Taking to two wheels, SANELISIWE GANTSHO sees Stellenbosch from quite a different perspective and acquires an even deeper appreciation of her favourite town.
It’s true when they say that to really discover a place you need to get out of your vehicle and explore it with a local guide. For me, Stellenbosch is a dream location and I’ve been here many times, but this particular visit was like no other: I hopped on a bicycle and, in the company of an outstanding guide, I fell in love with the town all over again.
I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that it had been a long time since I was last on a bicycle for nearly a whole day – Amsterdam five years ago – but thanks to a proficiency learnt way back and impressive muscle memory, I quickly got into the rhythm of my new adventure. The first stop was The Blue Crane and The Butterfly coffee shop on Dorp Street, where I met Dawid Botha, my bicycle tour guide, and we went over the itinerary of where we were hoping to get to during the day. On the way there I was pleasantly surprised by the sight of so many professionals cycling to work. Stellenbosch is a hive of economic activity and you can see that just from the number of people who, in comfort and style, use a bicycle to get to work, to school or to their social hangouts.
And so the tour began. Dorp Street is the oldest street in the town and on it I got a closer look at La Gratitude, a treasure of Cape Dutch architecture. We continued down the busy street towards the river, then paused on a bridge to enjoy the scenery. Looking down at the water flowing below us, I asked Dawid why the river was called the Eerste. It was, he explained, the first, or eerste, river that Governor Simon van der Stel came across on his journey inland in 1679. The settlement that developed on the river’s banks came to be known as ‘Van der Stel’s bush [forest]’ – Stellenbosch.
By now we had left the tar behind and were surrounded by nature. Passing Paul Roos Gymnasium and neighbouring Coetzenburg Sports Grounds, I recalled links with these two landmarks that had positive influences on my life: the chief executive who was instrumental in getting me my first job in the Western Cape had gone to the school, and the sports grounds were the venue for a Mango Groove concert at the 2016 Woordfees where I had danced with friends. As Dawid and I were about to ride over another bridge, a group of boys from the school, returning from rugby practice, stopped to let us pass – such fine young gentlemen!
One of the many reasons why I love Stellenbosch is that it lies in the Cape Winelands, so the next breather, at Stellenbosch University’s winery, was appropriate. I had never been in a university-owned winery before and was pleasantly surprised that such a thing exists. As we stood admiring rows of barrels in the temperature-controlled building – a welcome relief from the scorching heat outside – I pondered this new perspective on wine and the deep appreciation of it in this part of South Africa.
With time on our side, Dawid and I decided to explore the university campus. At this time of year there were not many students there, which made it easier to cycle around and admire the well-preserved buildings. I sighed out loud as I thought about the time when I had been applying to universities and wondered why I hadn’t considered this one.
It was my first visit to this particular campus and I was captivated by the space and the courtyards, fountains and architecture; all seen from our bicycle saddles. I found it particularly interesting that all this grandeur dated from 1918, when the university was established thanks to a £100 000 donation by local benefactor Jan Marais. Still on campus, we cycled past the well-known Wilgenhof men’s residence.
The saying goes that you are only a true Matie if you have kissed on Lover’s Walk (Die Laan) and failed at least one semester. Sayings such as this instil a sense of belonging, and when I heard it I felt, for the first time, the true meaning of Stellenbosch is a ‘university town’.
The Eerste River crops up repeatedly in this adventure and as we rode alongside it again Dawid told me the history of Koloniesland, a section of the north bank that is now dedicated to jogging and cycling trails. These on- and off-road trails are for public use, so everyone, and their dogs, have the safeguarded right to enjoy them.
Stellenbosch town was the focus of the second part of my adventure. I had visited many times before, but not quite like this. Being guided along its streets on a bicycle enabled me to see landmarks in a new light and deepened my understanding of why the town is orientated as it is and of nuanced changes in architectural design over the years.
There’s so much history in the central square, the focal point of Stellenbosch. It’s a point of departure for a good reason, with its symbol of labourers eventually being freed; liberation alongside artistic expression, including that embodied in art centres that are operating to this day.
The Rhenish Institute, now one of those art centres, and the historic Rhenish church are buildings so distinctive that I felt like I was on a movie set of a town that no longer exists. But this town does exist, and that’s what makes it so charming. Not far away is a space where newlyweds take photographs on their special day. What’s more romantic than that?
Pedalling along, I was also able to take a closer look at the Victorian houses on Neethling Street, built in what is regarded as the original and authentic architectural style. And on the flipside of the coin is the more modern take on this style. Only on a bicycle could I be nudged into noticing the differences. But try riding from the Old Main Building of the university down Plein Street and towards the post office – you can’t miss them.
Look more closely at the post office and the buildings around, the hub of today’s economic activity. There’s an energy emanating from the coffee shops, galleries and stores, and the buildings that house them have undergone a more radical change. No longer strictly Victorian, they represent a town that is changing, yet still preserving its personality and ambience.
An adventure that seemed much shorter than half a day ended at the quirky and colourful bicycle stands that look like large paper clips. They are as happily out of place as the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, making you feel as if you should pause and savour this adventure to the very last drop. We dismounted and walked the couple of metres to Boschendal at Oude Bank for lunch. My guided tour was over, but the experience will live on for me as a reference point for other adventures. Travel has a way of doing that. V
Experience the bicycle dream
This exceptional bicycle tour around Stellenbosch brought me new knowledge and a deeper appreciation of the town. You, too, can enjoy its benefits even by riding on your own, though I do recommend the guided option. Dawid Botha from Stellenbosch Fietsry/Cycling is both knowledgeable and passionate about the town. A historian, communications consultant and former local councillor, he has been cycling in Stellenbosch for 60 years. The company, a registered non-profit, aims to promote cycling in all communities of the Stellenbosch municipality, particularly for commuting and recreation.
The Stellenbosch Cycling Map, a project that started in 2017 and will take three years to complete, will be the core tool of a series of well-run routes that includes the Eerste River Route, Historic Route and Campus Route, as well as other scenic cycling routes around Stellenbosch.