Boasting famous shoes, world class art, quaint little shops and inspired eateries, the riverside town of Great Brak River has evolved from a three-building tollgate post in the 1800s to a burgeoning haven for creatives, foodies and nature lovers.

 WORDS Jacques Marais PHOTOGRAPHS Mike Ehrman

It’s been over 150 years since Charles Searle arrived in Great Brak River as the keeper of the local toll bridge, but his creative talents as a shoemaker remains the backbone of the local economic and artistic legend.

There is, however, more than a shoe factory in town, as a visit by South soon proved.

Creatively chic
Elaine and Dries van der Walt own [email protected], a chic art gallery that showcases a variety of South African artists. “We have many fantastic resident artists in Great Brak and, while we support and celebrate local talent, we also show artists from the rest of the Garden Route and the country,” says Elaine.

Names like Charmaine Haines, Hennie Meyer, Llise Dodd, Sanna Swart, Helen Pfeil and Dillon Marsh are signed on the photographs, paintings, sculptures and ceramics exhibited in the trendy space. The array of disciplines and calibre of artists on display make [email protected] a gallery on trend with national and international movements. The space is also a boutique venue for special occasions. “We’ve tried to create something different. Not to show art that tries to be political or crass, but to show quality, friendly art.” 39 Long Street, 082 576 3338

Inspired artist
One very friendly local artist is Chris Spies. Chris attained two honours degrees in art from the University of Pretoria and completed the equivalent of three BA degrees in four years, studying in the fields of graphic art, painting, sculpture and photography. “I had the privilege of honing my printing and lithography skills while working under greats like Walter Battis and Gregoire Boonzaier,” says Chris, whose work is often inspired by the style of Gustav Klimt. “Another great inspiration is the old pepper tree outside my studio, thought to have the widest trunk of all pepper trees in South Africa. It has come to represent the Tree of Life. We are connected to trees from cradle to coffin. They provide the oxygen we breathe, the material we build our shelters with and the food we need to survive. We can’t carry on with the blatant, large-scale removal of our trees,” he adds.

Chris is busy with a series in sculpture called Eve. Body casts of women are manipulated and decorated to depict the form and role of ‘woman’ through time. “I hope to show women that they should be proud of themselves. It’s really about celebrating the value of women.” 2 Mossienes Avenue, 071 212 9766

Healing gardens
Laurinda Smit is one woman who has brought a lot of value to visitors to her amazing garden at 103 Steps. A pointillism artist and sculptress in her own right, Laurinda started working in her garden to create a healing space for herself. “Not everyone can walk the Camino when they need to heal, nurture themselves or find inner peace. I started the garden to bring that nurturing into my own life on a daily basis.”

The name is derived from the 103 steps that lead visitors through a magical, calming landscape filled with glimpses of whimsically mystical sculptures and installations. “I make use of anything from crystals to found objects like stones and driftwood. I hardly ever have a pre-planned idea of what I’ll do with any object, but rather let myself be led and inspired by the object itself, as well as the plants in the garden,” she says.

The garden also features a labyrinth and small amphitheatre where Laurinda hosts intimate events, but it really comes into its own on the first Wednesday of each month. “I light a few candles near the entrance and visitors are welcome to take a candle and walk the garden,” she said. “To find that nurturing for themselves, or to just experience the essence of life in a sacred space.” 146 Sandhoogtepad, 044 620 3144

The herb lady
Affectionately known as Great Brak River’s own ‘herb lady’, Cecile Hough has a 20-year romance with herbs. She pours me a cup of delicious homemade herbal tea made from seven herbs with fruity undertones, lemon juice and organic, local honey. “I’m not a herb fanatic and I also believe that unless someone can make an informed diagnosis, herbs should not be prescribed for medicinal purposes. We use herbs for their culinary and cosmetic value.” As well as her tea, bath bushes and bouquet garnis, Cecile manufactures and sells her own herbal moisturising cream and foot cream. “When I started giving herbal footbaths over 19 years ago, there were no herbal foot creams on the market so a friend told me that if I could make moisturising creams, surely I could make foot creams. So I did.” Cecile welcomes visitors to Hough’s Herbal Hub to walk in her herb garden while waiting for a cup of tea. “We believe in organic gardening, so visiting parents don’t have to worry about their kids picking something and putting it in their mouths. In fact, we encourage it!” 20 Mossienes Avenue, 044 620 3143

In honour of the Searle legacy, I make a quick stop at Watson Shoes, which was founded when the demand for Charles Searle’s cobbling talents exceeded the capacity of one man’s hands. The factory continues to make quality shoes, including the world-famous Grasshopper brand, and remains the town’s largest employer. Top quality, comfortable shoes, leather off-cuts and leather handbags are available at good prices at the Shoe Stop factory shop. A tour of the factory (when not closed over season) can also be arranged. 1 Station Road, Shoe Stop 044 620 3453,
Factory 044 620 2121,

Into the past
The interesting story of the Searles, even older tales of the region’s San and Khoe heritage, and an alleged resident ghost are to be found in the village’s award-winning museum. Situated in the old school house building, the museum has earned several accolades but museum curator Ina Stofberg says it is not about the awards. “It’s about keeping the stories of our town alive.”

The museum’s recent shoe exhibition, which included a giant shoe made by Watson Shoes and emphasised the village’s rich history of shoes and shoe-manufacturing, was a great hit.

Also depicted are the lives and times of the village’s earliest settlers. “Great Brak River has been photographed since the very beginning and we are lucky enough to have copies of these amazing photos showing different aspects of life in the 1800s. We also have a small collection of San and Khoe artefacts on display, many of which predate the founding of Great Brak by many, many years.”

Ina also tells of a ghost in the house. “A previous resident of the building where the museum is housed told us how his father would be woken by loud footsteps sounding from the passage of the house. The night visitor would walk from the front entrance – which is now our Khoe exhibition room – down the passage, and enter the boy’s bedroom. The elderly male apparition would linger at the foot of the boy’s bed before walking to the wardrobe, opening it, and lingering for a while longer before taking its leave.” 13 Amy Searle Street, 044 620 3338

Die Ou Pastorie Teetuin
Die Ou Pastorie is at the heart of Great Brak River. Delicious meals, a variety of homemade baked goods and delightful gifts make for a must-visit. 8 Long Street, 044 620 2388

Peperboom Restaurant and Deli
A longstanding landmark and favourite pit stop, Peperboom offers designer breakfasts, gourmet burgers and ice-cold beers. The deli offers freshly baked goods. 67 Long Street, 044 620 3081

Periwinkle Crafts, Haberdashery and Jewellery
With over 1 400 different product lines, Periwinkle is a creative oasis with many fresh ideas for arts and crafts, quality craft supplies and a stunning range of silver jewellery. 67 Long Street 082 743 3089

De Vette Mossel Grootbrak
The original fat mussel knows how one is supposed to really enjoy seafood: in abundance, with sand under your feet and the smell of the ocean in your nostrils – right next to the sea. Enjoy more than perfectly prepared seafood, enjoy an experience. Just off the R102, Great Brak River turn-off from N2. 079 339 0170

Beatnix Leatherworks
Beatnix Leatherworks has been handcrafting leather cases and handbags in Great Brak River since 1992. Combining only the highest quality material, design and workmanship, Beatnix cowhide and calfskin bags and cowhide cases are truly timeless. Visit the factory for a quick tour (on request), but note that the factory will be closed from 11 December until 11 January. But don’t despair – you can still find their quality goods at the Shoe Stop. 1 Willow Street,
044 620 2744

Uitspan Saturday Market
Explore treasure troves of fresh produce, freshly baked goodies, crafts and other gems on the first Saturday of every the month. Held on the public green in front of the Pick n Pay in Charles Street, the market runs from 8am to 1pm.

Celebrating all things botanical and fragrant, the Fragrance Fest takes place in February at Friemersheim outside Great Brak River. The festival is linked to the village’s Fragrance Route, a self-drive or cycle route featuring a lavender farming project, farms and attractions. More information on the festival and the route from Great Brak Information Centre. 044 620 3338 [email protected]

The Great Brak Muse Fest takes place in Spring each year and includes an array of art, food, workshops and more.
Great Brak Information Centre (inside museum)
13 Amy Searle Street, 044 620 3338, [email protected]
Open weekdays from 9am to 4pm, except Wednesday 9am to 4.30pm. An information centre will soon also operate from the De Dekke centre off the N2 at the Great Brak River turnoff.