They’ve only just tarred the gravel road that takes one from Bredasdorp to Elim. So it is only in the last three years that the little mission town has become more accessible for visitors to the Cape Overberg. Now an ordinary sedan like ours can make it to the village without a battering, and those with hired vehicles can even arrive unscathed in town (hired cars are not supposed to travel on dirt roads).
Which means someone like Emile is slowly experiencing what in Elim’s terms can only be described as a business boom. Emile is the local tour guide. You don’t have to worry about finding Emile. Simply park at the mission church – you can’t miss it upon arrival in the quaint little village – and wait for him to find you.
Emile is usually accompanied by a white labrador named Sally, who, by all accounts is not his dog, but nonetheless, follows him around the village whilst he rattles off dates and facts of historical value, for which you pay R30 per person.
Elim is beautiful. The historical village has been here since 1824 in much the same state it is in today, give or take the odd coat of paint, and a new thatch. This particular Moravian mission village, Emile is quick to point out, is unique; one of a kind. Because the town is still completely owned and managed by the Moravian Church. This, he claims, is why the town continues to flourish and the houses are more-or-less maintained.
It is difficult for me to understand how denying individual ownership to town residents promotes independence, but Emile is adament that it has cemented the community. ‘No-one can make foolish mistakes, like selling their homes for a pittance’, he describes to me, as has been the case in other mission villages, where most of the original families have moved on and the heart of the village is lost.
Many of Elim’s residents descend from slaves, who found their way to the town of Elim after slavery was abolished, says Emile, as he indicates the country’s only slave freedom memorial that stands just across the road from the Moravian church infront of the original school building, which now contains the municipal library. Slaves in those days took on the name of the day on which they were freed, hence the propensity of surnames like ‘Tuesday’ in Elim.
Here in Elim there is a pattern to life. You are born, go to the local primary school, on to Bredasdorp to high school, and then you do set off for Cape Town. After this you are encouraged to marry a local and settle down again in one of the cottages, or at least return here to retire after your working career in Cape Town is over. I learn all of this as Emile shows us around the Ou Huis – a six by three metre whitewashed, original style ‘huise’ that housed an average family of six. In the bedroom is a riempie bed with a straw mattress. The mattress would have begun its life filled with straw that gradually, after being lain on night after night, flattened until it was filled again.
These original sleeping conditions, Emile tells us, is where the saying ‘sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite’ originates. Sleep tight refers to the tightening of the strings (riempies) of the base of the bed, and the bugs, well, straw comes with bugs…We laugh, but this wee house, smaller than the average RDP home today, must have been a tight fit.
I’m aware that life in the village is bustling around us. The original houses run the length of Church Street, some of them brightly painted (‘These are modern women’, Emile later explains, ‘and they want their houses to look like those from the Bo Kaap‘). Women visit one another, young children run around, younger girls are up at the shop collecting cabbages and oranges for their mothers, and cats preen themselves on the sills of windows.
Directly opposite the Ou Huis is one particularly beautiful garden. This house belongs to a retired school headmaster, the story goes, whose garden is in direct competition with yet another retired school master a little further down the road. The houses are all beautifully thatched, bar one particularly derelect example where the ‘owners’ of the house have died, and the church is as yet undecided to whom the house should go. As a consequence, the children have allowed the house to decline – why invest in someone else’s house? (the system is obviously not perfect)
Many of the local men, those who aren’t farmers, or haven’t made their way to Cape Town, are thatchers – a craft handed down generation to generation. These craftsmen have travelled far and wide to dispense their talents, even to Spain and Dubai, Emile tells us. It is unsurprising then, upon driving out of town, to see the number of restios, Elegia tectorum or Cape thatching reed, dakriet growing wild.
We are now inside the sanctum of the incredibly white church. Everything in here is whitewashed – the floors, ceiling, pews – supposed to represent an introverted purity of mind. Seating is strictly governed in a Moravian church and men and women are segregated – they must sit on either side of the church.
The single younger people however, gravitate towards the middle of the church, where they sit alongside one another against the solid dividing line that serves as a divider in the central pew. Church is where you come to find a spouse.
Emile is full of anecdotes. We chat about the unavailability of funds to restore buildings, despite its being a national heritage site, and potentially a world heritage site, although he’s worried about convincing the modern women that their homes need to be whitewashed.
We are still in the Kerkwerf – a charming collection of historical buildings that include the oldest house in the village, the church, the museum, a guest house, a little coffee shop and the original still functioning water mill, to which we make our way. Here is where things seem to be progressing.
The stone mill, which was recently restored, is available to millers to grind their flour, and it is the village’s intention to begin producing their own organic stoneground flour. They have already begun producing their own brand of stoneground flour, and a bag or two stand on a table to prove the point, but now plans are underway for full-scale production.
At the back of the mill are a series of vegetable allotments, hired to those who are interested by the church. Emile shouts over the fence to one of the farmers, but unless we’re interested in patats and only patats (I already have a few sweet potatoes in the boot of the car) then we’re at the wrong place. Oh well, nice try, I was hoping for broccoli – obviously the wrong season.
Our tour now officially over, we pass across the Kerkwerf to the museum, in the original mission store building. Here we meet Amanda Cloete, who runs the heritage centre and museum that outlines the community’s way of life and people. It’s an interesting stroll through the rooms here, filled as they are with historical photographs and the odd map.
Next door is the village of Elim’s Guesthouse, not on the web but worth remembering, if genuine southern Overberg hospitality is important to you, as full board, including breakfast, lunch and supper, costs as much as your average overnight B&B. You could do a lot worse than Elim as a base from which to explore the Overberg.
Our last stop is the coffee shop for my son has got wind of the availability of melktert (milk tart), a local speciality, and is intent on sampling a piece. We sit on the back steps of the church, enjoying a sandwich whilst the milk tart rapidly disappears and savour the slowness of small town living, the sun making intermittent appearances and the day softly warming.
And the twelve fountains? A verse from Exodus 15.27, but I believe that Elim claims just that, and the seventy palm trees.