I Got Stuck in Calvinia.
Calvinia is the capital of the Hantam Karoo (Hantam being a Khoi word meaning “where the red bulbs grow”), about halfway between Cape Town and Upington. The town was founded in 1845 on the farm Hoogekraal which was purchased by the Dutch Reformed Church in order to establish a parish for the far flung community of this derelict Karoo area. The village, like the region, was originally named Hantam.
Soon after the arrival of the first minister, Reverend N Hofmeyr in 1851, the village’s name was changed to Calvinia to honour the Protestant theologian and reformer, John Calvin.
During the two ostrich-feather booms (1865-1870 and 1900-1914) Calvinia was one of the main centres for their collection and shipping of feathers to Europe, but this industry collapsed at the start of the First World War. The railway arrived in 1917 and for many years was the centre for the agricultural produce of the district. It closed in 2001.
Today, this friendly town is still the centre for a strong farming community and one of the country's largest wool-producing areas, with a well preserved architectural heritage that provides an interesting window on its past.
I spent my fair share of time in Calvinia, and longer than I had planned to, thanks to a slight hiccup with rear brake shoes and having to wait for new ones to be sent from Cape Town (but that’s a story for another day). Two days turned into a very laid-back week, giving me more than enough time to explore everything this little town had to offer.
If you ever do end up passing through, I highly recommend checking in at Die Lemoenhuis. A newly renovated, two-bedroom country house with a lovely stoep and garden offering stunning views over the adjacent farm to the Hantam Mountains. The owners, Liz and her husband, Francois, are some of the kindest people I’ve met on this trip, and I already know I’ll be booking in if I ever pass through Calvinia again. I found Die Lemoenhuis on Airbnb HERE.
The town features a number of fine Victorian and Edwardian era buildings and the best way to explore and meet the locals is on foot.
THE GIANT POST BOX
Converted from a water tower in 1995, the post box located on Hope Street is probably the largest post box in the world, measuring in at 6.17-metres high with a circumference of 9.42-metres. Fortunately one does not have to be nearly six metres tall to post a letter as there is a human-height post box built into the side of this behemoth.
THE CALVINIA MUSEUM
The museum, housed in the old Jewish Synagogue, includes some of the oddest exhibitions I’ve ever seen. On display, black wedding dresses, a four legged ostrich, as well as the Lombard Quadruplet memorabilia and a stuffed merino sheep with a fleece that grew to an astonishing 38 cm in length. I later learned that the sheep, belonging to a local Roggeveld farmer, went missing in the hills for a number of years and consequently missed its seasonal fleecing.
Otherwise, the museum depicts the entire history of sheep farming in South Africa, as well as the culture and economy of Calvinia over the 150 years since the town was established.
AKKERENDAM NATURE RESERVE & HIKING TRAIL
The Akkerendam Nature Reserve & Hiking Trail presents hiking into the Hantam as an excellent way of exploring unspoilt nature. The reserve is also a proclaimed bird sanctuary, as the Kareedam provides an oasis for many migrating birds. Within two days keen birdwatchers can expect to see 65 different species.
GRAVE OF ABRAHAM ESAU
During the Anglo Boer War in 1901 the village was attacked by raiding Boer Commandos. Abraham Esau, a patriotic coloured blacksmith loyal to the British, gathered a force of 70 locals to defend the town against the raiding Boer Commando. The Boers ripped down the Union Jack upon entering the town and tore it up. The torn flag is also on display in the Calvinia Museum. Esau earned the hatred of the Boers by demonstrating an active loyalty to Britain and by defiantly asserting the limited civic rights enjoyed by Coloureds in the Cape Colony at the time.
Esau was captured by the Boers, placed in leg irons and tied between two horses. The horses dragged Esau out of town where he was beaten and finally executed by one of the Boer Commandos, Stephanus Strydom. Legend has it that a sudden thunderstorm scattered the mourners at his funeral and the coffin was splintered by a lightning bolt exposing Esau’s shattered face. The irony of Esau’s capture and execution was that Calvinia was recaptured by British forces three days later
THE HANTAM HOUSE & RESTAURANT
Built in 1854, it is laid out in a T-shape, and is the oldest authentic house in Calvinia. It took more than a decade to restore this building to its original glory, complete with an authentic reed roof, and was declared a national monument in 1983. Hantam Huis is currently being used as a restaurant on one hand, and museum complete with curio shop stocked with handcrafted merchandise on the other. The restaurant is open to day visitors and serves the most delicious traditional meals.
THE OLD LADY COFFEE SHOP
Due to its Victorian-style elegance, rich history and being one of the first houses to be built when Calvinia was founded, the current owner renamed her, “Die Ou Lady”. English translation: “The Old Lady”.
You will feel right at home by the warm, country-style hospitality you will receive from the moment you are welcomed at the door. Die Ou Lady Coffee Shop serves breakfast and lunch, and is open between 7am and 5pm daily, Mondays to Fridays. There’s also a beauty salon situated on the premises (just in case it’s been a long trip). Salon Luzanne boasts a host of services that range from laser treatments to hair removal and a nail technician who specialises in nail art.
DIE BLOU NARTJIE
Die Blou Nartjie is all about good, traditional food prepared fresh with the best ingredients they can find. The menu ranges from strictly traditional South African cuisine to fantastic grills and even seafood.
Otherwise, if nothing here strikes your fancy, the Tourism Office in the museum will also happily arrange guided walking tours of the town's special places of interest.