Stellenbosch has such a good reputation for wine it’s hard to get beyond it. But (helped on by a few glasses, naturally) I found there’s also quite some soul to this historic Winelands town.
‘First you’ll need two litres of water, two tablespoons of Robertson’s ginger powder, two cups of sugar, one teaspoon of cream of tartar, a handful of raisins, the skin of a pineapple and, finally, a teaspoon of yeast.’ Mamma Swartbooi (or gogo, to me) from the township of Kayamandi (‘a pleasurable home’, in Xhosa) was describing the process of making gemmer (ginger beer), while we sat at Hartenberg Wine Estate in Stellenbosch. Meanwhile, I sipped on the estate’s Shiraz and my taste buds encountered heaven.
It’s ironic, I think to myself, that of all places, I learn about making this popular Xhosa drink in Afrikaans Stellenbosch. Then again, the town is one of South Africa’s purest sources of all things infinitely quaffable. And edible. A little earlier, I was chatting to William Joubert, viticulturist at Hartenberg, over a braai. He told me the secret to making a perfect fire: pine.‘Pine gives off glue, so it’s almost like an oil that helps to ignite the fire.’
And then the sandwiches came out, headed for the braai. Braaied sandwiches? I had felt very South African up until then… How could I not have known about braaibroodjies, the traditional Afrikaans speciality of toasted bread with cheese, tomato, onion and butter? And, of course, the sarmies were delicious – cheese melting between my fingers.
Shacks line the highway en route to Stellenbosch, listed as having one of the highest concentrations of millionaires in the country.I had only been to Stellenbosch twice before: first for a date, during which I focused on my tall, good-looking companion; and second for a festive-season family gathering where we hunkered down and caught up.
So although I’d visited the town, I still had no idea who she was. I’d heard stories about conservatism, students and award-winning wines. What else would I find?
Stellenbosch is pretty, the buildings old and neat, and outdoor exhibitions enhance an already handsome town. There are roughly 300 wineries along the Stellenbosch Wine Route and vineyards cover 60000 hectares of the area. There are plenty of wineries to choose from, and the tipple is good.
In the evening, I wandered through the town looking for dinner. The options are vast, and had it not been for Frank Bongoza, the affable manager at Wijnhuis Wine Bar & Grill, I might have still been wandering around today. He called out to me: ‘We’d like to give you a welcome cocktail.’ I got two, and my taste buds did another heavenly jig.The next day I was over at Brampton Wine Studio, which offers well-priced options and a warm welcome. The staff beckoned me in from the pavement. ‘We spice life up in Stellenbosch. We’re not out at the farms, we’re in the life of the city,’ they said. What makes wining and dining in the town even better is that tuk-tuks are now available. It costs R50 for a trip around town, and you can also rent the vehicles – which can take up to six people – for R200 per hour.
A few days later I visited Mamma Swartbooi in Kayamandi. Townships all feel the same – there is a sense of freedom and no one passes without a friendly greeting. Mamma Swartbooi lives on Swartbooi Street, named after her father- in-law who did a lot of good for the community during the height of apartheid. Since 2005, Mamma has offered township stays through Silusapho Homestays, and a tour of Kayamandi with Bites & Sites, led by Thembi Koli, includes a Xhosa lunch at her home.
‘My child, the truth is that a lot of Stellenbosch is still stuck in the old days … the old way of thinking, but you have to open up your home. Love is the only way to change hard hearts,’ she says.Her food tastes like home. I remember my grandmother waking at 4am to knead dough to make amagwinya (vetkoek). She’d then go back to bed to let the mixture rise. Mamma serves amagwinya with chakalaka and spinach, andgemmer (ginger beer) is served chilled.
For a long time, I wasn’t sure how I felt about township tours, but I do think exposure expands mindsets, changes preconceived notions and fills the vacuum that exists between the worlds outside of townships. The tour with Thembi allows you inside the lives of residents. We peeked into houses and chatted with the people we met. Naturally, there were smiles and pleased hellos.
‘People often associate townships with crime and it shouldn’t be like that. Townships are attractive,’ says Pietman Retief, counsellor for Cultural Affairs, Heritage, Environment, Sports and Facilities. ‘I believe in what tourism can do in bringing people together and making them understand one another.’Stellenbosch seems to tick many boxes for the experiential traveller. Pietman tells me about The Brandy Route, as well as Route 62, also focused on the spirit.
And there’s a growing alternative and conscious living movement in the town. The Lynedoch Eco Village is an amazing place with a great guest house and is where the Sustainability Institute is based. ‘[It] was started in 1999 and is a space for people to explore an approach to creating a more equitable society that lives in a way that sustains the ecosystem,’ the institute’s Tanya Ward tells me.
Then there’s also Spier, which is biodynamic – its waste is 90 per cent organic. Pop into the cafe for organic foods or arrange a tour.
What surprised me is that Stellenbosch is so much more than the standard wine-and-dine experience I thought it had been all about. Here is where I learnt to make two totally different recipes that are popular in two totally different cultures.
There’s no doubt that Stellies has some soul, and there’s plenty more to explore… and I live only 45 minutes away.
Getting to Stellenbosch
Stellenbosch is an easy drive east from Cape Town along the N2. Take exit 33 for Baden Powell Drive, and then the R310/Stellenbosch/Macassar. Take a right at Old Polkadraai Road and continue onto Adam Tas Road. Turn right into Merriman Avenue and start exploring.
Getting around Stellenbosch
Don’t have a car? Stellenbosch is still worth visiting on foot, even to just explore the city centre. Some of the wine farms have brought their offerings to the city and you can get a wine-tasting experience right in town.