The sleepy and picturesque little town of Uniondale is known for its quaint churches and quirky cottages, lovingly planted with bright roses in shades of cream and pink. This captivating town has an old-fashioned charm and a wonderful laid back simplicity. Time melts away in the Karoo, as fat orange pumpkins ripen on warm tin rooves. The winter days are crisp, sunny and cool. Evenings offer a chilly gauze of mist rolling in from the Kammanassie Mountains. The annual apple harvest in nearby Avontuur has yielded its fruit. The Cape Aloes are ready for gathering. Uniondale is the ultimate getaway, a calming retreat with a slow pace and the haunting legacy of a lonely ghost.
The beautiful Bon Accord Guest House was originally built as a bioscope and later used as the town’s roller skating hall. Bikers; Barry Mason and Candice Orford left their city slicker Johannesburg lifestyles to settle in the Klein Karoo and put their considerable talents to use running a three-bedroom guesthouse. Plans are afoot to restore the historic cinema to its previous glory, hopefully the faded mural on the theatre’s gable wall will be preserved. It features three shy French maidens sharing a secret.
The tea garden and swimming pool at Ouwerf sit in the shade of an ancient Peppertree. Pretoria natives; Michael and Antoinette Müller, run the Karoo Kombuis Koffiewinkel and Ouwerf guesthouse, offering old-school Afrikaans hospitality. Their traditional evening braai was served with delicious Mealie “paptert”. This savoury porridge pie is made with the South African staple, maize meal, as well as vegetables and cheese. This curious hunger-busting dish was plate-lickingly delicious. It’s little wonder that Ouwerf is booked out for the annual Karoo to Coast cycle race.
Vintage lace dresses decorate the tea shop and delicate milk tarts are served on antique china. The charming rooms are appointed in an ode to South Africa’s traditional building materials; copper, steel, wood and cane. Each room’s en-suite features a claw-footed porcelain bathtub, perfect for soaking away the chilly winter evenings.
The African Aloe Café is a popular choice for energetic visitors. They offer a self-guided cycling tour of the town on their comfortable and brightly coloured cruiser bikes. The shorter route is an easy 5km and takes in the Synagogue, lamp-lighters home and Applewood Cottages, some of the earliest in the town, dating from 1850. The architecture is mostly Cape Dutch Revival, with fresh whitewashed walls, thatched rooves, ornate rounded gables and stoeps decorated with intricate metalwork. A longer route requires a pedal out to the Jewish cemetery, at a total distance of 8km. Guests can return to the comfort of the clay pot fire at African Aloe after their exertion, to enjoy a coffee and a delicious slice of coconut cake.
Dirkie Coetzee is the colourful local guide trusted with escorting the more laid back visitors on Uniondale tours. Four guests can squash into the bright and bouncy yellow Tuk-Tuk for shorter trips. The Volkswagon Minibus is fired up for longer cruises though the passes and poorts. Dirkie motors leisurely around the town offering amusing anecdotes on his neighbourhood. The town boasts 42 churches, an ancient system of furrows and weirs and a dentist who will pull your tooth for R80. The Blue Chicken on Victoria Street offers craft and skills courses, including the opportunity to kill, pluck, gut and bone your very own chicken. The charming Communion Houses, Dirkie says, were used as accommodation for rural farmers when they came to town for church, once a month. He shows off the Blacksmiths Forge, where the horse brands still decorate the old oak doorway. A nineteenth century watermill stands on the hill, housing the largest wheel in the Southern Hemisphere, a restaurant and an art gallery.
Dirkie guides us to the imposing and elegant 1884 Dutch Reformed Church. A new stone tower was added in 1908, as the original sandstone tower was unable to withstand the strain of the heavy church bells. As we scale the 100 steps to the apex of the bell tower, the steps devolve from worn stone, to rickety wood stairs and finally a flimsy ladder. The ancient metal clock mechanism ticks away the decades and stained glass windows pierce the dim light. In the steeple, the colossal bell hangs overhead; Dirkie climbs a final precarious ladder and invites us to climb through a shuttered window onto the steeple veranda. The 360 degree vista is breath-taking. As the church bells ring noon, the tranquil town is spread out as far as the primordial plains. The blue Kammanassie Mountains frame the horizon.
Guests to the region will see the aloe harvest as they drive northwest towards Willowmore. Thousands of regal aloes stand sentry in the arid veld, their red finge- like flowers pointed towards the endless blue Karoo sky. The leaves of Aloe ferox are carefully carved away and left to dry in the sun. These succulents contain a juicy pulp which is extracted and manufactured into health tonics and herbal remedies. The bitter sap of the aloe plant is well known in the region as a painkiller, a tonic for inflammation and sepsis, as well as a formidable laxative. Soap, shower gels, moisturisers and healing balms are made from the aloe pulp, as well as crystals for constipation.
Driving out of Uniondale on the N9 towards Willowmore, tourists enter a region known locally as “The Paranormal Triangle”. Legend has it that this eerie stretch of road is haunted by the ghost of an elusive young woman, seeking her bridegroom. On a cold and windy April night in 1968 Maria Charlotte Roux and her finance Giel Pretorius were driving towards the town of Uniondale in their VW Beetle. The couple were set to announce their engagement and Maria was lying in the back seat of the car dreaming of her wedding dress. Tragically, at the 20 kilometre road stone, Giel lost control of the car and as the Beetle flipped and struck the ditch, Maria was flung from the car. Her lifeless body was later discovered by a rescuer in the roadside drift, amongst the thorn bushes and aromatic shrubs. It is said that the enigmatic figure of a bride in her wedding dress can be seen walking the road at dusk. Good Samaritans who stop to aid her, report a passenger who slips quietly into the back seat of their car. When they turn to their curious passenger, she has vanished. An icy chill and the strong smell of sweet apples linger in her wake. She had become fondly known in the region as the ‘Lady of the Karoo’.
The Eastern end of the majestic Swartberg Mountain range is home to a canyon forming a historic link between the Great and Little Karoo. This deep gorge was formed over millions of years by the rushing water of the Traka River and is known locally as Toorwaterpoort. Few trains chug through this beautiful ravine and no road exists, but the locals come here on hot days to swim in in the cool clear pools and savour the red lichen clad cliffs which tower above the valley floor.
A 10km drive south of Uniondale on the R339 takes you to the sleepy hamlet of Avontuur. The region is famous for its apple orchards and a replica of the narrow-gauge steam locomotive; the Apple Express, which once transported the apple harvest from the Langkloof to Port Elizabeth, can be seen in the village. The fertile valley produces bumper crops due to the cool misty evening and winter frosts.
The road leads into the wild and unspoiled scenery of the Prince Alfred Pass. Thomas Bain began the building of this historic pass in 1860 as an access way between the Langkloof and Knysna. The drystone retaining walls built by the convict labourers can still be seen supporting the twisting gravel road. Afrikanns place names record the history of the construction of the pass. ‘Tiekeliefie’ ridge is where the convicts were finally given their ‘ticket of leave’ in 1867. The road turns beneath sharp hanging crags of sandstone, tiny succulents and lichens cling to the cliff edges and waterfalls gush through the ravine.
The hamlet of De Vlugt is a stopping point for road-weary travellers. Adri van Rooyen and her family were born and bred in the village and operate Die Plaaskind Padstal. The farmstall sells everything from home-grown sweet potatoes (for R12 per kilogram), to antique lanterns, local honey, handmade quilts, fruit preserves and their homemade goat’s milk cheese. Adri is the original farm-child, she makes the best beef burger and chips, topped with creamy fresh goat’s milk cheese and avocado. There is no phone signal or WIFI in the valley. The only option it to sit back and slow down. Watch the grazing lambs and listen to the rushing of the Keurbooms River. Be brave, use the long drop toilet, fondly known as the ‘Poef and Doef ‘. Behind van Rooyen’s paddock is the Bain Cottage; which housed Thomas Bain and his family during the construction of the pass. The cottage remains a rustic rental for adventurous guests. Light is provided by gas lanterns and a romantic wood-burning stove squats in the farm kitchen. Entertainment involves overlooking the serene valley and watching the milking goats jangle home. Cold beer is on offer at Angie’s G Spot, a bikers’ pit stop just a short walk through the hamlet. Local guide Katot Meyer offers guided hiking on the ox wagon track made famous by botanist WJ Burchell. Burchell travelled this route in 1814 on a special narrow wagon and recorded species such as Burchell’s Gazelle, the wild-pomegranate and Blue-headed Loerie.
A fascination with succulents drew artist Allana Willox Fourie to the splendour of the Kykoe Valley, outside Uniondale. Her studio and gallery Kannabos sit overlooking her lovingly tended succulent nursery. Tiny grey stone plants snuggle in the rocky soil, indigenous fat plants and exotic cacti grow in rows. Named in honour of the chewable Bushman’s Prozac ‘Sceletium’; Kannabos Studio was built by Allana’s husband, Pieter Fourie, from plastered straw bales. Allana and her husband Pieter spend much of her working lives designing and fabricating sets for movies such as 10 000BC, Mad Max and The Mummy. At home, Allana paints the vibrant people and landscapes of the Klein Karoo. Tranquil music floods her gallery. The ever-present Cape Aloe is depicted in crimson pastel on paper. Delicate pottery bowls display her quirky jokes. The ‘Beautiful People of the Langkloof’ are presented in charcoal strokes. A work in progress sits balanced on a wooden easel. It shows a pair of carefree farm children laughing against a backdrop of golden sunlight. Kannabos is a truly testimony to the allure of the Klein Karoo.
Sheena Ridley’s art is exhibited at the Langkloof Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden. Her oil and pastel paintings demonstrate the magical simplicity of the region; ladies washing laundry, cows grazing, children playing. Wander through the garden and her true passion and talent is unveiled. Her life-size sculptures peep shyly from between the ripe olive trees in her beautifully landscaped garden. A cement cockerel stands on a wall watching the African sun melt into the horizon. Sheena builds her one-off sculptures from a steel armature, which she covers with wire, layers of cloth mesh and cement plaster. Each piece is unique. An ‘Aspiring Acrobat’ bends impossibly backwards. ‘Bather’s Leap’ captures the gay abandon of a plump lady bounding into a cool pool of water. The shy and curvy sculpture of ‘Naomi’ shows off her beautiful legs. Ridley also offers artists retreats and sculpture workshops with on-site accommodation in her beautifully renovated barn.
Back in Uniondale, the quaint Tourism Office has been converted into the Little Theatre Café for a haunting concert. Ricardo Classen, the local Tourism Officer, is putting on a rare performance of the “Ghost Cabaret”, accompanied by his talented daughter, Kahlo. Friendly locals have gathered with bottles of wine and platters of snacks beneath the thatched eaves.
The building once housed the local Protestant Church. It was built in 1843 and later converted to a school house. Ricardo’s father, a missionary preacher once ministered from the pulpit. Ricardo has converted the space into an eccentric tourist information centre as well as a truly bohemian arts and music venue. The tiny stage is strung with glittering disco balls and draped with heavy velvet curtains. Beaded chandeliers dangle from the shadowed rafters. The eclectic decoration includes family portraits from the 1800’s, opulent soft furnishings and muted lighting.
The duo tell the haunting story of a little school boy, killed tragically in the building when a section of the roof collapsed. He occasionally visits the building causing mischief, unscrewing light bulbs, rattling doors and interfering with the sound system. Ricardo and Kahlo placate him with a touching musical medley. Chopin’s Death March echoes around the building, as wisps of dry ice settle between the tables. Kahlo lulls the naughty spirit with Afrikaans nursery rhymes and a poignant lullaby. The performance ends with the tale of the Lady of the Karoo, told in song to a remade rendition of Hotel California. Kahlo’s captivating voice drips with honey and blues. It perfectly captures the essence of the soulful Karoo and the tragic death of a lady on a long lonely highway.