Bot River is about a 90-minute drive from Cape Town – just the right distance for a lazy Sunday lunch. The wine flows freely in this Overberg town and the conversation equally so.
Spend a weekend wine tasting and bike riding in Bot River near Hermanus.
“Let me tell you how things work here,” says Marelize Swart, manager of the Bot River Hotel. We’re having coffee in the ladies’ bar. “This is a very small place, a tiny little place; people driving through Bot River think nothing happens here. Then they see some activity on the hotel stoep and they stop. Then they meet the locals. And then,” she winks, “they buy property.” Forget any negative perceptions about the word “bot”. The name of the town is derived from the nearby Botter (Butter) River, which in turn was named when Dutch settlers traded butter here with early Khoi-Khoi livestock farmers. Today, Bot River slumbers on a patchwork of canola fields and vineyards – a familiar Overberg landscape. And it’s home to a fair share of hospitable, jovial characters. The hotel dates from the late 1800s. Marelize’s parents bought it in 1971 and she has been in charge for the past six years. “It’s the residents who make this town special,” she says. “The hotel is the place where we all get together – long-time locals, incomers, visitors, the lot.” Whenever there’s a major rugby match on TV, a bring-and-braai is organised. On Friday afternoons, free snacks are laid out on the stoep for patrons.
“My parents started the Friday thing, when the farmers of the district could join in the fun at the end of the work week,” Marelize says. “It’s become a tradition.” The hotel is the heart of the town. If you drive into Bot River via the R43 (it becomes Main Road), you can’t miss the old town square on your left. The square, wedged between the station and Main Road, is now a parking area. The hotel takes up one side and there’s also a butchery, café, restaurant, co-op and a small filling station. That’s it. If you need anything else, you have to drive to another town. “We’re only half an hour away from the bigger towns in the area,” Thea Swanepoel says later at her house in Main Road. “Many people think Bot River is in the middle of nowhere, but Hermanus, Caledon and Grabouw are only 30 km away.” Thea and her husband Johnny moved to Bot River from Gauteng seven years ago. She manages a few places that offer accommodation in town, and she’s a member of the Bot River Belles, a local women’s club committed to empowering the poor in the community, among other things.
The Bot River Railway Station has seen better days. I enquire about the train I heard chugging through town in the early hours. “It’s the goods train that transports barley from the Overberg to Cape Town’s breweries,” Thea tells me. “It’s the only train that still runs on these tracks.” There used to be a vintage steam locomotive that did trips in the area, but the huge water tank for replenishing the locomotive was stolen in 2011, so that was the end of the train trips. “We don’t complain,” Thea says. “We have tranquillity without feeling cut off from civilisation. And there are lots of activities here.” Indeed. It’s tempting to settle into a chair on the hotel stoep with a pot of tea or something stronger, but the surrounding district is also worth exploring. Bot River has a venerable wine culture, established over centuries. The first vines were planted in the 1700s and the current crop of farmers knows a thing or two about grapes. They also do things a little differently… “There are only a few local farms that produce their own wines,” says Donovan Ackermann, winemaker at Gabriëlskloof just outside town. “The focus is on quality rather than quantity. The guys don’t compete with one another. We’re all friends and we work together to punt the Bot River area and its wines as a singular brand.” Members of the Bot River Winegrowers Association meet regularly to discuss plans for marketing the area, which is still in the shadow of the better-known Hermanus Wine Route. It’s not all hard work, however; they also play hard. Donovan tells me about the annual Bot River Barrels and Beards Festival, which is held just after the harvest, usually at the end of April. The story is as follows: During harvest and pressing time, the guys are so busy they barely have time for a good night’s rest, let alone time to shave. A few years ago they decided to turn beard-growing into a contest. Now, on the Saturday evening of the festival, the beards are rated at the same time as the young wines in the barrels are tasted.
The oldest farm in the area is Beaumont Family Wines and the entrance is off Main Road, just before the railway line, a short walk from the hotel. In the 18th century, it was the farm Compagnies Drift, a trading post for
the Dutch East India Company, and it’s home to the oldest watermill in the country still in working order. Nadia Beaumont, marketing manager at Beaumont, shows me around. “I married a wine farmer so I could always drink good wine,” she jokes. Green lawns, leafy trees, Groenlandberg reflected in a dam… What a place to relax with a glass of wine on a summer’s day. I enquire about the mill. “It’s about 250 years old,” says Nadia, “and they still use it every now and then to mill flour. That flour is used to make rusks – you can buy a packet at the tasting room.” “We want to keep the farm’s old-time, rustic feel,” she continues. “Beaumont is a family farm and we’re proud of the family atmosphere. And of our wine, of course!” She mentions that it tends to get quite jolly at the hotel sometimes and that some visitors prefer the peace and quiet under her trees. “It takes all sorts. We have nature, good people, good wine and good food.”
It’s not only on the hotel stoep where things occasionally get wild and woolly. Just on the other side of the railway line there’s a turnoff to Van der Stel Pass, a lovely 27 km gravel road that goes to Villiersdorp. About 5 km outside town along this road is Cornell Skop, a 140-hectare farm where owner Luke Cornell lives with lions, cheetahs, caracal, zebras, eland – you name it. They’re all tame enough to touch. Well, nearly all of them. I’m puzzled by the spelling of the name, Cornell Skop. “It’s just word play,” Luke explains. “Skop means a party, but it also means I can kick you to glory.” He laughs, stretches out his hand and says, “Howzit, pal. Welcome.” Luke, who has lived here for 12 years, is a legend in the Cape film industry: He’s the only animal wrangler in the Western Cape who is experienced enough to work with wild animals on film sets. His animals have appeared in television ads for, among others, Firestone, Jeep, Cadbury and Dulux. “I truly love animals; that’s my cross,” he says. Luke has saved nearly all his wild animals from hunting farms and abattoirs, even if he wasn’t planning to use them for his work. The film industry has been struggling in recent years and Luke has turned to ecotourism to afford the upkeep of his four-footed friends. The gates to Cornell Skop are open to visitors and people can see his wild creatures up close. The cheetahs Zulu and Sarge are the main attraction. They’re as tame as dogs and love attention. The two huge male lions, Mojo and Moby, however, you should watch from a respectful distance… “When those boys roar, you can hear them in town,” Luke says. We’re standing on a koppie overlooking the valley. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to keep this place going,” he says. “But I’ll keep doing what I can. I’ve put down roots here. Bot River is the most tranquil place; I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Tranquil, yes, I think to myself late that afternoon as I sit down on the hotel stoep again. Three bottles of wine from Gabriëlskloof clink reassuringly in a bag at my feet. I pour myself a glass of chenin blanc. I hold the wine glass up against the setting sun and a quote attributed to Galileo Galilei pops into my mind: “Wine is sunlight, held together by water.” You can’t help but drink a toast to Bot River: The wine is good, the people are down to earth and you can see lions.
PICTURE PERFECT. Arcangeli Wines, next to the N2 in the direction of Caledon, is a good place to take a sunrise photo of the town and the surrounding valley.
STATELY. The Dutch Reformed church hall in town is nearly a century old, but it’s been well maintained, in its original style, over the years. BOT RIVER HOTEL
JANDRÉ TEMMERS Nursery assistant, Fiore “I followed a girl to Bot River and had some difficulty getting used to such a small place. But I was also searching for serenity, and I found it here.”
VINTAGE AVENUE. Wildekrans farmworkers get up at dawn to start their jobs
ABIGAIL MAYHEW Baker, Fiore “This is a lekker dorpie and the community is small. Everyone knows everyone else. It has its benefits, but it can also be annoying if people poke their nose into your affairs.”