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Visiting South Africa's Bot River

By J.F. Kloppers

In South Africa's Overberg, along an obscure turn-off from the N2, lies the vibrant community of Bot River

Bot River has a core, a village square, and everything important clusters around it. There’s the historic hotel, old-style filling station, well-stocked general dealer, local butcher and railway station. Even a wine estate manages to elbow in on the action.

And action there is, as we step onto the Bot River Hotel’s wide, shaded veranda to order an ice-cold draught beer. Barman Elma explains that it’s the hotel’s exclusive brew, conjured up by Boston Breweries in Cape Town, and we know, there and then, that we’ll be drinking more of it as the weekend progresses. Also in the bar are two strangely hatted gentlemen who introduce themselves as Ian and Robert. “And the strange hats?” I ask. “We’re having a Rabbit Party. Robert’s turning 50 and his alter-ego is a rabbit called Miss Nesbitt, with two ts.”

It isn’t long before I am joined by the proprietor of this popular hotel and watering hole, Herman Gey van Pittius, who introduces me to some of the locals enjoying a Friday wind-down drink.

Other interesting characters on the veranda are Japie, John and Val, but Herman has to drag me away to show off his recently refurbished rooms and the old-world dance hall, complete with stage that regularly sees the likes of Valiant Swart, The Radio Kalahari Orkes, The Blues Band and Black Cat Bones. Bot River knows how to rock.

Sadly the hotel is fully booked, but I spot the Swan Gables guest house across the square and walk over to meet owners Thea and Johnny Swanepoel, who have space for us. Comfortable, no-frills, en suite and inexpensive – just what we are looking for. Thea not only finds time to operate a successful guest house, she also runs a community project and inspires the local children to express themselves through art. This initiative has produced some colourful paintings. Look out for talented 14-year old Ronaldo Bantam’s work, which is for sale in the studio on the station’s platform. The studio is open on a Saturday morning, and Thea welcomes volunteers.

Back at the hotel, we decide to give dinner in the antique-filled dining room a try, but are waylaid by the oh-so-versatile one-man-band on the veranda. He knows everything from Dylan to Diamond, Clapton to Creedence, and the local crowd loves it.

Here we meet local wine farmer Niels Verburg from Luddite Wines and Mohseen Moosa from Paardenkloof Estate, who invite us to visit them and enjoy the fruits of the Bot River Wine Route. So much to taste, so little time. “Next time, folks.”

Saturday dawns another beautiful day in the Overberg. In the square, we meet a group of ultra-fit cyclists who have pedalled in from Franschhoek. “Two mountain passes before breakfast,” they brag. And they still have at least two more to go before making it home.

We then spy Die Geheime Kelder (The Secret Cellar) that runs under Bot River Hotel, crammed full of arts, crafts and all kinds of interesting collectibles. Steven van Rooyen, who sculpts under the name Evets, and his partner Michael du Plooy, who paints under the name Mtini, have cunningly transformed this area into a gallery for local artists. We were tired of the city,” says Steven, “and found our inspiration here.”

By now the tasting room of Beaumont Wines is open so we stroll down to meet Sebastian Beaumont, the winemaker. He explains that Bot River developed around the old farm Compagnies Drift (now Beaumont Wines), which was the outlying trading and bartering station of the VOC (Dutch East India Company), and the gateway to the Overberg.

It was also an outspan on the long, tough trail into the hinterland, and out of this necessity the Bot River Hotel was born in the 1890s. Wheat farms came, followed by onions, wild flowers and now wine, and during all this time Bot River managed to keep a low profile. Even the arrival of the railway line failed to give the little village airs and graces. From their bottled-the-day-before-and-still-unlabelled Chenin Blanc, to the flagship Hope Marguerite (well worthy of its 4th five-star Platters rating), the wines are excellent.

Many of the farm’s original buildings survive and Sebastian takes us down to the historic watermill, expertly restored by Andy Selfe. Fortunately, Andy is there doing some routine maintenance work and explains, and then demonstrates, the workings. Rushing water, big wheels turning, huge cogs meshing, flywheels whirling and, at the end, a product that becomes the staff of life. Very impressive.

Perhaps we’re keeping the best for last, as Sunday rolls around and we head for the station. There, a quirky converted goods shed has been transformed into a funky bar and restaurant called The Shuntin’ Shed, furnished and decorated with SA Railways memorabilia.

There we meet Dr Anthony Hess, who heads the local Bot River Education Foundation (BEF) that aims to motivate and assist local students in the fields of engineering, accountancy and medicine by mentoring them through school, college and university. This year the programme supports 30 candidates in university and those that have already graduated (and benefited) are mentoring the younger ones.

Anthony is keen to see the success of the BEF replicated in other areas. “The programme works because it encourages the students to think and fend for themselves,” he says. The BEF also organises the hugely popular (1 800 entrants last year) Bot River Challenge, an annual walk, run and cycle marathon through the picturesque town, neighbouring farms and rugged Van der Stel Pass.

But by now the aromas wafting from the wood-fired pizza oven are testing our taste buds and we introduce ourselves to Gustav and Christine Myburgh, who own and run The Shuntin’ Shed. Staff are rushing around trying to keep up with the demand for their delicious lunches, and the Myburghs set up their instruments on a small stage and begin to play the greatest selection of jazz/country/rock/blues that this foot-tapping biker has heard.

I just have to dance, and soon others join my wife Pats and I on our impromptu dance floor. Gustav on lead, Christine on bass guitar and a percussionist friend on the drums. No backing tracks, sampling or computers, just good, pure music as it was meant to be played, with passion. And dancing between tables piled with pizza and beer.

We later learn that there is a precinct plan to improve and conserve the history and character of the centre of Bot River, including the station. It is also hoped that a regular rail passenger service can be reintroduced (a goods train still operates), and a monthly produce market is also planned.

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