Riebeeck Valley – Looking for Nowhere

In the last week of July, Jamie and I got wind from our good friend Chris Parsons about a local art festival happening in the small farming towns of Riebeeck West and Riebeeck Kasteel that very weekend, and he suggested we try come up and explore the town’s galleries with him. We’re always interested in learning more about South Africa’s local art communities, and secondly, any excuse to get out of the city already has us turning our heads rapidly – so after mailing around for last-minute accommodation and hastily packing a bag of clothing and cameras, on Friday morning  we found ourselves driving just over an hour out of Cape Town towards the quaint and quiet Riebeeck Valley.

Upon arrival in Riebeeck Kasteel, we headed straight for the town’s Info and Tourism Centre – where we received quite a cheerful earful about all of the valley’s historical and commercial attractions, from monuments and museums to wine farms, restaurants and even a cement factory. After being thoroughly oriented by the lady at the Info Centre, we scouted out some of the nearby galleries of artists who were participating in the festivities of the weekend.

On our forty-odd minute stroll around the commercial square  in the middle of Riebeeck Kasteel we visited four art galleries, two or three touristy curio shops, and eyed out a few restaurants for dinner that night. My personal favourite art stop on the walk was the Pictorex Photo Gallery, which belonged to a local photographer and digital printing genius named William Walker. I really enjoyed talking to him about his career and his work process, from camera to canvas. As a film photographer I’ve always understood that a dedicated and skilled darkroom operator is just as important as a skilled photographer, so hearing William’s vivid and lively descriptions of his various digital printing processes was a really nice reminder that the art of printing is still alive and well in the digital era. Our introduction to the Riebeeck Valley art community was great, but after the hour long drive it would take more than a stroll around the small town to stretch our legs – so after getting a bite to eat, we checked Google Maps for the nearest nature reserves and headed in that direction to see if our wild card could get us in.

At first we were quite enchanted by the vibrant greens and yellows of the grazing lands, vineyards and canola crops that lined the N7 on the journey to our destination – but now in the quieter dusty farm roads around the Kasteelberg mountain, when we were looking for open green land to walk through, it became quite clear that open, inviting, non-restricted spaces would prove quite hard to find. We ventured a left turn off the main tarred road onto a wide dirt road, a road that our GPS soon told us was one with restricted access. We decided though to keep following the road to where we finally reached the locations of the nature reserves listed on our maps. Unlike most reserves Jamie and I have visited in the past though, we didn’t find a friendly face at a boom or a gate, but were again met with fences and signs warning of trespassing on private property.

Unable to enter either of the reserves, our hopes for hikes, animal finds and star-trail photos began to diminish. Rather than turning back though, we decided to press on and at least see where this dirt road ended. We found ourselves on the road behind the mountain upon which Riebeeck West was built, in a quiet valley with very private nature reserves and some very local farms. It was while stopping on the road to take a photo of a rather interesting sign – a memorial to the last leopard to have roamed the mountain, over 100 years ago – that Jamie and I met a very curious man, who also happened to have an interesting history associated with the mountain.

This interesting man, Gerry Damp, parked his blue jeep right in front of our little silver polo, rolled down his window, and politely asked what on earth we were doing. A few minutes after exchanging introductions, Gerry was kind enough to share with us some of the history of how his grandfather, and eventually he, came to own all the land around the Kasteelberg mountain. Through talking to him we also gained a lot of insight into both the development of the area’s farming community, as well as some of the history of the valley’s wildlife and ecosystems – such as the fact that the region was once teeming with dassies, but as farmers settled here they introduced several invasive predators to protect their crops, which in turn decimated the local ecosystem for both indigenous predators and prey. Insightful and engaging conversation aside, what I think I most appreciated about our serendipitous encounter with Gerry was his eccentric yet relaxed and friendly demeanour, and the way he made us feel a lot more welcome in this quiet valley with its restricted road and fenced off properties. We suddenly felt quite invited to explore a small section of land that was otherwise closed off to most visitors and passers-by. Jamie and I exchanged contact details with Gerry, said our goodbyes and continued down the dirt road. With our senses of curiosity renewed, and a bit less anxiety about possible trespassing, we even walked through a few of the local farms and reservoirs where we found some great sights like African melons, fiscal shrikes and even a few Nguni cattle.

For our second day in Riebeeck Kasteel, we started our morning by heading out of town and venturing down a slightly different country road – the one that lead to the memorial of Jan Smuts’ birthplace, the new and locally esteemed PPC cement factory, and eventually, more privately owned and fenced off farm lands. Jamie and I had followed the road to its end, and after circumnavigating the factory and reaching as far into ‘the middle of nowhere’ as this road would allow, we figured this was as good a place as any to stop.

Leaning against the car, having leftover dinner for breakfast, we watched as a giant mechanical arm in the otherwise quiet factory moved back and forth, neatly and continually stacking literal tons of gravel into a huge geometric pile. Naturally, some casual conversations around automated manufacture, ownership of resources and production began to bubble.

Cape Town is a beautiful city, with a lot of great opportunities to explore and interact with a diverse array of ecosystems, but it’s still a city, and that comes with some inevitable structural issues like higher population density and problems of resource distribution – from distribution of medicines and power, to basic sharing of land and water – so it all just felt a little strange, a little jarring, to try drive out of the city, into what so many people label ‘the countryside’, only to feel that there was less access to natural environments out here.

Later that night we grabbed our cameras and tripod and tried to make the best of a cloudless sky and less light pollution than we are used to, but as we stopped the car on the side of a dirt road directly between two neighbouring farms – once again, the closest this path would allow us to ‘the middle of nowhere’ – we couldn’t help but return to earlier discussions of access to land, ownership, and concepts of ‘natural spaces’ in human communities.

Unlike the booming city of Cape Town, this region sure had a lot fewer buildings and a comparatively huge expanse of green fields and hillsides, but all this land belonged to only a few individuals and none of these fenced off rectangles of agricultural production were openly accessible by members of the public. In Cape Town there are so many more people, but with this huge population comes the benefit of a much greater public demand for access to seemingly natural environments – from the city’s various forests and mountain trails to more urban spaces of environmental diversity like the Green Point Park – with many of these areas being government subsidized and free to enter.

Out on that dirt road the stars in the sky were plentiful and their colours vivid, we could also clearly see the shimmery cloud that is the centre of our galaxy. Looking directly up we saw a sky that one just can’t find in a city and we definitely felt like we were out in the ‘middle of nowhere’, but as I brought my head down towards the horizon and saw the dark but clearly dissected and controlled lands, dotted with the infrequent but pervasive lights of farm buildings, I couldn’t help but feel that we were still very much in the middle of somewhere – a somewhere that still falls victim to many of the social and structural problems that we face in the overcrowded cities, where skills and resources may be plentiful, but public access to these resources is still a long way from being fairly attainable by all.


Below are my two favourite shots from being on the road on Saturday night. More film photos to follow soon.

Images by Desmond Bowles

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