South Africa: Swellendam, the Tradouw Pass and Montagu

A bit overcast as we packed up the car, said goodbye to our hosts and headed inland for Swellendam and Montagu, at the edge of the Little Karoo. Bye bye ocean but new sights were ahead.We passed several small groups of people whale-watching as ever – they will not be disappointed around this area, that’s for sure.

Stopped off firstly at neighbouring Stanford on the R43, slightly ashamed we’d never made the time to see this little village.It has some pretty traditional buildings and a lovely thatched roof church.It was a Saturday morning and the streets were quietly busy.The other village I’d wanted to see was Elim but we’d had enough of dirt roads after the De Hoop journey; the car had survived  but we’d better not push our luck as it was all dirt roads to that historic village.


The road was familiar at first , mostly attractive scenery of mountains and rich farmland , taking us up to Riviersonderend then east to Swellendam.


The skies were clearing all the time and driving into Swellendam, it was already hot and sunny.I’d always wanted to see this town with its historic architecture below the Langberg mountain range.It has a superb setting and as one of the country’s oldest settlements (1745),  we thought it deserved some exploration given the time we had.

The Dutch Reformed Church is the most photographed in South Africa (apparently) a hotch-potch of architectural styles, brilliant white, with a sort of wedding -cake appearance.Parked outside the Drostdy Museum, one of finest small museums in the country.A cafe latte and cream scone was in order first though under the shade of a tree in the attached cafe.What a delightful place.Big wide street (Swellegrebel Street)with attractive cafes and shops.Tree-lined and with that mountain backdrop.I liked Swellendam immediately; it felt sunny and relaxed, very civilised and with fine old architecture and history to enjoy.It’s something we miss travelling in parts of the New World, coming from Scotland/Europe – that sense of ancient history and tradition surrounding you wherever you go, buildings that are 1000 years old , medieval streets and villages, giving an added depth and interest to everything.


But this was the life, as we basked in the morning sunshine. Life felt good.The cafe  was a lovely Cape Dutch building, one of many, all think limestone walls and thatched roof.I love that style, it’s so beautiful.In fact the coffee shop is called The Old Gaol, literally that being what it was.

The museum itself was excellent , with a fascinating display of old photographs of times past. Outside, were farm buildings , nicely restored. The ticket also got us entry into the neighbouring Magistrate’s House across the street with a pretty garden. A bit gloomy inside but a fine building.We seemed to be the only visitors.

Then it was on to the Tradouw Pass to pick up the R62 Robertson Valley Wine Route to Montagu,a route that’s often hailed as much more scenic and interesting than the traditional cross-country Garden Route (which had never appealed much.) Great road to the mountain pass itself, which is ranked one of South Africa’s finest.It’s means Women’s Pass.


And fine country it was as we passed through some tiny places.I was really intrigued by the pastel coloured houses  – mint green or pink – that occasionally appeared amidst bungalows or other non- descript houses Many looked quite poor, certainly very simple.Something I was always aware of travelling through this rich country was the extent of poverty that sits alongside that.

We stopped at various points on the Pass as it climbed through the impressive mountains, covered now in spring flowers of yellow and pink.It was a fine route if not ‘wow’ but it was grand to see this part of the Overberg. It’s always good to be up in the mountains.The road was quiet and easy to drive and in no time we had descended the the other side and picking up the main R62.

Perhaps we had too many expectations of this Wine Route but it didn’t quite match our hopes.It was pleasant driving – quiet , yes – but nothing spectacular.Rich farmland of the Breede River Valley and the Little Karoo on our right in the distance, looking tantalisingly barren and dry and promising more desert-like landscapes.We’d fallen in love with the desert in Namibia around the Namib-Naukluft and the Karoo held appeal.

It’s a fast road and in no time we were driving along Montagu’s quiet streets, impressed with the wealth of Cape Dutch buildings that lined this quiet town.Trees were in bloom, peach and apricot and the place shimmered under the hot sun.The sky was a cloudless blue and the light had a much warmer, desert feel about it.The town’s beautiful Cape Dutch church sat serenely at the top of one pretty street.


Named after John Montagu, the Cape’s British Secretary who created some of the first mountain passes to connect the area to Cape Town, it’s known for it’s historic architecture and rock climbing options.I liked the place immediately. We are determined to eat out tonight but hadn’t had much to eat all day after scones at Swellendam and a few crisps and oranges so some kind of snack lunch was in order.The Rambling Rose got our business, an attractive cafe/bistro with a good menu.Soup for me (even in the heat, I always go for it), nice bread, Piri Piri Chicken for Chris.Excellent.

Quite a characterful place and I picked up some great looking home-made chocolate cake to takeaway for later.The chocolate craving needed fixed, again.But we were keen to see our accommodation now and make the most of the beautiful afternoon , relaxing on our terrace,we hoped.

Les Hauts de Montagu is about 5 mins drive out of the town , sitting up on its own surveying all.A glorious Cape Dutch affair, with beautiful gardens and a real ‘away from it all’ feel.Behind it rear rocky mountains and in the far distance, the smoother rounded outline of the Little Karoo.We were stunned by how it looked.The photos on line looked great but if anything, they didn’t quite capture it’s loveliness.


The young couple who met us had only recently taken over the management of the place, days ago. They had decamped from running a safari lodge in Kenya though had worked in Botswana too.He had huge knowledge about animals and birds but I got the impression they were just finding their feet here, with a very different lifestyle choice now ahead of them given their decision to start a family.

Our room was in one of the end cottages and it was like something out of a Homes Magazine.All soft greys and pale blues, ivory bedstead and super-classy touches. Big bathroom and – wow – an outside shower draped with pink oleander.I don’t think you could get better from the poshest 5 star hotel.The terrace was a little dream with nice furniture and looking over the gardens to the Karoo mountains.We both wished we had another night here; it was the most wonderful spot.There were many walking trails and a map but we didn’t have the time.Mind you, you’d have to pick a coolish time of day to walk; it was hot, hot , hot for that activity.

We’d asked our hosts about the best places to eat and ‘Simply Delicious’ got the vote.Not that the couple really knew but the previous owners blurb recommended it.Well known for their mega desserts too – that swung it in my book; the best part of a meal for me!Chris is very easy about where we eat but it sounded good to him too. I was slightly annoyed that we hadn’t put a bit more effort ourselves into checking places out beforehand.I usually do a LOT of research but eating out in Montagu had escaped that part of the military campaign.

A taxi was organised for us so that Chris could have a drink as I wasn’t on the insurance this holiday for driving, a bit of  a nuisance.Popped open some wine on the terrace, got a shower and changed and looked forward to a nice meal of a Saturday night, in town.

In fact, Simply Delicious in no way lived up to its name.It had been taken over earlier in the year and seemed to be amateurishly run by a couple whose attitude to diners could do with some fair improvement.Mine Host had a dry sense of humour which worked ok on us Scots but there was an edge about him, a sort of superior attitude which wasn’t entirely relaxing.The two small rooms in a very nice old building, were quite dark and a little depressing and they smelled of stale cigarette smoke.Prices were pretty reasonable. Starters  – I think it was pate and I had spicy prawns.Both were ok, smallish portions though the ‘venison’ pate stood for any sort of game and it was overly strong I thought.Chris’s  steak for mains was well cooked and he enjoyed it but the speciality fish , recommended ‘just in from Cape Town’ (Kingklip) was soft , overcooked and pretty tasteless.Ah well….I always look forward to dessert and one of my favourites was on the menu – Homemade Meringue and Fruit.Magic.It was home-made, I double-checked anyway. The new waitress,a lovely black South African woman, nodded.I rubbed my hands – excellent, the poorish main course would be forgotten if this was as good as it sounded.

But what arrived was one of those brilliant white, artificial looking bought meringue nests sprinkled with glitter; a cheapo at that. I put my spoon in anyway to try it and it felt like trying to cut a brick.Inedible and a disgrace to meringues everywhere! I make them quite regularly , they are easy-peasy and a real quickie dessert if you have a few hours to leave them to dry a bit once cooked.Super-cheap too yet a real wow taste.

As had happened with our other courses, the waitress asked if we had enjoyed this one (Chris hadn’t had anything , not being a dessert fan).I had to say no, sorry but that was not a homemade meringue and I didn’t enjoy it.It sat forlornly on the plate as evidence.

In a few minutes the chef herself came out, our host’s wife and began a garbled justification for why it was bought-in.It ended with her blaming the new waitress who ‘should have known that what was on the menu wasn’t available that night.’ Bizarre.Why not just take it OFF the menu? No refund offered though I didn’t ask; you makes your choices….Bad end to an uninspiring dining out evening, a real shame because we have had great experiences eating out in SA in the past.Was SO wishing we’d chosen somewhere else , even using the Rough Guide we had though even they aren’t that reliable and TripAdvisor reviews for eating aren’t always either. Another reason I am very wary about eating out in general.I cook a lot at home, never use ready meals and although I am not any fantastic sort of cook, you get used to home-made, ‘real’ food taste. I am very hard on paying for stuff that isn’t! Thankfully, it happens less and less these days as standards go up.

Ah well, mentioned this the next morning to our hosts just for info.Wasn’t their fault as such, they were as in the dark as we were.Lesson learned – do your homework more on eating out.

Relaxed with another glass of vino in the room, too cold out now to sit on the terrace , but took time to get out and watch the star dusted night sky.Clear as a bell; the Milky Way, the Southern Cross……magical.Meal forgotten – THIS was what it was all about.

We were the only guests and had the delightful dining terrace to ourselves next morning. watching the ostriches grazing outside.They looked quite bold, almost formidable, strong powerful birds that could fend for themselves, that’s for sure.Wonderful breakfast served by a quite formal young waiter.Just superb, the whole place.Very sad to leave so soon.The host himself was quite stiffly formal too which was slightly off-putting at first in a country that has a relaxed, friendly vibe for the most part. But he was clearly highly trained in the sort of ultra professional approach you get in top safari lodges.I wish them both well and hope we will have the pleasure of staying again.
















2 thoughts on “South Africa: Swellendam, the Tradouw Pass and Montagu

  1. “And fine country it was as we passed through some tiny places.I was really intrigued by the pastel coloured houses – mint green or pink – that occasionally appeared amidst bungalows or other non- descript houses Many looked quite poor, certainly very simple” . . . . . . .That was the village of Suurbraak (sometimes Zuurbraak) a former mission station of the London Missionary Society established 1812.


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