The beautiful town of Ladismith in the Klein Karoo may be off the beaten track, but tourists who skirt it are missing out.
Even young children will tell you that to sell something these days you need a strong brand. And with rural economies shrinking faster than Tokyo Sexwale’s political stock the South African dorp — which is, generally speaking, more reliant than ever on the tourist’s buck — is no different.
In the national drive to isolate distinct character traits that could be used to lure tourists to rural towns, Ladismith in the Klein Karoo has been somewhat at a disadvantage, primarily because, in name, to many people the place is merely a misspelt version of the much larger and better known town of Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal.
And despite being flecked with cool dams and coddled by mountains and orchards, it seems Ladismith is also just that little bit too far away from larger urbanised areas to entice the weekenders who are the bread and butter of domestic tourism.
So where Barrydale to the west has become well known for its brandies and wines, and Calitzdorp to the east has managed to market itself as an artistic mini-mecca, Ladismith arguably pulls fewer travellers off the picturesque R62 than Ronnie’s Sex Shop, a nearby highway bar. They’re missing out.
Ladismith Cellar produces a world-class pot-still brandy of its own and only in Ladismith could you, on Berg-en-Dal farm, be taught the theory and practice of permaculture, or how to make a rammed-earth home.
And it must be remarked that the town’s touristic failings do not reflect a lack of effort on the part of locals.
The late Oom Stanley de Wit, for example, got it into his head one day in 1963 to contrive a tiny hydroelectric unit beside a river on the face of the Swartberg, the range of mountains that watches over the town. De Wit’s contraption powered a small bicycle lamp that could be seen, like a godly pin prick, from the town at night. He maintained it for years. When his body could no longer manage the arduous hike, volunteers took over and the reassuring light shines on the mountains to this day.
Incredibly, Stanley’s liggie (little light) is not even the most whimsical project to have been conceived by a Ladismither — that prize goes to a quixotic German called Rainer Rochel. Rochel came to Ladismith in 2000 and before very long felt he had a cure for the area’s anonymity: frogs.
Researchers had told Rochel that the pristine kloofs around Ladismith were the last refuge of Hewitt’s ghost frog and so Rochel, who had learned the art of papier-mâché from an Ethiopian master of the craft, hatched a vision of “frogging” the town, in other words, populating it with enormous, brightly coloured frogs and toads. At one point 35 frogs were displayed around town but the waterproofing on Rochel’s creations proved defective and now there is only one left, on the wall outside the Vinknes Kafee on the main street.
After Rochel’s suicide in 2004 it was as though the town gave up on marketing itself to the world, with the result that only a trickle of tourists arrive each year to hike the Stanley’s Light Trail, or merely to gaze at the mountains that rise epically from the fruit fields.
This latter sight is something every South African should see before they die. If I can’t sell it to you, consider these fairly well-known lines by poet Charl Langenhoven, a man who lived most of his life in the shadow of the beautiful Swartberg: Uit die blou van onse hemel /Uit die diepte van ons see / Oor ons ewige gebergtes / waar die kranse antwoord gee (From the blue of our heavens / From the depths of our seas / Over our everlasting mountains / Where the echoing crags resound).
Perfect for: Those who like telling it on the mountain, and also for those who prefer to tell it to the mountain, from a distance, with a glass of wine or tumbler of brandy in hand.
Accessibility: About 350km from Cape Town on the picturesque R62, a drive time of four hours.
Cost: Accommodation in Ladismith ranges from the multistar (approximately R500) to the comfortably rustic (R200).
Albert Manor: By far the most impressive B&B in the town itself is Albert Manor, a bona fide volstruis-paleis (ostrich palace) dating back to 1892 and the Victorian vogue for ostrich feathers that made some Ladismithers fabulously rich. Website: albertmanor.co.za. Tel: 028 551 1127 or 082 822 6804. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Rates: From R350 a person sharing and from R370 for single accommodation. Children younger than five: R50 a child. Children older than five: R100 a child.
Mymering Guest House: A four-star B&B set among orchards and vineyards a little way out of town. This guest house, which also happens to be the home of Hillock Wines, is perfect for those who want to luxuriate in more than j ust scenery. Website: mymering.com. Rates: Two-bedroomed cottage (sleeps four): R400 a person; R500 for two people. Suites: R600 a person sharing; single R750.
Ladismith Country House: Another four-star B&B, set on the secretive Hoekoe Road, right at the foot of the Swartberg. It is perfect for step-out-from-your-door hikers and fans of fynbos. Website: lcountryhouse.co.za. Tel: 028 551 1155 or 082 668 3947. Rates: From R450 to R550 a person sharing including breakfast. Single accommodation: R550 to R600 a person, including breakfasts.
Vincent Cottage: 500m out of town but already very much into fruit country, Vincent Cottage boasts possibly the finest stoep view in the valley. It is fully equipped and includes access to a mountain-fed farm dam. Tel: 028 551 2276 or 072 220 0558. Email: email@example.com. Rate: R200 a person sharing.