SA's forgotten wine route - it's off the beaten track & bristling with history

Tanya Farber boards a train from Cape Town to the Karoo to sample all manner of local delights

08 October 2017 - 00:00 By Tanya Farber
Wine Flies owners Francois van Binsbergen and Riaan Renke, who also guided the tour.
Wine Flies owners Francois van Binsbergen and Riaan Renke, who also guided the tour.
Image: Tanya Farber

Did you know that the first friendly cricket match between South Africa and England was played in Matjiesfontein, or that you can actually be offered wine and cupcakes for breakfast?

Me neither.

On a recent travel tour known as The Forgotten Route, my information on both these topics was automatically updated - as was my discovery that catching the Shosholoza Meyl isn't just for people trekking from one side of the country to the other.

This quirky but scrumptious tour is offered by Wine Flies, a "boutique" (read: opposite of sausage machine) company that specialises in wine routes that are off the beaten track but which bristle with history.

After wolfing down some very strong coffee at the Kimberley Hotel in the CBD, and discovering it was built in 1895 and was the starting point for horse-drawn carriages leaving Cape Town for the diamond fields of Kimberley, we climbed into the combi and headed off.

I spent the next hour doing what working moms do when they're in a moving vehicle but aren't behind the wheel: going through mental lists of items that lurch from work deadlines to school cake sales.

Some boxes - ticked. Others - scribble them down in the note pad before they grow legs and scamper off.

The Forgotten Route.
The Forgotten Route.
Image: Supplied

But soon, as we moved from the constipated Cape Town traffic into the countryside, where it takes longer to join the dots, I felt myself decompressing just in time for our first stop.

CHEERS FOR THE CUPCAKES

Kirabo is an intimate wine farm just outside Rawsonville.

It is your quintessential family-run establishment, which has kept well away from the cattle-herd approach to wine tasting.

Instead, owner Karen le Roux led us through the various concoctions her family has brewed. One was accompanied by a little pink cupcake that put red velvet to shame: the inside contained some of the actual wine we were tasting and the two went together beautifully.

A fellow insomniac, she also treated us to ice cream she had furiously stirred during the night - and I have to say, it made for a great dessert after a cupcake as my first meal of the day.

From here it was a drive to the Worcester railway station - and thus began a real highlight of the tour.

I must admit, it has never crossed my mind to catch the Shosholoza Meyl for just a short section of the long haul between Joburg, Cape Town, and a few other cities.

But here we were, sitting in the dining car for two hours, staring out the window at the quilts of farmlands which all of a sudden give way to the desolate beauty of the Karoo.

I remember as a child doing overnight trips with my parents and sisters, and it all came back to me: the clickety-clack thrill of sticking your head out the window or crossing from one carriage to the next, the metallic toilets and the smell of wheels scraping along the track, the narrow corridors and the not-very-refined meals on offer in the dining car.

On arrival at Matjiesfontein, we were treated to a cocktail of muscadel wine infused with lemon zest, tonic and ice.

This was also the moment when I began to fantasise that there'd be a hot-water bottle with my name on it at the hotel.

This was signature Karoo weather: beautiful sky above us like taut, transparent skin, not a breath of wind to shake the thorns . but somehow, the very second the sun dipped below the horizon, my bones turned to ice.

WALL-TO-WALL STORIES

From here we made our way to the accommodation - the Rietfontein Private Nature Reserve, just outside Matjiesfontein, where we stayed overnight in cottages.

They are simple, well-equipped and spotless - in other words, the perfect match for their unpretentious Karoo surroundings.

That evening and the next morning (with a hearty braai for supper at the cottages, and a breakfast at the Lord Milner Hotel in-between) we got to explore Matjiesfontein.

It is basically just a single road but it's wall-to-wall heritage, including the Olive Schreiner Cottage, where the writer lived for a number of years, the old post office, and an insane collection of vintage automobiles.

Matjiesfontein is basically just a single road but it's wall-to-wall heritage 

Riaan Renke, our guide, explained how Scottish railwayman James Douglas Logan, who founded the town, went about his business.

It is amazing how the passage of time can sprinkle the fairy dust of romanticism onto a dodgy character from days of yore.

As my partner in crime noted, Logan's love of power, money, and influence at any cost, and his desire to capitalise on anything that stood in front of him, gives him the unenviable air of being the Donald Trump of his time.

OLIVES & MARMALADES, OH MY

From here we headed along Route 62, where we stopped at a market (my fridge is still bursting with chutneys and marmalades), and then on to Platform 62 in Ashton, where we ate a delicious lunch and did - you guessed it - a brandy tasting.

Final stop: the Marbrin Olive Growers in Robertson, where we tasted different olives and their oils, balsamic vinegars and lemon liqueurs.

The last stretch was a sunset drive all the way back to Cape Town with Monday waiting in the wings clutching its to-do lists and school reports and meetings.

The only two notes of caution on this wonderful tour: make sure you have very warm clothing if you go in winter (I am not opposed to stuffing a hot-water bottle into my top), and don't plan anything for the night you return. We were scheduled to be home by 5.30pm and got home after 8pm.

I might have to reward our babysitter with one of the bottles of red we picked up along the way.

PLAN YOUR TRIP

COST: R1,850 - includes everything except the lunch on the train and the lunch at Platform 62.

WHEN: The Forgotten Route tour departs on Friday and returns on Saturday (see website for dates).

CONTACT: Call 021-462-8011 or visit wineflies.co.za.


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