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Bot River – van der Stel Pass.

Text and Photos: Richard van Ryneveld. Article from the Experience Overberg Issue 2.

Where time stands still…as it should…
“Bot River’s story is as much tied up with arrival of the first train in 1902, as with the first wagons back in the early 1700’s.” Step back in time with Richard van Ryneveld as he waxes lyrically about being a rural rustic from Bot Raaa Fee Aaah.

Sebastian Beaumont, wine maker, gives some overseas visitors a taste of some of the superb wines produced on this historic farmI am totally biased when it comes to the hamlet of Bot River. I am an even greater fan of the van der Stel Pass, a small winding gravel road joining Bot River with the Overberg towns of Vyeboom and Villiersdorp. Our family, on arriving from Kenya in the early ’60’s, bought the farm Goedvertrouw. Perhaps one of the most beautiful farms in the Overberg. We didn’t own it for long, just long enough for the Overberg to become embedded in my DNA! Perhaps in the pictures and this brief telling, the uninitiated might discover what they have been missing.

Descending the steep Houw Hoek Pass on the N2, many people sweep past Bot River without a backward glance. Perhaps you’re heading off to Hermanus or on the way to Plett. Time-out and I will share Compagnesdrift, now home to Beaumont Wines, once the fording place on the Bot River where the Dutch East Indian Company officials came to barter with the Khoikhoi tribesman. Add to that the hotel built roundabout 1892, a lion whisperer, a woman who breeds Knabstruppe, horses originally bred exclusively for the Danish Royal Family…or stay over at Elrieda Pillmann’s Goedvertrouw farm and try her ‘wildly experimental’ Pardoempss – a blend of Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinotage. Well let’s start at the beginning with a brief historical overview of Bot River and the van der Stel Pass.

 Goedvertrouw Wine Estate. 2. Bot River Hotel Bar, a historically rich gathering place...if only these walls could speak!

Exploration of the Overberg began as early as 1663. Ensign Oloff Bergh and a character with the charming appellation of Corporal Hieronymouse Cruse, who crossed over the Hottentots Holland looking to buy cattle for the settlement at the Cape, carried out the earliest forays into this area. The Ensign and Mr. Cruse were followed by Schriver whose journals were more personal, filling the landscape with people and places. He notes more than a 1000 bonte hartebokken on a trip down the Zonder End valley! Ironically the colonization of the Overberg was directly tied up with Governor Adriaan van der Stel’s final political demise and repatriation, in disgrace, back to Holland. At one stage van der Stel’s farms stretched from the foot of the Houw Hoek mountains all the way to the Breede River! He could have hiked the 90 odd kilometers without leaving his footprint anywhere but on his own land!

Like everything in life there are always two sides to the story, the parallel story has been told by Barbara and Mark Townsend. The Townsends have lived in Bot River since December 2004. Barbara is a writer and historical researcher whilst Mark is a land surveyor technician who later studied town planning. Using their expertise this kindhearted gentle couple have produced two self-published booklets. Barbara’s is “Botriver: The story of a Village. Mark’s publication is called 1938 Snapshot of Bot River. These two publications, Barbara’s of 93 pages and Mark’s of 31, contain rich deposits of gold.

George Cooper owned this old, once solid home overlooking the Jakkals River. George was the farm foreman at Compagniesdrif farm in the days when Johnny le Roux owned the farm. 2. Mark Townsend stands on the banks of the Jakkals River a short way from George Coopers old home.

What Barbara did was to record the oral history of an unsung part of the Bot River community. As a historian Barbara acknowledges the pitfalls of recording oral history but felt the gains outweighed the pitfalls. I love her foreword where she says “…so much had been written about the mighty and powerful, and so little about the lives of ordinary people”. Working with the Groeneweide Seniors Club of Bot River, Barbara manages to capture the way of speaking, the humour, the sadness, anger and small personal triumphs of the people who shared their history. The Groeneweide Club were from, “established Bot River and Houwhoek families who started buying property here in 1922. Some of these families have lived in the area for two, and often three or more generations.” Barbara said. She also took on the project because, “a fair amount has been written about the first whites who traded with Khoi herders at the Bot River…very little has been written about the history of the Bot River settlement from the point of view of the coloured people.”

Bot River: The story of a village, should be on every Overberg lover’s shelf.

Mark Townsend is a map man, particularly aerial maps. As a land surveyor technician, geography researcher and later a town planner this tall grey haired man has used aerial photos for numerous studies. But he too, like wife Barbara, used the knowledge pool of the Groeneweide to try and reconstruct on the ground what was shown on aerial maps from 70 years ago! He remembers in his book, “.an amazing fact of life came to the fore – the fact that we all tend to remember our childhood very clearly…” Mark’s book is a gem.

Take the farm Goedvertrouw where I had the privilege of living as a 13 year old kid. In the book on page 23 and in particular 54.1.7 Goedvertrou, you will find a story about the farm, the previous owners and the coloured folk who lived on the farm. Turn over the page to Photomap 7 and you will have an aerial photo where Mark has filled in the occupants of the various homes that existed there in 1938. The Latin term for Mark’s work might be parvum opus, ‘little work’, but it will be a magnum opus for future generations in South Africa.

Richard Benjamin a mate of mine from schooldays, Herman Gey van Pittius, who with his family owns the lovely old Bot River Hotel, and Mark Townsend in the snooker room 66. 4. Moments captured in time and saved for posterity. Magic happens in the kitchen of the Bot River Hotel.

I remember my childhood in Bot River well. I was a rooinek that spoke zero Afrikaans. But I did go to my first dance at the Bot River Hotel. Some of the local meisies tried to teach me to lang arm dans but nearly half a century later I still can’t. The old dance hall hasn’t changed in 50 years. I love the fact that the Gey van Pittius family have created a really stunning hotel but totally retained the spirit of an establishment that goes back to 1890! I also remember my Dad christening the barman Oom Willie Louw with the name Monty, after Montgomery of El Alamein. He was the spitting image of the war hero and the old man gave him a black beret. Oom Willie was the barman for 40 odd years! The old hostelry under the stewardship of Herman Gey van Pittius is still attracting visitors to her bosom although the old lady is well over a hundred years old.

 I doubt if the old hall or dance hall at the Bot River Hotel has changed in a hundred years!

Sitting on the long L-shaped verandah with Jumbo the hotel basset hound snoring at my feet, I met a host of interesting characters. From a retired fireman to John Phipps, a tractor driver on a potato farm in the UK harvest season. John’s an experienced pilot, having owned and flown many a vintage plane. He owns an old cottage on the slopes of the Kogelberg Nature Reserve but rents it out to Kerneels Bredenkamp. I noticed a lovely old wooden aircraft prop on the cottage’s front door. “Oh that was from an old Fairchild Argus. She had a 200 horse power in-line, inverted 6 Ranger engine.” Said John in his dry slow, well-modulated voice. “She had lovely short stubby straight-through exhausts. the best exhaust sound I have ever heard.”

Manny de Andrade busy preparing one of his pizza's to go into the wood-fired oven 2. Don't be fooled, the Bot River Minimark is also a small eatery that serves some of the best pizza's and burgers in the Overberg. Alicia Windvogel with Zaidee Miggels, two of the friendly helpful local woman who work in the shop.

Looking up the road and up from the hotel are a row of small shops. Back in my childhood a Mrs. Newman owned the shop. It was a typical rural general dealer. I cannot recall the others. Now it houses Mike the butcher with the best biltong and droe wors in the Overberg. Next door in what was Mrs. Newman’s shop, is the Bot River Minimarket. Don’t be fooled folks, this shop makes a great thin crust pizza, as good as any you’ll get in the city. Owner Manny de Andrade was busy making the pizzas himself the day we popped in. His nine year old daughter Taylor was helping Alicia Windvogel and Zaidee Miggels at the till. Manny said, “We are going back to calling it Annie’s Place, after the previous owner.” Manny and his brother co-own a small boutique winery called Feiteiras. They make some very different wines in the Portuguese manner.

Across the road is the garage with its own small shop and take-away. The Douw Gerbrand Steyn family, indeed one of the oldest Overberg families, owns this. I think Douw is the third generation. Behind the garage opposite the entrance to Beaumont Wines, is Human van Wyk’s second hand furniture shop.

I took a walk to the start of the van der Stel Pass, down to the Kolgate on the Jakkals River. At the collection of small houses I found a man called Hannes, I think his surname is Kampher, and he makes beautiful rustic furniture from black wattle. He sells his wares at Human’s secondhand furniture shop. But let’s step over to Compagnes Drift, home of Beaumont Wines.

The farm according to the Beaumont Wine website… “grew in the 1700’s in response to the needs of the early travellers who braved the old Caepse Wagenweg and the crossing of the Bot River on the farm Compagnes Drift. This was a stopover and resting place to refresh their horses and oxen and to barter for fresh meat and milk with the Khoisan and local farmers before heading eastwards.” From Bot River today you can head off to any point on the compass but if you didn’t visit Beaumont Wines you would be missing the central core of Bot River. It’s a fun, unpretentious yet beautiful farm with its signature wines now being made by winemaker Sebastian Beaumont. The family motto of “Erectus non Elatus” – which means ‘proud but not arrogant’, perfectly sums up the spirit and ethos of the Beaumont family.

Henry Hendricks, a leather worker, makes amazing whips and sandals. Bot River still retains a hint of its 'frontier' past; one can just imagine the perspiring pianist thumping away as the locals danced up a storm.

Darn it, I haven’t even reached the van der Stel Pass road yet, but it would be totally remiss of me to not mention some of the wineries of the Bot River valley. With their unique stony shale terroir, blessed by the cool Atlantic breezes, this area produces world class wines. A long list rolls of my tongue: Anysbos, Barton, Beaumont, Benguela Cove, Eerstehoop, Feiteiras, Gabrielskloof, Genevieve MCC, Luddite, Maremmana, Paardenkloof, Rivendell, Wildekrans. And finally, in case you thought I forgot, that piece of my childhood-heart, Goedvertrouw. This stately farm is now in the loving hands of Elrieda Pillmann, who cherishes this farm more than life itself. That might sound like a hyperbole but it’s true.

I was just crossing the railway line out of Bot River ready to turn right and head down the van der Stel Pass road, when the bump of the car over the old burnished rails jolted my memory. I remembered what historian Barbara Townsend told me the night before as we sat braaing sausage and chops from Mike’s butchery. “Remember Richard,” said Barbara, “Bot River’s story is as much tied up with arrival of the first train in 1902, as with the first wagons back in the early 1700’s.”

Later in bed in my camper in Barbara and Mark’s garden, I read how the early farmers, farming mostly wheat, vegetables, fruit and cattle had the arduous task of taking their produce to the market in Cape Town in ox wagons over De Caepse Wagenweg, or the Great Wagon Road as it later became known. The arrival of the train changed the life of the Bot River people forever. The station complex grew to include goods sheds, a parcel room and other buildings around the station. With it came the railway bus system in 1911. Barbara Townsend explains in her book how the bus service connected the small Overberg towns of Hermanus, Gansbaai, Stanford and Kleinmond. And she adds, “by 1920 the station had become one of the most important railway centre’s for passengers in the Western Cape. I remember going with Dad, in a clapped out Fargo bakkie to fetch Mom at the Bot River station. Ma was a nurse and worked at Groote Schuur Hospital – oh the vagaries of trying to keep a farm going on minimal funds!

The Shuntin Shed. Amongst many visitors to Bot Rivier, bikers love stopping over on their breakfast runs on the way on to Hermanus or other places in the Overberg

Luckily the spirit of this age has been preserved in the Shuntin Shed, a pub and restaurant run by Gustav and Christine. This couple has been in the music business all their lives, and have now introduced top class live music at the old shed. So not only do you get the best free range ribs the Overberg has to offer or great thin based wood baked pizza’s, but you can get up and dance too! Perhaps even a bit of lang arm if you felt so inclined. Laisses faire is the name of the game at this little establishment. So nobody will stare, I promise.

So with a tum full of pork rib and lot of side-treks and outspans, I have finally brought you to the start of the lovely van der Stel Pass route. From the station we would cross the railway line, turn right and head down the winding gravel road on the way back home to Goedvertrouw. Funny the route seems much shorter now. A lot has changed. But all for the good. This area has a way of attracting interesting and innovative people. Good old Governor van der Stel found that all those years ago.

I am only going to give you a hint of what lies ahead. I want you to take a few hours or a day off and explore the Bot River valley. Try a crazy experiment? It’s hard at first, but trundle along at a maximum speed of 60-70 kms per hour! As a spiritually solvent but oft financially bankrupt journalist, I generally only own vehicles that do this speed!

What it does though is give you time to smell the fynbos, taste the tang of the fruit blossom in September and feel the real heat of an Overberg summer or the embracing cold of the winter.

But the greatest gift it offers is the opportunity of talking to the wonderful collection of people who you might meet along the way.

My wife, Dominique and I, hared down the road in our 40 year old Mercedes 508d camper. It was a Sunday. The fancy Garmin GPS kept falling off the dashboard. An omen I thought.

Marna Smith the owner of her Painted Appaloosa Stud takes her beloved horses for their daily swim in the dam in the summer. Mark Townsend chats to Mrs. Elrieda Pillmann who with her late husband, have lovingly cared and nurtured their farm, Goedvertouw, in the Bot River Valley.

We passed the gates of Marna Smith’s Appaloosa Stud. As a kid I used to cycle to this farm from Goedvertrouw to visit Rudo Maree. It’s where I learnt to speak fluent Afrikaans. Passing the farm we could see what appeared to be people riding horses in the dam. That’s what I mean by slow down! We shouted out a greeting and soon were over the fence and watching the best horse show I have seen in years. Apparently Marna’s horses cannot wait for their evening swim in the summer heat. We only left as the sun started to dip behind the mountains. But we were tortoises carrying our home on our backs.

This for me was a trip down memory lane. We slept at ‘home’ that night. Elrieda Pillmann allowed us to park our camper van next to the old cattle kraal. I didn’t stop assailing Dominique with ‘that’s where Ma tried to shoo the pig into the pen, but it ran between her legs and ran crazily around with Ma on its back!” The memories flowed on… “That’s where my boet Ian picked up the spring hare. The thing tore his jersey and shirt open with its powerful back legs…, that was Ouma’s house, it was an old school.” Jumbled up memories tumbled out. “We had no electricity in those days.”

Like all plaas kids I went through the phase of hankering after parties and the bright lights.

As I write this I realize how privileged I was to have had my soul touched by the small river at the bottom of the farm.

We continued our journey winding along that self same river, the Bot River, on the way to its source at Theewaterskloof dam. We popped in at Porcupine Hills. Some time back I had the privilege of staying here while doing the Green Mountain hike. What an experience: a relatively easy slack packing hike with gourmet meals and wine tasting along the way! At night you sleep over in some of the best accommodation in the Overberg. I only have one complaint though! As a hardened grizzled old hiker it’s spoilt me forever!

Well this trip down memory lane was spoiling me and most probably boring Dominique. My stories continued to flow. We hardly raised a puff of dust in our wake as we went on past Bertie Chait’s place and Genevieve MCC – the home cellars Melissa Genevieve Nelsen’s excellent bubbly, or to use its correct name, Méthode Cap Classique.

Our journey was finally reaching an end as we reached the tar road linking Grabouw and Villiersdorp. But Dom was still in for an ear-bashing. I still hadn’t told her about living on a farm called Bessie Bos near Eerstehoop, nor had I let on that I knew a tiny back road that led back to Goedvertrou. More trips were in the offing.

I guess I will be the kid from Bot River till the day I die. I will always remember meeting Robin Whiteford, my old headmaster. I was buying smokes at a café in Mowbray main road at the time my second born was making an entrance at the nearby maternity home. I saw The Boss as he was known to generations of SACS kids. One of two sets of brothers at the school, I was the one that was always in trouble. Should I greet him? was the thought that ran through my head. “Hello Mr. Whiteford I am…!” He had a way of stroking his chin with his thumb and forefinger. “No, no my boy, don’t tell me.” He gazed at me with those piercing bluish eyes. “Aah yes.” He said, his thumb motionless, the forefinger still rubbing his jaw rhythmically. “You’re one of the those rural rustics!” He added for good measure, “van Ryneveld isn’t it, from Botrivier?” He pronounced the rivier as Raaa Fee Aaah. One mellows with age. Now I am reasonably pleased with being a rural rustic from Bot River. There are worse things in life.

More info on the town of Bot River More info on the Cape Overberg area

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