger.

Groups are limited to a maximum of 15 people (minimum six). Tours need to be booked at least a week in advance and are weather dependent. Alternatively, you can pick up a map at the cellar door and explore the fynbos on your own.

Other local members of the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative are the nearby picturesque wine estates Newton Johnson, Southern Right and Hamilton Russell. Founder Tim Hamilton Russell, who was previously in the advertising industry, set out in the mid-1970s to find a site suitable for growing noble, cool-climate vines and, after an exhaustive search, bought 170 hectares in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, which he planted to a number of different varieties. He marketed his wines as coming from the most southerly vineyard in Africa and the closest to the sea (which may or may not still be applicable).

His son, Anthony Hamilton Russell, took over from him in 1991 and has narrowed their range of wines to mainly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both of which are internationally acclaimed. The estate can be visited between 09h00 and 17h00 weekdays and until 13h00 on Saturdays for tastings.

The De Bos Dam lies in the bosom of the valley, providing most of the water requirements of nearby Hermanus. The Shaw’s Mountain Pass just short of Caledon provides some spectacular scenery. It was closed for reconstruction for some months but has recently been re-opened. Even if you turn back before reaching Caledon, it is still worthwhile taking a leisurely drive up the valley and over the pass – there are enough jaw-dropping views to satisfy the amateur artist, happy snapper or professional photographer.

For the more energetic, the valley offers horse trails, hiking paths, treetop slides, paintball ranges, quad bike and mountain bike tracks. But perhaps the valley’s main appeal is its quiet beauty, its gentle vistas and picture-perfect views. 

In another verse of the old song Suddenly there’s a Valley are the lyrics, Touched only by the seasons; swept clean by the falling rain. Again, the words apply so aptly to this truly picturesque valley. No wonder someone once described it as the place where heaven touches the earth.


Source: Country Life

Hemel-en-Aarde Valley

Country Life