See also my page Montagu Gorge.
Montagu was condemned as twee and uninteresting by our host. A spa town with historical bells and whistles. We were not sure what to expect as we drove there through the Breede river bulk winelands...Cheltenham maybe?
It seemed to me a pretty unpretentious place, just this side of struggling to make its way in the modern world. It was nothing like Cheltenham. There is a main street - the start of Route 62 through the little Karoo (see my page Bontebok National Park). It is straight as a die and has a few historic houses and restaurants and a nice breakfast place - the Café Fresh - run by 'Born Agains' at the eastern edge of town. We were joined at the meal by a large grey cockatoo called 'Sweetie Pie'. The breakfast was excellent and, of course, cooked and served by Cape Coloured men and women run off their feet and looking anxious for their jobs. Lorries seem to take a run at the main street and shoot through. You can also find the new Spa supermarket on this street.
Then there is a paralell street off Main with less salubrious shops and take-aways at the east end. On a Saturday morning it was buzzing with adults and kids down from the township - Mandela Village - which stands slightly above the town. At the west end it gets more genteel - aka white - with an intimidating coffee house in a Cape Dutch house and the little local Saturdsy market in a shady park cooled by a stream.
I wrote in my diary: The town is quite divided between its black population with its shops and discount shops and the white and Cape Coloured shoppers at the Spar supermarket. We bought cheap meats – lamb, beef, boerworst, vegetables, potatoes and charcoal and firelighters and plenty of cheap wine – not realising the Spar had a separate wine shop next door.
After breakfast on a Saturday we drove along Montagu’s main shopping street looking for the ‘bustling market’. We drove from the Coloured to the white end of the street. Jubilant kids out in the road, lots of action to the subdued, orderly white market selling handicrafts and some used gear with a few non-South African black guys selling handicrafts. The market was quiet in an end of season kind of way.
I bought some locally made olive oil soap – the guy said – 'From London! How did you end up in Montagu?' – and an old wooden rendering float made out of some kind of local wood from a guy selling a few tools. I told him I would use the float to fix the rendering our front-steps in Dover. He said he had gone to England in the 50s and motorcycled along the White Cliffs.
I bought some huge ‘rashers’ of cured pork for the braai and some cookies from a woman called Edna Mostert – who couldn’t stop laughing at a joke the pork guy had made to her in Afrikaans. Lastly I bought some fanstatic looking dried apricots from an old Afrikaner woman who wanted me to buy more.
J bought a beautifully woven alpaca shawl. The only Coloured people were saw at the market were three kids begging at the entrance to whom we gave a few coins.
One morning early in our little West Montagu neighbourhood I passed a couple of local white folks out for a walk looking ship shape. I said hello in response to their greetings and walked down to a little resevoir with a treeful of African Sacred Ibis and Reed Cormorants and squabbling noisy Cape Weaver birds tending and building pendulous nests from slender dried reeds and grasses. I met a couple of Cape coloured women walking up to West Montagu, presumably to work as domestics.
Churches were in evidence – a little thatched white number and a bigger multidenominational warehouse-like building. Everything seemed very orderly, sober, controlled and without ostentation. A Coloured guy was forking up dead selvage from between rows of small olive trees. Black guys were grinding down parts of the new tubular steel bridge ovcer the river and filling gaps and blemishes in the concrete stanchions. The sun rose higher, stronger and warmer. My jeans suddenly seemed ridiculously heavy. I hurried back for breakfast.
The village was in some ways fated with ill-luck. It was born on the wrong side of the Langeberg mountains. It sits on the northern Little Karoo-side and is connected to the richer wine and fruitlands of the Breede river valley by a river-cut pass through the tormented, folded sandstones of the Langeberg mountains. Ill-fated because the train never came to Montagu. That meant transporting fruit and grapes to the burgeoning factories and processing plants in nearby Ashton and distant market was difficult.
The folk of Montagu were good Afrikaaner stock and did not take setbacks lightly. Instead they built wharehouses with big concrete tanks that could hold grape and fruit juices until these could be trasported more easily than the bulk unprocessed stuff. And they set up a dried fruit business using the sun to concentrate their peaches and apricots into dry goods with a long shelf life.
I guess the town was always a little cut off, tucked away behind the great fold of the Langeberg (the 'long mountain'). There is precious little new building save for a huge school and a hospital. Driving up the east side of the town there is a township that looks better than many and certainly the one at Ashton, but we only drove past once. Further up is the Spa Resort but we didn't go in. Between the two are a variety of houses in varying states of construction and decay. Lets say it is not where the white folks live.
One evening we ate in a highly recommended restaurant on the main street. We were placed at a table in the window and had the excruciating experience of eating not very good by expensive food while the local Cape Coloured folk clambered into the back of pick-ups to go and get entertained. We surely spent on the meal what a man or woman would earn in the fields in a month.
Its the kind of village where you wake up and hear bakkies (pick-ups) moving around picking up work mates as the sky lightens. You get up and see the red sunlight high on the peaks of the Langeberg Mountains opposite. The sun rises higher and the edge of light burns down the dry, rocky barren slopes. A big team of doves skirts through the deepning blue of the sky, outriders falling away and then becoming the lead birds. They fly down low and over me, their wing beats clear and measured in the still still air. A covey of Hadeda Ibis come flying in to the green outside the house - ca-calling their raw, insistent, lonely cries.
The sun catches the valley floor far over under the edge of the mounhains lighting date palms in a misty glow. The air is cold and still from the lengthening nights and there is dew on the grass. Finally at 8.11am the sun is high enough to shine on our little porch and and warm me up.
It seems that Montagu is a place where white folks from Joburg and Durban come to retire. Particularly Brits who have been in South Africa for a long time. Our holiday house hosts were from Yorkshire and we met a nice guy walking his three dogs on the 'Lovers Walk' from Lancashire. Funny how the regional British accents hang on through it all.
The squat single-storey houses with their flat or green-painted tin rooves are not un-appealing, although sweltering in the heat. Each has it veranda facing the evening sun, some caged-in with metal bars, others not. Security seems less obsessive. Less 'Armed Response' signs screwed to gateways, although more down in the town. But then the quirky, ominous handwritten sign on one garden fence warning would-be intruders in English and Afrikaans that 'in and around this house there are traps set.'
I shamefully liked the town in a creepy kind of nice-to-see-its-all-so-neatly-segregated-and-the-township-is-away-up-there-and-the-police-live-round-here way. I could imagine having been an old boer with my place and a bit of land and a job as a fitter in one of the canning factories trying to turn a blind eye to the 'troubles' on the townships and having a kind word for my Cape Coloured underlings and seasonal workers. Going out and getting stonk-eyed with my mates and doing a little bit of good through the Rotary or some other club or society.
Coming home and watering the citrus and peach trees, growing a few olives and grapes, prickly pears and figs. Maybe taking a gun and dog up into the mountains and scaring-up francolin or something bigger. But always to be worrying about the retribution that was coming for living the blessed Dutch Reformed Church regimented life on the backs of others, grateful or hate-filled as they might be.
But it has not been all plain sailing in Montagu in recent years. Dreadful floods devastated and cut of West Montagu a few years back and a new steel bridge has just been built - condemned as 'pretentious' by some - in the hope that it will withstand future floods and not be washed away like the last one.
One day I stopped and had a chat with a black guy who looked like a ‘Bushman’ who was making a shaded awning with lengths of bamboo pole for a client. I said it was hot, phew. He said winter was coming and it would get very cold with frosts and snow on the mountains. I wondered about all those people we had seen living in godforsaken townships and what they did for heat in the winter, in shacks with busted windows. When the fruit factories and vineyards aren’t hiring. We smiled and he asked me where I was from – London, I said, and he asked about the weather and season there.
On our last day in Montagu after delightful walks and a drive to the Bontebok National Park we decided to take it easy. The temperature has risen to 39 degrees the day before and we were exhausted.
We went to the Spar for provisions, drove by Montagu’s huge school and stopped at the Wildlife Garden to eat our ice creams . When we got back in the car the battery would not turn the engine over. We pushed the car uphill and bump started it back down the hill with no problem and drove around for 15 minutes up to the hot springs past the township - Mandela Village – and back to the house but the battery seemed stone dead.
I rang our rental guy who told me this had happened before with the car – he’d had to drive out to Stellenbosch one night at 4am with jump leads but that his guys couldn’t find the fault. I said we could probably make it back to Cape Town and spent a half hour getting filth from the engine on my clothes and hands pulling leads and watching fly wheels and belts whir.
As it was a hot day we retired to the braai with lamb, hotdogs, the rashers marinaded in peach chutney, potato slices marinaded in cumin and olive oil paste. All was delicious.
I spent a sweaty night chasing mosquitoes and anxieties about our return journey. I thought of family we had seen on the way to Bontebok walking by the roadside in the baking heat miles from anywhere, suitcases balanced on their heads. I wondered what we would do if we broke down although our host had reassured us, back in Cape Town, the Afrikaners would queue-up to help a white family in distress.
I had a walk in the cool of the morning down to the bird dam to look at the ibis and cormorants, the weaver birds and egrets, the moorhen and the red-knobbed coot. A surprising number of people were on the move in their bakkies in West Montagu. I met a white guy with three dogs who had moved out from England 40 years ago and had recently moved from Durban to Montagu to retire. I walked along the 'Lovers Walk' smelling the reek of the dassies and back to the house to pack and eat breakfast.
Strangely when I tried the car the engine turned no problem and started. I thought ‘Funny’ and tried it again and it started. Five times over. As if the battery had recharged miraculously in the night. Maybe I had prayed to a God I didn't believe in on the off-chance. So off we set on empty back roads through sparsely-settled country barely stirring on the Sabbath morn. Down across the Breede river past big old wine places and then up into drier land past terrible shacks and disgraceful labourers-dwellings that would have shamed a slave owner in South Carolina in the 19thcentury.
We drove up over the edge of the Riviersonderend Mountains and joined the N2 making its way over the huge rolling swell of the Overberg. It is a fast two lane road with passing lanes - hard shoulders. You pullover at spped onto the yellow-lined hard shoulder to let people by. Generally hazard lights are flashed a few times in acknowledgement.
We stopped at a service station at Riviersonderend, a small settlement backed onto the edge of the mountains and the river, a township on the other side of the road. Then we rolled on with the worst cups of coffee we’d had in South Africa, chugging over the great rolls of the Overberg where tough-looking sheep grazed in huge expanses too big to call ‘fields’. We saw blue cranes although at 120km/hour with traffic approaching at the same speed there was only one place for my attention. There must be some horrendous high-speed front-on collisions on the road.
The road rose up along the lower hills of the mountain chain through an area devastated by forest fires and swung round to skirt above Caledon – which boasts a Casino and Spa, a prison and is a centre of the Overberg wheat industry.
We pressed on leaving the N2 at Botrivier (Butter River - the former boundary of the Cape Colony where traders came out from Cape Town to barter butter from local Khoi Khoi patoralists). By now the cold front forecast in the papers was clearly visible and we were soon in fog and light rain. We drove SW down towards the coast through an eery land of sandy scrub, much of which had been burnt out. On the landward side of the road the Houw Hoek Mountains rose up into the mist and dreek and gave a fine impression of the Scottish Highlands. We passed a huge exclusive resort - the Arrabella Golf Estate - 241 freehold properties, an 145-room hotel at R1,600 a night, a 1.6 kilometre lagoon frontage and an 18-hole golf course all set on 113 hectares with extremely high security – electric fences, cameras, manned gates etc.
Then on to Kleinmond, an unexceptional summer beach resort in the drizzle and round to Bettys Bay, all the time the Hottentot-Holland mountains rising higher above us and crowding onto the narrow coastal strip.
See also Montagu Gorge in Cape Floral Region
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