Sometimes, life has a way of putting things in perspective. Returning to a town that’s always been your second home, for instance, can suddenly seem entirely different if you visit it with different people. Or just for a different reason. I’ve spent maybe a hundred weekends at my grandmother’s house in the small town of Ladismith, at least four times a year since my birth. In fact, I was baptised as a baby in the towering church in the middle of town, the first thing you see when you drive over the hill from Route 62.
The whole town is about ten to twenty blocks wide, hidden in a quaint valley formed by the Swartberg Mountain range. If you keep to Route 62, you drive right into the middle of it, take a right turn, and drive out of within one minute.
Of course, the only part of Ladismith I truly knew was Ouma’s house. For a child, that’s an entire adventure world of its own. As I grew older, though, I started realising that the town had quite a few things worth exploring: a graveyard with the headstones of New Zealand soldiers, a golf course with a dam where you can skip rocks on the surface, a hiking trail to a waterfall in the mountain, and a lookout point against a hill with the town name written in big, white stone letters. I’ve never explored a lot of its people, however, until my current age of 23.
Our environmental journalism intern, Anisa, did an interview with Chris Mercer, the country’s expert on canned lion hunting and founder of Campaign Against Canned Hunting (CACH). He runs a wildlife sanctuary about 30 km outside of Ladismith – of all places. After we spent several hours at his sanctuary, we had a late lunch at The Post House, our accommodation for the evening. It used to be the old post office and the building was just about in ruins when the new owners, Lesley Startin and her family, fixed it up into the beautiful deli and B&B it is now. It’s also perfectly situated in the centre of the town next to Route 62, which meant we could walk anywhere from there.
Of course, I payed a surprise visit to Grandma and Grandpa’s to drink a cup of coffee under the living room air-con (you do not want to know the kind of heat that the Little Karoo gets during the summer). Afterwards, our little company of three journalists decided to explore. We didn’t get far – just across the road, actually – before we were beckoned inside another old-style, renovated building that recently opened as a gin bar called Gypsy’s.
By ‘recently,’ I mean two weeks before our arrival. A yellow mini cooper decorated with flower stickers stood in the courtyard. The large porch was freshly painted in vibrant eclectic colours, and each room seemed to serve a different purpose: the owner, Masood Husain, opened a Ladismith information centre in one of the front rooms, a coffee shop area in another, a restaurant in several others and – of course – a gin bar in the middle of the building.
The large selection of gin brands is something I never expected to find in this town. One of them was an apricot-infused gin (a fruit the Ladismith area is known for), Masood’s own idea. He has a contact in Mossel Bay who distills it for him. The label has the distinctive mountain peak behind Ladismith, Towerkop, printed on it with the legend of how the split formed at the top of the peak.
The Afrikaans word “Towerkop” roughly translates into “magic peak.” Here’s why:
A witch wanted to fly over the mountain on her broom during a rain storm. She was already in a bad mood due to the weather and the pointy mountain popped up in front of her, blocking her way. Irritated, she zapped the top of the peak with her wand, creating a cleft through the rocks low enough for her to pass through.– Local Ladismith legend, as told by Masood Husain.
The story always confused me. I realise it was cloudy and stormy and everything, but couldn’t she just swing her broom a little bit to the left? She would have missed the mountain entirely then. Anyway.
We had some gin and samoosas. A good ending to a busy day.
The next morning, after a breakfast at Gypsy’s, we wanted to find some more people to interview for our blog, Humans of the Garden Route. We share interesting and impactful stories from people all over the Garden Route, and we found quite a few of them in Ladismith. Masood was one of them and he directed us to Deidre Christofoli who owns The House of Allsorts collectables shop on the other side of the road, closer to the petrol station at the entrance of the town. It’s a bright red building with lots of interesting things to look at and buy, if you’re a collector. Deidre certainly is, and she ascribes it to her Romany gypsy heritage – she grew up in the Free State where her mother was abandoned as a baby by a travelling circus from Italy.
Deidre, in turn, directed us to Oom Gert Lategan two buildings over. He’s 92 years old and the famous owner of Gert’s Junk Stall. I say famous, because he’s been interviewed by no less than seven travel magazines.
After talking with him, we payed a visit to one of the local cheese factories (another thing Ladismith is known for) as well the lookout point with the town name against the hill. The photographer among us, Fiona Ayerst, took some really beautiful landscape pictures from up there. We then drove out of town via Van Riebeeck Street, which leads to a valley of bright green vineyards. We happened across a guest farm called Mymering, where we enjoyed a glass of wine and the beautiful, quiet landscape of mountains and vineyards.
When we left Mymering, we had to drive right through Ladismith again in order to leave it on the other side. We took the road that passed Calitzdorp, so of course, stopped by the town’s famous hot springs before taking on the final stretch of road towards home.
It truly astounds me to think that I could experience so many new things about this old, quiet town I’ve known all my life, and in less than two days. I’d recommend this adventure of revisiting a town you think you know to any salted traveller looking for a new experience.