BEHIND THE PEARL ROCK
About 40 minutes out of Cape Town, the south-to-north N1 freeway to Johannesburg vertically transects the Western Cape wine country. The valleys and mountains to the right (east) include the picturesque towns of Stellenbosch and Franschoek and attract the bulk of tourists. On the left side (west of the N1) an impressive large round rock comes into sight, named Paarl in Afrikaans, meaning pearl. Inexplicably, this side is not overwhelmed by tourists.
Paarl Rock has been compared to Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia, but they are quite different. Uluru is comprised of sandstone and has an elevation of 348 meters (1142 feet). Paarl Rock is bigger, standing 542 meters (1778 feet) high, comprised of solid granite, and is the second largest granite outcrop in the world. The original inhabitants were, and are still, the KhoeKhoe. Their name for Paarl Mountain is “!hom ǃnāb/s” which means Tortoise Mountain. The Dutch were the first white settlers in Cape Town in 1652, and shortly after a settler named Abraham Gabemma went searching inland for new trading opportunities. He is credited with seeing a giant granite rock glistening in the sun after a rainstorm and named it “de Diamondt en de Peerlberg” (the Diamond and Pearl Mountain), from which Paarl is derived (Source: Wikipedia).
The founding Governor of the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, first gave title to free farms to “free burghers” (free settlers) in 1687, and in 1688 the first Huguenots from France arrived, started farming fruit and especially vineyards, and this area has remained one of the world’s top fruit and wine producing areas ever since that time.
We felt that the area around Paarl Rock merited exploring and were simply blown away by what we had been missing all these years. The real treat lies in the territory north of the rock up to the Du Toitskloof mountains, what is called the Agterpaarl, that is, behind or beyond the Paarl rock.
As always, the first question is where to stay? This time there was no debate. We chose Grande Roche nestled at the foot of Paarl rock, one of few hotels anywhere that is on a farm in the middle of a city. This national monument dating back to 1715 was purchased by a Paarl couple after three decades of offshore ownership and completely renovated in 2019, and we would call it the ‘pearl in Paarl’.
Our first excursion was a pilgrimage to the Victor Verster Correctional Center, now renamed the Drakenstein Correctional Center. Looking the length of the avenue from the entrance (or in this instance I should more correctly say the exit), took us immediately down memory lane when on February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela took the final steps on his Long Walk to Freedom (this a short video worth watching). The only change in appearance of the avenue and gate is the large bronze statue of Mandela in front that captures that moment so well. We were pleased to see we were not alone in touching the tips of his bronze shoes, worn to a high polish. But it also brought to mind how the high hopes and promise of a democratic and free Rainbow Nation have been dashed by a criminal enterprise called the African National Congress (ANC) government. Mandela could not have imagined in his wildest nightmares the theft, pillage, and malfeasance wrought by his ANC comrades. The mafia and failing state they are responsible for would totally collapse were it not for the private sector and the hard work and drive of so many of its betrayed citizens. The masses without hope deserved better – if you have not read my February newsletter, The Other Cape Town, I suggest you do.
Our next excursion, in a way, was to the opposite end of the spectrum, a visit to the Afrikaanse Taalmonument (Afrikaans Language Monument), the memorial to the creation of the Afrikaans language. The monument is dramatic yet simple. It does remind us that contrary to the mythology that Afrikaans is Oude Nederlands (old-fashioned Dutch), the truth is that it is a unique language created in Southern Africa of Dutch and German roots, but also influenced by local African and East Asian (especially Indonesian) languages. South Africa was first settled by the Dutch in 1652 as a re-victualing station for the ships of the Dutch East India Company and was never meant to become a country. But become a country it did, and a new language was born and developed over subsequent centuries.
The city of Paarl itself was a very pleasant surprise. The third oldest city in South Africa, it is extremely well-maintained, clean, no graffiti, no beggars on the streets, and a wealth of magnificent historic buildings, as evidenced by the following photographs.
Our other destinations were outside town, quite different, and focused on food, wine, and breath-taking scenery.
On the eastern edge of the Paarl Valley is the Spice Route and the Fairview Farms Estate. Founded by Charles Back, a Jewish Lithuanian immigrant who arrived in South Africa in 1902 and almost immediately went into the wine business. He had two major farms, gifting one to each son in his will. Fairview today is a fruit, wine and cheese farm, and winner of innumerable awards. It is particularly well known for its goat cheeses.
Leaving best for last is the Bistro on Brookdale Estate, with the magic of owner-chef Gary Coetzee. As we entered the front gate it was a “wow!” moment. I said to Moira that if the food matched the view we were in for a real treat, and it was. Gary and his wife Yvonne are warm, welcoming, and gracious, and the staff excellent. We shared memories of people we had known in common, including Sol Kerzner, to whom Gary had been personal chef for 10 years, and Gerrie Coetzee, the South African world heavy weight boxing champion. Down memory lane, Gerrie knocked out Leon Spinks in the first round on September 23, 1983, in Cleveland, Ohio. He had been there for about 2 months training, and we cared for his pregnant wife who was to undergo an elective C-section but went into labor the night of the fight. I honestly believe he took Spinks out in the first round because he was in a hurry to get to the Mt Sinai Medical Center of Cleveland and see his wife and be there to greet his new baby.
But now to the Brookdale Estate:
For the food I will illustrate the whole meal, maybe to tempt you to try for yourselves. You will at least see why Moira and I voted this gourmet lunch “the Best Meal of the Season.” It was complemented by their Brookdale chenin blanc wine which is excellent. Remarkably, Gary prepared an entire lactose-free meal for Moira, her selections illustrated first.
The final message I leave you is that within one hours drive of central Cape Town are a plethora of breathtaking vistas, wine farms and places to eat, hiking and cycle trails, resorts, historic sites, and charming small towns. Cape Townians are blessed, at least those with the time and wherewithal to take advantage, and tourists are thrown into a total quandary as to which ones to fit into their packed itineraries. But be certain to remember that the west side of the N1, the Agter Paarl (behind the Pearl Rock), should be on the list.
Cape Town and Paarl, March 26, 2023.