As it was in the beginning
by Christine Mason
History lies in the consequences of man’s actions. It is also in the evolution and adaptation of plants; the dynamic geological forming and re-forming of our world; the mutation and extinction of creatures. History can be as early as a minute ago or further back than our ‘intelligent’ planet. Somewhere in between, tourism also has a history and we are grateful to Andrie van Rooyen for so graciously and generously giving us a glimpse of what it was like to be a ‘last century tourist on Plett’s Robberg Peninsula.
In this century, holiday makers arrive in Plett on private jets. They send their cars on ahead so that they have road transport when they get here. Or they fly in from all over the world and then hire a car. Or they board a tour bus. Our sophisticated attractions and professionally-presented natural world offer something for everyone. Our bay is filled with yachts and ‘water toys’, kites and surfers; our rivers host canoeists, motor boats and water skiers. Sleek deep sea fishing boats with electronic fish-finding capability head out of the bay. Hopeful anglers carry state-of-the art rods and reels and professionally tested lines to which will be attached scientifically designed sinkers and proven ‘best bait’.
But where did it all begin?
Two centuries ago, one Cornelis Botha owned a significant portion of land in the Bitou area. Through marriage into the Botha family, the van Rooyens acquired a large portion of land which was subsequently sub-divided and every van Rooyen “got a little bit”. Through this age-old tradition of family land allocation, James Petrus Cornelius acquired a farm on Robberg Peninsula.
The farm’s rich soil welcomed everything which was planted, and delivered in return crops successful enough to please the most cynical of farmers. But Robberg was also an attractive farm to holiday makers. Bringing tents and beds, pots and pans, visitors crossed the sometimes difficult Piesang River ford with horse & cart, by ox wagon, or in vintage cars. Today’s standards would judge the ‘full board and lodging camps under the Milkwood trees at the base of the peninsula as ‘not so-hygienic’, but those visitors were the pioneers of tourism.
Choices of entertainment were stunningly simple. On one side of the peninsula lay protected sites, comfortable and safe enough for women to gossip while children played sport on the beach and fantasy games in the water. And on the other side lay the rocks, a platform for harassed fathers and older sons to find peace with home-made rods, casting rough lead sinkers on braided fishing lines into the fish-rich waters. And the fishing was good – whalers on Beacon Island had all but decimated the prolific seal colonies of the 1900’s and competition was by then mainly among the holiday anglers themselves.
‘JPC’ (and Oom Laurie’ after him), charged holiday makers for the use of the land. He supplemented that income by selling fresh produce from his generous soil and, courtesy of his tourist-conscious cattle, fresh milk. In later years, Oom Laurie’ was highly sociable and, in the manner of all instinctively good hosts, personally concerned himself with the wellbeing of his guests. The fact that his wife highly disapproved of his often extended, ‘spirited’ solicitude for their welfare was simply the price a partner had to pay for the maintenance of a successful tourist operation!
Of course, in the December season of 1926, the cost of a holiday in Plett was measured in different terms. Prices were not negotiable: 10 shillings per ox wagon per day for up to 14 days; a shilling per day for a vintage car; sixpence per day for a cart (donkey or horse drawn). Animals and guns were not allowed on the farm and those found guilty of transgressing this rule were subjected to “immediate steps”.
Today the farm is occupied by Andrie van Rooyen and his family members. While developers will always be interested in this site just outside of the Nature Reserve, Nature Conservation is more interested in conserving the land as part of the ‘green area’ which extends down to Harkerville. But Oom Laurie’s jealous protection of his ‘tourist attraction’ has influenced the current van Rooyen family philosophy and they lean towards preservation of their grandfather’s legacy for the benefit of those still left, and of those still to come.