Gateway to the Great Karoo

We’d just finished a sumptuous dinner of oxtail with pear and polenta; duck, port and black-cherry pie; and a baked lemon pudding that almost sent us over the edge, and were paying our bill when Gallery Café Brent Phillips-White invited us for a drink to the nearby Bush Pub. We’d been in town for less than three hours, having driven five hours (thanks to N1 road works) from Cape Town to the little Karoo hamlet of Prince Albert, and already we were being invited for a beer with ‘a bunch of the locals,’ as Brent put it.

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We were exhausted, however, and my partner expressed a desire to don her new owl pyjamas and hit the hay. ‘Owls?’ said Brent. ‘If you like owls, on your way home, you should head down off Church Street and walk along De Beer Street past the old English graveyard. There are eagle owls that roost in the trees alongside the road.’ You mean walk along an even darker, more deserted road at 11pm with my camera slung over my shoulder? ‘This is Prince Albert,’ scoffed Brent. ‘You’re safe.’

We followed his directions, walking by the light of a sliver of moon, down past a field of nocturnal cattle and hedges of bougainvillea, and turned onto De Beer Street. It was a fool’s quest, scanning the pines for owls in the darkness … until suddenly, we saw a shadow cross the road and alight on a low branch. Lacking a torch, I strobed my flash at the tree, no doubt freaking out the locals – and the spotted eagle owl glaring down at us, eyes ringed with orange and yellow.

Oxtail, small-town hospitality, a moonlight stroll and an encounter with an owl, all in three hours. I knew we’d found something special.

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A sense of huis

Founded in 1762, Prince Albert lies on the eastern edge of the Western Cape. The area is known for its abundant olive and fruit production, as well as probably the best lamb in the country. The town itself is an architectural delight, with numerous Victorian and Cape Dutch buildings, and 13 national monuments. You can’t swing a cat without hitting a gable, which are all marked with dates ranging from the 1800s to the 2000s.

We stayed in a little marvel ourselves. Bid Huisie is a two-bedroom, self-catering cottage located just off the main drag, Church Street, on Meiring Street. The building was once a chapel (hence the name), and the exterior has remained unchanged but for the addition of wooden shutters over the windows.

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Inside, the vaulted ceiling gives you a sense of space in the open-plan kitchen and lounge. The kitchen is well kitted out – you get the sense that someone has lived here and filled it with the things you actually need for a self-catering stay. The large patio has a braai and a plunge pool, which, despite it being distinctly balmy (for July) throughout our stay, we did not use. Beyond that lies a little gravel garden flanked by succulents and olive trees. There’s air-con but no TV, and it’s all simple, quaint and welcoming – Bid Huisie feels like a microcosm of the town itself. And best of all, you’re walking distance from the shop’s abundant restaurants, cafés, galleries and shops.

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We explored these the following day, stopping by the Saturday-morning market to browse the fresh vegetables, scones, jams, preserves, confectionery and church sale bric-a-brac. Locals and tourists lounged at plastic tables and on hay bales, a child teased a border collie with a stick, and we struck up a conversation with Dave and Carol, also from Cape Town, who had five days to idle away in Prince Albert. ‘Everyone’s so friendly here,’ said Carol. ‘The pace of life is so relaxing.’ ‘Nobody’s going to have a heart attack from stress around here. Although they might from the diet,’ agreed Dave, nodding at us as my partner nibbled on her breakfast jaffle and I tore off another greasy chunk of pancake.

Regardless of the health implications, delicious food is a way of life in Prince Albert. It’s something of a gourmet oasis, with Gallery Café, Karoo Kombuis, Olive Branch and African Relish of particular note. The last is also a cooking school, offering culinary tours and a multitude courses teaching everything from Karoo classics to pastry and knife skills.

We got a taste of their chefs’ skills on Saturday night, sneaking in just before the kitchen closed. The restaurant is open and modern, with a central courtyard and lots of glass, and fireplaces inside and out. We gorged ourselves on twice-baked three-cheese soufflé with tomato relish, seared springbok with red wine and juniper reduction, and mutton ragout with sumac yoghurt sauce, declining dessert in order to avoid hospitalisation from overeating.

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No visit to Prince Albert is complete without a visit to Gay’s Guernsey Dairy, at the far end of Church Street. Every day, townsfolk line up outside the dairy to buy fresh milk, many of them bringing their own containers. It’s milk like it used to be – thick, delicious and insanely creamy. The dairy also sells yoghurt and cream, and a selection of fantastic cheeses. I nearly fainted when we entered the tasting room, flanked by shelves stacked above head height with rounds of maturing cheeses. Again, we arrived just before closing (the weekend hours are 7-10am and 4:30-6pm – milking time, basically), but smooth-talking cheese maker Eugene humoured us with a tasting. His patience paid off: we spent more than R300. On cheese.

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For those keen on the liquid diet, three wine farms lie just outside town on the R407 towards De Rust. At Fernskloof Wines, Amelia le Grange took us through a tasting of the Chardonnay, red blend, Pinotage-Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon her son Diederik produces. The estate’s been in the family for generations, but they’ve only got eight hectares of grapes and Diederik actually produces the wine at nearby Bergwater, the largest winery in the Great Karoo.

Bergwater produces a wide range of seriously reasonably priced wines, including a fruity white blend at R35 and a Tinta Barocca fortified wine at R40. It was also the reason we didn’t make it to Reiersvlei Wine Estate, as, having tasted every vino on the list, we felt maybe it was time to call it a day and go collapse in our huisie for a bit before dinner.

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There’s also quite an arty vibe in town, with half-a-dozen or so art galleries in the area. Gallery Café isn’t called that for nothing, with the restaurant positioned above the Prince Albert Gallery, also owned by Brent, in the Seven Arches building. The gallery is home to a few more unusual pieces, including an elegant pile of cow dung cast in iron (here’s hoping it was locally sourced). Also in the building is Made in Prince Albert, which stocks locally produced trinkets and food products. Further down Church Street is Karoo Looms, a weaver that produces beautiful, voluptuous mohair rugs and carpets. There’s also a cultural history museum in town, and look out for The Burghers of Prince Albert – five carved 130-year-old blue gum trees on Church Street sculpted by Richard John Forbes and four apprentices.

Those inclined towards more celestial art will be pleased to know that the clear nights and lack of light pollution make the area one of the best for stargazing. Hans and Tilanie Daehne of Astro Tours run astronomy tours of varying length, from stargazing evenings in town to trips to the SALT telescope array at Sutherland.

A passing thought

For me, however, perhaps the most impressive attraction in Prince Albert wasn’t to be found in the town itself. The Swartberg Pass winds up through the majestic mountains of the same name. The landscape is otherworldly in places, with strata of rock lying at obtuse angles and looking in places like they’ve been twisted into patterns by the fingers of god. Keep your eyes on the road, though; it’s narrow and twisty, with a serious drop down into the valley. We stopped about 8km in (and 1 400m above sea level) at a picnic bench, where we posed for a couple of pretend picnic photos before retreating to the car to enjoy our breakfast sheltered from the freezing wind. The R328 runs about 60km to Oudtshoorn, and branches off in places towards Ladismith in the west and De Rust in the east. We didn’t have time to venture beyond our picnic spot at the top of the world … and that’s just one of many reasons why I’ll be heading back to Prince Albert as soon as possible.

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This article originally appeared in khuluma. 
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