A roadtrip story: There’s nothing little about the Klein Karoo

A power surge suddenly propels us as our host grins and pushes the accelerator to the floor. Roadside scrub turns to blur as I return my gaze from the chrome-littered dash to the mountains on the other side of the windscreen.

This is a 1956 Cadillac Sedan De Ville, a car-about-town that’s arguably even more suave now than when issued as first of range to the head of General Motors South Africa. And back then everyone drove a Cadi – from Elvis to Dietrich, Hefner to Marilyn. More than a few bodies would have ended up in its boot; it was a favourite of mafiosos too.

Montagu Hotel's 1956 Cadillac Sedan De Ville. (Image: Clifford Roberts)

If you’re going to tour the wineries at the Cape Town end of the R62, then this is the baby to do it in. Unfortunately for us, we’re only starting out and the Montagu Country Hotel needs its sky-blue De Ville back. The road, as they say is long, and we’ve got several dates.

Montagu is officially the first town on the Klein Karoo Wine Route that runs along the R62. We spend the weekend, but there’s little time to get to places like Blue Vines Winery or Kingna Distillery. 

On the road again

Days later, we’re on our way again. A rainy front that tracks us all the way from Cape Town, shreds itself against the peaks of the Riviersonderend Mountains. Just a spritz makes it through to Barrydale where we make a quick lunch stop at Maker’s Mark to try Ryno Reyneke’s sourdough pizza and beer.

From here, the sky is happily dotted with white clouds that sail almost tauntingly over countless dry riverbeds. Our overnight stop is the four-star Mymering guest farm and home of Hillock Wines, near Ladismith.

We’re surprised by the appearance of vineyards among the arid, aloe-dotted hills. The wide, leaf-green glacier sits along the base of a narrow gorge carved by the Dwarsrivier. The winery was founded in 2011 by Penny and Andy Hillock, who are away when we visit. The wall behind Andy’s bar reflects his his Harvard-flying days. Flying was one of his passions; the other two, becoming a surgeon and making wine. He’s retired from medicine now, but the wine goes on.

Vineyards of Hillock Wines. (Image: Clifford Roberts)

In the morning, we walk up a nearby koppie before heading onward after breakfast.

In Ladismith, we make a quick stop at Karoo Vine, a good one-stop-shop for wine and spirits from these parts. Then, the road meanders past Hoeko; the mission towns of Zoar and Amalienstein; Opsoek; and, Frikkie se Gat, a farmstall with shiny new corrugated iron. Further along, a lonely sign advertises ice cold beer and pizza. 

A happy reunion

The arrival of the Huisrivier pass, with its masses of beautiful twisted red-orange rock topped with patches of spekboom, signals imminent arrival in Calitzdorp. First stop is De Krans. The parking lot is full – it’s pick-your-own-hanepoot-day. Owner Boets Nel invites us to lunch at the bistro. He’s back in the seat as chairman of the Klein Karoo Wine Route. A long and severe drought has taken its toll on local farmers, he says.

He adds: the members are unwavering in driving home the message that natural still wines here are equally good as the fine port, sweet wine and brandy. Renowned Patatsfontein wines source fruit from the region, while winemaker Louis Le Sueur van der Riet’s eponymous private label expressly showcases the terroir of the Klein Karoo.

It's pick-your-own-hanepoot day at De Krans. (Image: Clifford Roberts)

Conversation inevitably turns to the pandemic and Boets tells us about the De Krans Blossom Project. The initiative was born in the face of threats to the business. “We got everyone together and tasked them with considering everything at our disposal – from corks to old oak barrels – and how we might generate income with it,” he says. “The result was a small factory producing candles and candleholders from wine bottles and vine-stumps; cheese serving boards from old barrel heads.”

I later read more on the winery website: “The beauty of [the project] doesn’t lie in the carefully hand made products or the creative process behind it, but in the skills learned, the skills taught, the mistakes made, the development of new hidden talents and the empowerment of an entire team… Because life goes on, life is beautiful, bloom where you are planted, and all that.”

Traveller’s rest

We’re booked for two nights at Calitzdorp Country House – a comfortable pad overlooking the Nels River. Owners Andrew and Nell Rogers check us in and, bags dropped, we immediately head for the pool. During sundowner on the stoep, they tell us how they fell in love with the town having left Johannesburg. In fact, they’d set out for a tour of the country, but spent a night in Calitzdorp and put in an offer to purchase.

Supper is at Zamani steakhouse, home (it’s main street facade declares) to the R62’s smallest bar. The restaurant also runs the Calitzdorp Express – a hop-on, hop off tractor ride via Calitzdorp Cellar, De Krans and Boplaas that operates every Saturday from 10:00 to 14:00.

But on the topic of food, there’s an even broader food offering in town is these days. Among them are Under the peppertree, whose menu speaks of dishes like Chinese pork and leek dumplings, Trinidadian goat curry with flatbread and Korean fried chicken; Axe Hill’s rustic Bakhuis; the contemporary and delightful Café @ the Rose; Portuguese restaurant Porto Deli; and, Pieter Erasmus’s The Kombuis located in among the tiny streets of the old town. Karooboom Braai restaurant outside town does an offal evening once a month, baking sheep’s heads in an outdoor oven. I’m disappointed to hear I’ll miss the event.

Driving into Calitzdorp. (Image: Clifford Roberts)

The following day, we visit Du’SwaRoo wine and olive farm, acquired by Kallie and Pat Calitz some two years ago. There’s a dizzying array of preserves as well as olive oil for sale while the winery is boutique in every sense – basket presses do the job and volumes are tiny. In fact, Kallie leaves Pat to the tastings as he heads back to handle the incoming harvest. At bye-time, we add a case to the boot of our already laden car and head for Klein Karoo wine pioneer Boplaas.

The Boplaas tasting room. (Image: Estee de Villiers)

Pioneers all

In addition to its own range of wines and spirits, the cellar is home to The Fledge & Co – an independent range established by Boplaas winemaker Margaux Nel and spouse, Leon Coetzee. Here too, harvest is in full swing, so it’s Leon who takes us through a flight.

Their wines are intended as a glimpse of Cape terroir, he says during the course of the afternoon. So far, that has covered 48 vineyards representing 28 varieties. As for style, the aim is “new world with old world sensibility”.

Leon’s a fast talker with even quicker wit. At one point he remarks, “You seek to maintain a golden thread of linearity through vintages, not losing the taste of the hillbillies who made it.”

It’s early evening when we finish. Before we leave, Margaux’s brother Daniel gives us a quick tour of the distillery. The farm’s history goes back to 1880 and is built on brandy. To this was added gin and whisky when Daniel returned to the family farm a few years ago and learnt the trade from his father, Carel. In no time, the accolades for whisky and gin were pouring in too.

A day later, we’re at another long-time and innovative distiller – Grundheim, near Oudtshoorn. Operations are now in the hands of the late Dys Grundlingh’s spouse, Elana, and sister, Ena. It’s mid-week, mid-pandemic, so we’re otherwise alone in the tasting room. One wall is covered in posters from the KKNK, the arts festival that annually brought thousands of visitors to town. But all depressing thoughts evaporate at the latest additions to the range – a trio of brightly labelled vermouths. “Dys never got the chance to taste them all,” Elana says. They’re amazing, I respond. They’re going to fly.

New Grundheim vermouths. (Image: Clifford Roberts)

Land of the Ostrich

We spend the afternoon lunching and wine tasting at Karusa. Schoemanshoek, the hamlet where it’s located, is lush with greenery – their water originates in the Swartberg Mountains.

Winemaker Jacques Conradie spent five years working alongside SA’s bubbly legend Pieter Ferreira, so it’s to be expected there’s Cap Classique – or as Jacques prefers, “Karoo Classique” – on the menu. Karusa’s vineyards, planted in 2007, make up just eight hectares of a larger fruit farm although the list of wines runs to just over 20. “I’d be bored to death making a handful,” he says. And did we mention there’s a brewery too?

Karusa Winery in Oudtshoorn. (Image: Clifford Roberts)


The final stop on this journey brings us to another one-stop wine farmstall, this time near De Rust.

Domein Doornkraal was established in 1986, by the parents of Celia le Roux who’s the owner today. She’s the fifth generation on nearby Doornkraal Farm. Typical farmstall wares adorn its shelves, with plenty of character added by straight-shooting, witty labelling and family photographs on the wall. Doornkraal has its own wine range, but sells an extensive collection from the region too.

We take a moment to pause, enjoying a lunch of chilled chenin blanc and roosterkoek with ostrich biltong. Then it’s time to pack up our purchases and a gift of two pumpkins and a recipe for gnocchi.

A few weeks later back in Cape Town, the rain returns. I open a bottle of Peter Bailey’s Cape Late Bottled Vintage port from 2008 and tweet my excitement: “Treacle-thick, malty and sweet. Traces of mocha and berry juiciness.”

For all the goodness I receive, I quietly wish these life-giving clouds make it out to the Klein Karoo, where the good people are.

Get going

To plan your own trip, start here, at the official website of the Klein Karoo Wine Route: https://www.kleinkaroowines.co.za/

Domein Doornkraal wine-farmstall. (Image: Clifford Roberts)

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