Joburg gets awfully chilly in winter. When the mornings get frosty, it’s a good idea to go somewhere else, at least for a little while. This time last year, we found our way to Prince Albert, a pretty little village in the Great Karoo, nestled against the formidable Swartberg mountain range.
The pass was constructed in the 1880s, under the supervision of master road-builder Thomas Bain. It took seven years to complete, with a workforce of 200 convicts. On the south side, it is cut straight into the mountainside, with dry stone retaining walls holding it in place along the cliff edge. It offers endless vistas across the Little Karoo, if you can bear to tear your eyes from the rather narrow gravel track. Falling off the edge of the world feels like an imminent possibility.
The summit is 1,583 metres above sea level, and over 1,220 metres above the Little Karoo. The descent on the north side is enveloped in bizarrely curved and twisted sandstone cliffs, which glow red and orange in the afternoon sunlight. In some places, the rock strata seem to have been mashed together like play-dough. In others, enormous shards of rock rear up into the sky, as if cast aside by angry giants long ago.
The pass is only 30kms long, but it took us about 2 hours to travel. Every time we turned a corner we were confronted with a new fantastically dramatic view, and had to pull over to drink it all in.
When we finally reached Prince Albert, we found a delightfully picturesque Karoo dorp. Kerk Street (which contains two impressive old churches) is lined with quirky shops. I bought linen napkins embroidered with windmills, Cape Mohair socks, a hand-made rag doll named Bonisiwe, Christmas angels made from driftwood and curly wire, and multiple bottles of jam and olives. Despite the tininess of the town, there’s a big selection of restaurants and coffee shops. We quickly learnt that no-one is in any rush – why would they be. There’s always plenty of time to settle in and get comfortable before the owner of the establishment wanders over to take your order (it’s always the owner – too small for waiters). The Prince Albert Country Store, an antique shop and restaurant in one, is particularly lovely. We spent a perfect few hours there, on a big floral sofa in front of a blazing log fire, eating delectable milk tart while Fred the ancient basset hound snored at our feet. This alone was enough to persuade us that Prince Albert was a worthy winner of its title of Western Cape ‘Dorp van die Jaar’ 2012.