It has been said that a little over one hundred years ago, a warm-hearted Frenchman pitched his tent under a willow tree at the exact spot where Pont de Val is found today…
It was 1899, and almost thirty years had passed since Frédéric Laurentin had disembarked in Cape Town towards the end of 1871. He could clearly remember how Table Mountain had loomed majestically behind him, while opportunistic seagulls rode the salty breeze above his head. Like many adventurers of his time, this carefree French farm boy had travelled south to make his fortune as a prospector. His plan had been to earn enough money to return to his beloved Provénce, buy a piece of land in the hills and make wine, just as he and his father had done, before the phylloxera plague had ruined their prized vineyards and left them bankrupt. He longed to return to life on the farm, especially the long, warm evenings together with family and friends around the dinner table. Wholesome food, earthy wines and good company permeated every one of his childhood memories and he had been determined to bring these memories back to life once he owned his own patch of Provençal soil.
“Thousands of fortune-hunters had already staked their claims and there was little room for stragglers. Frédéric soon found himself amongst the scavengers…”
Upon arrival in South Africa, he had first headed to New Rush, later known as Kimberley, but soon learned that if his dreams were to become a reality, he would have to put aside his easy-going, magnanimous, countryside ways and join the rush. He would have to become as opportunistic as those Cape Town seagulls, or as unscrupulous as the vultures and hyenas he had heard so much about, fighting and scrabbling for every morsel that had not already been snatched up by his avaricious fellow prospectors. He had arrived late on the diamond fields. Thousands of fortune-hunters had already staked their claims and there was little room for stragglers. Frédéric soon found himself amongst the scavengers on the periphery, wheeling and dealing to make ends meet.
It was only two years later, on the back of a transport wagon, somewhere between Kimberley and Pilgrim’s Rest, that it dawned on him that the rush had caught him. His upbringing had taught him to make time for people, to be generous, to help and to make things festive for those around him. Mealtimes had been an integral part of this Provençal way of life. Frédéric knew that he had lost some of these cherished values, slaving, as he had done, from dawn until dusk for these two years. Now he felt tired and lonely. Arriving in Pilgrim’s Rest, he decided that he would start afresh. He opened a small shanty kitchen where weary wanderers like himself could escape from the rush and enjoy warm hospitality and pleasant company together with wholesome food and fine wine.
“Soothing strings and the good-hearted chatter of Boer, Uitlander and African would be heard drifting into the starlit sky long after the weary town had gone to sleep. Amorous couples also found, within its walls, a place where chivalry, romance and savoir vivre flourished…”
His little French kitchen travelled with the rush from Pilgrim’s Rest to Barberton and then on to the bustling, dusty streets of Johannesburg, where Frédéric Laurentin’s establishment became known for gathering the most unlikely mélange of guests. Soothing strings and the good-hearted chatter of African, Boer and Uitlander would be heard drifting into the starlit sky long after the weary town had gone to sleep. Amorous couples also found, within its walls, a place where chivalry, romance and savoir vivre flourished, while practitioners of vice and drunkenness preferred the ‘cigar-shops’ downtown. Frédéric’s regulars were hard-working people, but also celebrators of life and love, savouring his food, fine wine and each other’s company. They would leave in high spirits, revived and ready to face the days ahead.
As the 1890’s progressed, powerful forces were manoeuvring to take control of the Transvaal’s precious resources and, as the clouds of war gathered, the little restaurant became an island of goodwill in a sea of ever-growing hostility and mistrust. However, Frédéric Laurentin had realized that it was time to leave Johannesburg. Having savoured the bitter taste of war as a young man, he had no desire to experience it again. He would head to Cape Town via Bloemfontein – tables, chairs and stove amongst the few belongings that he strapped to his wagon. He had heard many good things about a picturesque little town called Franschhoek, nestled in a peaceful valley, just north of Stellenbosch. Perhaps it would be the perfect place to settle and open the doors of his little kitchen once again. Besides, he had long since given up the idea of making his fortune and returning to France.
Now he waded through the muddy, knee-deep water at Lindeques Drift, his oxen snorting and bellowing behind him as they dragged the heavy wagon over the shallow crossing into the Orange Free State. He was heading southwards, away from the City of Gold – away from the rush.
“Through the throng, he noticed a pale-looking gentleman sitting on an ant hill a stone’s throw from the river. Sketch book and pencil in hand, he gazed into the distance, seemingly oblivious to all the movement around him.”
Steely-eyed young men with scruffy beards crossed northwards, impatiently driving unwilling teams of oxen forward. Some looked puzzled as he cheerfully greeted them. Who was this amiable old gentleman with ready smile and easy gait who was so calmly moving against the flow? It seemed that he knew something that they were yet to find out.
Reaching the opposite bank, he unhitched his wagon, allowing his team of oxen to drink and graze a while. The town of Parys, where he hoped to spend the night, was still a number of hours distant. The well-worn track was busier than usual, with many other Uitlanders, like himself, making the long trek southwards. Through the throng, he noticed a pale-looking gentleman sitting on an ant hill a stone’s throw from the river. Sketch book and pencil in hand, he gazed into the distance, seemingly oblivious to all the movement around him. Intrigued, Frédéric made his way over to greet the pensive stranger. The fellow, it turned out, was a British surveyor, part of a team that had recently arrived from London with instructions to map out the farms, roads, river crossings and bridges of the Orange Free State and Transvaal Republics. Pointing to a plume of smoke a few kilometers upriver, he explained that they had set up camp just below Lindeques Falls, next to a little stream that was fed by a freshwater spring. Frédéric was soon invited to sojourn for the night, which he graciously accepted. After pitching his tent below a weeping willow, he joined his hosts around the fire, offering them wine and food that he had brought along for the long journey southwards. Just as in Johannesburg, the sounds of good-hearted chatter were soon drifting over the glimmering water into the evening sky, as the golden sunset was replaced by a warm red glow on the horizon.
The wine soon thawed any remaining reserve that existed amongst the little group of Englishmen and before long it was revealed that they were actually surveying the area in preparation for war and, in addition, they had been commissioned by a Johannesburg corporation who was considering the damming of the Vaal River at Lindeque’s Falls. The dam, they said, would not only supply Johannesburg with water, but also provide the first road link over the Vaal River into the Transvaal, furthering British plans to have a road from Cape Town to Cairo via Johannesburg. The war would be a short one, they reckoned, and work on the dam was set to start in earnest as soon as hostilities had ended.
“As the Londoner’s compatriots raucously applauded their friend’s splendid advice, Frédéric’s thoughts started to wander. Questions raced through his mind as he drifted off into a fitful sleep.”
Awoken early the next morning by the cry of a fish eagle, he rose and made his way down to the water’s edge. The first rays of sun had just begun to pierce the fine curtain of mist that hung low over the river. Taking in the tranquil surroundings, he suddenly became aware that there was something about the river, the light and the distant hills that reminded him of home. As he followed the river bank up to the falls, he began to ponder his next steps. If ever there was a good place to make a new start, it was here. While waiting out the war he could work the little patch of land next to the spring. He could even try his hand at growing some grapes. The terroir held some promise, so there would be no harm in trying. A restaurant next to the new bridge? The idea was beginning to intrigue him. He had had his heart set on Franschhoek, but something deep within him was warming to the possibility that the banks of this peaceful, willow-lined stretch of river could become his long sought-after home away from home. Frédéric Laurentin was happy.
History does not tell us what became of this amiable Frenchman. Some say that the British, finding the old man tending to his little vineyard, mistook him for a Boer and deported him. By all accounts, he does not seem to have survived the bitter war that broke out shortly after he had made himself at home on the banks of the Vaal River.
Nevertheless, the spirit of Monsieur Frédéric Laurentin lives on right here at Pont de Val! His story has inspired us to create a space where celebrators of life and love can take time out, away from the rush, to savour good food, fine wine and each other’s company in a tranquil French countryside environment. With soothing tunes, good-hearted chatter and infectious laughter filling the air on balmy evenings, over glasses of Pont de Val La Grande Évasion, we can well imagine that a certain warm-hearted Frenchman from Provénce would be very pleased.