One of the downsides of running a guesthouse with visitors eager to learn about life in SA is that you have the same conversations, (albeit with different people) every day. In the beginning it was fun, as we liked to ‘tell our story’, and we were so enthusiastic about our new lives we were definitely in danger of becoming bores. But as time went by we realised that the questions were ALWAYS THE SAME.
Sometimes, relaxing over a glass of wine before dinner, when the anecdotes seemed quite entertaining, becoming more so as the evening wears on, it was bearable.
Sometimes, in the morning, when we were desperately trying to ensure every guest was served on time, kept happy, had their eggs done to order and their toast hot – while “Mr Chatty” was determined to find out your opinion on South African politics, the best route to Canishner (Knysna), what is that bird, how high the mountain is, and how much crime /people /nightlife is there in Swellendam…….it was not very bearable at all.
The question that is asked more than any other, (and would have made us financially independent for the rest of our lives if we could only find a way of being paid for the answer) was …. “Why Swellendam?”
People actually asked us this as they sat on our deck in the sunshine, being entertained by sunbirds, weavers, cape white eyes, bulbuls, olive thrushes and drongoes, looking out at the beautiful Langeberg Mountains and down into the valley where sits the beautiful church. They were delighted by the harmony and friendship surrounding them. And they still asked the bloody question.
We were often tempted to respond flippantly … “It was the only place where the police / family / ex-wife/ wouldn’t be able to track us” “The drugs are cheap” “Oops, we thought it was Stellenbosch – oh no – what have we done!” but you could never be sure how far your sense of humour will carry you when dealing with guests, (the spectre of Trip Advisor always loomed large) so we generally stuck to the truth, though occasionally I just shrugged and waved airily at the beautiful view and say “That’s why”.
So …. here are some of the reasons we chose Swellendam, and also some of the reasons why we hope never to leave here. I printed the original list out and placed it in a folder with accompanying photos and placed it on the Breakfast table to help Mr and Mrs Chatty and all the little Chattys – but it was to no avail. Visitors like hear your stories first hand ….
IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER
- BEAUTY: Swellendam is stunningly beautiful. The mountains which shelter the valley in which Swellendam lies are always changing: you can never get tired of the shifts in hue, the effect of light and shade as the sun rises and falls, occasional dramatic golden fringes when fire takes hold, the sparkling waterfalls after heavy rain, in winter the crisp white frosting, and the ever changing effects of clouds – folding and rolling over the top.
- HISTORY: The town is stuffed with history and the beautiful architecture of the buildings give testament to the vision and tenacity of the early settlers. The NG Kerk is one of the most photographed churches in South Africa, and the Drostdy Museum is a far cry from the stodgy brick dull museums of my UK childhood
Bloemfontein Huisie, originally housing Jack and Anna Bloemfontein and their twelve children, and still in the ownership of the same family – is a reminder of the simple life – unencumbered by technology. There are all sorts of wonderful stories about the Swellendammers of old – who (allegedly) declared Swellendam a Republic and the Hermanus Steyn the President of the world. Prior to colonisation, the area was home to many tribes of the Khoisan People and the grave of Laang Elsie, tall female tribe leader of one of the fourteen local tribes can be seen in Bontebok Park.
- NATURE: Bontebok Park itself – a real undiscovered pleasure and treasure. The smallest SANpark in South Africa – but not small in terms of its biodiversity, its blomme, bokke and birds. It may be small, but my daughter and myself managed to get ourselves thoroughly lost on one of the marked trails – (too busy talking as usual). It is home to Cape Mountain Zebra, Bonteboks, Hartebeeste, Grysbok, Springbok as well as many species of birds and reptiles, and also, surprisingly, the Swellengrebel Airfield.
And on the subject of nature, there is also Marloth Mountain Nature reserve, stuffed with flora and fauna, with one of the top hiking trails in the whole of Africa! You can walk to the waterfall in one and half hours, or, at the other extreme, take the five day walking trail. I confess to having done neither, somewhat suspecting that the waterfall walk would turn out, in my case, to be the five day one.
More in my comfort zone of a car, it is a 50 minute drive to De Hoop Nature reserve, which has to be one of the most beautiful places to watch whales in season, and worth a visit at any other time of the year.
- BERRIES: Swellendam may not be the capital of the world politically, as the Swellendammers of 1795 chose to believe, but it is certainly the berry capital of South Africa. The stunning Hermitage Valley is the natural setting for berry farms, and between November and December berry picking, berry eating, berry jams, berry cheesecakes, and other berry pleasures are a major feature of life in Swellies. 90% of the youngberry crop in South Africa is grown in Swellendam, and if you have never tried youngberries, then get yourself to Swellendam for berry season.
- GOOD FOOD: Swellendam can really rival the better gastronomically known areas of the Western Cape. The restaurants and guesthouses are mostly owner-managed, and thus the care and passion with which the food is presented is deep and it shows! I am not a cook, so, in our house either long suffering Husband cooks, or we go out for a meal, therefore quality, variety and budget is extremely important on a personal level, let alone as a option for our guests. It is possible in this town to eat out in a different restaurant every night on consecutive evenings, and have wonderful food, great service, and meet wonderful people
- PEOPLE Obviously this was not one of the main reasons we initially chose Swellendam – as we didn’t then know anyone. New country, new town, new ways of life, new cultures – we didn’t think too much about friendships and or relationships as we knuckled down to setting up our business. But one of the things about Swellendam is that everybody knows everybody, and knows their business – we soon found out all sorts of things about ourselves that we didn’t know!!
Of course this is part of small town living – there are cliques and groups, there are divisions and fractures –not always, as you might be forgiven for thinking in today’s SA – race and culture based. But there is one thing that I am absolutely sure of, is that, in a crisis, or if someone is in need of a helping hand, Swellendam people step up to the plate.
In the spirit of #I’mstaying it would be great to hear of some of these stories – let’s put them on the new Facebook page, and encourage everyone we know to do so.
And I would love to post these stories on the Daily Swellengram!