Prince Albert

Prince Albert, hmm, maybe not your typical Karoo Dorpie after all, more mercurial it is. Yes, there are loads of Karoo icons. Brookie lace drips off of awnings, coke can windmills creak in the wind and cling wrapped koeksisters grace every corner cafe counter. Prince Albert is unique though. There is more here. For me it is the Gemini of Karoo Towns, the twin, and the twofold nature starts with your choice of approach.

From the North…

Taking the route from the north, turning off of the N1 near Leeu Gamka will make you feel small and insignificant. The road seems forever straight, and so empty. The telephone poles are perfectly hypnotic against the powder blue sky and you notice small things, like birds on the wire because all is so vast and featureless, and still the road is straight, straight straight. It’s really kind of upsetting when you come upon a bend eventually, but then, oh, you can relax again cause there the road is, dipping into the horizon straight ahead of you.

From the South…

If you approach Prince Albert from the south,  choose to traverse the Swartberg Pass. Choose to have your jaw drop to the floor. Choose incredible mountain views into the forever and eye watering sheer dropping cliff faces appearing through the mist.  The pass, snaking it’s way up and over the fold mountain range offers increasingly astounding views. It was built by Thomas “Theodolite Eyes” Bain with a little help from some 200 convict laborers and many barrels of gunpowder.

The standard contradictions of a small Karoo town are easy enough to spot in Prince Albert.  Craft beer on tap here, cheap wine sold in plastic bottles there, organic fair-trade home baked sourdough bread on one side of town versus pre-sliced genetically modified government bread on the other. There is a “more” part of town and a “less” part of town. But that is normal in the South African context, we are used to that kind of contrast. The kind of contrast that can make us feel alive, like we live on the edge. The kind of contrast that can make every moment really feel like a moment and should always gives us cause to be thankful.

But there is contrast of another kind in Prince Albert also, and it’s lovely and textured and gives the place a depth of it’s own.

The thing is, there is a real sense of rooted creativity and passion of place here. Where many Karoo towns offer up the same old “quintessentially karoo” vibe, and art, and craft, Prince Albert’s creative and art scene feels more honestly rooted in it’s people and it’s place. Like I said, the kooksisters and roosterkoek still lurk on deli counters. But look a little deeper, delve into the galleries and studios, and even the local restaurant kitchens and you will find original ideas and aesthetics surfacing, with a more contemporary twist on the inspiration the Karoo has always offered it’s residents. And I think that that’s it, it’s the contemporary twist on all things Karoo that is so refreshing. It’s a Karoo vibe and feel and aesthetic that is living and evolved and evolving, that is so much more exciting than all that old, old school cool.

A footnote on Leeu-Gamka. This little town, population: 2727, was originally founded as a meeting place on the railway lines connecting Cape Town to the then burgeoning Kimberly diamond fields. The lines coupled at the intersection of the Leeu and Gamka rivers. Strangely enough, “Leeu” and “Gamka” both mean “Lion” in Afrikaans and Khoisan respectively anyway. Due to it’s being pretty much in the middle of nowhere, and far from everywhere else,  it’s a popular “hometown” for con-artists trying to sell phantom goods online. They assume that potential buyers will not be able to travel out to view the “goods” in person (and verify that they actually exist) and will pay for them sight unseen…