Text & Photographs by Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit
Strolling down the main drag of Uniondale village, I had a flashback to the American autumn of 1981. Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, to be precise. Part of a long-ago journey in another life.
I looked up and saw a graceful row of very tall palm trees and almost expected Jack Nicholson and Nick Nolte to be hanging out on the corner, shooting the breeze. Almost, but not quite.
“Little known fact,” I mused to Jules in the walk, “The palm trees of LA are old and beset by South American weevils. But these ones mostly look in fine fettle, don’t they?”
Never mind the fact that Uniondale’s 25 palm trees don’t quite stack up to LA’s 75 000-odd palm trees. Yay, Karoo.
Big Yellow Tuk-Tuk
The next morning Jules and I waited at Palm Tree #1 of the newly-dubbed Son of Hollywood Boulevard for the arrival of Dirkie Coetzee and his trusty tuk-tuk.
I wasn’t expecting much more than an arbitrary ride around town on a pimped-up lawnmower. However, this turned out to be the surprise package of our Uniondale experience.
Bang on 7am, Dirkie puttered to a halt right by us and thus began a fascinating two-hour trip made wonderful by our guide’s quirky sense of humour.
His big yellow tuk-tuk can take six skinny people if you pack them right, but he normally limits the ride to four passengers so they can sit comfortably. He chugged up the hill past the Moederkerk to the Anglo-Boer War fort from where the Khakis used to scan the higgledy-piggledy mountainscape for signs of Jannie Smuts, Denys Reitz and their very rough riders.
En route, we stopped at the town cemetery where the old graves stood. Nudged up against them were rows of more contemporary graves lovingly graced with flower-filled two-litre Coke bottles. We’d never seen such distinctive grave decorations before.
At the old stone fort, Dirkie unpacked a brief history of Uniondale. From here, we could see the village, cupped in the hands of the Kouga and Kammanassie Mountains. North of here lay sheep-farming country. To the south lived the apple farmers.
We remarked on the well-preserved old buildings in Uniondale and learned that the late great author Dalene Matthee had led the local restoration effort.
“At the time some people thought she was being a bit of a pest,” said Dirkie. “But today those same people bless what she did for the town.”
He gave us each a mug of coffee and a couple of rusks. Mmm. Turns out Dirkie and his wife Thea, in true country tradition, have a number of income streams and one of them is a little bakery, which forces them to rise at three every morning.
“We’re quite well known for our little milk tarts,” he told us modestly. “Some of the people in town are mildly addicted to them.”
So, upon our insistence, we made our way to the family shop via the row of nagmaalhuisies (Karoo-style cottages once built as in-town accommodation for outlying farmers), the disused soda factory, the old water mill that Ms Matthee restored, the erstwhile synagogue where a Russian lady was busy with a yoga class and the absolutely gorgeous Anglican church, the oldest place of worship in Uniondale.
The shop is called Die Skoonheidsentrum – the Beauty Centre. It’s an intriguing mix of home industry, pharmacy and stationery offerings with a selection of rather handsome used coats imported in bales from Europe.
Walking around the shop, Jules noted the irony of all the sweetness for sale, right next to the various liver tonics and antacids on offer. I took note of a sign below a plate of the famous Coetzee melkterties:
“Cake doesn’t ask silly questions. Cake understands.” I’ll say it again: Yay, Karoo.
Rico’s Magic Space
We went off to find Rico Classen of Uniondale Tourism and discovered that his office is also a rather grand little theatre where The Vagina Monologues was once performed to a full house, no fewer than three nights running. With matinees, nogal.
These days Rico and his 18-year-old daughter Carla sometimes play there as a duo. She sings, he tickles the ivories.
Rico loaded us into his little Corsa bakkie and off we went on a winding road into the Kammanassies for an afternoon of inspirations.
Plants, Paintings and Mountains
The first stop was Kannabos, where Allana Willox Fourie builds with straw bale, grows succulents and paints when she’s not off in Cape Town or somewhere exotic working on a movie set with her husband Pierre.
She grows plants like the calming Sceletia (kannabos) and then she paints them. Allana brewed us coffee while Spanish guitar music flooded the gallery space, along with the fresh, clear light of a sunny day in the mountains.
We spoke of the sets she had built on movies like Judge Dredd 3D, The Mummy and The Dark Tower, and her artistic life at home.
“I love the daily challenge of the weather and the mountains – it’s always dramatic,” she said. “There are fewer distractions out here and I can be more creative.”
Not for the Weak
About 20 minutes away by Corsa bakkie lives Sheena Ridley the sculptor. She works in the unforgiving medium of ferro cement and her hands are powerful.
Sheena bends the steel of the armature (skeleton), welds the covering mesh and adds layers of fibrous ferro cement, constantly keeping the sculpture wet so it becomes stronger.
“Some of these figures have lasted for decades,” she said. “However the girl-sculpture at the gate, her name is Joy, once fell over and broke her arm. She was very easy to fix.”
We enjoyed a delicious fresh-picked salad lunch with Sheena, had a last lingering stroll around her sculpture garden and, as we were about to leave, she gave Jules a fragrant little sack of lavender. It was the kind of gesture that makes for a fond memory.
The Steam Nuts
The following day was all about my personal indulgence – a passionate love of steam trains and supernatural tales.
In doing prep work for our visit to Uniondale, I had discovered that one of my photographer-heroes actually lived here. His name is Allen Jorgensen and he co-produced (with Charlie Lewis) a classic coffee table book entitled The Great Steam Trek.
I own two copies of this book, and had brought them along in the hope of an author’s signature. I received much more: an afternoon of Allen Jorgensen and his memories of life along the rail reserve, complete with cameras, comrades and a Combi.
Finally, let’s speak briefly of the ghosts and the ghouls of Uniondale.
Rico told us about The White Lady ghost AKA The Hitch Hiker ghost of the nearby Barandas Road. Then most famous local ghost, said to haunt the Uniondale-Willowmore road. Some call her The Lady of the Karoo.
Followed by the legend of the Klein Karoo Water Maiden, distantly related to the one that haunts Meiringspoort. Then the tale of the Weather Bird, which flies in overcast conditions and kicks you in the back as it passes. Also the Baboon Rider, a scary dude that leaps up through ceilings and makes rattling noises on your roof.
I, in turn, told Rico about the nearby Steytlerville Shape Shifter who goes by the local name of Bawokozi – Xhosa for ‘brother-in-law’. He can change from being a man in a business suit to a farmyard pig to a fruit bat in a matter of seconds.
This stuff can make you crazy, we both agreed, in a most delightful, spine-tingling manner.
Uniondale Tourism HERE