It’s August and the landscape around Riversdale is as green as the bakkie parked in front of the Suid-Kaap Verf paint shop. As you drive to town, the scenery next to the N2 is hypnotic: to the north is the hazy blue Langeberg; to the south, green wheat fields undulate towards Still Bay and Vermaaklikheid.
Wheat, barley and lucerne grow green, but the other crop that is easy to discern is John Deere yellow: canola. The fertile soil and relatively high rainfall (the region only experiences drought sporadically) make this area ideal for farming. Merino sheep swarm like khaki-coloured ants; Friesian and Jersey cows mark a dairy farm; and an unexpected camp of ostriches appears, their long necks held high.
How many times have I driven through Riversdale? I usually fill my tank at the Engen or buy a coffee at the Wimpy or at Ou Meul, then I continue my journey.
Not this time. I’ll explore the town for the next few days, but first I want to know the story behind the green Suid-Kaap Verf bakkie…
“We mixed this shade of green ourselves,” says manager Andy Lawerlot. “The more popular paint colours in town are currently shades of grey.”
Must be because there’s enough natural green to go around…
Down the road, a black building catches my eye. Trends Café is aptly named and sets the tone for Riversdale’s coffee shops. From decor to service to the quality of the coffee, they can compete with the coolest coffee shops in any city.
The building dates from 1910 and was a parsonage of the Dutch Reformed church for many years before it was restored. I order a takeaway coffee from Ruben Saayman – he has one of those smiles you can see right through his mask – and drive down the street to photograph the old steam locomotive on the corner of Dickson and Van den Berg streets, and the Dutch Reformed church.
Riversdale, established in 1838, does not owe its name to rivers. Yes, the Vette River hugs the lower part of town, and you cross a tributary, the Klein Vette River, when you follow the R323 north, but it was actually named after Sir Harry Rivers, the civil commissioner of the Swellendam district at the time.
The old house on Doornkraal, the farm on which the town developed, was initially a place of worship. A Dutch Reformed church was used from 1845 to 1907, after which the current church was completed and consecrated in 1908. It’s not the only beautiful church building in town: Walk around and go look at the stone St Matthew’s Anglican church (top of Main Road), the imposing Lutheran church (Van den Berg Street) and the light blue St Andrew’s Anglican church (Van Riebeeck Street) – it seems like there was a time when other colours were popular at the town’s paint shop!
A bar of soap from 1945
Long Street stretches out left and right from the bottom of Main Road. Should you go straight, out of town, you’ll cross a bridge over the Vette River. This part of town is known as Die Steg – an old name referring to the previous lowwater bridge across the river.
In Long Street I ask John Pieterse if I can take a photo of him. He gets off his bicycle. “I’m in a hurry so you have to be quick,” he says. “I want to go buy a piece of meat and a piece of sausage…”
John was born in Riversdale in 1944. This district is his life. In his younger years he worked on farms, tended gardens, milked cows. “There’s nothing I can’t do. I can thank the Lord every day. Many people don’t know this: You have to know what to be thankful for. If you look after yourself, life can be good here in Riversdale.”
He gets back on his bike and pedals off to JC Butchery.
Also in Long Street is the Julius Gordon Africana Centre/Versfeld House, a mouthful for what is essentially the town’s museum. Farmer, entrepreneur and lawyer Julius Gordon (1892–1974) bequeathed his personal collection of artwork and antique furniture, on condition that the place never be called a “museum”.
When local lawyer Theodore Versfeld (1889–1960) heard of Gordon’s donation, he gave his home in Long Street to house the collection.
Curator Louise du Plessis, a retired teacher, is in her element when she takes me through the different rooms. Like other tourism attractions in the country, the centre doesn’t currently see many foreign visitors, but they had plenty in the past: “We’ve had visitors from Peru, Mongolia, Alaska and Tasmania, but most of our tourists came from Germany and England,” she says.
Art lovers will be amazed to see works by Gregoire Boonzaier, Marjorie Wallace and Thomas Baines, as well as by celebrated Riversdale artists like Jan Volschenk, who worked as an accountant at Gordon’s law firm.
“I think this milk tart pan is very clever,” says Louise. “It was used in the hearth. It had its own tripod so it could stand over the coals and you could put coals on top of the lid as well.”
The centre also houses the switchboard of the town’s old manual exchange, a taxidermied jackal called Old Broken Toe (it terrorised the sheep farmers to such an extent that its demise secured it a place in the “museum”) and a bar of boer soap made in 1945.
The not-so-green side
I follow the R323 tar road north towards Ladismith, past green pastures until plantations take over the landscape as I approach the Langeberg. Sleeping Beauty towers overhead – ask someone in town to show you the mountainous outline of the slumbering princess because it’s more visible from there.
Now Garcia’s Pass (originally completed under supervision of Thomas Bain in 1879) rolls away under my tyres and the lazy bends bring me to the Old Toll House. As soon as I push through the mountains, the landscape transforms – I’m now in the arid Little Karoo.
Henry Chamberlain’s parents bought the farm Muiskraal 26 years ago and dreamt big, producing wine grapes and later olives. You can pull over at their factory shop to buy some of their products (also available in town, but more affordable here).
Unlike on the other side of the mountain, drought is part of the natural rhythm on Muiskraal. In 2016, they harvested 140 tonnes of olives, says Henry, but only two tonnes in 2017. They fared a little better in 2020 with 35 tonnes, and 2021 has been a good year: 172 tonnes.
One year, a veld fire destroyed 21 hectares of trees. And wild animals also make a dent. “You wouldn’t believe the range of animals that will eat an olive,” says Henry. “Kudu, bush pig, even bat-eared foxes! We battle against the elements out here.”
Henry shows me around their “factory”. There are 96 thousand-litre tanks, each one full of fermenting olives. That’s about 48 tonnes of olives! Other tanks hold about 33000 litres of olive oil – enough to dress a salad from here to Cape Town.
“The wine grapes didn’t work out,” says Henry. “But the olives in the Little Karoo are of a very high quality. We do almost no marketing because we don’t need to. You taste the olives, and you know.”
Back on the green side, I drive towards Korentepoort Dam one afternoon. I see a bakkie surrounded by a small herd of Nguni cattle. But where is the farmer?
Eventually I spot him in the veld – he’s on the ground next to a calf, cuddling it. He sees me and beckons me through the gate.
“Wait, you have to see my other cattle, too,” says Jaco van Dyk after introducing himself.
There’s a herd of Gir cattle in a nearby kraal – the Gir is a dairy breed from India. Jaco scratches a cow’s ear and she leans into his hand. “They love attention,” says Jaco. “Ngunis don’t. It’s why I was lying next to the new calf. She’s five days old and I made friends with her on the first day.”
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