In early January, Kate Collins visited the village of Heuningvlei in the Cederberg Mountains. It was here she met Ryno, a local, and Abram Okhuis – a relation of his. Collins walked into the valley on a dirt road known as the Pakhuis Pass, stayed the night in the village and was transported back the next day to the top of Pakhuis on a donkey cart. A truly magical experience.
Hidden between the tall grass is a river where Ryno takes us to swim. As we walk, he tells me his is a master of all trades – he has worked as a constructor in the community, as a farmer (he grows rooibos) and as a tourist operator.
Earlier, Ryno, who’s a lot older than me, related to me how he had once run the pass I had taken three hours to walk in just 25 minutes. The Pakhuis Pass is only 12 kms but even so the road has steep parts and in the heat of day, without much shade for respite, can be challenging.
In 2004, the tourism organisation started as a means to help the community of Heuningvlei. The idea of bringing people into the valley and allowing them to enjoy the village started in 2004, but only really picked up in 2008.
Michelle Truder of the Cederberg African Travel Agency dropped us off earlier at the start of the Pakhuis Pass. “You can’t get lost if you follow the road” she said, “It leads straight into Heuningvlei.”
Trips into the valley by foot or by donkey cart started a new way for people to see the valley – some for the first time. Where the community had once been cut off from the rest of the world, suddenly people were entering the valley and seeing a community that welcomed them into their lives.
“Before the tourism business, the people here farmed off the land, mainly rooibos but also sheep farming.” But, as Michelle pointed out, “It doesn’t generate the money you need.”
The funds from the tourism organisation now mostly benefit the Heuningvlei community but also the Cederberg Heritage Route, the Cederberg African Travel agency and Clanwilliam Living Landscape Project.
Before the tourism business, the people here farmed off the land, mainly rooibos but also sheep farming.
– Michelle Truder
In the village itself, washing blows from the line, chickens peck at the dirt and while we can’t see the children, we can hear them talking, laughing. The person I am told that knows this area best is Abram Okhuis.
Abram informs me that he has never really left home. The furthest he has ventured is to Cape Town for a short period and to Clanwilliam on trips to do grocery shopping.
“You must tell people” he says with a wide grin on his face, “that we are ugly but nice.” Our host Maria Solomon whose house we had stayed at for the night had welcomed us in and provided us with steaming vegetables, tea and coffee – she also checked on us regularly to find out how we were. They were indeed very nice.
“We used to have a school here, but the number of children attending the school were too few, so we closed the school and the children now attend a school in Wuppertal (roughly 30km from Heuningvlei.)” The school was converted into a church shortly after it closed down in 2007.
Electricity was brought to the area in 1996 and even though no one can use cellphones here – there is no signal in these parts – people still own cellphones. Ryno tells me that people own cellphones to play games and listen to music – it is a status thing.
If one thing surprised me about this village, it was how unexpected it was. You walk along a road with no one else in sight and suddenly you come across a village with streetlamps and microwaves. In a place hidden in the mountains with gravel roads, it’s hard to imagine that television sets and cellphones exist. But like most places, technology has seeped into even the smallest and most remote places.
For now though the community is doing well. It’s a community where everyone works together from the people that serve you food as you arrive to the donkey cart drivers that happily give you a ride.