The most amazing surprise for me was seeing the expanse of grapevines along the banks of the Olifants River. These begin just outside Clanwilliam and continue for miles like a great, green swathe on either side of the river.
I had read about the Olifants River Valley as a wine-producing area. I was prepared, in a way, but the actual evidence is nonetheless unexpected. Huge diaducts guide water to various parts of the wine farms that grace the banks of the river and palm trees are aplenty. I think it is the sheer audacity at this amount of green in an area that is predominanty dry and arid that gets me.
It is something to do with leaving the Swartland behind, as you come out of Piekenierskloof Pass and enter the Olifants River Valley and the rather weird way that the Olifants River flows in the opposite direction than one would expect – not down towards Cape Town but northwards with the Cedarberg and then east where it has its estuary at Papendorp that leaves me stunned.
We had just left behind the rather heady smell of citrus trees in bloom, heavily hung with oranges, satsumas, clementines, lemons and grapefruits, and the torridly hot and quaint streets of Clanwilliam and its thoroughly air-conditioned and enormous Spar, when bam – it’s suddenly vineyard upon vineyard and you’ve entered a wine region in a most un-wine-region like valley – dry and sandy with rocky outcrops and temperatures that way surpass 35º during the day and drop to freezing at night.
Photographs – Left: Lutzville / Right: Olifants River Valley Wine Route
Despite this the Olifants River Valley (yes, herds of elephant were last seen in the area in the early 1800s) gives rise to the West Coast Wine Route, has 16 wineries and three of the largest wine cellars in the country – Klawer Wine Cellars, Lutzville Vineyards and Namaqua Wines. This is wine production on a large scale, not quaint little cellars as we’re used to closer to Cape Town.
It also lies in the midst of the Gifberg, Maskam and Koebee peaks – that gently continue the presence of mountains already experienced through Morreesburg and Piketberg in the form of the distant Kleinwinterhoek and Grootwinterhoek peaks, the Piekenierskloof Pass as one leaves the Swartland, and the beautiful Cedarberg from Citrusdal and Clanwilliam.
A gentle drive through Klawer and Vredendal as the sun begins its descent reveals yet further vineyards wherever the eye can see, and the two little towns (Vredendal is slightly larger, even if its tourism centre doesn’t bother opening on weekends or public holidays – when do they think people travel?) cater for local farmers whose impressive vineyards continue to sweep away from the banks of the Olifants River.
Photographs – Left: View of Sishen Saldanha from guest house / Right: River canals
The three little villages of the wine route in this part of the world – Klawer, Vredendal and Lutzville – all lie just 25 kilometres inland from the crayfish-mad West Coast region. There is obviously something about this proximity and the sea breezes that make their way across here that make for excellent wines. The area is dubbed the Matzikama by the tourist authorities as a way to distinguish it from the other West Coast regions of the Peninsula, Bergrivier, Swartland and Hardeveld. This region borders the Atlantic Ocean to the west and includes the Sandveld, Knersvlakte and the Matzikamma Mountains.
We finally reach Melkboomsdrift, just outside Vredendal (there aren’t many places to stay around here) in the late afternoon. I can commit murder for a cup of tea, and we are shown quickly and very efficiently (I’m used to more of an informal introduction, but nevermind) to our self-catering apartment, the former school, now called ‘die skooltjie’ (‘n mens moet hier die taal kan praat, jong).
This beautiful part of the boutique wine farm – the rest is over the road on an accompanying wine farm where the farmer stays in a more modern rendition than this gorgeous old homestead, which dates back to 1820 – has been converted into 13 rooms and suites.
Photographs – Left: Melkboomsdrift Lodge / Views over the Olifants River Valley
The lodge is perched overlooking the Olifants River, a huge bridge over which the Sishen Saldanha rail transports one of the longest trains you’ll ever encounter, back and forth throughout the day, lies in the near distance – obviously visible from the farm as it straddles over the valley. Luckily, you are barely aware of the train here. I’ve stayed in Elandsbaai where its passing is something of a tumultous earthquake – one’s very conversation no longer worth continuing, and one’s sleep interrupted if you’re not used to it, which obviously I wasn’t.
The following morning, the early sun (and our son, whom I think helped rouse the neighbours too – he isn’t used to sharing walls) wakes us, and the front bougainvillea-beset stoep comes alive. Our little skooltjie unfortunately has no door onto the stoep, but we nonetheless carry our early morning coffee (and grapefruit picked up at a farmstall en route) around to soak up the morning rays. Not that this stops our four-year old, who climbed over the sill of the thick, old window and out onto the cool slastone beyond.
Later Hanika shows me around the rooms. Each of them is aptly named after their original function – Koeistal, Perdestal, and the Meulkamer – the Koeistal still has the feeding trough intact. To get around the fact that these are listed buildings because of their historical value, freestanding Victorian style bathrooms have been screened off as part of the room, rather than building on bathrooms. It all works beautifully, and a stay here for your honeymoon, or something equally romantic, is a must.
Photographs – Left: Die Skooltjie / The stoep (verandah)
Hanika is originally from Nieuwoudtville, to which we’re en route. We immediately begin trading ideas and inhouse secrets, and before long I’m receiving an education on local breads – mosbrood, skynsbrood, farm bread and the like. Scared that we’re going to miss out on Nieuwoudtville’s annual market day held at the church in town, she phones ahead and makes sure that her mother keeps some bread aside for us. Just as well, as we get sidetracked in Vanrhynsdorp. But that’s another story.
We leave, imbued by the local hospitality, delighted by the pretty accommodation and eager to experience Nieuwoudtville.
Useful Olifants River Valley Links
- Olifants River Valley Attractions
- Olifants River Valley Accommodation
- Things to Do in the Olifants River Valley
- Western Cape Accommodation