There are countless tales of innovation, progress and development buried deep in the heart of Vergelegen, in Somerset West, an hour outside Cape Town.
If the majestic camphor trees could talk they’d tell you about the man who planted them, Governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel and how he transformed 150 hectares of barren land into a sprawling fertile landscape equipped with irrigation, cattle stations and orchards and orange groves as far as the eye could see.
The Old English Oak trees would tell you how the land passed from owner to owner, from Van der Stel in 1700 all the way to Samuel Kerr in 1901, by which time Vergelegen had been divided into four separate farms and had fallen into ruin.
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Vergelegen – a place of transformation
The camphor trees planted by Van der Stel were declared a national monument in 1942, but for decades they were not the most precious asset on the property.
When Sir Lionel Phillips bought the farm in 1917, his wife Florence, who fancied herself as a woman of taste and creativity, set about reimagining the farm and its buildings. It was a costly exercise, as Lady Phillips, together with her architect spent a ton of money remoulding the land, and adding wings and features to the buildings on the farm. They built roads and a dam on the property, and Florence removed the vineyards and replaced them with mixed agriculture.
By the time Lady Phillips died in 1940, the farm had run out of cash and her heirs, the children and grandchildren, were forced to sell to Charles Barlow in 1942.
Fast forward to 1992, and Vergelegen, this time under the ownership of Anglo American produces its first wine after buying the farm in 1987. By the 1990s Vergelegen had been transformed into a modern winery, open to and enjoyed by the public, where children played in the shade of the Old English Oaks and Van der Stel’s camphor trees while their parents sipped the wine inspired by the half a million vine stocks he cultivated more than 200 years earlier.
Mandela and Clintons among the most famous visitors
The aptly-named Camphors restaurant is one of the Cape’s finest restaurants, and together with Stables restaurant and the idyllic picnic area they provide plenty of dining and family eating options to choose from.
The Animal Farm is home to majestic Nguni cattle, who share it with bontebok and plenty of squirrels for the kids to chase. For those who prefer a slower pace, there is the library to explore as well as the restored homestead’s interpretive centre with pictorial panels which describe the farms history and boasts about its famous visitors from President Mandela to the Clintons.
Rob Caskie, master storyteller
There are few more qualified to tell the diverse stories of Vergelegen than a master storyteller like Rob Caskie. He is a walking fount of knowledge and history and speaks with a passion about the triumph of the human spirit over physical adversity.
Caskie specialises in stories of South African history and the Polar regions, regaling guests at lunches and dinners about expeditions by Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton, the quest for the North-West Passage and the North Pole.
Caskie has travelled across Africa from Cape Town to Cairo, walked in the Himalayas in Nepal and driven the Alaskan-Canadian Highway on a 4-year sojourn around the world. He will have you captivated, hanging on his every word, delivering powerful lessons by using the experiences of others.
The story of Vergelegen
“I love sharing human stories which highlight lessons in Leadership, Intuition, Experience and how to make the best of present circumstances. Storytelling may seem like an old-fashioned tool, today – and it is. That’s exactly what makes it so powerful. Life happens in the narratives we tell one another,” Caskie says.
And so it is with the story of Vergelegen that Caskie told. It is a place of history and transformation; embracing change with each ownership and evolving into a place of beauty and comfort to be enjoyed by all who enter its gates.