We visit Tulbagh in mid-summer when it’s good and hot. The fields around the town are gold with wheat, grape vines are heavy and ready for harvest. Neither of us have been before, we’re interested to see just what this town’s all about.
We enter via Van der Stel Street, the main street, and are immediately disappointed. Where’s the country stuff, we wonder, the farm implements, the old houses and the old guys with their pipes on the patios? We pass a supermarket, a Chinese shop, a hotel and a big church. We turn left there, looking some more, and turn left again into Church Street running parallel to the main. Everything changes. A different world opens up. Here is building on building, house on house of old style country goodness. We’re enticed by delicious looking restaurants tucked in the courtyards of Cape Dutch Farmhouses, in the barns, beside old Edwardian and old Victorian. We enter Moniki Chocolatiers and choose three types of very delicious handmade Belgian Chocolate, each, then sit outside under the trees and contemplate some country. This street is crazy. Almost too perfect to be real. We settle in for a chat, wondering what to do with the day.
Tulbagh is a town situated in the Western Cape, nestled in the lap of the Witzenberg, Obiqua and Winterhoek Mountains. The town itself began around 1700, when a handful of Dutch farmers settled along its river. Today it’s famous for a few things. The world class wine estates that surround it, Twee Jonge Gezellen, Montpellier and Saronsburg among them, the San rock art to be found in the mountains around, the gallery of world famous artist Christo Coetzee, and being the place where South Africa’s largest earthquake struck in 1969, destroying much of it.
We enter Cape Dutch Quarters on Van der Stel Street, an elegant building housing what seems to be an internet café, backpackers and tourist information centre, looking for something to do. There’s a lot on offer. We can go horse-riding, wine tasting, zip slide around the mountains in Ceres just around the corner, and even see the big five. We get to talking to the owner of the place, Jayson Clark, who asks if we’ve seen Church Street. We say we have, we’ve just been, it’s lovely. He asks if we know that it has the most national monuments on one street anywhere in the country.
We say we don’t.
He asks if we know the controversy.
“Some people compare it to Disneyland,’ says Jayson, ‘because of the restoration. They say it’s not real, which I just think is wrong. Do you know what happened?’
Before we know it Jayson’s taking us on his famous tour, giving us the short and the long version in a mesmerising, rapid fire fountain of history.
‘Basically,’ he says, ‘it all started at the beginning of time.’ He points to the hillside across the valley, on the other side of the river. ‘That’s Galgheuwel. We’re still finding stone-age tools there. Man has been here for thousands of years. Khoisan farmers were here, raising cattle, and then the Dutch came. By 1700 there were eight Dutch farmers here, and not long after there was a fort, soldiers, highwayman, the works. This was the frontier.’
We’re looking around, trying to keep pace with him and trying to keep pace with the street too, it’s evolving as Jayson’s story unfolds.
‘In 1743 a member of the VOC council came round to see what the frontier looked like, and he was just totally shocked to see that the farmers had no education. The closest church at that time was at Stellenbosch, and so he said they needed a church here, and so they started building one. There was no town, then, just some scattered farms.’
We’re standing in front of the old church, the Roodezand, now a museum filled with artefacts, the original hand-crafted pulpit, a graveyard in the back, many old time memories.
‘At the same time as they were building the church they were building a parsonage for the Reverend, up there,’ says Jayson, pointing again, this time to the top of the street, 800 metres away.
‘As they were working a track started to develop between the two. That became this street, Church Street. We’ve got records that show that the whole community helped with building the church, farmers and slaves, and that it was the building that started the village. Tradesmen arrived, set up shop, and stayed.’
We stand a moment, looking up and down. It’s hard to see it as just a sandy track, in an empty valley, all those years ago. Hard, but also easy, because once you start the imagination takes over.
‘By 1800,’ he continues, striding up the street, ‘there were ten houses, all in a row here, with gardens attached to each but on the other side of the street, down by the river.’
We’re passing those houses. Farmer’s houses.
‘Danie Theron lived here, the Boer Scout. This was originally one house that was subdivided, housing two families. This has been a restaurant since 1888. Slaves used to come and get drunk here, so the church tried to close it down. This was the first house built.’
We stop and stare.
‘It eventually became a school. They taught all races.’
‘Why is it known as Disneyland?’ I ask. ‘What’s not real about it?’
‘Well,’ he says, ‘firstly, fashion happened. All but three of the houses started as Cape Dutch. But then, as generations passed, they were altered. Sons inherited from their fathers and wanted to do their own thing, so they took down the old gable and put their own, modern one up. And then it went further. Victorian styles reached here around 1880, new fashions. Cape Dutch was out and Victorian was in, so the thatch went, the gables went, the windows went, everything was modified, the doors, the layout inside. Cape Dutch houses have big rooms, a big open room as you come in, now all of that was changed. Now you had little rooms, passages, little secret corners.’
‘Then, fast forward anther 80 or so years, and by 1969 a lot of these houses were falling apart. A lot of the money around here had left. People were poor, just getting by, and they really didn’t care how old the houses were. And then the earthquake hit. The street was gutted, everything ripped up, it was a real disaster. The National Party looked at this and thought they could do something with it. Since everything needed rebuilding anyway, they thought why not change it back to the way it was, make everything Cape Dutch again? It would be a perfect monument. A whole street of Afrikaner heritage.’
We’re transported. The crack of an earthquake, the confusion, the whole street in ruins. The street’s pulsing, it’s past beating like a heartbeat inside the summer sun, hidden in the walls, the floors, everywhere.
‘They restored everything beautifully,’ says Jayson. ‘They used all the old records they could get their hands on, old paintings, pictures, everything down to the wood, the same kind of nails, everything. It’s a monument to man’s personality. This street’s as real as we are. We’ll only really understand it when the people involved pass away. They’re still around so it’s not history yet, even though it is.’
We wander around, go inside the houses, see the old beds, the old ways of living. It’s moving, the whole street, a uniquely South African tale.
Later, a little tired from the heat and the information, we find ourselves draped on the patio of the Bush Pig pub, signposted to just outside the town. In the entrance there’s a sign saying please, no anti-social behaviour, no wild beasts to come inside, and no bare feet or breasts. All is quiet at the moment, but we imagine it gets quite lively. The opening chords of Guns ‘n Roses’ Sweet Child ‘o Mine began to drift out from inside.
‘This is a country town,’ says Cliff Coetzee, owner of the Bush Pub and busy with his jukebox, loading up the playlist for the night. ‘You can go check the wine estates, they’re beautiful, you can look at Church Street, go hiking, horse riding, restaurants, but the people here are the best. All sorts. Lots of artists, lots of characters.’
His machine is loaded with 5000 music videos that play through the screens dotted around, all the greats. Cliff’s tired. The pub closed at three-thirty the night before.
‘How would you describe Tulbagh?’ I ask him.
He thinks a moment. ‘It’s a sleepy town,’ he replies, just a hint of a Cheshire cat grin, ‘with an undercurrent of rock ‘n roll.’
We eat supper at Kuierbossie Restaurant on the main street. We’re way inside, right next to the log fire as a chill has come in, feeling good as the night settles. It’s Thursday, burger special day and locals are arriving, hanging out at the reception counter or draped on the couches by the fire, chatting as pile after pile of takeaway boxes emerge steaming from the kitchen. We people-watch, all the different types. We think back to Church Street, and see it’s all still the same. The town is still about people, going about their business, making new stories, new histories, setting out the next chapter in the life of this country town.