The easternmost slice of the Western Cape: from the Breede (Wide) River Valley, north through the Klein Karoo and out to Prince Albert Valley, is geologically and socially unlike anything we had seen previously in South Africa. We decided to investigate the region to see how olive production here differed from the Western Coast.
Fabulous Photos from Rich with this link.
South of Stellenbosch and east of Sommerset West, you will find picturesque coastal plains that rise to steep coastal mountain ranges with semi-arid rolling plains on the far side. Once you cross Sir Lowry’s pass, the terrain is crisscrossed by broad rivers that allow water for irrigation. The soil is rocky; red and iron-rich, mixed with clay. The area is rural and the population density quite low. Wheat and cornfields are being replaced by olive groves and wine orchards and everywhere you see sheep.
We visited three olive groves in this Southern peninsula – two smaller sister groves about 100 km from Stellenbosch in the Bot Rivier valley, Gabrielskloof and Anysbos each with about 20,000 trees and the third, another 300 km distant, Greenleaf, the largest olive oil producer in South Africa, with almost 200,000 trees. Though each farm produces extra virgin olive oil, the personalities of the three oils are as different as the three families/teams that run the farms. In each case, we were welcomed, shown around the farms, and our questions patiently answered by busy people who were in the middle of their olive harvest. In one, we also got to lunch in their first class restaurant , in another, we visited with the resident Toggenberg goats and took home some fresh made feta and aged Caprino cheese and in the last (Greenleaf), we were driven in the owner’s 4×4 out to the grove and watched the giant Colossus mechanical harvester begin harvesting a row of trees. We were told it would take about an hour for the harvester to get to the end of the row, a km down the valley. Since trees are planted about 2 meters apart, in a super high density arrangement, this means about 500 trees are harvested in one hour. The Colossus is run with a team of about 3 men in 12 hour shifts and the goal is to work 24/7. Given down time, repair time, and time out for the unexpected, it will take about 4 weeks to harvest all 200,000 trees.
As we left Greenleaf, Sean White, the owner, directed us toward a shortcut – one in which a pontoon raft would take our car across the Breed River and save us 50 km of dirt road driving. For 45 Rand (about $3.00), three men working together pulled the raft with our car (and three more) across the river. The process was quite ingenious: each man would wrap a chain he held in his hand around a cable that spanned the river and trudge from one end of the raft to the other with the chain over his shoulder slowly pulling the raft forward. When the first man had walked 3 meters, the next would add his chain to the cable and join in behind his colleague, and then a third 3 meters behind the second. Whenever the first reached the end of the 10 meter long raft, he would unwrap his chain and walk back to the other side of the raft, wrap his chain once more around the cable, and walk back towards the opposite side. It took about 10 cycles to get us over the river. Rich and I experienced another “Never did I ever…….” moment.
Traveling north from here, you must traverse one of several mountain passes to cross the second band of 1000 meter high mountains that separates you from the interior Klein Karoo (Little Desert) and the towns of Ladismith, Oudtshoren and (eventually) Beaufort West. We stopped for refreshments in a small roadside diner that boasted having sold, 1,058 roosteren broods, which we discovered was not some local rooster dish, but roasted bread. So we munched on rooster brood, sloppy joes, and Caesar salad and fortified ourselves for the mountain pass. In a random bit of luck, we chose the Tradouw’s Pass (Women’s Pass in old Koi) from just outside of Swellendam to Barrydale. Suddenly it seemed, we had left behind the dusty plains and the hillsides were lush and green, apparently outside of the rain-shadow of the coastal range and high enough to capture their own moisture. We travelled through a steep sided canyon with waterfalls and the Tradouw river at its base (not quite raging as we are just coming out of the dry season). Like many of the passes in South Africa, we learned that this pass had been constructed by engineer Thomas Bain in the late 1800’s using prison labor (300 convicts) and £1,000.
We skipped through the pass in light traffic, though since Pat was driving there were at least 10 white knuckles in the car. Once through the pass, we drove quickly east through the towns of Barrymore, Ladismith, and Oudtshoorn and arrived at dusk at our destination in De Rust (the Rest) just north of Oudtshoorn. De Rustica Olive’s general manager, Jupp welcomed us warmly, and gave us a quick tour of this spotless modern facility. The last batch of olives from the day’s harvest was being pressed, and we were impressed by the modern machines, spotless interior, and as always the lovely smell of olives in the malaxer. Jupp led us to our guest cottage “Oudemuragie Gasteplaas” for the next few nights, courtesy of De Rustica Estates. We met Maggie Fouri, our hostess who had halloo’ed us from the barn, and came in wiping her hands and explaining that she was coming from delivering twin lambs. She settled us in Vogelsnest Cottage, all the while apologizing for its smallness (it wasn’t), and oozing energy and hospitality. No sooner had we unpacked our bags, and settled ourselves onto the porch to watch the lingering rays from the sun, when Maggie reappeared bearing two slices of chocolate cake warm from the farmhouse kitchen. We knew we were going to like it here.
We got down to the olive press early the next day and went out to the groves to see how the hand picking was organized. Several teams of workers in different groves were stationed throughout the estate depending on which cultivar and which grove was ripe for picking – a decision Jupp would make each day with the Farm Manager, Cully. A tarp shaded flatbed trailer was half filled with crates of olives. As soon as the trailer was full, it would be carted off to the press. The workers used ladders and hand rakes, with nets spread out on the ground, but no mechanical device whatsoever. In a switch from previous practices, Jupp used a contractor to supply the laborers, and the contractor would be paid by the pound rather than by the hour to incentivize the workers.
We took a break from the hot sun to grab a lunch in downtown De Rust to meet up with grove owner Robert Still and his wife and daughter. Quite an eclectic place, we got delicious coconut chicken salad and water with fresh mint. Fresh herbs decorated the table and the staff were welcoming, attentive, and friendly. Back at the press, we sat with Rob for a while and then did another tour around with the press at full capacity and reported to the group about the debate in the industry about whether to filter or let settle and malaxation times.
That evening, we did some grocery shopping and decided to cook lamb chops on the braai at the cottage for dinner. With green salad, a beautiful red wine, and a loaf of warm fresh baked bread and butter that arrived courtesy of Maggie once again, we had a delightful evening watching the last rays of sunshine on the hills and searching for the stars that were somewhat hidden that evening by clouds.
The following day we took Maggie’s advice and headed west on the dirt road in front of our guest farm. The road meandered for many km past ostrich farms and camping grounds and at least one water reservoir until we finally hit a tarred road that would take us to Cango Caves and then north through the Swartburg Pass and over to the frontier like town of Prince Albert.
Each of these excursions was unbelievable spectacular – the 1 km of underground limestone caves some of them 20 meters tall with clusters of floor to ceiling stalagmites and stalagtites (while realizing only 25% of the total cave series is open to the public) –
– and the sleepy and friendly village that is a haven to travelers just through or starting through the pass.
We devoured a slice of hot apple pie with clotted cream and some scones at “The Lazy Lizard” and returned to De Rust as the shadows grew longer, following a rain-less rainbow south through a second shorter pass and back to our guest cottage. We enjoyed our last evening of spectacular sunset, brilliant star and moon scape, and our leftovers were all the more delicious with left over home made bread and butter.
On Sunday, our last day, we did a morning hike to get a high vista of the whole valley. The physical beauty was sublime but when the early morning stillness was broken by distant singing from an African Church we couldn’t even see, but definitely heard, we wondered if we were indeed in heaven.
We decided on the northerly route back through the Meiringspoort canyon and back out to Prince Albert. We returned to “The Lazy Lizard Café” to pick up a picnic lunch (featuring fresh figs and roast lamb) and headed north and then west on the N1 all the way back to Capetown (550 km).