Many reasons. Tucked away deep in the Cederberg, this old-world village gladly shares them with you
“If you want to go to heaven, you have to first stop by Wuppertal to get a taste,” Jurie van Rooy, owner of the Wuppertal Mission Stores, tells me as the low afternoon sun plays in the shop corners. It’s late and the assistant stops supplying the children with Chappies and
Nik Naks and switches off the chip fryer.
Time to go home.
Like some of the other people I chat to, Jurie left Wuppertal for a stint in Cape Town but returned to the peace of the mission in the Cederberg mountains. “It wasn’t for me,” he says of life in the fast lane. And I can understand why. This verdant village oasis, which appears in the valley after a stony gravel road that snakes through the mountains in a series of hairpin bends and steep descents, offers welcome and rest.
I relish the unfamiliar, old-world atmosphere as I drive into the village, but expect it to dissipate as soon as I get to know the place. So I’m surprised when I continue to feel utterly charmed as I explore the streets of the village later on with their quaint homes, most keeping to the original 19th century style of whitewashed walls and thatched roofs. It’s late afternoon when I walk through Wuppertal Sentraal (as it’s called by the locals), and with most places closing shop at 4pm, the residents sit on their stoeps or inside with doors wide open, radios softly playing. They wave back and friendly dogs rush out, tails wagging.
The surrounding mountains turn a deep redgold as the sun dips. I stop on the street to chat to Wuppertal-born Evelyn Paris, remarking on the loveliness of the village that in my mind’s eye resembles the fishing villages of old, a mix of Mykonos Old Town and Paternoster.
Although the golden era of the mission stations of the 1800s has long past (and their role and long-term benefits are always debatable), some of that energy seems to remain deeply ingrained in the village. Initially a farm called Rietmond, it became a Rhenish mission when missionaries Johann Gottlieb Leipoldt (grandfather of Afrikaans poet and botanist C Louis Leipoldt) and Theobald von Wurmb arrived in the enchanted valley late in 1829 and bought the farm. It became a Moravian mission in the 1960s, and remains one today.
Laughter from children playing echoes through the streets. The school hostel that homes more than a hundred children from the outlying areas is in the centre of the village and provides a safe haven for them after school, until the bell calls them to supper. Alongside is the sound of running water from the channels. Fed from mountain springs that run into the Tra-Tra River, the leiwater is used to irrigate the crops growing in bands on the low-lying land, a fertile strip with rows of vegetables, and dotted with horses, cows and sheep.
Despite the recent installation of cellphone reception, Wuppertal still offers a step into
the past. Many of the original buildings have survived the ravages of time and have been restored. The shoe factory is still housed in the original 1865 building, making it the oldest shoe factory in the country.
The shoemaking tradition was passed down from German shoemaker, Christian Häfele, who came to help Leipoldt in 1834 when Von Wurmb returned to Germany, and it continued with missionary Strassberger in the early 1900s. The Wuppertal residents kept up the practice, becoming known for their wellmade shoes. The youngest member of the fourman team, Clinton Wynand, acknowledges his shoemaking predecessors. “The old people’s spirit is still here, giving us a helping hand.”
The four men carry out the various stages in the shoemaking process, starting at one end of the long building with the tracing of patterns and the cutting of leather, moving along to the hole-making and stitching sections in the middle of the room and ending at the far end where Arnold Gertse glues on the soles.
An affable character with sparkling eyes, Arnold holds up hiking boots and velskoene (with riempie laces nogal – they’re the real deal). “I learnt everything from my father, visited the factory after school, and worked here for 30 years.” Arnold’s roots run deep in Wuppertal soil, and his forefathers are buried in the graveyard. “I made Nelson Mandela’s shoes. Navy blue leather and size ten,” he tells me with pride, as he sits surrounded by a hilly landscape of wooden shoe lasts that have survived the centuries. Then he smiles, thinking back to the first president of our Rainbow Nation, and says, “Big feet.”
Madiba visited the small village in the late 90s, and I notice the photo of him on the wall of the local Lekker Bekkie restaurant, among a black-and-white photo of C Louis Leipoldt and photos of the winding mountain pass, a gigantic river pool in which children frolic, and a dramatic rock arch.
Housed in the original Leipoldt house, the restaurant has the thick walls, blue shutters (no glass), reed ceilings and thatch roof typical of the mission houses of the time.
The restoration of the building was funded by Lanok (now Casidra or Cape Agency for Sustainable Integrated Development in Rural Areas), and a handful of women from the community established the restaurant in 1997.
Pies and toasted sarmies are the regular fare, but the Wuppertal ladies will make traditional meals of either bobotie or lamb with seasonal vegetables and roosterkoek, if ordered a day in advance. Fresh scones with strawberry jam and cream, and a cup of steaming rooibos tea are always on offer, as is a farmhouse breakfast.
It’s also worth overnighting in this unusual Shangri-la, rather than rushing back to civilisation. So, I make a plan to return the next morning after my night at the self-catering Kloofhuis, for breakfast and a lekker cup of moerkoffie.
On the way back, I wander through the streets, past the old graveyard with the graves of the missionaries, and past the large, startlingly white 1834 church, before returning home to pull out a chair on the stoep, to watch the last of the light slink behind the mountains, and look forward to what the new day will bring.
It begins with birdsong and a visit to Lekker Bekkie, after which I stroll to Red Cedar Cosmetics. There’s no need to drive around the small settlement, home to about 500 people. “Everybody knows everybody,” I’m told. With only a small grocery store (selling good slap chips – a key road-food staple for a travelling writer), a butchery and bakery, Red Cedar, the Rooibos co-op and the Wupperthal Shoe Factory, you can happily park your car and walk.
At Red Cedar, I hear the short history
of this establishment, run by five women.
The project was funded by USAID and started in 2004 with 12 participants. “Red is for rooibos and Cedar is for the Cederberg mountain region,” Linda Bantom tells me, referring to their name Red Cedar. “The organic rooibos extract is full of antioxidants that slow down ageing.” The perfect ingredient for a cosmetic range in an area where rooibos is second only to mother’s milk.
At the Wupperthal Original Rooibos (Primary Agriculture) Cooperative, I hear from CEO Barend Salomo about the history of rooibos, and its harvest and processing in the first few months of the year. He also explains its history. He’s certainly in the know. With 11 siblings, Barend was weaned on rooibos when the next baby came along.
“Rooibos runs in my veins,” he says. “My family was one of the original Khoi families in the valley, and we used rooibos for skin problems and stomach aches, for eczema, and as a substitute for mother’s milk. My greatgrandfather was eight years old when the first missionaries arrived in Wuppertal,” he says.
As the story goes, when the missionaries looked down into the valley and saw the river, which reminded them of the Wupper River in Germany, they called it Wuppertal (Wupper valley). Today Wuppertal includes 16 outlying settlements. All the rooibos for the co-op is grown in the vicinity and is certified organic. The co-op is Fairtrade compliant and follows bio-dynamic principles – adhering to its philosophy of living in harmony with nature.
Barend also had a stint working in Cape Town before he longed to come home. He translates and shortens a few lines of a poem by DJ Opperman for me, expressing his fondness for his home turf. “On the day when it was time to do some sowing, God’s bag was leaking.
The best of the seed fell onto Wuppertal.”
And with the locals’ pride and love for their village, it’s no wonder peace and harmony prevail.
TOP: Arnold Gertse proudly holds up a well-made boot. All shoes can be made to size and ordered from the shoe factory. LEFT: John Gertse and his brother follow in their father’s footsteps, keeping shoemaking in the family. BELOW: Wuppertal streets are reminiscent of those on a Greek island or Paternoster of old.
LEFT: Ingar Valentyn from Wuppertal Tourism gives excellent advice on what to see and where to stay in the village. RIGHT: Many of the early missionaries are buried in the old graveyard near the church. BELOW: Mia Benito waits for her auntie outside Lekker Bekkie restaurant.BELOW RIGHT: Barend Salomo at the Wupperthal Rooibos Co-op, which is Fairtrade compliant and follows biodynamic principles.