Coun­try­breaks

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL 2013 - JIM FREE­MAN

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.

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