Thursday, 23 August 2012

Location: Saint du Barrys on the map and on the planet

The physical address is 13 Augsburg Road, but please don't use this way of finding us. I don't think there's one sign that says Augsburg Road, and all our neighbours for three doors down (and that's quite a long way by European postal code standards) are also number 13. And then, on some municipal accounts Saint du Barrys appears as number 11. So the physical address is not an exact science. But it's easy to find us. Most folk arrive from the N7. There's only one road into Clanwilliam from the N7, and we're on it. Just keep going, don't turn right into the main road, and we're just after the bowling green, on the right, with the orange orchard on the left. There are brown boards all the way to the gate.

Clanwilliam is in the centre of the spring flower region. During the season there are flowers all the way from the beginning of the West Coast, up to Namaqualand. Clanwilliam is pretty much in the middle of this.

Clanwilliam is the heart of the rooibos industry. Originated and developed locally, rooibos is now exported internationally. This is the only area in the world in which rooibos grows. I have yet to find out exactly which climatological factors contribute to such a unique occurence.

At Saint du Barrys, we've had the pleasure of having many guests en route to and from Namibia. One of our long-standing guests hails from Windhoek, and in summer, he drives the entire distance between sunrise and sunset - in fact quite some time before sunset - from Windhoek to Clanwilliam. Perhaps this hint is illegal but here it is: on those long, long stretches of straight road in Namibia, you can push the limits by setting cruise control at 155 km. Up to 159, you get fined, at 160 you get fined and jailed. I haven't tried this for myself.

Travel west from Clanwilliam, and you'll reach Graafwater in thirty kilometers, and stop at Lamberts Bay after sixty. Many of our guests do this, heading for Bird Island to see the colony of gannets achieving the impossible: finding offspring that look exactly like all other offspring without even trying. They leave a little runway open for take-off, but land anywhere. The noise-level is high, often the olfactory index, too.

Head east, and you'll soon be up in the Cederberg, where you'll pass Bushmans Kloof, unless you have the good fortune to be booked in. This is one of the top ten resorts in the world. Here's what we love to boast about: their fresh produce is sourced by Mike Shaw, who delivers to Saint du Barrys as well. Perhaps we should consider raising our rates. At the Englishman's grave, there's a junction. Turn left to go to Calvinia, or right to go on to Wuppertal. From Wuppertal on, you'll need a four wheel drive vehicle, otherwise you'll have a good chance of getting stuck. The terrain is rough, and sandy.

That's where we are on the planet. Two hundred and twenty kilometers north of Cape Town. At the foot of the rugged Cederberg. Sixty kilometers from a cold Atlantic coast. Sixty-two meters above sea level, in our parking area. Three hundred to Springbok, and after that, another one hundred and eighty to the Namibian border, with Vioolsdrif on the southern side and Noordoewer on the northern side.

In South Africa, on the open road, you should easily average a hundred kilometers an hour, unless you're stuck behind a truck or negotiating a pass. This makes it fairly easy to estimate how much time it takes to get to where you want to be. If your vehicle has a sixth gear, you won't need an autobahn before you use it.

To find the heart of where you are, once here, stand stock-still and blend into the ground, air and breeze, if there is one. Pretend you aren't here, but still keep your awareness open and present. You shouldn't need more than a few moments. Forget about the mad politicians, impossible global fiscus and whatever else distracts us from the earth beneath our feet, the vista in front of our eyes and the many-tongued air that breathes on our skin. You might well feel something you have never felt before. You won't be able to pack it into your suit-case, yet you will never leave it behind.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Saint du Barrys and sounds

I don't cook with recipes. I follow successes that I've learnt, and if I try something new, I'll keep it secret until it works or is abandoned. Joan has teased me about listening to the pot to tell where it's at in the scheme of readiness. Yes, I have a sensitive ear, whether it's about music, cooking or subtle noises of alarm. I enjoy picking up romantic atmosphere or jolly moods by listening to the sounds that accompany these pockets of solitary experience.

We used to have a lot of frogs. There was a gully across the road which had water flowing down to the Jan Dissels River, and when this was closed, the frogs subsided. Sometimes they start up at night, but their number and vigour have both declined.

Hadedas. When I grew up in Cape Town, and started working, right up till 1988, I hadn't seen one. Up in the Eastern Cape they were prolific. Now, in Cape Town, they're everywhere. Guests ask what makes such a racket in the morning: hadedas. Big, black yet full of oily colour up close, the best explanation for their raucous cry is this: they're scared of heights. Taking off and flying, they look down, and then scream their fear. It sounds true.

We've grown fond of the evening and morning bird-calls. If you listen carefully, you can pick up what sort of day it's been or going to be. Then of course Ramius, the African Grey, might be cracking something in the food dish, or talking to himself, or sending the dogs to bed. If they bark, he'll join in for a moment, and then say "Go to bed!". On his own, trying to maintain his level of conversation, it will be greetings in various voices, or bits of Shakespeare - "O reason not the need" or "When to the sessions of sweet, silent thought" are favourites. He might be a bit more crisp on the flight deck: "Captain to cabin crew, check and cross-check". "Flaps up, flaps down." Surgical procedures are quiet: "Scalpel please, oxygen, clamp. DeBakey scissors".
More randomly, "Buttons". "Coffee."

On some weekend nights, you can hear the town having fun, sometimes it goes to bed early. Sunday mornings are silent, punctuated by church-bells that are early in summer, a bit later in winter. In the quiet of the night you may hear a cock crow. There are two low sounds of water running at Saint du Barrys: the water going nito the fish-pond and the small water-feature at the corner between the dining-room and the guest wing.

The wind doesn't blow stronngly or gust for long periods of time, as in Cape Town. The thatch over guest rooms means that rain is more of a rushing noise than a clatter.

The morning might wake up either with hadedas or Egyptian geese, with their honking, hissing cry. I like the sound of the fire, either in the office or outside at the braai.

I think eveyone listens to hear if the ambulance siren goes towards the N7 or towards the Pakhuis Pass. The other sound of distress is the helicopter circling the town before landing, then taking off again from the hospital after a brief droning.

The busy-ness of Saturday morning in the Main Road is noisy. Shouting, greeting, advice, laughter, abuse, impatience. My favourite is "Jou kop lek!" which means "your head is leaking". There are plenty of other retorts, most of them unrepeatable.

There's a bowling green next door, and when there's a big meeting, the balls clink continuously, and the voices comment.

I have just come in from making the evening's bookings at the restaurant. The birds are making their settling-down chirps, and there's a quiet night chill gathering in the air. Rush - hour which lasts from five o' clock till five past five has long passed. Soon the mild crackles of the fire beside me will be the loudest thing I can hear.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Seasons at Saint du Barrys

Many people must have believed that it doesn't get cold in Africa. Houses are built with braai-areas, pools, lapas and verandahs. Not central heating and double-glazed windows. At least it doesn't go to zero Celsius or below, in Clanwilliam. On really cold winter mornings, the chill factor might be severe, but the bite of the highveld isn't there. A good winter's day means snow on the crags of the Cederberg, flowers where you're standing, a clear blue sky and a temperature of around twenty degrees Celsius. Almost short sleeve weather. A bad winter's day means dark clouds, the day's high at around ten degrees, perhaps rain, and of course, flowers in hiding. This is July and August weather. Indeed there are more better than worse days, but flower-seekers on limited time schedules have to take their chances. Our winters are short, benign compared to European winters, and offer more promise than threat, in that they feel necessary as a required step towards spring.

My favourite seasons are autumn and spring, because in a good year they stretch to create many months of a wonderful summer, when evenings are longer, the growing plants know what to do, strong winds are seldom, and if you want to, you can light a fire every afternoon and evening, and create your favourite braai over and over. The crisp lamb chops, or steak, tender, tasty and pink in the middle, perhaps spare ribs, falling off the bone as your teeth merely touch the fire-roasted meat, chicken marinated in peri-peri basting, boerewors hissing with aroma and invitation: I confess to this season of braais at Saint du Barrys. This is more of a family thing than a guest thing, and if smoke gets in your eyes as you arrive (which it shouldn't - I'm being romantic - ) I'm sure you might feel a stab of envy, walking past the flames and the anticipation of the feast.

Back to the seasons, and leave the seasoning, with regret. I can see food coming up in future blogs.

Spring pulses almost obscenely with fecundity. Once the tips of seeking tendrils blossom and bunch, the orange orchard across the way begins to swell. The scent - no, this is too bland a word - the full fragrance - not sensory enough - the actual touch of fruitful presence that nudges the nose as well as the skin - encompasses night's knowledge and day's declaration of fullness.

Sounds a bit like a Hollywood honeymoon, and it's just orange blossoms. Yet the experience is rich if not romantic.

The wine. I'm harking back to the braaai, now, and the one that's on my tongue's memory is a cabernet sauvignon. A wine from 2007, and I mustn't advertise, so no names. What happens is that when it curls into the tongue's centre, it reminds the body's centre (that strange place between the heart and the stomach) of many memories of intense yet peaceful happiness.

Must get back to the seasons.

Summer. The beginning is good, the middle harsh (40 -45C?) the end, mercy. December, maybe, January, yes, February definitely, March, less. You need aircon, beer, sauvignon blanc, not to be on honeymoon unless you're a very hot couple (like boiling)  - that's how it is.

When I start up the car in winter, it might say 2C. At the height of summer, 54C. This is a car that has been standing, so it's an exaggerated figure. But hot....yes.

Once you have done the braai, you can always eat inside, in the cool of the hundred year old kitchen with thick walls. Strange, though, most of us like to go back outside and lean back into the shade of the verandah, taking time to dare the season with purposeful relaxation.

So the seasons are not neat steps. They're a pattern of living to which we've become accustomed, and which are different, again, in a personal sense. We wait for the wood to be delivered for winter's fireplace, in the office. We ask for delivery of summer's wood, for the braai, and family meals. We watch for crazy robins, poeping as they fly, even through the dining-room. We anticipate the flock of starlings' sudden shout of wings as they fly, for the last time, this season.

We become still. solemnly, remembering how souls don't disappear but touch, yet, in unexpected ways when ultimate partings become unaviodable.

And each morning we wake, sometimes still tired, always grateful for the gift of continued grace, which comes down on us with rain, sun and stillness, holding our lives in this place of remarkable blessing.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Saint du Barrys and the Big Tree

Perhaps the Tree deserves to be personalised, and have a name, but we've never done that. Once I thought I would try somethingWordsworthian and listen to the Tree, and I must say, that after thinking really hard about Tolkien, I did hear something quite profound, but I don't talk about it, because people would think that I had been drinking. Many guests remark on the Tree when they arrive, and truly, it's a magnificent wild fig. The most frequent question is about the Tree's age. We reckon it's about two hundred years, since it was mature when the house was built in 1904.

When we drove into Saint du Barrys for the very first time, it was a cold, clear July day. On the way from Cape Town we had seen bright flowers along the road, and this with the intense blue sky, clear snow-topped mountains and crisp air, gave us a taste of years to come.

When we arrived - I can hardly believe it - the only heating was the fireplace in the office. The rooms had those oil heaters with fins. How on earth had anyone kept warm for a hundred years before us?
Now we have nine of those reversible aircons which heat quickly and effectively. The seasons differ greatly: no talk of heating in the summer months, with temperatures ranging from mild thirty degrees Celsius to forty five on wicked days. The Tree is a blessing in these months, offering shade in which to hide from a stare which can be intimidating from such a sun.

I don't think Saint du Barrys would be Saint du Barrys without the Tree. Apart from functional values, its livingness can easily be taken for granted. It is forever trying to walk through the dining room, on the way to the Jan Dissels River which isn't many meters away. The aerial roots grow downwards quite quickly, and have to be cut regularly. Once they touch the ground, they'll grab and won't let go. The Tree must host a huge number of birds. We've come to know the difference between their morning and evening calls.

We prune back the large branches every three to four years. Our first tree-man had a very limited sense of the horizontal: he seemed to spend much of his life zapping up and down sliding ropes, and anywhere he put his feet was purchase, not of the buying kind, but of bringing down tough trees. In fact, our first meeting was when we glimpsed something landing on the scullery wall, lifting to come down on the dining room roof, then back to the scullery roof - not much sympathy for our humble structures, but what the hang - the thousand meter tree on our neighbour's land was required to come down, and down it would come, correctly cut into, angled, and then pulled by the tree-man and associates, with their feet tightly against our walls and roofs. His name was Luke: we called him Skywalker Luke.

In the later year the Tree drops millions of small balls of baby fig. They're hard or mushy depending on the kind of year and rain. Enough work for a team of gardeners and a company of carpet-cleaners. There's also the mulberry tree, but I won't even think about that one right now.

One poignant sound that will no doubt travel with us forever is the windchime that hangs from a lower branch. For many weeks it does very little, and then when north-west breezes begin to remind themselves of what it's like to be a full-blown wind, and we hear the sound of seasons rubbing hands, that high and mellow beat says things that completely bypass words. It's a sound, to me, of deep home.

Most guests would not experience a week of the Tree's company. Eleven years, so far, in the company of the Tree, is a significant part of our lives, and a very small part of its great growth. Time is relative and mystifying. The Tree has taught me at least that, as well as very much more.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Visiting the Cederberg: discovery, experience, introspection

About twenty-five years ago I had reason to travel the road between Windhoek, Keetmanshoop and Cape Town a number of times a year. Whenever I passed the Clanwilliam Dam I was thankful that the journey was more than half done: I remember looking over the expanse of water, usually at night, observing the lights and the reflections, and wondering what it was like to to be experiencing that place, rather than passing it.

Today I live there, surprisingly enough for me. I have a guest house there, Saint du Barrys Country Lodge, and toegther with my wife, Joan, we've hosted thousands of guests. It's a strange thought. If I take eleven years multiplied by two hundred nights multiplied by six guests - just a rough calculation - I get thirteen thousand and two hundred guests.

They come to South Africa, or they live in South Africa, they travel this way, some on business, some on holiday, and they stay over. The average is something like 1.8 days. I  am aware of the immense priviledge of sharing valuable time with so many people.

The more I become aware of how precious life and time are, the more carefully I look at the lives that cross ours, even for 1.8 days.

Everyone who arrives, stays and leaves has a story that impinges on the immediate, but also goes so much further. That's not our business, but after eleven years of doing this, we know that it matters. I remember a guest who came for repeat visits in the hottest heat of summer because the heat meant muscles could relax, the wheelchair could be put away, and pain was alleviated for the time being; I remember a couple who came at the beginning of each year and became firm friends; I am grateful for another couple who still arrive at the end of each year, and whose visits are a highlight; and the special twins who know who they are.

Obviously we can't cater for intimate personal details, but we know that each guest is on either a visit, a journey or a quest, depending on the intensity and purpose of time spent here.

We would like all of them to know that the Cederberg, Clanwilliam and Saint du Barrys offer a pause and an opportunity for realization of a different beauty and a reconnection to life that goes on.