Don’t mention Clarens to people who’ve settled here warns Chris Harvie
“You do know that this is Chris van Niekerk’s shop, don’t you?” the strict-sounding-but-friendly blonde Tannie asked me as I walked in.
Fortunately I did. Somebody in Rosendal had already explained to me that Chris van Niekerk is the most important living person in the settlement and that he plays Francois in ‘7de Laan’. Stroke of luck. Otherwise I would never have known how hallowed was this piece of Eastern Free State turf.
I call Rosendal a ‘settlement’ because people have just begun to settle there, albeit in small numbers. The newly-settled are, however, mightily unsettled by the thought that they might be unseated by the Gauteng hordes. Mention the word ‘Clarens’ in Rosendal and the settlers gasp. We shall never go the way of Clarens they say. Never. We shall demonstrate on the tar roads and put up signs saying WE HATE ANYBODY WHO TRIES TO TURN US INTO ANOTHER CLARENS.
So, they don’t like Clarens, although there are evidently plenty of people around who do, but what is it, in Rosendal, that needs to be protected with such determination? Sandstone. Lots of it. And tin roofs. Rusted windmills. Wide, dusty streets. A church with a wonky weathervane. A plethora of potty artists and arty potters. A school that is for sale only to someone wishing to occupy it in the foundation of a Boerestaat. Truly. And Chris van Niekerk’s shop and theatre.
Esmeralde is the manager of The Rosendal Country Lodge and wife of its very capable chef Van Heerden Haasbroek. Well, it’s a more interesting name than Jamie Oliver isn’t it? It’s just two surnames instead of two Christian names.
Esmeralde has just returned, with Van, from Devon where she worked in a restaurant. She has a Bloemfontein accent with a West Country burr. I ask her what there is to do in Rosendal. Her answer is immediate. NOTHING.
And that’s the point, you see. Go there to do nothing … except to look out over the Witteberge, watch the wandering cattle and the wind in the willows that line the mountain streams.
The Rosendal is the brainchild of Tracy and Richard van der Heijden and it’s quite a creation. Uncomplicated, large, comfortable rooms with thick curtains, huge chairs and monster butlers trays, fine crumbly biscuits and Readers Digests. Fresh milk (not nasty sachets) in a chutney bottle in the minibar fridge for your filter coffee. Sensible, expensive orange-and-sandalwood-scented soaps and shampoos.
Rosendal is both a hot and a cold place so there are fireplaces, heaters, blankets and thick duvets for winter and French windows, stoeps and insects buzzing in and out of the thousands of plants and herbs that fill the endless flowerbeds in the summer.
The energetic can ride horses and mountain bikes or hike to see the bushman paintings. The less energetic can mosey around the studios. The non-energetic can follow Esmeralde’s recommendation without deviation. But nobody really cares what you do. It’s up to you.
In the dying afternoon, down by the stream, the evergreen willows wave beneath the kopje under a pale sky with small blue-grey clouds splodged amongst the lines of pink striations. Who says the Free State is flat and boring? I have heard that Chris van Niekerk sometimes pops in for a drink and all this nothinging is good for the appetite, so we’re revving up for a beer in the cow-themed bar followed by another of Van’s exceptional dinners.
Clarens is not far from here over the mountains but it seems a very long way from Rosendal. So that is settled.
Where it is: Almost half way from Senekal to Fouriesburg on the R70. Three hours from Johannesburg. Two hours from Bloemfontein. An hour and a bit (and a few light years) from Clarens.
Why go there: Admit that you had never heard of Rosendal before you read this piece and then head off. But beware. There are three Rosendals in the Free State, this one is set in rolling country, golden mountains and dramatic views and there’s nobody there. Shatter your preconceptions. The drive from Rosendal to Ficksburg has to be one of the finest in the land.
What it has: The Rosendal is a restored and converted cheese factory. It has 17 rooms and caters for city-escapees, weekenders, think-tanks and weddings.
What it’s like: It is unpretentious, informal and fun. Michael Buble at breakfast and dinner and then, inexplicably, Johnny Cash in the bar. The staff are easy-going and cheerful and drawn from the local community. Isaac, the barman will tell you with pride that he has never worked before and that The Rosendal has taught him everything he knows. And he certainly knows how to smile.
And the food: They gave Van free rein and it has worked. He uses, with bursting pride, local produce throughout: eggs, asparagus, cheese, bacon, beef. If he could get away with un-pasteurised milk he would and he picks the salads and herbs from the garden outside the dining room while you wait. Subtle flavours, juicy cuts of meat and a creme brulee that could walk on water (even if it can’t spell on his menu). Legendary breakfasts, especially the French toast.
Rates: R400 per person sharing, bed and breakfast
Opening hours: The bar and restaurant are open to all comers,resident and non-resident, every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Booking recommended.
Rosendal is unashamedly old-fashioned and offers an unreliable assortment of studios, galleries, antiques and junk shops that open when they feel like it. But go anyway and try your luck. Among others, try these:
- Chris van Niekerk’s Die Rosendal Teater stages regular musicals, revues and drama. Dinner, drinks and snacks are available to theatre-goers. Call to find details of upcoming events. 058 211 0902
- Die Ou Handelshuis next door sells old Agas, pots and pans, model aeroplanes, paintings, soda syphons and week-old copies of the Sunday Times but is also home to a magnificent collection of South African ceramics. 058 211 0902
- Meerkatkolonie houses the only significant display of the works of renowned artist Michelle Nigrini and sculptor Dahla Hulme. 058 211 0664
- Turksvy Trading does an off-beat line in unusual furnishings and memorabilia 058 211 0609 Otherwise walk, drive and enjoy the views