When you get out of your car in McGregor it takes a minute before you realise that you’re not on a film set. Water flows by in deep stone channels. Neat gabled houses with giant verandas line streets that have never smelled a drop of tar.
Some cultural historians claim that McGregor is one of the best-preserved 19th-century villages in the country. Its location, on a back road in the Breede River valley, has helped to protect it from cluster housing, a new mountain pass and other by-products of “progress”. The local heritage society ensures that no glass monstrosities or Tuscan villas will spring up among the old buildings.
McGregor is small enough that you can lock your car for the weekend and explore the streets on foot. Don’t be surprised if you see cow dung in the middle of a four-way crossing, or a retired carthorse grazing in a back yard.
Don’t wander around after dark if you’re superstitious, though. There’s a one-legged ghost that roams the streets, if the patrons of the Overdraught Pub in Voortrekker Road are to be believed. Those same patrons will also tell you that McGregor lies on a spot where the earth’s magnetic lines cross, so unusual sights are to be expected.
When the village’s founding fathers laid out the first streets on the banks of the Houtbaai River around 1869, they did so in the hope that the main street, which runs up against the Riviersonderend Mountains, would someday be extended into a mountain pass leading to Greyton.
Speculators bought property to sell at a profit, expecting the main street to cut through the mountain and go all the way to Cape Town. But after several failed attempts at building a pass, the last pickaxe was laid down when World War II broke out.
On the upside, these scouting expeditions in the surrounding hills led to the well-known Boesmanskloof Hiking Trail between McGregor and Greyton.
Over time, McGregor’s village vibe has attracted more and more city dwellers looking for the peacefulness of the countryside, or for a quiet weekend away.
These days, McGregor is home to so many artists it even has an art route.
At sunset I go for a swim in an irrigation dam on a hill near town. I look north towards the mountains behind Robertson. The air smells of renosterbos and the church bell sounds from its stately old tower. It feels as if time has slowed down. I follow the line of McGregor’s main street until it jams up against the mountains. There’s nowhere to go. And that’s not a bad thing at all.
When you plan your visit to McGregor, try to time your stay to coincide with the farmer’s market, held every Saturday.
Among the home-made soap, candles, organic vegetables and home-baked goods, you can also pick up a few scraps of gossip.
Chances are you’ll hear about Hester van der Walt’s legendary bread. To Hester, baking bread is an art form; she’s even written a book about it (Hester se Brood, Modjaji Books, 2009). Every Saturday she gets up at 4am to bake ciabatta, rye, sourdough and pumpkin bread in a woodburning oven.
You’ll also come back for more of Tony Cassagrande’s pickled onions (warning: they have a kick).
Make sure you’re there early; they sell out quickly.
Where? Corner of Church and Voortrekker streets.
When? Every Saturday at 9am.
Contact: McGregor Tourism Bureau on 023 625 1954.
McGregor is an arty place. On the McGregor Art Route you can visit the galleries and studios of about 10 local artists. At most venues you can buy something for that empty wall in your lounge, but not all offer the opportunity to watch the artist at work.
Millstone Pottery – Paul de Jongh’s gallery and studio – is different. He doesn’t mind showing visitors around his workplace, where he makes pottery in a wood-fired kiln.
“To me, the feeling of being connected to the environment is central to my art, and I can achieve this in McGregor,” Paul says.
Why does he still use a traditional kiln instead of an electric one? “I want to bake the environment into my pots,” he says.
Paul moved to McGregor from Joburg 16 years ago. He makes everything from tiny teaspoon holders to terracotta plant pots, wash basins, urns and decorative pieces.
Where? Millstone Pottery is in Bree Street; look out for signs in the main street.
When? 9am to 5pm daily. Call beforehand to find out when Paul will be working with the kiln.
Cost: A quick walk through the studio is free. Pots are sold for anything between R50 and R5000, depending on the size and style.
Contact: Paul or Nina 023 625 1599; email@example.com
Taste olives and wine
McGregor is on the Breede River Wine Route, and there are some wonderful wine farms in the area. The region is also known for its olives. Here are three places worth a visit:
Lord’s Winery is about 500m above sea level and has a really beautiful view of the Breede River valley. Lord’s only started producing wine in 2006. Try the new Wicked Maiden (a pinot noir rosé at R40 per bottle), or the sauvignon blanc, chardonnay or shiraz. To get there, drive for 10km along the dirt road leading from the main street towards the mountains. Call 023 625 1780 or visit www.lordswinery.com
Tanagra is a small boutique cellar about 3km from McGregor on the road to Robertson.
Winemaker Anette Rosenbach makes grappa and a mean eau de vie, a clear fruit brandy.
Grappa costs R160 for a 500ml bottle; the eau de vie R220. Call 023 625 1847 or visit www. tanagrawines.co.za
Rhebokskraal Olive Estate is about 3km from McGregor on the Bonnievale–Stormsvlei dirt road. Taste olive products made by singer and artist Annalien van der Colff, including olive salt and olive chocolate. On a tour you’ll also see how the olive farm operates. Call 082 896 0429 or visit www.rhebokskraalolives.co.za
When? All three farms are open from Monday to Saturday; book your visit beforehand.
Cost: Wine tasting and cellar tours at Lord’s and Tanagra are free. The Rhebokskraal’s olive tour costs R195 per person (meal included) or R145 (no meal).
Contact: Visit www.robertsonwinevalley.com for information about other wine farms in the area – there are more than 40.
Pet a Donkey
Donkeys are still used as draught and pack animals in many parts of South Africa. The sad reality, however, is they aren’t always looked after properly.
The people at Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary take care of about 20 donkeys brought here from across the Western Cape, mostly by the SPCA.
The donkeys love attention. Take the children and visit the paddocks with a guide. It’s therapeutic for anyone feeling a bit blue, whether they have four legs or two.
Where and when? 2km from McGregor on the Robertson Road. Open Thursday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm. Guides are only available over weekends. There is also a restaurant and a farm stall, open every day.
Cost: Free, but donations are welcome.
Contact: Annemarie van Zijl 023 625 1593; www.donkeysanctuary.co.za
Go for a Ramble
There are a number of great hiking trails in the vicinity of McGregor. It’s also fun to explore the village on foot.
Buy the McGregor Walks guide for R20 at the tourism office. Read interesting snippets about the buildings and the history of the village as you walk.
The hiking trail in the Krans Nature Reserve is a tame option. It starts at the irrigation dam above McGregor and takes you back to town along the edge of a plateau. Entrance to the reserve is free.
In the Vrolijkheid Nature Reserve, about 8km outside town on the road to Robertson, you’ll find the 3km Heron Trail (take your camera and binoculars) and the more challenging 19km Rooikat Trail. The reserve is managed by CapeNature. There’s a conservation fee of R25 per adult and R12,50 per child – free with a Wild Card.
The popular Boesmanskloof Trail (also managed by CapeNature) starts 14km south of McGregor and takes you about 14km over the mountains to Greyton. Hike it one way, or spend the night in Greyton and hike back the next day. There are rock pools and an awesome waterfall near the 7km mark. A hiking permit costs R38 per person.
Contact: For info about the starting points of the trails, opening times and permits, call McGregor Tourism on 023 625 1954.Close
If the concrete jungle has invaded your headspace and you can’t remember the last time you felt at peace, put Temenos on your list of places to see in McGregor. It’s a spiritual sanctuary with water streams, trees and lawns filled with statues and icons.
“We wanted to make this a spiritual space that respects all religions and traditions. There’s a single principle of good underlying all religious dogma,” says founder Billy Kennedy.
You’ll find a Zen garden, a garden in honour of the Spanish Saint Teresa of Ávila, a labyrinth, spaces to meditate and a temple.
You don’t have to be a Reiki master to appreciate Temenos. It’s a lovely, calm place to stroll around, watch the weavers and ducks at the pond and enjoy the silence. There is also a restaurant and overnight accommodation.
Where and when? There are two entrances, both on Bree Street. The gardens are always open.
Contact: 023 625 1871; www.temenos.org.za
Know before you go
How to get there: McGregor is about 170km from Cape Town. Take the N1 to Worcester, then the R60 to Robertson and follow the signs to McGregor.
We stayed here
Santosha Cottage is near the Krans Nature Reserve. There’s only one bedroom with a double bed, so it’s a great place for a romantic weekend away. Leave the kids at home with Gran!
Cost: R250 per person per night. If you stay for three nights, you pay for two.
Contact: Anneke Kuin 023 625 1465; firstname.lastname@example.org
More places to stay
McGregor has lots of self-catering accommodation. Try McGregor Country Cottages ( 023 625 1816) or Langewater Farm ( 023 625 1910). There is a campsite at Uitvlug ( 023 625 1245).
Find out more
Call Maggie Oostendorff at the McGregor Tourism Bureau on 023 625 1954 or visit www.tourismmcgregor.co.za
Sources: Old Towns and Villages of the Cape by Hans Fransen; www.mcgregor.org.za