Cape of Storms and Superlatives (6)

They'll be riding something like this
On Thursday night I attended a farewell dinner for my eldest son and his wife who are off to India for a year. They intend to buy a Royal Enfield motorbike and ride it wherever whim takes them. They have no plan, no motorbike licence (Dave has never ridden one, but has once ridden a scooter) and no worries. Glad to see Dave has inherited his dad’s, and great-grandfather Victor Dodd’s adventurous spirit. (Victor had a dogsled and team of dogs in Canada, was at the Klondike gold rush and did two tours of duty fighting in the Boer War.)
Dave at Bulungula

Dave at Bulungula

After early escapades shooting rapids with me, handling and catching dangerous snakes at 14, and touring Africa, Europe, South America, Australia and China mostly by public transport, nothing fazes Dave. He hopes to have some adventures with his wife whom he says has had a rather

One of the views from near David's hut

One of the views from near David's hut

unexciting life up to now (although living in a mud hut on top of a hill in one of the most remote and beautiful spots in South Africa, where the couple run the Bulungula Lodge, is not everyone’s idea of a sheltered life.)

But enough about my family. Let’s talk about some adventurous men and women from an earlier era, and continue from where we left off last time I wrote about doing a tour round the Cape Peninsula – on 16 Jan 09, in Cape of Storms and Superlatives (5).

After leaving Groot Constantia we drive along Spaanschemat River Road past Ladies Mile Road. Tourists often ask me where the name comes from. In Beard Shaver’s Bush (published in 2000) by Ed Coombe and Peter Slingsby on page 36 they say: “. . . it is named for ‘Lady’ , a horse whose owner, Colonel Cloete, measured a one-mile section of the road (at that time just a sandy track) for exercising Lady.”

But, on page 76 of Discovering Southern Africa (published in 2001) by TV Bulpin, there is the story of the wealthy widow Leonora Colyn who bought a portion of the original Bergvliet farm from Hendrik Eksteen. She named it Sweet Valley and built a house for her son on it. Eksteen didn’t like Mrs Colyn and she “didn’t care a fig for him . . . She deliberately made full and flamboyant use of her right of way on the road across Bergvliet, galloping backwards and forwards each day to see her son, and sending wagons and carts to convey building materials for the new house and bring back thatching material for her own home.”

Eksteen seethed with rage and got his slaves to dig a deep ditch across the road. There was a series of court cases, and finally in 1827 “The King in Council” ruled in favour of Leonora Colyn. Bulpin writes that “Ladies Mile”, the road which runs through Bergvliet, was thenceforth named after this celebrated and costly squabble. “It proved to be the ruination of Eksteen. Costs were awarded against him. They were murderous and he went insolvent.”

I’m not sure which is the correct story; but guess which one I prefer!

Take the turnoff to Klein Constantia Road and go and do a free winetasting at the beautiful Klein Constantia farm. If you look at the interesting historical display there you’ll learn that the famous Constantia wines developed by Cloete and his neighbour and relative Johannes Colyn (whose eldest son’s wife became the feisty widow Leonora of Ladies Mile fame) were natural and unfortified. Both the red and white versions had a high alcohol and sugar content. This helped them to travel well. They were carried all over the world, and eulogised in the writings of celebrated authors such as Charles Dickens, Jane Austin, Alexander Dumas, Henry Longfellow and Baudelaire. Queen Victoria drank a man-sized glass every evening after dinner.  Napoleon, in his exile on St Helena Island, found solace in drinking a bottle a day. On his deathbed the last thing he asked for was a glass of Constantia.

In 1980 the farm was bought by Dougie Jooste (whom I’d met a few years beforehand while troutfishing in the mountains of the Koue Bokkeveld). The farm was in dire need of restoration. The Klein Constantia website tells us that “lengthy soil preparation was the first task, followed by major replanting of the vineyards. Priority was given to first creating quality housing for the staff; whereafter work began on the new cellar, planned by winemaker Ross Gower, and designed by architect Gawie Fagan. Built just in time for the maiden 1986 vintage, it subsequently received a Merit Award from the Cape Provincial Institute of Architects.

Following the re-development of Klein Constantia in 1980, all involved felt it their mission to bring back the famous sweet Constantia wine, as these vineyards were once part of the original Constantia estate, belonging first to Simon van der Stel, and then to Hendrik Cloete.

The wine-making team headed by Ross Gower studied historic records, looked to modern research, and read reports by early travellers who had tasted the wines. Choosing a grape variety was crucial, and they were extremely fortunate to find a special clone of Muscat de Frontignan propagated from vines which in all likelihood came from the original stock used in Constantia 300 years before. So, a century after its disappearance, this legendary wine saw its renaissance – in the form of Klein Constantia’s Vin de Constance made in the style of the old Constantia, from vineyards which produced it in the 18th & 19th centuries.

Traditional methods are carefully followed in the making of the modern Vin de Constance: grapes are left to ripen on the vines until late March, when they shrivel to sweet, raisined berries. Hendrik Cloete’s earlier writings are true today – the making of this wine is a labour of love, a high-risk, low-yield enterprise. We feel the goal has been achieved, with the intensely aromatic, golden-coloured wine with its unctuous sweetness and lingering flavours.”

In 2001 agents sent to an auction of the estate of the Duke of Northumberland were able to return with a rare prize: two bottles of original Constantia wine dated 1791. And on Dougie’s 75th birthday they opened one of them. Dougie subsequently told me that as they drew the cork, it crumbled, and he handed the bottle of 210-year-old wine to his winemaker, saying, “You go first.” He tasted it and pronounced it excellent, with a sweetly nutty flavour. And 13 people present were able to enjoy a taste of history.

The neighbouring Constantia Uitsig estate has its fair share of superlatives. It must surely be the only wine estate to have its own cricket field and three top-class restaurants. Luke Dale-Roberts the executive chef of the estate’s La Colombe restaurant won the 2008 Prudential Eat Out Chef of the Year and Restaurant of the Year award. And the restaurant was voted one of the top 50 restaurants in the world by the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards 2009.

The next farm had another indomitable woman as its owner, and is possibly the oldest existing farm in South Africa. The following comes almost verbatim from

‘Steenberg’ existed even before Simon van der Stel had built his great house in the heart of the Constantia Valley. Steenberg, ‘Mountain of Stone’, has a romantic ring, but the original name was more beautiful still, for it was called ‘Swaaneweide’ – The Feeding Place of Swans. Whether swans did indeed fly down to drink and swim in the cool clear waters of the farm, or whether the first owner, Catharina Ras, was being nostalgic about her former home in Lubeck, on the Baltic coast of Germany, is hard to tell. Whatever her reason, she named her estate Swaaneweide. Ras had named the farm after swans although these birds are not indigenous to South Africa and certainly not Constantia; maybe she had mistaken the spur-winged geese for swans because today you will still find a large population of these spur-winged geese at Steenberg.

Catharina Ustings Ras was one of the most daring and controversial figures ever to settle at the Cape. Life was not easy when she arrived, only ten years after Jan van Riebeeck landed; for 1662 was far from being the age of rights for women, and yet this indomitable woman had boarded a sailing ship and made the perilous journey to the furthest tip of Africa. What she found was certainly no land of milk and honey. It was a fierce, wild place with laws to match. Keelhaulings, hangings, lashings and brandings were normal occurrences. This being no place for a lone widow of twenty-two, she immediately found herself a second husband, Hans Ras. He was not a particularly eligible catch – a soldier and free burger with a penchant for female slaves; but he had a house on the Liesbeek River, which he had bought from Jakob Kluten, founder of the famous Cloete family, whose name has dominated Constantia for more than two hundred years.

Once the wedding knot was tied, Catharina’s life seemed to take on the dramatic overtones which marked its course from that day forward. Two wagons left the ceremony, with the bride and groom in one and the guests in the other. Lit from within by good Cape wine and overcome, no doubt, by the spirit of the occasion, the drivers decided to race one another back to Rondebosch. While the guests clung fearfully to their seats, praying to Heaven with truly Protestant fervour, the wagons vied for position and as the road was rough and narrow, a collision soon occurred. Enraged at this conduct on his wedding day, the bridegroom jumped down from his seat and soon became entangled in a fight, receiving a knife thrust, which almost proved fatal – the weapon breaking in two between his ribs. He survived this incident and lived to father several children, but came to an unfortunate end when he was killed by a lion some years later. Legend has it that, like Annie Oakley, Catharina courageously fetched a gun, leaped on her horse and gave chase, finally shooting the lion herself; but this may well be a case of historical embroidery!

Fate had a good deal more in store for the girl from Lubeck however, for a Hottentot murdered her next husband and his successor was trampled underfoot by an elephant. Seemingly no less endowed with energy than Henry VIII, who surprised all Europe with his impressive total of six wives, Catharina then took unto herself a fifth husband, a hardy German named Matthys Michelse.

In 1682 Catharina Michelse, also known as The Widow Ras, had asked Simon van der Stel for a portion of ground at the foot of the Ou Kaapse Weg and he agreed to lease 25 morgen to her. After he became the owner of Groot Constantia in 1685, she asked him for a legal title deed and a mandate was granted to her in 1688 to “cultivate, to plough and to sow and also to possess “the farm below the stone mountain.” According to Baron von Rheede tot Drankenstein, who visited the farm and was served a luncheon of “radishes and freshly baked bread and beautiful cabbages”, Catharina was a fiercely independent woman, “riding bare-back like an Indian and her children resembling Brazilian cannibals!”

Steenberg golf course near the winetasting venue

Steenberg golf course near the winetasting venue

As time passed, the Dutch East India Company decreed in 1741 that from May to August each year Simon’s Bay would be the official winter port because “the north-west winds in Table Bay had been causing untold damage and loss of life.” Because Swaaneweide was exactly one day’s journey from Table Bay and one day’s journey from Simon’s Bay this meant that many travellers would be obliged to overnight at the farm. Christina Diemer (another widow!) became the recipient of a highly profitable business of supplying hospitality to travellers and provisions to the fleet.

I think this is a good place to halt our journey round the Peninsula.

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7 Responses to Cape of Storms and Superlatives (6)

  1. Joy says:

    I LOVE these stories. Please, never stop….promise me! Glad you know about the Widow Ras. One of Steenberg’s best wines is named after her. A friend who was in charge of the wine-tasting there told me the story.
    Have you written about Bulungulu? What’s going to happen there while Dave and wife are biking around India?

    • wineou says:

      Thanks Joy. Dave assures us that he has competent staff looking after the place while he is away. He says it’ll do them a world of good to gain experience in managing the place while he’s almost completely out of reach. I haven’t written about Bulungula; but if you go to the website you can get the whole story. And if you click on the link you’ll learn a lot about the development work Dave has started there. For the lighthearted saga of a couple from Cape Town and their three young children who uprooted themselves to live and work there for two years, go to Read it from the very beginning to get the full effect!

  2. Paul says:

    where oh where is wineou?

  3. What a fantastic blog…thank you

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