Prince Albert, Western Cape, South Africa
Journey to South Africa's most sought after little Klein Karoo town of Prince Albert, with Travel Writer Carrie Hampton. It's a worthwhile detour off a Garden Route tour, and can barely still be called a well-kept secret, as many Europeans have been drawn to its charms and decided to stay.
A Princely Karoo Village
I barely met anyone in Prince Albert who appeared to be a local. It seems that the French, Spanish, Brits, Irish and out of town South Africans have discovered this little Karoo gem and moved here!
Prince Albert is a village with a grand entrance from whichever direction you approach. You either have to go through, around or towards the imposing Swartberg Mountains, which for me entailed numerous stops for sheer appreciation of the views and considerable clicking of my new, instant gratification digital SLR.
As you enter town you are informed that this is mohair country, and I am sure I caught a whiff of goat in the air. Perhaps it was from the oldest Angora stud in South Africa, which I'm told produces only the best quality. I desperately wanted to buy a mohair blanket, but the choice of colours from scarlet to cerise, midnight blue to primrose yellow, plain or tartan, knee rug to king size, just sent me into a spin of indecision.
While pondering the choices, I decided to pick up a few information leaflets and a village map from the tiny multi-functional office where the Pam Golding estate agent also rents bicycles and sells chewing gum. The people of Prince Albert are so proud of their locality that aspirant writers amongst them have produced several small guides with titles like; Prince Albert in a Nutshell, Prince Albert Local Stories, and Herbal and Witblits Remedies from Die Hel.
The local 16-page rag is the gothic typeface Prince Albert Friend. In it you get all the neighbourhood skinner and letter writing whingers who disapprove of the new Bush Pub. There are plenty of property adverts too, with outrageous prices attached to the admittedly very cute historic houses.
As I trundled on the bicycle up the main street (all of about 1km long), I stopped and read up about each national monument and historic building; who built it and why. Each is beautifully restored and painted, and now houses an art gallery, antique shop, guest house, museum, craft shop or simply a family in residence (or abroad). One of the few buildings that has retained its original purpose in the hub of the main street is the Swartberg Hotel. Built in 1886 and hosting travellers ever since, it also retains more than one ghost and several legends.
Did the demure Victorian woman in the 19th century painting push her lover to his death by drowning, or did he fall? Or, did he even exist, and does the pool of water in this diptych really turn blood red in a certain light? The Manager of the hotel had to deal with ghostly visitations in his first year at the Swartberg Hotel.
He had to calm both staff and guests after a ghost starting creating the most awful noises like furniture being dragged around, and then threw a vase across the room while leaving the flowers behind. This all occurred across the ancient floorboards of the main building, but even before I heard these stories, I noted all sorts of strange sounds, while sleeping in one of the garden cottages.
Being at the centre of the village and open all year, the Swartberg Hotel caters to guests and locals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, all of which I might add were extremely tasty, with genuine friendly service.
Affability is apparent in Prince Albert and I found myself waving and being waved at by pedestrians and drivers. This was a busy time as it was Monday morning and there were about 5 cars in the street. Along the back lanes running parallel with the main street barely a car passed me, and I cycled slowly often doubling back to admire colourful doorways, groves of cacti contrasting against yellow karoo walls and old dated gables.
I stumbled across a rusted sculpture garden of artist and former Rhodes University art lecturer, George Coutouvidis. "It's all rubbish," he states in a rural English accent. "I gather up waste metal on my walks and put it together." Each contorted piece is wired onto a long metal pole stabilized in cement under the dusty earth, out of which the creation appears to grow as if in a bizarre field of sunflowers.
George started off with three of these free-standing rusted iron sculptures, but then got carried away and has filled his front yard with one hundred wind chime alternatives. They feature old kettles, semi-spoked cycle wheels and mudguards, tin cans pitted with holes for which he can find no explanation, and the odd radiator grill that resembles the shape of a zulu shield.
Wander like Alice through this wonderland, and you enter his studio, in which he paints more unusual artworks inspired by old masters like Goya or Michael Angelo, to which he then adds his own contemporary twist. This could be anything from a fire-eating devil in the centre of his version of the Cistene Chapel ceiling, or a 747 flying over an Anglo-Boer war battle scene.
There are other artists in Prince Albert, and I am told the town is attracting more creative residents in a similar way to Nieu Bethesda. The Prince Albert Gallery showcases some great regional talents like black and white photographer Derek McKenzie, whose clear, graphic, empty landscapes and close up flora juxtaposes the quirky and mundane in an eerie fashion.
Ceramicist and local masseur Brent Phillips-White expresses his creative energies by adorning slip-cast plates, often featuring hands and the written word. And my favourite artist in the gallery is Charmaine Haines, whose iconic ceramic wall pieces derive their style irreverently from mediaeval and baroque exuberance and imagery.
I only spent two nights in Prince Albert, and got to do my own version of the historic guided walk, and didn't have time to get on a horse as well as a bike, or hike the scenic trail overlooking the town. I did however, pop into Gay's Dairy to buy some of her award winning cheeses, and mingled with locals filling their containers with fresh-from-the-udder Guernsey milk.
I also sampled the local port, olives and great hospitality, and was told by the manager of the 5-star De Bergkant Country House that 3-nights is the bare minimum you need to stay in Prince Albert. I might just have to go back for the required minimum, as I am currently one night short and will have to start all over again.
© Copyright Carrie Hampton. The author's impressions and recommendations are purely personal.