In July, we spent a weekend in the Riviersonderend mountains, staying in a little stone cottage at Onverwacht Flora, a mountain top farm near the famous Boesmanskloof trail between Greyton and McGregor.
This is Part II, and here are the links to the other parts:
- From Cape Town to Onverwacht (Part I)
- A hike into the depths of the river valley (Part III)
- A visit to the peaceful Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary (Part IV)
- Exploring the unfinished road at Die Galg (Part V)
The Kliphuisie (which means ‘Stone Cottage’ in Afrikaans) was exactly what its name implies: a compact hand-built huisie, made of stone from the mountain. It was the perfect romantic getaway for two, with lots of little feminine touches, evidence of the loving attention to detail paid to the interior finishings by Sandra and Japie, the lucky owners of this snuggly nest.
I was intrigued to see that the Kliphuisie had another name: “Blushing Bride”. Initially, we thought this might be a reference to its romantic appeal for honeymoon couples. 😉 But Sandra later explained with a smile that each of their units is actually named after a particular species of protea growing in the area. When I remarked that I had never seen a ‘Blushing Bride’ flower before, she spontaneously removed two sprigs of these beautiful blossoms from her own flower arrangement, and handed them to me to put in a vase in the cottage. (I’ll show you a picture later.)
Right next to the Kliphuisie was the Skakelhuisie (I’m not sure what this Afrikaans word means), which consists of two units, each of which can sleep two people. The units are known as Speldekussing or Pincushion (see here for a picture of Leucospermum cordifolium, if you are interested) and Compacta (see here for a picture of Protea Compacta).
Some distance away on the ridge was a long building, divided into four units, the spacious Mountain Cottages. Each of these can sleep eight guests, and they are known as Erica, Sewejaartjie (the cute Afrikaans name of Helichrysum splendidum), Repens (after Protea Repens, which is the common sugarbush protea) and Exemia (after Protea Eximia, the broadleafed sugarbush protea). I think that’s a lovely touch, because those names make them feel more anchored in their particular surroundings.
But let me take you inside our snug Kliphuisie for a closer look.
This is the kitchen area – complete with sturdy table and chairs, and four additional plastic chairs for use outside. There is also a gas-operated fridge, which worked very well indeed, and oil lamps and candles for night-time illumination. There is a sink (just outside the right of the picture) with a two-plate gas cooker, and the shelves underneath contain all the pots and pans and crockery and cutlery two people might need on a weekend away.
And this is the sleeping area with its built-in double bed. I admit that I hadn’t fully understand that description on the website. I had imagined a wooden frame bed, whose legs were somehow anchored to the floor, but this was indeed a built-in bed, made of the same stone as the walls, held together by cement. A little alarmed at the thought that we would be sleeping on cold – and rock-solid – cement (although we had brought our own bedding, we hadn’t thought of bringing a mattress too), we lifted the duvet for a closer inspection. It turned out that there was indeed a thick mattress, recessed into the cement slab. Phew! That’s a relief!
Just a tip: If you are prone to stubbing your toes or banging your knees and shins, this stone bed may not be the ideal sleeping quarters for you. My little toe, my big toe and my knee can attest to this (I know, one would think that one would learn after the first time…). I recommend wearing shoes, or at least socks, around the house. But it was very comfortable indeed, once you had climbed ontop, and wrapped your blankets around yourself to keep out the cold.
And cold indeed it was during the night. As soon as the sun set, you could feel the temperature dropping by a few degrees. We had lit a small fire in the cosy indoor fireplace earlier in the evening, in the hope that it would warm up the house, but the chimney didn’t draw particularly well (most likely because our fire wasn’t big enough) and it certainly didn’t help that our firewood was slightly damp and smoky. So we had to leave the windows open through the night to create enough of a through-draft to clear out the smoke haze.
We had brought all our bedding from home, so we slept under a big duvet, with a fleece blanket ontop, and another smaller duvet above that. And we borrowed Sandra’s duvet too for good measure. Because there seemed to be ice-cold air leaking in through small gaps in the window frame, I kept my eyes, nose and ears firmly tucked under the blankets, and slept like a baby straight through the night. It was remarkably comfortable, and oh-so-snuggly!
As time was gallopping towards the happy hour of tea time, we hurriedly unpacked the car and distributed our belongings into the various nooks and crannies. The fully-stocked kitchen came equipped with a two-plate gas cooker (you can read how I feel about gas cookers here). Richard figured out how to turn on the gas bottle, and obligingly lit one of the gas rings for me, while I filled the handy kettle with water. At least I now know how to turn the darn thing off, but please don’t ask me to light it! Holding a lit match close to the rings, which make that wooshing sound when they light up, freaks me out! I know, one of these days, I’ll need to get over that fear too. 🙂
I thus limited my wifely kitchen duties to preparing the food, washing the dishes and cleaning up. My man, meanwhile, was responsible for lighting the gas cooker whenever wifey wanted a cuppa, and for making the fire for the braai and for skilfully braaiing the lamb chops and the toasted sandwiches to consummate perfection. A fair division of labour, don’t you think?
Now look at this view from the front door.
Isn’t that just … wow…?
And look here – this is the view from the adjoining toilet and shower! Isn’t this magnificent? It’s almost like showering outside!
The bathroom, incidentally, has a gas heater, so that you can shower with warm water. What a treat! Showering in icy water in winter is just sooo unappealing. Just don’t get a fright when you turn on the warm tap, because the gas heater makes a very loud woosh-boom sound! It’s not going to explode. At least it didn’t while we were there. 🙂
A quick tour
After a restorative cup of tea, we felt like venturing further afield and exploring our surroundings. Let me take you for a quick tour, okay?
Everywhere we looked stood unusual rustic ornaments, lovingly made of rusted metal, old oil lamps, twists of wire, scraps of iron, and disused farming implements. Like this homemade rustic bench – can you see the wire below the seat spelling out ‘Welcome’?
And this rusted wheelbarrow, transmogrified into a garden for flowering succulents.
And this unusual oil lamp holder.
Sandra and Japie had also laid out little paths here and there, moving rocks and stones out of the way and reusing these to line the edges of the path. What a labour of love! No doubt, kids – and adults who are young at heart – will get much pleasure and delight out of locating these paths and following them to wherever they might lead.
This was the marker to a short track that led downslope to a viewpoint. If you like, you can borrow the handy walking stick, just leave it back here when you’re done, for the next intrepid explorer. 🙂
This path leads fairly steeply down the slope, to a couple of large boulders and a bench, where you can sit to admire the view across the steep ravine towards the mountain peaks on the far side. There are several of these viewpoints, which are perfect for meditating. This one looks south and west towards the small towns of Greyton and Genadendal on the southern end of the Boesmanskloof through the Riviersonderend Mountains. On a clear night, you will just be able to make out their lights in the valley far beyond.
And when you sit on the wooden bench, you can watch the shadows moving slowly across the slopes, casting the valley below into darkness. During our stay, I didn’t once see the sun penetrating all the way to the bottom of the river valley, but I guess that has to do with the shape of the terrain and the lower angle of the sun as it moves across our sky in winter. I wonder whether it is very different in summer? Either way, it must have a marked effect on the vegetation that can grow on these south-facing slopes.
Up and over the kopje
We were feeling too restless after our long drive to sit around, though, so we set off up the kopje behind the Kliphuisie to see if we could find another viewing site near the top.
Isn’t this just a fantastic view from the kopje? Although the slopes are barren right now, in the foreground you can see that there is new growth emerging from the ground. In a year’s time, if there aren’t any more devastating fires, the hillsides will look very different – testimony to the remarkable healing powers of nature.
We descended the far side of the kopje, as we could hear the gurgling and splashing of a little stream below. And indeed, that’s what it was. A very small stream tinkled and splashed its way down the slope, in the midst of sunbaked rocks and boulders, with the refreshing green colour of the grasses and reeds lending a dramatic contrast against the burnt sienna and drab brown of the surrounding terrain.
A meditation on water
The sound of running water in nature is so soothing, isn’t it? As the water bubbles and splashes over ancient rocks, it gradually wears them down, finding lines of weakness and joints and widening these, slowly, inexorably, over decades and centuries, carrying tiny particles of rock further down into the valley. As it flows along, the water gently nudges little stones out of the way, knocking them against each other, and it seeps into the soft ground, feeding the roots of grasses and sedges that like to have their feet wet.
I imagined myself sitting in this spot for thousands of years, watching in timelapse the rain falling from the sky, landing on the earth, running down the mountain sides, being funnelled into little river courses, plunging and tumbling down the steep slopes, splashing and tinkling over boulders, eroding them fragment by fragment, as the clouds form and dissolve above the land, as the sun rises, arcs across the sky and sinks, as the wind comes up, changes direction and dies down, and as the shape of the land changes over time.
But all we can witness is what happens right now, in the present, as we sit here on this boulder.
Quite a sobering thought. We really are very, very small in this vast wilderness.
We made our way back up the kopje, where I somehow got my feet entangled in a protea bush (I swear it had suddenly and mischievously stuck out a branch in front of my feet, as I walked past!), and went for a tumble onto the rocks. Ouch!
A few choice expletives later, I was back on my feet, checking for damage. Apart from a few scratches and bruises, all was intact. The camera, which I had cradled against me in falling, which meant I had only one arm to break my fall, appeared to be fine, although the jarring impact must have affected the lens mechanism, because it’s been giving intermittent problems since then. The power to zoom can now no longer be taken for granted, which is rather frustrating when you are trying to frame your picture well, and even worse, when you’re trying to snap a piccie of that small bird on the tree in the distance!
What’s with all this falling (see here and here), eh? Is the universe telling me that I need to be more grounded? I’d better learn this lesson quickly – or learn how to take a tumble without getting hurt! 🙂
We made our way downhill until we saw this enticing sign to ‘Sunset View’. There were two paths; we picked the lower one, keeping the upper one for next time.
The well laid-out path led down to a wooden bench, with a marvellous, chest-expanding, breath-deepening vista of rolling hills, all golden in the gentle light of the late afternoon sun.
In the distance, we could see dams glittering in the sunlight, isolated farm houses amidst fields and plantations, and gravel roads winding down into the valley. A line of rugged mountains stretched all along the northern and eastern horizon, beyond Worcester and Robertson and Ashton, and many of their peaks were covered in snow. Sigh…
Once the sun had set, it was time to make the fire for our braai. The mere thought was making me hungry. “Grrrowl,” complained the tummy, suddenly realising that it was quite hollow.
Richard busied himself by arranging the pieces of wood in the metal drum; he lit a piece of Blitz firelighter (that most useful of inventions, particularly when the wood is a little damp and reluctant to catch fire!) and placed this underneath the chunks of wood.
Meanwhile, I distracted myself and my rumbling tummy by photographing the bird life, which was astonishingly prolific in the fynbos surrounding our Kliphuisie. This was one of those moments where I was wishing for a really good, powerful zoom lens, ‘cos those birds tend to be really small, and quick-moving!
Once the sun had set, it quickly became very cold. I zipped up my anorak, and put on a woolly beanie to keep my ears warm, and huddled closer to the fire.
Can you see the snow on the far-away mountain peaks beyond Worcester? Brrrr….
Coping without electricity
Did I mention that there is no electricity up here? Yes, that almost became a sticking point for us technophiles.
How on earth were we going to power our laptop, which I needed for downloading the photos and video clips from the camera card? Even though someone regularly points out that said card has a capacity of 8 Gigs, which should be quite sufficient for an extended weekend, even given the sheer number of photos I take, I didn’t want to run out of storage space at the crucial moment.
Besides, how were we going to charge the batteries of said digital camera? The cellphone could be charged in the car while driving, so that wasn’t an issue, but the rechargeable camera batteries were quite another matter. (Isn’t it extraordinary how technology brings with it all these additional challenges?)
After some humming and hawing, my dear, creative, technical whiz of a husband decided that we would have to bring the electricity to the mountain.
During the Eskom supply crisis two years ago, we had bought ourselves a deep-cycle battery and an inverter, which we hooked up in the garage; now, when there is power failure, I plug in an extension cord, or two, and unravel these all the way from the garage and down the passage to my little office, where I can plug in my computer. That way, when Eskom lets us down, I remain connected to the internet and can continue working as normal… at least for a couple of hours, until power is restored. It’s brilliant.
So, the heavy battery and the inverter came with us to Onverwacht. Which meant that wifey was able to download her photos onto the laptop, and – thanks to intermittent cellphone reception and a useful cable for connecting the cellphone to the laptop – to check her email and the stats on her blog. Retreating to the mountains doesn’t have to mean retreating from civilisation entirely, after all. 😉
In the picture below, you can see the battery in the bottom left hand corner, with the inverter on the chair.
Actually, it turned out to be a very good thing that we had lugged the battery and inverter all the way up into the mountains!
By Saturday afternoon, I had depleted the one set of camera batteries, so I inserted the spare set. Unfortunately, these gave up the ghost within half an hour – not because they hadn’t been fully charged, but because there’s something wrong with them and they don’t retain their charge.
A crisis was looming!
Luckily, I had packed a battery charger, so we quickly plugged the first set into the inverter, leaving them in overnight. By the next morning, they were fully charged.
Suppertime at last!
Because there aren’t any electrical lights, you rely on candles and oil lamps, which cast a very gentle, golden light that is very romantic and conducive to mellow night-time conversation. It’s not ideal for preparing food, though, particularly if you are using sharp implements (ouch!) or trying to salt the lamb chops – “Did I put enough salt on or not? Agh, let’s just put on some more…” 😉
Richard, meanwhile, was burning off the braai grid that we were planning to use.
As soon as the coals were ready, he quickly grilled a lamb chop and a couple of cheese-tomato-and-onion sandwiches, which is our favourite combination for braais. I tossed together a quick salad, and that was our supper!
A moonlight walk
After supper, we went outside to look at the night sky. Oh, what a sight!
There was a waxing moon, with over a week to go before full moon (on 26 July), but it cast such a strong light on our surroundings that we could easily make out the other buildings and the various tracks. It even cast our blackened shadows onto the ground behind us. And to think that it is only reflected light from the sun!
I paused to look up, and saw the band of the Milky Way arching high across the sky above us. We found the Southern Cross (also referred to as Crux), the most well-known constellation in the southern skies (or at least, I think I found the right one…). For locations south of 34°S, it is a circumpolar constellation, which means that it never sets below the horizon, and that it is visible throughout the year (well, unless there is cloud cover).
However, there’s a ‘real’ Southern Cross and a false one (I think there’s actually two false ones very nearby).
“Crux is sometimes confused with the nearby False Cross by stargazers. Crux is somewhat kite-shaped, and it has a fifth star (ε Crucis). The False Cross is diamond-shaped, somewhat dimmer on average, does not have a fifth star and lacks the two prominent Pointer Stars.
Fortunately, the pointer stars are very bright. The Southern Cross can be used to find the Galactic South Pole. (If you’re curious, you can find out how to do that here.) I’ve never really understood how to do that – next time I’m taking along a printout from the website!
“How about a moonlight walk?” I suggested, feeling the enchantment cast by by the silver light of the moon and the canopy of glittering stars above. “Shall we walk up to the kopje behind the Mountain Cottages?”
We zipped ourselves in our anoraks, I wrapped a scarf around my neck and added a woolly cap to keep the ears warm, and then we trudged up to the 4×4 trail that led uphill past some water tanks with thick black pipes coming out of them. We had taken along our little torch, but found, paradoxically, that we could actually see better without it; the glaring white light from the torch was almost too harsh. I noticed that, once my eyes got accustomed to the soft moonlight, my vision improved – and it was even better when I didn’t look straight on at something, but almost with the edges of my vision. A strange sensation.
I was a little nervous of accidentally stepping on a snake, but the night was sooo cold that I honestly couldn’t imagine (m)any snakes wanting to slither around in the darkness. Once my initial apprehension dissipated, I began to enjoy the experience: the gravel crunched beneath our boots and the larger stones clattered against each other, as we marched uphill past the dark shadows of the water tanks. We continued walking, our breath leaving a trail of smoke in the icy air, until we had reached the top of a kopje, behind which the road seemed to disappear into the shadows of the veld.
After pausing to admire the view across the dark valleys on either side, and gazing up at the Milky Way until our necks were stiff from looking up, we walked back down to our snuggly warm cottage.
What a magical night this was!
Click here to read Part III!