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.”

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