Growing up in Gauteng, the Karoo was nothing more to me than a flat wasteland to be endured while driving towards Cape Town for the summer holidays. From the still furnace of the car, dreams of lying on one of the Mother City’s beaches seemed as much an illusion as the mirages of heat rising off the dun, dreary landscape outside the car window.
As a big-city boy, I’d never imagined living anywhere else. The buzz and excitement of cities had me hooked. But increasingly, I find myself searching for places to relax and recharge my batteries. The Karoo has now become that go-to haven for me. The vastness, silence, colours and lazy pace of life engulf me whenever I have the chance to venture into this region.
As I drive the 40km along the Prince Albert Road, towards the cultural oasis of Prince Albert some 4 ½ hours North of Cape Town, I feel the city stresses rush from my body as quickly as the kilometer’s accumulate on the odometer. The flat bush and rock-strewn landscape recede from my review mirror as the colossal Swartberg Pass rises up against my windscreen.
Prince Albert, named after Queen Victoria’s Consort, sits at the foot of the Swartberg Pass and it’s from these mountains that the town receives its water. As the winter temperatures plummet, the snow dusting on the pass thickens. The snow-melt in early spring supplies the town with much- needed water during the warm spring months and baking summer
via a series of ingenious lei-water canals.
This is a town with a Karoo-style speed limit. People amble, cyclists cruise, and the cars seem to free-wheel. The dogs would rather bask in the sun than bark at the arrival of another stranger entering their town, barely managing to lift an eyelid in their pretence to care.
It’s Saturday morning when we arrive, just in time to experience the local wares and colourful locals at the weekly market. Fresh Karoo lamb, home-made jams, secret sauces, local olives, and braaied sosaties are all on offer. Artists, farmers, and townsfolk – some recent escapees from the bustling city– cheerfully acknowledge the many tourists enjoying the first day of a long weekend. Prodding, tasting and smelling my way through the market I wonder what makes a city-slicker give up everything and move to the country.
In the peaceful, shady garden of the Prince Albert Country Store I find my first answer. It’s a quaint antique store and restaurant owned by Colleen and William Penfold, antique purveyors from Cape Town who decided to trek north and settle in the Karoo.
“While living in Cape Town we travelled the country extensively in search of antiques for our store in Cape Town. We discovered this town where the lifestyle is ideal. So we sold up and moved. Here we don’t have TV and don’t read newspapers – all we need to know is filtered through by visiting tourists .We eat fresh produce, don’t have to queue and never get stuck in traffic. The surrounding region is botanically rich which makes exploring a bonus, and we’re nestled right underneath the Swartberg Pass with access to hiking and mountain biking for the more energetic. What more can one wish for?”
With country life taking up more space in my head I wander into Karoo Looms, local manufacturers of cotton, woollen and mohair rugs, the latter consisting of hair from local Angora goats. Manager, young mother and wife, Sophia Booley, who only moved to the town in 2010, gives me her lowdown.
“We came here for a lifestyle change and have no regrets. It was a huge shift coming from a big city but we soon got used to the easy pace. We buy locally produced, unpackaged food and can stroll around after dark safely. One can get caught up in the dramas of living in a small town, but that is a choice. We still visit Cape Town about once every 6 weeks to tap into the big city vibe and catch up with friends, but for us, Prince Albert is now home.”
Artist, designer and guest-cottage proprietor, Sally Arnold, explains to me how the town has come along.
“In 2006 I arrived here from Luxembourg to take up residence in the house I’d built during earlier visits to my folks. Back then this was a town with no internet connection, let alone ADSL. You can imagine what a shock that was after living in Luxembourg. Since then it’s become a cultural destination with many well known foodies, writers, artists and the likes moving here. Along with the Prince Albert Town and Olive Festival, we also have events like the Silent Auction for art, which attracts many local tourists.”
Prince Albert Art Gallery holds an auction which began way back in 2003 to commemorate the 1st year anniversary of the gallery. It has now become a regular, anticipated feature during the Woman’s Day long weekend.
The brief to artists, both local and outsiders, is to submit an image on any media, sized 30mmX40mm.Wandering around the multi-storied gallery viewing the oils, watercolours, and photographs, I’m amazed at the variety and quality of the art on offer. A red sticker placed on one of the artworks denotes an interested buyer. Two red stickers – two interested buyers – and the piece goes on auction. Brent Phillips-White the curator explains the scenario.
“Once the bidding starts the sparks can really fly. The quality of the art is always top class and the bids go into the thousands. Many of the townsfolk and tourists attend, making for a very entertaining occasion.”
It’s sundowner time outside the gallery and townsfolk and tourists mingle, sip wine and ready themselves to bid. With the auction in full swing the audience responds enthusiastically to every new bid. Everyone is festive and enjoying the vibe as the local community and tourists engage in witty banter.
I chat to Jeremy Freemantle, the co- owner of African Relish Cooking School and Restaurant, on why he moved out of the city 4 years ago.
“My love for cooking , and a need for a different lifestyle made moving here after 4 years of just visiting a no-brainer really.”
But after 30 years working in a city how does Jeremy get his kicks?
“Prince Albert has changed quite dramatically over the last few years. There are many European Swallows (people that live overseas for a few months and then over here for a few months) who add a cosmopolitan flavour to the very grounded farming community and the creatives who are based here permanently. Our cultural contribution and stimulation comes from the locals and tourists who attend our courses. These are geared at awakening people’s curiosity to the influences that have shaped South African cuisine.”
The lavender-filled air is crisp, the watery reflections sharp, and the constant swish of the free flowing lei-water transports me back to an era when life was a lot simpler. As I take an early-morning stroll before heading back to The Big Smoke, I’m not sure if I’m quite ready yet to embrace such a laid-back kind of lifestyle. But Prince Albert’s therapeutic influence has gotten under my skin. Somehow I feel that I’ll be back – and next time, maybe not as a tourist.