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LOCAL TIME: 02:15 pm | Thursday, 29 February
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Riversdale is Rising

Text and pictures: Marion Whitehead. Article from the May 2014 issue of Country Life Magazine. 

Beneath its famous landmark, the Sleeping Beauty mountain, this small agricultural town in the Southern Cape stirs with new energy

The road to Oudebosch Guest farm at the foot of the Langeberg mountains

Maybe the moment of change came when Louise Malherbe turned the big rusty key in the lock at Riversdale’s Old Jail, dusted out the cobwebs and turned it into a laid-back community meeting place, complete with coffee shop and ‘cells’ of collectables, clothing, decor and desirable items.

1. Muncipal manager Johan Jacobs demonstrates how he composts much of the waste at Fynbos Guest House. 2. After Chris Scholtz got a new heart, he decided to make wine and moved to Riversdale where he indulges in his hobby at Edenberg Cellar.Or perhaps it was when local artist Marilise Lombard was inspired to paint pictures of cheerful chickens, dainty ducks and festive folk, which her neighbours snapped up to hang on their walls. Whatever the reason, Riversdale, the Sleeping Beauty of the Western Cape’s Hessequa region – the area bounded by the Langeberg and the Indian Ocean, and the Breede and Gouritz rivers – is stirring. The town awakens to a new flow of creativity that is changing the way people do things here.

Even the farmers are trying new ideas. Piet Muir of Oudebosch Guest Farm feeds his Dohne Merino sheep barley sprouts to get them into prime breeding condition, and Baleia Bay recently followed a trend started by Chris Scholtz of Edenberg Cellars, to launch the second boutique winery in the district.

The town awakens to a new flow of creativity that is changing the way people do things here in town, municipal manager Johan Jacobs is leading by example and has reduced waste at his wife’s Fynbos Guest House by more than 200 per cent thanks to recycling and composting, while ex-Pretoria architect Danie Crafford has gone totally ‘green’ and built a magnificent house on a breezy koppie – completely off the grid and that cost him less than R2 500m2.

Riversdale remains a typical, small Cape country town dominated by the large, centrally placed Dutch Reformed Church and the little stone Anglican St Matthew’s Church on a rise. You can park your car and easily walk to all the shops in the two main streets, where the largest retail chains are notably absent – but venture off this axis and there are delightful surprises.

 CJ Langenhoven House at the upper end of Long Street is where the famous Afrikaans poet and author stayed while at school in RiversdaleTake Long Street, the oldest road in the town, laid out in 1838 with long, narrow plots fed by an irrigation furrow linked to the Vet River. This is where you’ll find architectural gems dating back to the late 19th century, their graceful gables built by craftsmen proud of their trade. CJ Langenhoven House is where the famous poet and writer, who also penned the Afrikaans verses of our national anthem, boarded when he attended high school in the dorp.

The town awakens to a new flow of creativity that is changing the way people do things here

1. Green architect Danie Crafford bakes stews and rusks in his solar oven. 2. Potter Robyn Learmonth of Cats Paw is known for her quirky felines -these two kitties are toast racks.Opposite is the grand old parsonage built in 1880, now the Sleeping Beauty Guest House, and one of my favourite stopovers on the N2 between Cape Town and the Garden Route. Owners Jinja and Monica Jarmain are certainly keeping this old beauty shipshape since buying what was the first guest house in Riversdale, and have added a labyrinth to the back garden to help guests wind down after long hours cramped in a car.

Recent floods culminated in a severe downpour and presented them with their biggest challenge, when a section of the front gable collapsed and demolished the veranda underneath. “She’ll be good for another 100 years when we’ve fixed her,” vows Jinja, a former engineer and surveyor, as he outlines plans to restore this piece of the town’s heritage with a more authentic, curved veranda.

The neighbouring Cats Paw pottery studio is the newest addition to Riversdale’s art route. Fans of ex-Gautenger Robyn Learmonth will recognise her quirky cat-decorated mugs, jugs and teapots from her days at the Bryanston Organic Market. She now runs pottery classes for local kids. “And this year,” she says, “I’ll do the sculptures I’ve been planning for ages.”

Paddavlei Kunsgoete is Marilise Lombard's eclectic shop and studio.Further down Long Street, inside what was once the town’s bioscope, is the brightly decorated Paddavlei Kunsgoete. Marilise Lombard has her studio at the back of this shop, selling a variety of local arts and crafts, from colourful hand-painted cushions made by the disabled residents of Mosaïek, to handspun wool and Marilise’s own eye-catching naïve acrylic on canvas works.

“It’s the small, simple things in life that give joy,” says Marilise, explaining her ebullient style of painting that caught the attention of the Jong Dames Dinamiek, a national women’s empowerment organisation, when, as a relatively unknown, self-taught artist, she was asked to illustrate their 2004 diary. “It’s a talent God gave me. I get ideas from life as it happens.”

Apart from four years spent in Ireland, Marilise has lived in Riversdale since 1995 with her husband and three children. “It’s not about making money in a small town like this, but the quality of life you enjoy,” she says, pointing out a bright poster she compiled featuring local businesses and tourist attractions.

: Curator Johan La'Grange outside the historic Versfeid House, home of the Julius Gordon Africana Centre.The cherry on the town’s art offerings is the remarkable collection of internationally recognised art and antiques at the Julius Gordon Africana Centre, also in Long Street. Julius was born in 1892, was raised in Riversdale and studied medicine and law, but made his money in the diamond fields of the West Coast and, in the 1960s, was able to indulge his taste for South African art and unusual antiques, explains curator Johan La’Grange. Julius died in 1974 and bequeathed this collection in trust to the people of Riversdale.

Wander through the rooms of this beautiful 19th century house and admire the impressive collection of works by the likes of Pierneef, Tinus de Jongh, Gregoire Boonzaier, Irma Stern and Maggie Laubser, plus one of the largest collections in this country of paintings of early Cape scenes by Thomas Bowler.

Louise Malherbe has unlocked the town's creativity since opening the Old Jail to the communityJust around the corner is Louise Malberbe’s Old Jail/Ou Tronk which seems to have changed the way the town interacts and even perceives itself. The ghoulish old gallows was used only once before the jail was closed down in 1979. Louise inherited it from her father, who had bought it to store farming equipment.

Determined to turf out the ghosts of the past from one of the town’s oldest buildings, Louise opened the doors five years ago to a community meeting place where it’s a pleasure to be ‘detained’ for an hour or two, wandering from cell to cell to see the eclectic mix of fine china, clothing, jewellery, plants and health products on sale, or to gawp at the replica of the old gallows and then restore your equilibrium with a cup of tea and their famous carrot cake.

One of Pierre Vermaak's colourful pincushionsRiversdale is the centre of a floral wonderland, and fynbos farmers such as Pierre Vermaak export flowers and foliage to as far afield as Russia.

You can see his fields of proteas, restios and pincushions behind the Sleeping Beauty peak, on the northern slopes of the Langeberg mountains at the top of Garcia Pass, the northern entrance to Riversdale.

Pierre Vermaak cultivates fynbos on the northern slopes of the Langeberg and sells flowers across the world.Olives also grow well on this side of the mountain and you can stock up at Muiskraal Farm, where Henry and Jenny Chamberlain are moving their press from an old dairy into a smart new facility and farm stall beside the Ladismith Road.

Hiking these mountains is the best way to see the fynbos in this section of the Cape Floral Kingdom World Heritage Site. The most popular trails are the Sleeping Beauty and Crystal Falls hikes in Boosmansbos Wilderness Area, starting at the top of Garcia Pass. Spring is the time of most abundant blossom, but with fynbos there’s always something in flower.

Playing 'cowboys' is all in a day's work for Linda and Piet Muir as they bring in the sheep at Oudebosch Guest FarmFrom my cottage on Oudebosch Guest Farm, I have an enticing view of the Langeberg mountains and the western section of the Sleeping Beauty trail, and need no second invitation from owner Piet Muir, who offers to show me the hike. We cross a stream above a magnificent waterfall and see proteas, ericas and a dwarf agapanthus with almost violet blossoms, as well as a dainty blue disa orchid. A Cape Sugarbird and Orange-breasted Sunbirds are easy to spot in the fynbos. We shelter from the midday sun beside a clear stream in a cool kloof of a stinkwood forest, and revel in the natural beauty around us.

Chef Alta Eybers of La Bella Deli & Restaurant bakes the most awesome red velvet cakeI reflect on the friendly folk I’ve met and how well art and agriculture have come together in Riversdale. Marilise’s paintings keep popping up all over place: in the tasting room at Edenberg Cellar, in Danie Crafford’s open-plan kitchen and in Enya’s Coffee Shop.

But most surprising was the Rose & Crown, where the local tobacconist also sells animal feed. The different types of feeds are indicated by a bright painting of a cat, dog, parrot or chicken in the unmistakable style of Marilise Lombard. Yes, in Riversdale art mixes very comfortably with agriculture.

Where to Play

■ Cats Paw Pottery on the arts route 028 713 3076

■ Paddavlei Kunsgoete & Marilise Lombard Art Studio 074 034 0352

■ Julius Gordon Africana Centre is open weekday mornings only. 028 713 7939

■ The Old Jail/OuTronk is open throughout the week to browse, shop and relax in the coffee shop, but you’ll meet more locals at the Saturday morning market. 028 713 4300

■ Antique Barnyard just off the N2 is crammed with oddments, from Chinese warrior swords to a brass four-poster bed. 082 458 8639

The magnificent Dutch Reformed Church, completed in 1909, seats 1637 worshippers. View the historic Dutch Reformed Church’s 100-year-old organ in the mornings; enjoy the grounds of the charming St Matthew’s Anglican Church any time.

■ Wine tasting at Edenberg Cellar is a scenic drive east of town. 028 713 3730 Baleia Bay Cellar is on the N2 east of Riversdale. 082 322 6638

■ Taste olives at Muiskraal Farm on the Ladismith Road at the top of Garcia Pass. 028 713 2148

■ Sleeping Beauty and Crystal Falls hiking trails are best treated as day walks as the overnight huts are not well maintained. Get permits from the Takkieskloof municipal camping ground in town. 028 713 7916

Birding hotspots are Garcia Pass, which takes you through a variety of habitats in the Langeberg mountains, and the forest at Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve to the west of Riversdale.

■ Mountain bike towards Korentepoort Dam and in the valley towards Edenberg Cellar, on a plethora of quiet farm roads.

■ Take a scenic drive up the historic Gysmanshoek Pass if you have a 4×4 and return via Garcia Pass’s glorious S-bends, or drive to the beach at Stilbaai.

■ Enjoy water sports and fishing on Korentepoort Dam, on the way to Gysmanshoek Pass – locals think this undiscovered gem is busy if there are three boats on it. 028 713 3316

Property values

The homes at the southern end of historic Long Street are small gems of the town's heritageThe low crime rate is a big drawcard in this country town. Historic Long Street is the address to have in Riversdale, but these large properties that stretch down to the river come with price tags of around R2-R3 million. However, in a decent area you can still snap up a small house with tiny garden for around R360 000 if you do your homework, while a larger, three-bedroom family house recently sold for R580 000. A Victorian fixer-upper is on the market for R750 000.

■ Small undeveloped farms, where you can build your own home, start from about R500 000 and the prices rise rapidly. “There’s a good variety in this area, starting from R1 000 a hectare,” says Eugene Truter of Seeff Properties. Dairy and game farms are the most expensive – he’s just sold a 4 757ha game farm in the area, with farmhouse and two cottages for R10 million.

Where to Eat

■ Enya’s Coffee House in the centre of town is famous for its pies. 028 713 1324

Annelie Bester is co-owner of Kontrei Sisters, a coffee shop that also sells local arts and crafts, including her own cutoutsKontrei Sisters Coffee & Craft Shop close to St Matthew’s Anglican Church sells a plethora of locally made crafts and gifts. 028 713 3507

■ Cocky’s Restaurant in the newly restored Central Hotel in the main road is a classy joint with a good menu. 028 713 4787

■ On the N2 east of Riversdale, choose between the homely comfort of Rooi Aalwyn Padstal & Koffiepot (028 713 2237) in a complex with decor shops, and the spanking new La Bella Deli & Restaurant (079 493 1082) alongside the Baleia Bay Cellar.

■ Dam Restaurant in Die Kwekery on the outskirts of town is the place to go for a buffet Sunday lunch. 028 713 3061

Where to Stay

■ Sleeping Beauty Guest House on a large property in Long Street was once the parsonage. 028 713 1651, Email, Website

■ Fynbos Guest House is in a peaceful garden with a swimming pool in the newer part of town.028 713 1056, Email

■ Oudebosch Guest Farm has a number of cottages and offers a range of family activities, from canoeing and fishing to mountain biking and tractor trips. 082 923 1469 Email, Website

■ Kooigoed’s two self-catering suites, in an architect’s home with splendid views, offer an off-the-grid experience. 083 282 6260

■ For more accommodation ideas visit SA Venues

Handy Contacts

■ Riversdale Tourism 028 713 4139, Email, Website

■ Hessequa Municipality 028 713 7828, Website

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More info on the town of Riversdale More info on the Garden Route area

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