Calvinia is best known for the Hantam Vleisfees and its explosions of flowers in spring. I headed there in mid-April and found that’s not the only time this dusty Northern Cape town blooms. Photos by Teagan Cunniffe.
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For the last hundred kilometres, I’ve only seen straight lines and crows. The R27 cuts through the brown corduroy of a late summer Karoo with no meandering. So when the Hantam mountains rear up above my dashboard, it’s not surprising that they too are straight, a second horizon above the first. The town is surrounded on all sides, fitting into the mountains like a nail in a horseshoe. In Calvinia, you are very, very small. A local tells me that she stays here because in the mountains she can hear the voices of the gods.
The walls of the optometrist’s office have been around since long before contact lenses; the museum used to be a synagogue.
I knew exactly two things about this little Northern Cape town before arriving: it’s full of lamb, and explodes into bright flowers during spring. Flora and fauna. This wasn’t wrong, exactly: I’ve never eaten as much lamb as in these three days. The locals are as enthused about flowers as they are generous with the ‘secret‘ whereabouts of the best spots to see them. But, in both cases, that’s not really different from other small Northern Cape towns. What Calvinia does have is old bones, and thickly layered stories.
Here, almost everything that stands was something else before. The walls of the optometrist’s office have been around since long before contact lenses; the museum used to be a synagogue. Much of the town’s original infrastructure was built by Jewish citizens, who slowly left one by one after almost a hundred years. No-one seems to know why.
The perimeter of Calvinia is very clear. On one side of the road, back gardens are studded with wind pumps (both real and imitation) and Datsun bakkies sleeping in shady front gardens; on the other there’s nothing but tumbleweeds and mountains, leaning like a perpetual tsunami over the town. It all feels very Wild West as I brake to let a dust devil cross the road ahead of me. But it’s the word ‘SHALOM’ above a gate that makes me slam on the brakes at Bodiebering Vetplante.
As it turns out, Theo Schutte is not even vaguely Jewish. A shy, quiet man, he moved here from Tzaneen 10 years ago for some peace and quiet – and to develop his hobby: an extensive collection of succulents. He shows me how he painstakingly pollinates Lithops by hand with a child’s paintbrush, his galumphing dog Caesar bumping into my camera at every turn. A small selection of plants are for sale, so a judicious appraisal of my gardening skills leads me to buy a kanniedood. ‘The people here don’t need much. Here, I’ve got my peace and quiet. I’ve got my dogs, my birds, my plants.’
‘It’s hard to find a plant that will thrive in this environment,’ Theo tells me, and I can believe it. In this dusty heat, I feel like I’m turning into a vetplant myself. For less extreme gardeners, there’s only one time that’s perfect for flowers: spring. It’s the time when Talita de Waal feels most alive.
‘You know, we came from elsewhere. And it’s so hot here that I can’t garden. So I started reading,’ Talita tells me over coffee at the Calvinia Guesthouse which she runs. She’s a live wire and talks animatedly about the flowers, the past, the newcomers. She draws me maps in pencil, and shows me the best empty lots in town for finding flowers in the spring.
‘Dirk is our’ – she leans forward – ‘our town hippy. He has this long hair, and when it’s hot he wears dresses! He’ll never wear a shirt with a collar. Almal wil sê, “Het jy Dirk se rokkie gesien vandag?”
‘I ask where I could find him, and she gestures. ‘Don’t worry. You’ll know when you’re there.’
It is indeed very hard to miss the place, although by the time I meet Dirk van Rensburg, the nip in the air means that it’s not kaftan-weather. He and his wife Sonja have carefully curated Rustic Art in Stigling Street into something remarkable. About 30 buoys cluster in the lower branches of a willow tree in the front garden. Old paraffin lamps and rusted gear chains are interspersed with coconut-sized chunks of rose quartz. The swelling chords of ‘Non, je regrette rien’ by Edith Piaf float over rusted signs, a cobbled-together tractor-cum-generator, mastheads, wildebeest skulls. If they had a tenth of the stuff they have here, in slightly less order, it would look like a dump. As it is, in this orchestrated abundance, it takes on an air of the fantastical.
They invite me to eat with them at the Don’t Cry Bar, and we stay up late drinking dubious cherry liqueur and laughing about family and music and art and Calvinia. (Most of that is off the record.) This dusty wilderness seems like the last place to find such vibrant, colourful characters: but I’m quickly learning that Calvinia is full of surprises.
Before leaving the following day, I pull over at a house with a tiny sign that says ‘The Weavery.’ A small dog barks until a curtain twitches, and an 89-year-old stranger invites me into her home. Ann Brundyn doesn’t ask any questions: she’s just delighted to see a new face. We sit down. When I ask about the weaving she says, ‘Oh’, as if it was a passing concern and complete strangers are often popping in with no explanation. She was born here – her sons are all over the place and they want her to stay with them, but Calvinia is what she knows. She speaks little English and I little Afrikaans, but it doesn’t matter. We smile at each other and laugh at half-understood jokes and smoke too many cigarettes. I finally leave after sunset, with the pink light making even the rocks of her barren front yard look soft. It’s hard to believe that in a few months, this old riverbed will burst into flowery flame just like the rest of the Northern Cape. It seems to me though, that in Calvinia there is colour all year round.
Visiting Calvinia in August
The Hantam Vleisfees happens in the last weekend of August. Accommodation in Calvinia books out very quickly for the festival (check for cancellations closer to the time), but you can always try in surrounding areas, such as Nieuwoudtville. August is also the beginning of the flower season.
Getting to Calvinia
From Cape Town, you have two options. You can brave the stop-go traffic and stay on the N7 for about 300 kilometres before turning onto the R27 at Vanrhynsdorp. This route ended up taking me close to six hours, with stops and breaks. For that amount of time, you could take the longer N1 route, turning onto the R355.
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Activities in Calvinia
The Akkerendam Nature Reserve is starkly beautiful, but I found it confusing to navigate, so pick up a map at the gate. The Kareeboom hike takes four to six hours and there’s also a more strenuous six- to nine-hour Hantamspiek route. Check with Riaan van Wyk (Tel 0833202116) about signage and roads, they change frequently. Be careful if you’re in a 2×4: the main road is fine, but adventuring onto side roads can be treacherous. The municipality is at 20 Hoop Street. Tel 0273418500.
Visit Calvinia Museum, the best way to appreciate the town and to understand its context ‒ which curator Memci Van Wyk is more than happy to help with. Don’t miss the teacups with moustache protectors and the mean-looking drie-angels (wire twisted into malevolent barbs to be found by English hooves). Tel 0273411043.
Visit The Weavery, on Paul Kruger street, to buy handmade rugs and mats, which Ann Brundyn makes in her room full of looms. It will probably be alright if you turn up unannounced. Tel 0736513742.
Buy olive oil at the Owl’s Nest where Hugolese Müller grows pecans, quince and olives on her farm on the outskirts of town. Most of her small yield is bought up and sent to Cape Town for distribution, but the peppery oil is available if you contact her directly. Tel 0825509222, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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Where to eat in Calvinia
Die Blou Nartjie ‒ and its grilled lamb chops ‒ is so popular with locals that it’s the only place I’d recommend making a booking beforehand. It’s one of the oldest buildings in town, with high ceilings and beautiful wooden floors. A lit Menorah serves the dual function of paying tribute to the original owners, and providing light during load-shedding. Tel 0273411263.
Hantam Huis is only open to guests for dinner, but visitors are welcome for lunch. It’s worth staying just to taste the waterblommetjiebredie. It’s also the only place you’ll get a skilpadjie (lamb’s liver wrapped in fat) for breakfast. You’ll have to sit through the pan-pipe version of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ and plinky-plonk ‘What a Beautiful Morning’ though. Tel 0273411606.
African Dawn B&B is, as far as I discovered, the only place in town with a specific gluten-free menu. Sit and eat a toastie underneath a beautiful honey mesquite tree studded with weaver nests. They also have accommodation ‒ room five is the best. From R690 (two sharing B&B). Tel 0273411482.
More photos: The colours of Calvinia
Where to stay in Calvinia
Hantam Huis is a bit of
a misnomer: it’s a building on Hoop Street but it also refers to the broader collection of 30 historical units scattered around town.
I stayed at Stoepkamer in Die Dorpshuis on Water Street, which is a national monument. With
a brass four-poster bed frame and squeaky floorboards it’s a little like being in an elaborate, person-sized dollhouse. There’s a Huisgenoot from 1975 in the sitting room. From R200 per person sharing.
Rustic Art, also known as The Junkyard, Karoo Blues or Rusthouse is at the end of Stigling Street. More accommodation is being built, but for now it’s just one self-catering flatlet for R280 per person (sleeps two). Be aware that this is where you come for character, not rustigheid (quiet); music ‒ whether it’s Beethoven in the morning, or blues in the evening ‒ is a fixture.
Tel 0273411423, email email@example.com
Tarantula Guest House is a great self-catering spot for families. The larger family suite is surprisingly affordable at R890 (sleeps four) and comes with a private swimming pool. Tel 0836437277.
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This article first appeared in the July 2015 issue of Getaway magazine.
All prices were correct at time of publication, but are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion. Please check with them before travelling.