Calitzdorp is just over four hours drive from Cape Town and a typical little Karoo ‘dorp’. A town of two streets, a church and a mixed community of oldies, artists and escapees. My friend Pieter moved here two years ago with his Delhi boyfriend. They were thankfully not the only gays in the village, but Anup was by a long shot the only ‘gay Indian’ in the village. This a town that for all it’s beauty still physically carries the markers of apartheid – black and white are definitely segregated by the main street : ‘swart’ (black) to the right, ‘wit’ (white) to the left. Women still walk down the street and curse ‘kaffir hond’. But there is hope – a new cafe has opened on the main road that is affordable (and good enough) to attract all who call the little town home.But healing scars and twee cafes are not all the town has to offer.
Pieter is an extraordinarily talented jewellery designer. He started his label St. Erasmus ten years ago and has been picked up by Harrods, Joyce, Anthropologie and more. Michelle Obama famously wore one of his pieces to the White House Correspondent’s Dinner in 2009. We met in Delhi, through London friends, and both, at around the same time, moved away from a jet-set life to live somewhere quieter. Pieter still runs his studio in Delhi and ‘plugs in’ when he shows in Paris and connects with clients twice a year.
In Calitzdorp he’s created a beautiful home. Set around a photogenic succulent garden (reportedly the Calitzdorp area has a unique 200 varieties of plant species), the hundred-year old, mud-walled town house is a sophisticated palette of greys and greens. Ancient Indian furniture sits alongside local Afrikaaner finds and custom designed pieces. In summer, pop-up dinners are hosted under a deep, vine-covered terrace.
Pieter’s dinners are lubricated by the local wine. Set in a fertile valley, Calitzdorp was (and still is) a small service town to the local farming community. Plains that were once full of free game are now neatly trimmed with rows of apricot, peach and orange trees. And vines. For years – since the turn of the last century – some of South Africa’s best port has been coming out of the area. Whether bottled under own labels – Boplaas and De Krans – or sold onto the big boys (Distel), the temperate weather and easy draining soil has leant itself very well to the Portuguese varietals such as Touriga Naçional, Tinta Barocca and Souzão. Now, the seven cellars are jazzing up – with little restaurants under the vines selling pulled pork and ostrich burgers – and broadening their vino offerings to include easy drinking red, whites and roses. And mid-June there’s the annual Port festival, now rebranded as the Calitzdorp Winter Festival.
One of the regulars here is Hylton Nel, a great South African artist. Spanking and subversive, his plates, bowls, vases and figurative pieces are idiosyncratically decorated with witty – and sometimes poignant – line drawings and script. His imagery ranges from penises to Madonnas, and from cats through to angels, with quotes that could as easily be poetry or daily tabloid headlines. At the start of the year he was part of ‘Unorthodox’, a group show at The Jewish Museum in New York.
Currently Hylton has an exhibition at the Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town. ‘Vases of a Curious Nature.’
Further outside town, twenty kilometres down an old concrete road, is the Calitzdorp Spa. Yes, like Baden Baden, but not quite. This is South African government owned and run by the Eden District Municipality. If you read the reviews on Tripadvisor or Facebook, you get the idea – run down, poor management etc. etc. And yes, it’s all that. But it’s also less than £1 to get a day pass. And on a cold grey-skied winter day it’s exhilarating to quickly strip and jump in the hot thermal water to loll about surrounded by mountains (and no one else). The waters still work. Whatever else doesn’t.
This post is by Emma Jordan. Emma is Martini Mandate’s South Africa correspondent. When she is not writing for the New York Times and the Financial Times, she hangs out and drinks wine with us in Plettenberg Bay.