If I asked you to imagine the Cape West Coast, it wouldn’t be hard to picture wide sandy bays, whitewashed fishermen’s houses and seafood fresh from the ocean. This region is well-known for its coastline, and with good reason. The Cape West Coast also has some incredible inland farming areas to explore though, and this is where we were headed next – into the mountainous Cederberg and farming Swartland regions.
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The Swartland: Breadbasket of the West Coast
The Swartland region of the West Coast includes towns like Darling and Malmesbury, and gets its name from the indigenous Rhenosterbush which is dark in colour. Known as the breadbasket of the Western Cape, its fertile soils make it a very productive farming area that is well-known for its wheat, wine and olives.
Bevan and I spent some time in the Riebeek Valley, and visited Swartland Winery for a wine tasting which we thoroughly enjoyed. This winery gave us our first opportunity to taste wines made from grapes grown on bush vines rather than trellised vines. Bush vines typically produce grape berries that are smaller than those on trellised vines, and in which the sugars, acid and flavour are highly concentrated.
We also spent time exploring the broader farmlands. We visited Koringberg (named for its wheat farming, the Afrikaans name translated as “wheat mountain”) and Piketberg, two historic towns in the area.
Piketberg was established in 1840. The early farming community suffered frequent attacks by an indigenous group known as the “Gonjemans”. The area was historically populated by the San, and well-preserved drawings can be found in a number of the caves in the Piketberg mountains.
We visited Kruistementvlei Farm at the top of the Piketberg mountains, in an area known as Piket-bo-berg. This working almond farm is a lesson in sustainable living and eco-friendly farming methods. Getting used to the dry sawdust composting toilets was only the start! Riëtte and Jeremy showed us around the farm and demonstrated some of the other practices they employ.
For Jeremy, everything hinges around good soil and water management. Simple practices like mulching rather than irrigating his almond trees, religiously composting any organic waste and creating swales (depressions filled with organic material) that slow rainwater runoff and allow for increased infiltration all make for a happy and healthy farm with obvious benefits to the environment too. Visiting this farm was a lesson that sustainable living is not only possible but can be very comfortable too.
Mountains and Rooibos
We continued our inland progression towards the historical town of Clanwilliam (established 1806) in the Cederberg mountains. These mountains are part of the Cape Fold range that includes Table Mountain, and are named for the endemic and endangered Clanwilliam cedar (Widdringtonia cedarbergensis). They are also well-known for the dramatic rock formations and Sneeuberg, the highest peak at 2026 m.
The Cederberg area alone is home to Rooibos – a herbal tea made from the dried and fermented leaves, stems and flowers of Aspalathus linearis, a member of the Fabaceae family of fynbos plants. This tea has been popular with South Africans for centuries and more recently is also exported to a large overseas market in 30 different countries. It is high in antioxidants and has natural healing properties.
Attempts to cultivate Rooibos in areas outside of the Cederberg have all failed as the plant has a symbiotic relationship with local micro-organisms. Cultivating the seed also presented a significant historical challenge to commercial production of Rooibos, which was overcome through the hard work of district surgeon and botanist Dr Pieter Le Fras Nortier in the 1930’s. Today Rooibos is the mainstay of Clanwilliam’s economy.
During our stop in Clanwilliam we visited the Rooibos Teahouse – the only one of its kind in the world. They specialise in all things Rooibos and stock over 100 different Rooibos flavours and blends. We joined them for a tea tasting, where we got to learn more about the history, cultivation and processing of Rooibos as well as taste seven different blends of our choice from categories that included fruity (e.g. mango and peach), sweet (e.g. caramel and vanilla), spicy (e.g. chai) and floral (e.g. rose and lavender).
We had a relaxing tea party on their shaded verandah and were treated to some of the best carrot cake I have ever tasted! The trick to a good cup of tea is to allow sufficient time for the flavors to infuse into the water. This left plenty of time for interesting discussions about Rooibos itself and a chance to relax, unwind and reflect on all that we had experienced in the area.
We would like to thank everyone who helped us explore the inland areas of the West Coast:
Gurshell and his team from the West Coast Regional Tourism Organization.
Swartland Winery for our first wine tasting from bush vines, and a fantastic lunch.
Riëtte and Jeremy from Kruistementvlei Farm for welcoming us into their home and teaching us a little something about living sustainably.
Thanks to Nikki for her hospitality and a lovely stay at Vleidam Guest Farm near Koringberg.
De Langenhof Guesthouse – a taste of Riebeek Valley hospitality.
Thanks to Rika for hosting us at Beefwood Corner, a comfortable self-catering unit in Clanwilliam.