cape winelands south africa babylonstoren hill overview

Reggae rhythms are pulsating through the air and a man wearing a woollen Rastafari hat sits beside me crafting animal sculptures. Above, a building fashioned from colourful wood and corrugated iron reaches five storeys high. I gaze up to the top level of the Rasta House and process simultaneous thoughts of bafflement and amazement. This higgledy-piggledy structure which serves as a Rastafari meeting place is the last thing I expect to find in South Africa’s Cape Winelands.

Located in the township of Mbekweni, close to the wine region’s busiest town of Paarl, the Rastafari House and the neighbourhood feel eons away from the high-end wineries of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.

It’s generally off the radar for the average traveller – crime levels in South Africa’s townships are some of the highest and put off many tourists. But they’re not out of bounds if you go with the right attitude and meet the right people. I got in touch with Sydwell Magqazana, a Mbekweni resident and former Rasta who was willing to be my guide. We meet at a local petrol station and I follow him by car into the heart of the township.

“We were inspired by the music of Bob Marley and that’s how we got started”, explains Sydwell when we pull up at the rainbow- coloured house. “Rastafari is a universal movement and their message was relevant to the situation we were in – we were always living ‘under them’.”

Sydwell is, of course, referring to living under the dictatorship of the apartheid government when black people were forced out of their homes into townships like Mbekweni. Many black South Africans could relate to the Rastafari movement, a philosophy of empowerment and peace.

It was in the early 90s when a man known as Ras Judah Ngqoshela built the foundations for the house. Named ‘Shack 12’ after the Twelve Tribes of Israel – a Rasta group founded in Jamaica in the 60s – Rastas in Mbekweni now use the house as a place of worship, as well as to meet and sell fruit, vegetables and handmade crafts.  

Sydwell shares his own story of setting up the Lukhanyo Youth Development Organisation which encourages young people to take an alternative route in life to drugs and crime. Through this organisation, Sydwell has helped young people forge their way into careers as community workers and musicians. I’m struck by his humble and stoic approach to life.

As we leave the ramshackle buildings of Mbekweni, we drive past fresh green vineyards and vibrant orange fynbos to the steep ascent of Paarl Rock. This towering granite outcrop has been likened to the Uluru (Ayers) Rock in Australia. At its peak, the Taal Monument – a collection of convex and concave rock columns – commemorate the diverse foundations of the Afrikaans language.

En route to Franschhoek, we pull into the Groot Drakenstein Prison, a key landmark in South Africa’s history of black empowerment. Formerly known as the Victor Verster Prison, this is where Nelson Mandela spent the last 14 months of his imprisonment and took the “Long Walk to Freedom”. We stop to admire the statue that captures the moment the revolutionary punched the air, marking the beginning of a new South Africa. The halfway house in which he lived is to become a museum.

You will spot myriad references to the new and old South Africa throughout the winelands, including in Franschhoek where we check into the recently opened Leeu Estates – a vineyard hotel that combines historic Cape Dutch architecture with a taste of luxury the region has become known for. Asian-style tuk tuks and a local “wine train” make it easy to explore Franschhoek without a car and we fill several days exploring biltong shops, farmer’s markets and enjoying a theatrical meal at renowned restaurant, The Tasting Room. We grab a table at Tuk Tuk, a half Mexican-inspired eatery, half microbrewery. The buzzy, creative vibe in Franschhoek offers a glimpse of South Africa’s exciting future, while the sculptures of Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi on the lawn of Leeu House act as a reminder of South Africa’s unforgettable past.

Our road trip ends in Stellenbosch, a university town of many sides. A shiny mall rubs shoulders with streets that are yet to be hit by gentrification. Meanwhile, hot yoga studios, antique stores and sleek art galleries pull in the sophisticated set. We sip ‘red’ rooibos cappuccinos on the pavements, feeling like we’ve landed in the leafy streets of Georgetown.

We stay at Babylonstoren, a former Cape Dutch farm and hotel, a short drive from Stellenbosch. Chic rooms are housed in historic slave outhouses and cow sheds while Eden-like gardens encourage you to pick plump, ripe fruits straight off the trees. Glasses of pale blush rosé are served in their elegant tasting room, while beautiful plates of farm-to-fork dining make viticulture feel like a religion. We lie under the warm sun in a garden of fragrant camomile, feeling high on nature and fresh air.

We fill the rest of our week visiting cosy farmhouses, sampling rooibos red wine at the Route 44 market and exploring the multitude of avant-garde ways to enjoy this region’s grapes – wine and nougat pairing anyone?

Soon, it’s time to leave this colourful region and hit the road for the Mother City. We’ve experienced viticulture at it’s best and glimpsed the real-life challenges that people face in modern-day South Africa. But there’s one question left unanswered: what did Madiba drink when he was finally a free man? The answer is a glass of sweet wine such as the Vin de Constance from Klein Constantia, a winery in the upper foothills of the Constantiaberg Mountain in Table Mountain National Park. Maybe I can be persuaded to squeeze in just one more vineyard…

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