A place of history, hardships and harmony, the Helderberg story

Fine & Country South Africa’s CEO, Linda Erasmus, ventured into the Helderberg as we broadcast our 6th episode of DEKATv on DStv’s Channel 144 yesterday. This was not an easy region to conquer, a fact belied by its rugged beauty and friendly community, this is the Helderberg story.

When you combine champagne tastes with strawberry flavour and Cape Dutch accents, you could only be in the Helderberg in the Western Cape. Helderberg means ‘clear mountain’ and those who reside here clearly love its blue skies, green wineries and rugged mountains, Helderberg will genuinely spoil you for choice when it comes to breathtaking scenery and unbeatable hospitality. The basin is created by the natural barrier of the Helderberg mountain range and comprises the main towns of Somerset West, Sir Lowry’s Pass and Gordon’s Bay, along with a few smaller ones. Helderberg was originally known as the ‘Hottentots-Holland’ area, however it was renamed in order to avoid offence at the word ‘Hottentot’. Today it is a thriving wine-producing region and an area of Cape Town.

Somerset West

Let’s turn our attention to Somerset West. This fascinating town was first discovered by Europeans in 1657, when cattle traders from Cape Town. They came across a tribe of about 500 people and were delighted to settle in one of the prettiest parts of the world. 15-Years later the Dutch East India Company bought the land from the community, and although it was not allowed for members of the company to own land, these rules were easily broken for such superior areas. These farming communities eventually founded the village of Somerset West, when in 1817 they decided to build a Church to avoid the inconvenience of traveling to Stellenbosch. The church was finished in 1820 and on the 13th of February Lord Charles Somerset granted permission for it to bear his name. The church is now a historical monument.

An early view of Vergelegen
An early view of Vergelegen

Another view of the 'guards"
Another view of the ‘guards’

One of South Africa’s most prestigious wineries makes its home on the doorstep of Somerset West. Founded on 1 February 1700, Vergelegen (meaning “situated far away”), has been under the ownership of some of the world’s great explorers and visionaries, each of whom, in their own way, have helped shape Vergelegen to what it is today; a world-class estate. With its world renowned handcrafted wines, a history spanning over 300 years, heritage, exquisite gardens and refined cuisine, it comes as no surprise that Vergelegen continues to be the choice of the discerning visitor seeking a total sensory experience. For this reason, the estate has borne witness to many visits of heads of state and celebrities from all over the world. Vergelegen is famous for more than this. There are great stories attached to the magnificent trees found on the estate. For instance, there are five historic camphor trees, said to be guarding the historic Vergelegen Homestead, and believed to have been planted in 1700 by Willem van der Stel. These trees were declared National Monuments in 1942.

It is said that Vergelegen plays home to Africa’s oldest living oak tree. This Old English Oak is believed to be older than 300-years old. You will also find White Mulberry (Morus Alba) dating back to 1700 and the only surviving relic of van der Stel’s attempt to start a silk industry in the Cape. Finally, there is the ‘Royal’ Oak, planted in 1928 from an acorn originating from the last of King Alfred’s oak trees at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.

Other highlights in Somerset West include a visit to the Helderberg Nature Reserve. This natural beauty offers wonderful trails for the average walker, as well as more challenging ones for the more experienced hikers. It also provides a relaxing environment in which to picnic with family or friends while enjoying some of the best views on offer in the Cape. Not only that but you will witness Fynbos at its best.

strawberry

You could also pay a visit to the Helderberg Farm, which is situated 1km off the R44 on the Klein Helderbergpad/Rd, 4,5km from the N2. This historic farm offers traditional South African charm served up with a friendly atmosphere. It is also home to indigenous species of wildlife like the Fish Eagle and our national bird, the Blue Crane. Wine grapes of the highest quality are produced on this farm. KlaasVechtman, the original owner of the farm in 1692, planted trees that remain to this day. Visitors can be assured of having a surreal experience in the woodlands on the mountainside. You could spend a day picking strawberries or head into the woodlands on the mountainside to pick wild mushrooms. This farm has been maintained in just such a way as to steer clear from mass commercialization and retains a characteristic charm.

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Visible from the hiking trail is a panoramic view encompassing the Cape Peninsula, False Bay, Table Bay and Table Mountain and on a clear day, hikers can even see Robben Island which is approximately 65km away. The farm’s sheltered location renders it free of most of the prevailing winds of summer and even winter, so you can still enjoy it when the legendary Southeasterly wind chases the mountains.

Gordon’s Bay

As you head back onto the N2, a mere 15-minutes drive away is the wonder that is Gordon’s Bay. Interestingly Gordon’s Bay was not actually called Gordon’s Bay at first, it was in fact Fish Hoek, long before the town of that very same name was founded on the other side of False Bay. As the Helderberg’s small town, Gordon’s Bay packs a big punch. The name Gordon’s Bay was finally settled upon, to commemorate Robert Jacob Gordon, the Commandant of the Dutch troops at the Cape from 1777 – 1795. His many claims to fame include the fact he went on more expeditions than any other 18th century explorer of southern Africa and kept journals and sketch books to record his travels. He was also responsible for naming the Orange River, introducing Merino sheep to the Cape Colony and for discovering the remains of Bartholomew Dias’s cross at Kwaaihoek in 1786.

The first thing you will notice on approaching Gordon’s Bay is a giant anchor comprised of whitewashed stones and the initials GB on the mountainside overlooking the harbour. These rocks were originally painted by students in 1949, a year after the General Botha SA Nautical College was established and took up a lease at the Old Crash Boat Station. The initials do not stand for Gordon’s Bay, as is commonly thought, but for General Botha, the original name of the Naval College. Gordon’s Bay is the only town in South Africa that boasts 2 fully operational Harbours, the Old Harbour where you will find the Gordon’s Bay Yacht Club and Harbour Island a marina development with mooring for yachts and home of the Gordon’s Bay Boat Angling Club.

Gordon’s Bay has some of the best beaches in the Cape including the Blue Flag status Bikini Beach. The beaches are akin to Monte Carlo with beautiful white sand, rock pools, shallow paddling areas and calm seas. Temperatures here are warmer in the water than you will find on the Atlantic coast.

Sir Lowry’s Pass

Sir Lowry’s Pass is a mountain pass on the N2 is a modern day national road that crosses the Hottentots-Holland mountain range between Somerset West and the Elgin Valley. This pass carries thousands of residents and visitors every year travelling between various destinations on its path. What you might not know is that this pass pre-dates tar and ‘civilized’ roads and in fact first belonged to large herds of Eland that crossed over in the winter months, long before man ever struggled up its precipitous path. The Khoisan tribe, known as Gantauwers, which means ‘People of the Eland’, also followed this route, which became known to later travellers as the Elandspat or ‘path of the Eland. Then came the advent of the settlers wanting to expand across South Africa, with this very precarious pass to conquer before they could do so. These explorers must have had second and possibly even third thoughts at the very prospect of attempting to ascend the pass’s rocky apexes. This pass was notorious for the lives it claimed and damaged it caused when oxen or people lost their footing and were plunged off the mountain. The ruts left by the wagons being dragged over the mountains can still be seen some 300 years later, a testament to just how arduous this journey was.

Sir Lowry’s Pass Village is situated near the base of the pass. It started as a humble post office in 1846, run by a postmistress, Mrs. Walters, and six farms in the area. 43-Years later the first steam train stopped there in 1890. With the trains needing a station, the town developed and the post office was amalgamated into the railway station. The railway station was also used for church services as late as 1925, because there was no church building at the time. Wild flowers grew in profusion on the mountains and hills around the village and selling them was a major source of income for the villagers in the early 1900s. Today, this little village is flanked by upmarket residential estates as well as various wine farms and is definitely worth a visit.

The Helderberg has offered sanctuary, comfort and beauty but sometimes at the cost of incredible hardship and danger. They say nothing in life worth having comes easy, but if you happen to find yourself here, you will know that you have arrived.

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