I was first drawn to Swellendam because of resident, Bruce Geils’ ‘Flyinghorse’ photography. I caught myself falling into his depictions of this town that he so clearly loved, which ached with sensitivity and seeped mystery from every inky evening shot. It takes time to capture photographs like these of a town or a place. You need to settle in and breathe the air; become familiar with the beauty, the curves, the colours and the light. But it also takes a muse to inspire an artist to pick up his paints and brushes and it was through Bruce’s magnificent burning mountain sunsets shots, family moments and misty mornings captured on the lake, that I realised Swellendam was something extraordinary.
So, I packed up my little ‘Wanderluster’ (my globe-trotting eleven-year-old son and travel assistant) and pointed my car in the direction of a place I hadn’t yet explored. I heard myself exhale as we turned into the lush, tree-lined main road. Victorian homesteads, now converted into restaurants and guest houses, lined the dappled streets as Friday afternoon sunk into the village…
Photograph: Schoone Oordt Country House
We smiled at ordinary things, as out-of-towners do, looking forward to our luxurious Swellendam hotel destination just ahead. With a mountain backdrop in the distance, Schoone Oordt appeared before us in all its regal beauty; once a crumbling old manor house, now lovingly restored by the vibrant Walker family, who scraped everything they had together to create a swan out of a relic. I headed out into the near 30 degree heat and kept on eye on my son, who was already immersed in the cool, salty waters of the pool. The air hung thick with heat.
“What do you mean ‘hot’? This is cool!” joked the staff. I made a mental note never to forget my vintage bathing suit at home again. By a divine stroke of luck, we’d arrived just in time for afternoon tea in Schoone Oordt’s restaurant, The Conservatory, which we marvelled at amidst contented sighs, scoffing of scones and lashings of Earl Grey.
Photograph: Tea-time at Schoone Oordt
Swellendam boasts more gourmet restaurants than you can shake an Eat Out guide at, including La Sosta, which has garnered well-deserved attention from press throughout the years. Sunset fired up the tips of the mystical mountains that curve around the town, painting the sweet cottages in a lilac watercolour. We peered into the charming restaurants along the main drag, loving the feel of De Companjie and Field & Fork, before returning to our suite for an evening turn-down of truffles with vanilla tea.
The promise of another perfect day beckoned behind the shutters, as we readied ourselves for breakfast. The fresh white palette of The Conservatory with wall-to-wall windows facing the morning sun was a joy in itself, as I sipped my freshly brewed coffee between delightful mouthfuls of three course breakfast bliss. Amanda, from Swellendam Tourism, showed us around The Berry Farm after breakfast, where my son refused to cruise down the zip line (truffles and vanilla tea overdose, you see), so I headed to Wildebraam Berry Estate for a full liqueur tasting.
Photograph: De Companjie Restaurant in Swellendam
Swellendam is berry country, boasting the perfect climate and soil for most berries, even difficult ones, to flourish in. Berry season is in November and December, when visitors are invited to pick buckets of their own juicy blackberries, blueberries and youngberries. Amanda delivered us safely back to the quaint tourism office, where we were offered test drives on two of their new bicycles-for-hire.
We headed in the direction of Bukkenburg Pottery, where my son received an impromptu pottery lesson from the master himself, David Schlapobersky, who exports his pottery all over the world! After making his first pot in the Bukkenburg studio, my miniature travel assistant joined me on his bicycle in the back streets of Swellendam, which we navigated with all the grace of tricycle-riding toddlers, even though we were equipped with tourism’s bicycle route map.
Photograph: Making his first pot in the Bukkenburg studio
We finally arrived at our favoured lunch spot, Tredici. Former UK accountant, N.C. envisioned an eatery along the N2 that would break away from the usual farm stall fare and serve upmarket healthy cuisine, whilst also stocking superb Italian treats for the road (Tredici’s famous breads, pastries and biscotti are a must).
After a scrumptious lunch, my son and I ordered Dark Chocolate and Tiramisu Gelato for dessert and cycled away on a cloud. I relaxed into the afternoon with almost sinful spoilage at The Rain Forest Day Spa, where I was lulled into dreamland by a skilled Rain therapist. You may already be Rain addicts, but for those of you who are yet to discover their natural body products lovingly created from ingredients sourced from Africa, then I highly suggest booking a treatment and visiting their Swellendam store.
Photograph: our favoured lunch spot, Tredici
After another serene night at Schoone Oordt, we awoke to flapjacks with cream and Wildebraam berry compote, which preceded Eggs Benedict with crispy bacon, before packing up and heading into Marloth Nature Reserve. As I sat and rested along the waterfall path, I realised that to limit the exploration of Swellendam to a weekend was to do it a tragic disservice.
We were still to experience Umshanti dam where many of the ‘Flyinghorse’ photographs were taken, yet I wanted to absorb all the magic of the mountain I was hiking. With heavy hearts, we left those mountains and all that beauty behind us, knowing that there were still so many lush acres of Swellendam to explore. Our cheeks aglow with the brush of country air and hair damp from waterfalls, we made our way back home, burning with wanderlust for another trip to sultry Swellendam…