LET ME be blunt about it: Oudtshoorn is my least favourite place in South Africa. I go out of my way to avoid the place and, by extension, anywhere in a radius of 100km.
It’s a visceral dislike and it stems from eight wasted months spent at a place called Infantry School. Those of you of a certain age, gender, skin pigmentation and aversion to institutional mindlessness will know exactly what I mean.
My dislike extended, until a few weeks ago, to the mountains to the north of the town; more specifically to the Swartberg Pass – up, over and through which I did a vasbyt endurance exercise in wind, rain, sleet and snow.
Actually, up until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t really seen the Swartberg Pass because our multi-day route march was conducted either in the dark or in zero-visibility weather conditions, as well as a haze of pain and misery.
May I say, with all due respect for the good citizens of the town, that I will never change my mind about Oudtshoorn. I have, nonetheless, changed my mind about the countryside surrounding it... including the Swartberg Pass.
I have fallen in love with Prince Albert (the place, not the Monegasque monarch).
The dorpie is not particularly picturesque but it does possess a delightful spirit of place that is enhanced by its location on the edge of the big-sky Great Karoo. It’s also a surprisingly sophisticated town, having become the retreat for any number of writers, artists, sculptors, musicians, photographers, manufacturing jewellers and other creative souls.
So “arty” is the place, that an R8 million multi- use theatre is about to open. The Showroom is a collaborative project between local businesswoman Charon Landman and Johnny Breedt, whose credits as a feature film designer (the man who gives a movie its “look”) include Hotel Rwanda and the upcoming Mandela. Breedt conceptualised the theatre on a smaller scale but, once he told Landman of his plans, the project snowballed.
The art deco theatre is on Prince Albert’s main road, Church Street, and parts of the structure are more than 150 years old.
It was once the Toyota dealership in the town – hence its name.
Also over 150 years old is the Swartberg Hotel, which Landman bought two years ago and has been managing for five months. There are 18 rooms, a coffee shop and the a la carte Victorian Room restaurant which features silver service, and a painting which, according to local lore, is haunted. Apparently, the subject of the painting – a young woman in a white Victorian dress standing next to a placid English pond – died in suspicious circumstances and the water of the painting periodically turns blood red.
The hotel is a work in progress, says Landman, but she has no intention of upgrading it beyond its current three star status.
“It’s not a four star place and neither is this a four star town,” she insists. She’s right, even though there are several decidedly superior restaurants along Church Street, among them the elegant Gallery Café, Lazy Lizard (divine breakfasts – try the mug of oats with dollops of fresh cream) and the wellknown African Relish recreational cooking school.
Prince Albert’s culinary pedigree is further emphasised by the location, just outside town, of the set for KykNet’s Kokkedoor cooking reality show.
Pick of the bunch for me is the Swartberg Arms Steak House. It’s owned and run by Chris van Zyl, known by all and sundry as “Chris Vis” to distinguish him from Chris Hare – one of Prince Albert’s resident barbers – and it’s where the locals go out to eat.
There’s also “Jan Slagter”, the butcher who does a rather nice kudu salami. Kudu are volop in the veld around Prince Albert and many of the locals who travel regularly after dark mount sub-sonic whistles on their vehicle bumpers to discourage the antelope from crossing the road while they’re passing.
Apart from the Swartberg Hotel, accommodation is provided by a host of B&Bs and self-catering facilities. I’ve stayed several times at Mai’s Bed and Breakfast and have never been disappointed… especially by Mai herself, a bubbly Dubliner.
Céad mille fáilte, says the sandwich-board outside the B&B, and a hundred thousand welcomes you’ll receive.
Don’t go there if you are allergic to cats because it seems as if all the town’s moggies hang out at the place.
Another of the town’s characters ( locals call the place “PA” rather than Prince Albert) is irrepressible folk-rock legend Brian Finch.
Brian moved to PA a decade ago from Cape Town, during which time he built his house, composed and recorded several solo albums, and is on the road almost every weekend.
He’s well into his Sixties and drives about 35 000km to perform at gigs throughout South Africa and Namibia each year.
The stars of the show in this
REFRESHING: Water runs in a furrow next to the street.
CURIOSITY: A klipspringer takes a curious look at the camera.