At home in the Dwars River Valley

The Dwars River Valley east of Stellenbosch ticks all the right boxes: beautiful scenery, vibey restaurants, wine tastings and hiking trails. But, says Esma Marnewick, a visit to the locals should be first on your list.

The Stellenbosch Wine Walk takes hikers along rustic paths. Pictures by Esma Marnewick

From the trig beacon at the foot of the Drakenstein Mountains on Old Bethlehem Farm, you get a Google Maps perspective of the Dwars River Valley.

When you’re driving along the R310 that meanders through the valley, the imposing mountains and large, colourful signboards of various restaurants and wine farms vie for your attention. You almost fail to notice that you are driving past four small towns.

But here from the beacon you can clearly distinguish between Kylemore to the left, Johannesdal on the slopes of Simonsberg and Pniël and Languedoc to the right. Nestled between world-renowned establishments such as Zorgvliet Wines and Boschendal, these towns have been home to the descendants of the first free slaves since the mid-1800s, as well as some inkommers, of course.

Slavery came to an end in the Cape Colony in 1834 and Pniël was established in 1843 as a mission station. The settlements of Johannesdal and Kylemore followed when groups of residents bought land outside Pniël in 1898. And Languedoc was built as a village for farm workers in 1902 on the instruction of Cecil John Rhodes.

Delicious spinach quiche made by home cook Alenor Pietersen.

In Pniël’s first years, there was a 9 o’clock curfew rule. The story goes that the first leader of the Pniël congregation, Rev. JF Stegmann, used to ride through town on his horse to ensure everybody was in their homes. This disconcerting tale and the dissipating sun get me down the mountain to Kylemore in no time.

“Hello, I’m Lecelin,” the hostess greets me on the patio of Staymore. Inside, the rooms are large and airy. There is fresh fynbos in the vases, juice and milk in the fridge and magazines in the lounge. This self-catering house that sleeps eight feels more like a home than a tourist establishment. That’s because until recently, it was the home of Lecelin and her husband, Antonio Roberts, who both grew up in Kylemore.

“We took the plunge and rented out our house after we were both retrenched in 2019,” Lecelin explains. “At first we stayed with family or friends when we had bookings. But when business picked up we converted our double garage into a small home for us and our three-year-old son, Eli.”

In the meantime, Lecelin started with contract work and Antonio was offered a permanent position in Stellenbosch. Are they moving back in? “No, running Staymore has become a passion. We’ve built it up from scratch,” says Lecelin.

The firepit at Staymore is a favourite spot for long kuiers – hosts Lecelin and Antonio often join their guests.

“People used to joke that if you blink, you miss Kylemore. We want to invite people into our beautiful town. We love sharing our home with others. We often end up with our guests around the fire pit. It’s wonderful to listen to anecdotes from other countries and to share our story.”

Outside I meet Aunty Rachel Fortuin from across the road. “God lingered a little while longer when He created Kylemore,” she smiles. “We are a faithful people. We have an Anglican, Dutch Reformed, Apostolic Faith Mission and an old and a new Apostolic church! Here you have no choice but to stay upright because you are being blessed and prayed for every day,” she laughs.

I want to listen to Aunty Rachel’s stories but have a dinner date at Alenor Pietersen’s home. We say goodbye and I head for Pniël. Alenor’s house sits high on the slopes of the Simonsberg. A small, colourful courtyard greets you from the street, with flowers and all sorts of greenery spilling out of bright red, purple and yellow pots. Wooden birds, pine cones and wind chimes hang from the makeshift awning. Inside, three small tables are set for guests in Alenor’s dining room.

She serves a delicious spinach quiche, followed by butter chicken and rice. Ice cream and strawberries round off the meal.

It’s a balmy evening and we sit outside. The light of the street lamp casts long shadows as children stroll past. Dogs bark in the distance. After some prompting, Alenor, who was raised by her grandmother, regales us with stories from her youth. “My grandma was fond of cooking, and she loved to dish out. She always said we had to prepare more food so that there would be some left over for others,” she recalls.

Sjoe, we worked very hard,” she laughs. “My grandma didn’t believe in shop bread, we had to bake our own. I sometimes felt like Cinderella. But today I can bake and cook. With these skills I’ve realised so many of my dreams. Today I’m content. I don’t have many luxuries, but I have love.”

On the Stellenbosch Wine Walk hikers walk from Thelema Wine Estate in the direction of Botmaskop before turning left to Zorgvliet Wines for a tasting under the the trees.

The following morning I enjoy breakfast at Lumley’s Place, a guesthouse in nearby Johannesdal. The owner, Benita Cyster, grew up here. In fact, the guesthouse incorporates the Kliphuis, which used to be her childhood home.

“This community raised me and I want to give back and honour them,” she says. “That’s why most of the produce on the breakfast table is local.” She explains that the ‘Gwen & Smit’ (scone or mini loaf with preserves) on the menu pays tribute to the first people, Aunty Gwen and Uncle Smit Davids, who made preserves in the valley. “They preserved everything they could find: apricots, figs, loquats, makataan (wild watermelon) … Today, their daughter and daughter-in-law carry on the tradition,” says Benita. The pineapple and passionfruit jam I spread on the herb bread is simultaneously sweet and tangy.

The ‘Donkergatjie’ (omelette with cheese, tomato and onion filling and a mini loaf) refers to a swimming spot in the Dwars River. “Yes, all Kylemorians have had their naughty swims in the river,” laughs Benita.

Later that morning, we cycle on e-bikes past the river on the Droomstroom Trail. This walking and cycling track meanders from the bridge on the Languedoc road along the river for about 4km to Kylemore. Our destination: Skool Street.

The eclectic decor at Beker en Bord creates a laid-back atmosphere.

“I was born, grew up and got married in Skool Street,” says Siena Charles. She has been cooking for the community from her home since 2003. “In 2010, my daughter and I wanted to start a tea garden. But we didn’t have enough money,” she explains. “We didn’t want a fancy shop with shiny handles. I went door to door and asked the community for throw-away items. Slowly, slowly we built up our tea garden with bric-a-brac.”

At Beker en Bord, second-hand evening gowns hang from the roof on coat hangers. And old alarm clocks are displayed on a ladder in the driveway. On a side table in front of the garage there’s even an old record-player. All cool and retro!

Siena cooks, among other dishes, tomato, waterblommetjie and cabbage stew, but today she treats us to roosterkoek, smoor-snoek and soetpatats. I last had soetpatats as a child – it’s so tasty I have three helpings. Afterwards Siena’s business partner, Aunty Marie Swart, brings out a peppermint crisp tart. Another two helpings please! As I leave, Aunty Marie hands me a margarine tub and insists that I take some leftovers.

Protesting is in vain. As after any family get-together, there’s no way you can leave empty-handed. This valley, with its natural splendour and generosity of spirit, won’t
allow it. 

What to do

Stellenbosch Wine Walk
The 12km guided walk passes through Thelema, Zorgvliet and Le Pommier Wine Estates. En route, hikers are treated to roosterkoek and wine.
021 886 4310

Pniël Museum
Tour through the past with the charming Samantha Meyer.
021 885 2645

E-bike tour
Cycle through Pniël, Johannesdal and Kylemore with local guide Austin Lawrence of Dwarsrivier Adventures.
065 308 2547

Old Bethlehem Farm
The farm on the northern border of Kylemore is part of the Banhoek Conservancy and has an extensive network of cycling and hiking trails.

Faith 4u Tours and Transfers
078 157 3737