Nestled among the hills, with its feet in sand dunes, is a village that isn’t trying to reinvent itself to catch the tourist market. Port Alfred’s charm is in being comfortable wtih itself. By Don Pinnock.
South Africa’s little coastal villages all have their distinguishing features: Port Nolloth has offshore diamond mining (and smuggling), Lambert’s Bay is known for its zillions of gannets, Hermanus is synonymous with whales, Jeffreys Bay with surfing and Kosi Bay with turtles. So, turning off the N2 onto the R72 coastal road just east of Port Elizabeth, I was curious to see what would be special about Port Alfred.
I called Bev Young, the enigmatic, wild-haired, Harley-biking publicity chief and asked her to show me her village. “You want to know about Port Alfred?” she said. “Oy, have I got things to show you!” She arrived in a slightly rusty Jeep with an itinerary that would turn the next few days into a blur of activity seen through the lens of her gusto.
It didn’t take long to discover that Port Alfredians (if they may be so termed) are neither small-town nor big-city types. They have a sassy self-assurance that’s almost republican (when did they declare their independence?). For example, when I asked the chef at the Royal St Andrews Lodge, Caitlin Leach, about her curries, she answered: “If you want something with a bite, I can cook you up a cobra.”
Down town at Zest Caf, there’s no menu: your table just fills up with an absolutely delectable food adventure. When I enquired of co-owner Leandr Marais (originally from Bloemfontein) where she got her inspiration from, she startled patrons by ululating and doing a sort of high-kick dance. Then she gave me a beautiful smile and answered: “Life.”
Earlier, I’d dropped in on Lynne Nettelton, who caters, has a holiday cot-tage for hire and speaks with Mae West huskiness. As I arrived, she handed me a basket packed with red wine and glasses, grabbed two fishing rods and five minutes later we were throwing lures off the end of her jetty. After a few gulps of red, she asked: “What was it you wanted to see me about?”
“Um, I can’t remember,” I replied.
“Well, that’s how it is when you’re fishing – nothing else is important.”
So it wasn’t easy to bracket the locals as any kind of identifiable type. Nobody seemed to be like anyone else. Moreover, there was another difficulty about which I need to take you into my confidence. The way to research stories about places is to look for a theme and, in Port Alfred, there patently wasn’t one. It’s not a fishing community, although many do fish. It isn’t a retirement village, although people do retire there. They have many tourists, but the town hasn’t gone ethnic or Biggie Best or chic to accommodate them.
It seems to have a ‘ja, well, get on with it’ ethic. That’s the white side of town. The local township is remorselessly poor; an impression deepened by the pile of building rubble at its entrance. The town council is mainly Xhosa, with a manager reputedly being one of the highest paid in the Eastern Cape. There’s clearly a good deal of ‘ja well’ there too.
A jumble of impressions
What I ended up with were impressions jumbled together like beads without a string. There’s Butlers Restaurant on the Kowie River run by Lisa and Jurie Wessels, where I watched the sun and the level of several bottles of Pinotage simultaneously sink. Verdict: really good grilled fish which speaks of Lisa’s Portuguese origins.
On the river the next morning was Jan Blom and his sculls – long, sleek rowing boats. He’s trained local black kids so well – in a sport they probably never knew existed before he arrived – that this year they competed in the South African championships. The first thing he had to do was teach them to swim, then see where he could borrow sculls.
At The Harbour Master, a tavern in Wharf Street, over glasses of Old Forelegs and Ronald’s Dog beer brewed in the back, I met artist Mary-Anne Lang who’s as colourful as the vibrant paintings she does. She’s also a wicked storyteller and had us gagging over our beers, but I wouldn’t dare publish anything she told us.
Just nearby (okay, everything’s nearby) is an art gallery that boxes way above its weight and proves that there are some very accomplished artists in Port Alfred. Not far from Pick ‘n Pay, Penny Schultz trains locals to sew Xhosa clothing at her tiny shop, YiZakubona. One of her faithful customers is Eastern Cape Premier Nosimo Balindlela.
A block or two away at Weatherstar, master carpenter Eaden Young makes beautiful barometer cases and just about anything else you can imagine. Watching him at work, I noticed he was missing a few ends of fingers. “Ja, bandsaw,” he said. “You don’t want to lose concentration around those things.” His son, also named Eaden, is a landscape gardener and nurseryman specialising in bonsai plants and indigenous gardens, for which he wins prizes. His company, not surprisingly, is named Garden of Eaden.
On the way to the beach, I came across a big-time multitasker, Keryn van der Walt. She runs Maximum Exposure Adventure Centre, the local dive school, Kowie Canoe Trail, gives sea-skipper courses and heads the local National Sea Rescue Institute. She’s tough, cool and reputedly the finest skipper between East London and Port Elizabeth. Another multitasker is River Ministries Missions minister, Andr Roebert. He sees absolute synergy between canny capitalism and the word of God, and is so good at the former (I didn’t get to hear a sermon, so I can’t comment on the latter) that his church owns, among other things, the Halyards Hotel and Mansfield Private Game Reserve. He’s ably assisted by Carl Haller, who’s the general manager of River Hotels.
I hitched a boat ride up the Kowie to Mansfield and was taken on a game drive, then given a five-star meal in their boma restaurant, perched on the banks of the river. They have a tame young giraffe named Gambit, who was rescued when his mum died. He’ll take a drink from your water bottle if you offer. He’s impossibly sweet. Lest I forget, let me tip you off on the accommodation. There is no shortage of really good places to stay in the town and Bev had me bed-hopping on a nightly basis. Here’s a quick run-down: Villa Vista is modern, serves a get-you-going English breakfast, has great views and an interesting, open-sided lounge and bar.
Ferndale, just nearby, is a series of neat rooms along a veranda and the owners, Kevin and Jenny Edwards, are excellent company. Inn on York is a new B&B in a gracious old Settler house with exceptionally large rooms. It’s owned by Tracy and Dalton Phillips. Tracy’s the daughter of uber-chef Lyn Nettelton – she who took me fishing – so her breakfasts are worth waking up for.
Medolino Caravan Park (five star, no less), run by Anita and Derek Victor, has place to park your van or pitch your tent. It also has comfort-able self-catering chalets beside a little dam that’s a magnet for birds. The Residency is an old-world B&B in a corrugated-iron Settler house run by Louise and Richard Hopkins. It is stuffed with memorabilia and gives you the feeling of stepping into a time warp. If you have a yen for the countryside, there’s always Sebumo Tude near Kasouga. It’s the African dream of a German couple, Ronald Dettke and Doris Busse, who took one look at the farm’s wild valleys and bought it. On it they’ve built some chalets and a tented restaurant filled with artistic elegance and fine country cuisine. It’s worth the trip.
When the Bev Tour was over, I confess I needed some peace and quiet. That I found at the Red Pillar Box, created in the old post office by Renate and John Cooper. They served high tea with petits fours in their cool, quiet garden, with no fuss.
I sipped a steaming hot cup of Earl Grey and sat wondering what distinguished Port Alfred from other coastal towns. The answer, I realised, was everything.
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