I visited Vergelegen wine estate, just outside the town of Somerset West, in the Western Cape, one blustery day this past December. I don’t know if it was the combination of the textured sunlight – trying it’s best to break through the clouds that threatened much needed rain – or the fact that our visit to the farm was accompanied by my nephew and niece, who brought with them the joys of childhood discovery – but it made for one of my most treasured travel memories.
The farm, which dates back to 1700, is distinguished by glades of ancient trees, which are everywhere, from the tree-lined drive up to the homestead, to the studied pastures outside the octagonal walled front garden, to the 300-year old camphor trees both in the picturesque front lawn and behind the house. These trees are officially the oldest living trees on the African subcontinent and were declared a national monument in 1942. There is too a similarly aged weeping mulberry tree, which speaks of the farm’s founder’s desire to start a silk industry in the Cape.
Vergelegen (meaning “situated far away”), was a reportedly three-day wagon ride from Cape Town and was founded by Willem Adriaan van der Stel, then Governor of the Cape Colony, under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). By most accounts he was an unscrupulous man, lavishing vast amounts of the VOC’s money on developing his estate – without authorisation. Sadly a behaviour all too prevalent today! The original grant for the farm was for 342.4 ha, and was later extended to 524.7ha, ten times the size of most farms granted at the time. Records of van der Stel’s extortionate practice in the purchase of slaves way below the going rate are thoroughly documented in the estate’s museum for all to see.
In the six years that he owned the farm – between 1700 and 1706, Willem Adriaan had half a million vine stocks. He also laid out fruit orchards and orange groves, planted camphor and oak trees, and established eighteen cattle stations with 1000 cattle and 1800 sheep. He also built reservoirs and dug irrigation canals, as well as a beautiful Cape Dutch homestead, with European-plastered curlicews, adding a corn mill and many other subsidiary buildings.
Van der Stel was eventually recalled following a petition drawn up by the free burghers at the time, claiming unfair advantage in the supply of fresh produce to the passing trade ships. His indulgences aside, van der Stel’s keen interest in local agriculture and horticulture, which resulted in one of South Africa’s earliest gardening almanacs, is a legacy we all get to treasure and marvel at today. The grounds at Vergelegen are breathtaking.
Our way into the homestead involved acres of agapanthus framed against the blue backdrop of the Helderberg and then a walk through exquisite parkland, dotted again by aged trees. Vergelegen’s homestead has an octagonal walled front garden. It is a place where one comes alive. I felt I had never been in a place so beautiful. The garden at the back was no less so, with its famed row of 300-year camphor trees, and a vast lawn framed on the one side with a lily pond, and a wetland garden.
Vergelegen imbues nobility with all the best and worst of what that entails. It holds a historic legacy with all its warts and wonder, with many national treasures including the Phillips Library of Africana, award winning wines, acres of fynbos and a Cape landscape honed over the centuries to perfection. It is a place to get lost in and dream. It has to stay.
How to get there
Vergelegen is about 60 kilometres from Cape Town depending on the route taken towards Sir Lowry’s pass, and at the top end of Somerset West. It is easy to find, nestled against the foot of the Helderberg mountains. For directions, click here.