We all know how fond (understatement deluxe) of the Karoo I am, so when my friend Leigh, visiting from the UK, suggested we meet her and her mother in Prince Albert, the answer was a ready yes. As the date crept up, I realised that I had a huge assignment due for my (mid-life crisis) postgrad course, an even-more-huge deadline for one job and a persistent shouting for attention for another, so the actual happening of the trip was on tenterhooks. There’s nothing like the lure of the big-skied Karoo, though, to make me sharpen my pencils and get on with finishing the necessaries in order to fly the coop of the city!
And so it was that we headed out on a warm Sunday morning in April and pootled through the The Tunnel (oh, eek, claustrophobia), the Breede and Hex valleys and over the folded mountains into the great wide expanse of the Karoo. And, breathe.
We stopped for lunch at the Karoo One Hotel, which I’ve wanted to go to for years as we’ve whizzed past its sign. An interesting little place, worth a pop-in for the herd of beaded sheep at the entrance and various sculptures around its grounds. We were the only people there and the staff were great.
And on to Jagerskraal, just short of Matjiesfontein and perfectly far enough that off the N1 to feel like you’re a million miles away. The owners are lovely and upgraded us to a cottage on the hill with a stoep that overlooks the valley, on which we sat watching the koppies blush in the dusk and the gazillionty-twelve stars come out.
There’s nothing quite as refreshing as getting up on a Monday, in no rush, and travelling through landscapes that fill you with wonder to meet old friends in gorgeous places. Like Leigh, and her mom, at the Karoo View Cottages, which are just the right distance out of Prince Albert to make it feel like you’re away from it all, but close enough that you can see the church spire peering over the koppie, and it’s an easy trundle down to the village to hang out in the main drag.
Which we did. Eating lunch at the quirkily-named Lah-Di-Dah. Any place that has a huge glass water dispenser with mint and lemon in it deserves a gold star, especially on a hot Karoo day. After lunch, as the storm clouds gathered behind the Groot Kerk in the village, we headed back up to the cottages to ooh and aah about their loveliness before retiring to the stoep to drink wine, watch the sun setting , and, of course, braai.
Prince Albert is one of those villages that has had an influx of people. The kind of people that like small, quirky places, thus increasing its quirkiness exponentially. Add to that that its filled with gorgeous old buildings – including a fabulous art deco theatre – and has a steady supply of water flowing through the leis, and you have a very pretty, surprisingly-green-for-the-Karoo town. It’s filled with restaurants and even has a Gin Bar in the Swartberg Hotel where, incidentally, one of the ghosts lives (in the dining room, not the gin bar). It also has the most fabulous painted bins – a local art project. I’m not sure how Queen Vicky would feel about being on a bin, but I loved them. And the plumbago!
Which gets me to my favourite bit of our too-short stay in the village – the ghost walk with Ailsa Tudhope, storyteller extraordinaire and avid historian, known as The Story Weaver. If you’re visiting Prince Albert, do this on your first night. We met outside the museum at dusk, Ailsa suitably-clad in a long black cloak. From there, she takes you on a gentle amble through town, stopping on corners, lingering in the graveyard, and tells you the story of the town and the ghosts that flutter about it, mostly benignly, as the sun sets behind the mountains. It’s fabulous.
And cold, as the Karoo is in Summer-turning-to-Autumn. When the sun sets, you need your gloves and beanie. Or, you need to have dinner in the smart Swartberg Hotel dining room, which is warm and inviting and serves delicious food while you’re watched by the young lady in the painting … one of the ghosts of which we’d learnt on our walk with Ailsa. The river, beside which she stands, occasionally runs with blood. Sadly, on the night we were there, it didn’t happen.
One of the many reasons I’ll be returning to this little Karoo town.
The main drag in Prince Albert is a lovely wide, flattish street, perfect for wheelchairs. Many of the buildings are heritage sites, so some have a step or two into them. Places like the Swartberg Hotel (and its fabulous gin bar) and Lah-Di-Dah have ramps.
The Ghost Walk was totally doable in a chair, it mostly being an amble along the main road and the road one block up. Do it, really!
Karoo View Cottages – which are situated a little out of town, up a small hill – have a universally-accessible cottage which is fabulous. The owners, too, are lovely and really helpful. It’s huge, with plenty of space to move around, and a bed that’s big enough for a family! There’s a movable ramp onto the stoep which has the most gorgeous view across to the koppies. The bathroom, too, is huge with a small hump into a large shower, toilet with front and side access and plenty of room to move about. Oh, and it even has undercover parking, just in case it rains. A brilliant spot to stay.