In the 1860s famous road builder Thomas Bain and a team of convicts settled at De Vlugt while building the pass that would connect the region’s administrative base, Uniondale, with the timber hub of Knysna. Ever since, the tiny settlement and picturesque Prince Alfred’S Pass have gathered around it an eclectic community of intrepid souls.
WORDS Athane Scholtz PHOTOGRAPHS Desmond Scholtz
Three very different kinds of roads lead to De Vlugt, none of them fast and smooth. In all cases, the scenery varies significantly from the coast to the Karoo as forests and plantations turn into a semi-desert landscape, red-brown sandstone and layers of blue mountain.
“It’s remote, but not lonely when your hands can find something to do,” says Ursula Peter, who with husband John Allen is among the handful of people who live in the valley permanently. After renovating an 1884 cottage, clearing the seven-hectare property of alien vegetation, making a garden and setting up a honey house, the couple was still far from finished.
“Before retiring to De Vlugt we never realised how popular the pass was. For us, it was a shortcut on our way from the coast and, mountains aside, not particularly beautiful because the surrounding area was covered in alien plants. But we knew there were beautiful waterfalls, pools and an amazing array of indigenous vegetation, and we wanted others to see that,” says Ursula.
Passionate conservationists, the couple has taken it upon themselves to clear the 3km poort section of the pass of alien vegetation – reining in the help of neighbours and at their own cost. In addition, John and Ursula have been identifying places of interest, such as the Bain outspan area where they have planted trees indigenous to the area and an old graveyard, which was cleared of alien vegetation. “There is so much history and beauty here, which we believe should be discovered and explored.”
John, a retired marine biologist and environmental officer, has kept bees since the 1980s and manages hives across the area. The thick, richly flavoured honey is an excellent reason to stop and buy.
The only remaining working farm in De Vlugt belongs to Danie and Linda van Rooyen, who have been farming cattle and vegetables here since the 1970s. “The soil is fertile and the lifestyle calm and quiet. It has been good for long, but we are growing old and have to start thinking about moving nearer to civilisation,” says Danie.
The Van Rooyens’ farm boasts the original house in which Thomas Bain and his family lived during construction of the pass to Avontuur. Thick walls, wooden floors, antique furniture and a coal stove are part of the rugged Bain’s Cottage’s charm. The house has also become a popular holiday cottage. “It is a surprisingly popular honeymoon cottage, mainly I think because there is no cell phone reception and you are guaranteed privacy,” Danie adds with a smile.
Down the road is the Outeniqua Trout Farm, which no longer has trout, but does provide information, accommodation, hiking trails and birding. “When changing weather conditions made fish breeding impossible, we re-looked at what was here and went for it,” says Ingo Venneman, who has since developed with conservation tourism in mind. The farm is part of the Middle Keurbooms Conservancy. “I am just the caretaker, nature is the owner.”
Across the river, the Van Rensburg family owns the property where Bain’s convict crews camped. The station commander’s house, known as The Station, has been in the family since 1928.
“My great grandparents, Esias and Hettie van Rensburg, had 12 children and farmed here through really tough times. Hettie was the local midwife. The family was very musical and my granddad Andrew told of New Years’ parties held on the banks of the Keurbooms River at the drift,” says Ronelle Duck, whose parents Pieter and Desire now own The Station.
Among Ronelle’s own memories are cosy chats in the house’s old-style kitchen, which still boasts a wood stove and a suspended bamboo over which fresh water eels were dried. “De Vlugt is our sanctuary. My best childhood memories were made here; I swam in the river and had hours of family fun. There is no electricity, no television, no cell phones – just the sound of insects and owls. It is heaven.”
Up in the pass, Christopher and Eva Dry have a herd of Saanen goats and provide goat’s milk products to the catering industry. They rent out Cloud Cottage, a characterful holiday cottage in the mountains with an open fireplace and a unique rock-faced bathroom. “People come here to relax, hike and explore on foot or on mountain bikes,” says Christopher.
The most interesting man in the area is retired engineer Katot Meyer, who has turned his grandfather’s old cattle post, Pietersrivier, into a contract stewardship nature reserve in association with CapeNature. “The focus here is on the environment and the intention is to return the area to as close to its original natural condition in the time of the pioneers.”
The camp site is rudimentary but a true reflection of Katot’s off-beat personality. His engineering brain turns conservation issues, such as waste management, into simple solutions intended to change people’s mind-sets. Visitors to the reserve are expected to carry a ‘green box’ for waste disposal (including picking up waste others may have left behind), use toilet paper only in the outdoor flush toilets at the camp site (in the veld, you should carry a water and soap mixture) and smokers must dispose of cigarette butts in a little bottle half filled with water. “If people are uncomfortable with this, they should not visit the reserve,” says Katot.
Pietersrivier features the Burchell Trail, which follows the ox wagon tracks of legendary botanist WJ Burchell in 1814, and sledge tracks over the Outeniqua Mountain dating back to 1774. It has become a significant research site and the base of a water-neutral project in which riverside eradication of alien species has resulted in the reclamation of water equal to 150 homes being supplied with 6m³ water per month.
Real outdoor types will find Pietersrivier extraordinary. It is top-class 4X4 territory and has five hiking trails, one of which includes an overnight option in an indigenous forested kloof. A bird-watching trail features rare birds such as the African sedge warbler. An annual guided hike in the footsteps of Burchell includes areas of true wilderness. There is a water hole, at which leopards are known to drink, which is also great for swimming.
Prince Alfred’s Pass (R339) Named for the second son of Queen Victoria, the 68km Prince Alfred’s Pass connects with Uniondale via Avontuur and is considered one of Thomas Bain’s greatest achievements. Completed in 1866, it is the longest mountain pass in the country and the second oldest still in use. The mostly gravel road reaches an average altitude of 848m and is 1010m at the summit. Access: From N2 east of Knysna, take the Uniondale turnoff (R339). From the N2 east of Plettenberg Bay, take the Wittedrift turnoff (R340), link-up with R339. From the N9 south of Oudtshoorn, take the R62 and then the Avontuur turnoff (R339).
THINGS TO DO AND SEE between Plett and De Vlugt Keurbooms River Game Trails: accommodation, hiking, mountain biking, game drives. gametrails.co.za Outeniqua Trout Lodge: information centre, accommodation, mountain biking, hiking. outeniquatrout.co.za De Vlugt’s Finest: honey, seasonal organic vegetables, short nature walk. 044 752 3014 Angie’s G-Spot: popular bikers’ stop, pub, accommodation. angiesgspot.co.za Bain’s Cottage: Thomas Bain’s old house self-catering accommodation. 044 752 3333 Cloud Cottage: accommodation, goat’s milk cheese. cloudcottage.co.za
THINGS TO DO AND SEE between De Vlugt and George Pietersrivier Nature Reserve: camping, 4×4 trails, hiking, mountain biking. pnaturereserve.co.za K’buku Mountain Lodge: accommodation, pub and grill, hiking, bass fishing, quad bikes, 4X4. kbuku.co.za Kannabos Art Gallery: fine art, succulent nursery. 083 444 5237 Langkloof Gallery & Sculpture Garden: art, tea and light lunches by appointment only. 083 589 2881