What is better than heading off down the unbeaten track, winding down the window and taking a deep breath of fresh air, mingled with traces of dust or the smells of the veld? When my partner J and I go on a road trip we love to seek out all the interesting little towns and villages and keep everything really relaxed and open ended.
In this way, more often than not we end up where your everyday tourist would never set foot – all those dusty junk shops and out-of-the-way charity shops. This is because of a shared, life-long passion: treasure hunting. Our obsession with collecting South African art, antiques and collectables shows no sign of abating. Added to this are two of my very own obsessions: vintage clothing and good food. After a cup of coffee and a good chinwag with the locals, my idea of heaven is stumbling upon an unexpected object which not only makes me travel back in time but also allows one to muse on how in the world it ended up there.
Because every thing has a story to tell.
This is what happened on a road trip we took a couple of years ago…
An hour after leaving our home town of Grahamstown we arrive in my favourite Eastern Cape village: Bedford. We always make a beeline for Die Padstal for the best breakfast this side of the Fish River. Two generous slices of homemade seed loaf are spread with farm butter and topped with unctuous caramelised onions, creamy scrambled eggs fresh from the coop, crispy bacon, braised tomatoes and grated cheddar. Eating this always reminds me of the best tomatoes I have ever eaten, on an earlier visit while staying on the farm Primeston, just 15 km out of town. After a brisk morning walk where we could see the snow on the Winterberg mountains, we were surprised with breakfast in the formal dining room surrounded by family heirlooms. The star of the show was a bowl of fresh, sun-ripened tomatoes from the garden, gently braised in farm butter with just a touch of sugar and salt. So simple yet unforgettable.
While still in Bedford we stock up on my favourite South African cheese from Simply Natural. Unpasteurised and totally organic, this delicious Dutch style cheese tastes even better once you know about their progressive yet age-old farming practice. This is founded on the firm belief that dairy cows should keep their calves until their natural weaning age. They live in peace and “at heel” because in the end, there’s enough milk for everyone. We also grab a couple of packs of gorgeous blueberries and raspberries for breakfast smoothies from Middelburg berries.
Back on the road again, we don’t stop until we reach Oudtshoorn. The reason is twofold, we want to get going and who wants greasy fast food when you can have the BEST baked cheesecake ever? The home of this light and delectable confection is Café Brulé right in the middle of the historic town centre, located in the ground floor of the Queen’s Hotel. Even though we are more than satiated, we can’t resist heading over to the home industries on the corner for some really special milk tart. A rare, regional speciality- this one is made with flaky pastry and cream custard and has no cinnamon on top. Instead, dark, caramelised patches here and there, similar to pastéis de nata but so much better! Laden with comestibles, we spend the night at Attakwas, a charming self-catering cottage next to a vlei where a pair of wide-eyed dikkops make their nest.
Our next stop is Montagu. I always greet the unique yield sign with a black cat on it: “Cats cross here…” indeed. I muse on what the story behind this sign might be. Right across the road is the park where a farmer’s market is held every Saturday. I feel so at home here. We eat a wonderful breakfast made right on the spot and admire an impressive collection of old tools spread out on the grass. From another stall I buy a black short sleeved cardigan from the 1950s and a mint green silk shirt from Taiwan from the same era. Then we make our way to a lovely establishment tucked away in the back room of an African curio shop: Diva’s Dressing Room. What a treasure trove! On a dressing table swathed with scarves we find a delicate hallmarked sterling silver evening bag and a pair of French crystal champagne glasses. I peruse the rails to find a chocolate brown and dusty pink printed velvet dress from the 1970s and a chic pleated white satin shirt. But best of all is a rare Italian chiffon dress. Dating from the 1970s, the celsetial print in shades of peach and mauve is as beautiful and delicate as a butterfly’s wing.
Next we head off into the city of Cape Town. Drawn like moths to a flame, we can’t keep away Kalk Bay the best place for treasure hunting. But you have to keep your eyes peeled as this is where tourists, both local and international, scour the village for anything remotely vintage. If you can find something for a reasonable price, you have triumphed. At Kalk Bay Trading Post we scoop up a beautiful set of tea glass holders. Made in top quality silver plate by German company called WMF in the 1900s, they are quintessentially Art Nouveau, with pretty ladies in profile with undulating tendrils of hair. We decide we’re on a roll so we’ll try to stretch our luck a little further.
My favourite haunt is Kalk Bay Vintage. Hidden down an alley called Petticoat Lane, this is where you can find vintage kitchenalia, collectables and coins, all hand selected by Michael who has keen eye for the idiosyncratic. What stands out is a teapot spout stopper in the shape of a bird and I hyperventilate over a gorgeous Art Nouveau Whitby jet brooch as black as well… jet. We decide on a colourful wall sconce with two lovebirds on it by the iconic English ceramicist Clarice Cliff. All in all a very satisfying day.
After staying with my aunt in Paarl, we head for Tulbagh. What at treat to explore the row of little shops in the historic gabled cottages with wide stone stoeps. Everything is charming in the land of Waveren. At Things I Love we have lunch and buy some Meakin plates with charming scenes of 1950s Montmartre printed on them in silver and pink. I was so happy to find them as I had a similar set with waterlilies which I had foolishly ruined in the dishwasher. Even though Meakin tableware was mass produced in the 1950s- 80s, some of their patterns have become quite rare. I have a single plate with multi coloured polka dots (on the right) which was only manufactured for a few months.
Down the road we enter a lovely little shop with oak furniture out on the stoep. Called Het Land Van Waveren (now sadly closed) I asked the friendly owner if she had any vintage clothes. She opened up a slender Arts and Crafts wardrobe to reveal two dresses and a coat. And what a coat it was! Quintessentially 1960s, a deep rich red with bold black zig-zag. The label revealed a snippet of history: “Made in the Union of South Africa” so therefore early 1950s. We gasped in admiration at an incredible Art Deco milk glass table lamp. Shaped like an exotic shell, it glows golden when lit, and we couldn’t resist. Keen-eyed J spotted something most people would overlook- a yellowwood newel post. Having once kept a banister in place, it has the most beautiful hand-carved top. They both made it back home with us.
Prince Albert is a town I could really see myself living in. What could be better than relaxing on the stoep of the historic hotel, exploring the art galleries and taking in all one can of that wide open Karoo sky? Our favourite antique shop is tucked away from the main road. Chock ‘n block full of South African furniture, Cape copper and so much more, here there is something for everyone. I settle in and have a long chat to the owner, even grumbling a little about gentrification, as if I were one of the locals! As we peruse, a certain veritable personage catches our eye. Staring at us with a rather grave expression is an imposing bronze bust. The owner tells us our bust lived in a local pub for years, where customers who had had one too many forced him to don a silly hat and pulled him around in an old wicker doll’s pram. Come to think of it, he is looking rather mortified, as if his slightly chequered past is beneath his dignity. The next thing we know, we are taking him home, the car groaning under the weight of all our treasures.
The question remains: was he a sensitive poet, a philanthropic doctor or a Nat politician? What do you think?