Kalk Bay: a special place by the sea
The future of quaint Kalk Bay lies with the railway line and the ocean
There are many reasons to fall in love with Kalk Bay, but one small fact trumps all others. It possesses a Ponder Road, which fits rather snugly with the gently ruminative, off-the-grid air of the village.
In fact, Ponder Road isn’t a road at all, but a slightly lopsided stairway, neither gun-barrel straight nor windy in that crazy manner of some old Parisian or Roman staircases. With an intact handrail in most places, it leads, one gentle step at a time, from Cape Town’s Boyes Drive down into Kalk Bay proper.
You can appreciate all the tended beauty of the place as you walk: the well-kept houses, the pot plants arranged on back steps, the unspoilt lushness of the small, carefully tended gardens. Raise your head slightly and you can take in the view of the sea and the stubby trawlers in the harbour, perhaps turning eyes right to watch the monkey-puzzle trees at the intersection of Boyes Drive and Main Road.
There are dog-walkers here and bergies, and early-morning habitués rabbiting down for their first coffee hit of the day. It’s as good a way as any of getting to know the place and you can, of course, have a good, solid dinkbreek as you stroll.
If you turn right off Ponder Road when you can go no further, you’ll pass a restaurant called Bootleggers, a bookstore (with a carefully selected line in great nonfiction) and a recently opened craft beer bar.
Eventually, after greeting the Zimbabwean vendors, you’ll come to two brown wooden doors and Kalk Bay’s worst-kept secret, the Olympia Café.
The café (and the bakery around the corner) are in a free-standing, cream-coloured building with columns at ground level and enclosed arched windows that house an art gallery — the Kalk Bay Modern — on the first floor. The building used to be the Kalk Bay Residential Hotel in the 1920s, with a theatre-cum-cinema added 20 years later. The cinema is now the bakery that supplies the Olympia Café. Both are owned by a small, easy-going consortium in which brothers Kenneth and Stuart McClarty play leading roles.
"It’s been 20 years," says Kenneth with a smile. "We started off in 1997 with R50,000 and some broken chairs."
The place has mismatched décor and the vaguely shambolic but intimate air of a large family home, yet the food is delicious and the service attentive. The restaurant, which isn’t big, does a good line in freshly caught grilled fish, pastas, steaming mussel broth and mouth-watering cakes and pastries.
These, along with Olympia’s famous ciabatta, are provided by the bakery, itself abutted by a tiny vineyard, reputed to be the closest vineyard to the sea in southern Africa.
"We harvest in March," says Stuart on a day in which a member of staff is clearing garden boxes of fragrant sprigs of lavender, soon to be pressed into oil. "An e-mail goes out and about 20 people come around with their own secateurs. We provide croissants and coffee and the picking takes about two hours. The grapes go to be pressed and bottled in Wellington. We make about 700 bottles of pinot noir — some of which becomes the house wine we sell in the café."
Employing about 70 people in roles from baristas, cooks and pastry chefs to waiters, the Olympia is very much a functioning concern. But for all its sense of humour and feisty disregard for stuffiness (one of its chalkboards says: "No we don’t have Wi-Fi, we talk to each other") the restaurant was recently brought to its knees by the long-term roadworks on its doorstep. Paving and widening the road outside — on the stretch from Kalk Bay down to Clovelly and along to Fish Hoek — has taken eight years and badly affected passing trade.
"The roadworks really choked us, and we were forced into drastic action last September," says Kenneth, looking forward to the completion of the works in time for the summer holiday throng.
Two-road access and the problem of limited parking are fundamentals in Kalk Bay on which most parties agree.
Jack Cullinan, chairman of the Kalk Bay Business Association, for example, is mildly frustrated by the pace of the roadworks, but mentions that they have brought more parking bays into an already congested area with only limited thoroughfares.
He adds that the parking lot behind the Kalk Bay harbour is about to be resurfaced and a market area for stalls added.
Having brought several useful initiatives to the community — including a self-regulating posse of car guards, with numbered bibs and elected spokesmen — he does worry about residents’ propensity to look backwards. He wishes they might be a little less fearful in their embrace of the future, but he also understands that this is a community with an untarnished identity in need of protecting.
Kenneth sees things slightly differently. He says the community is ageing, and he bemoans Kalk Bay’s lack of children (the area’s two primary schools bus in their pupils) and the fact that 70 of 700 households offer accommodation on Airbnb, encouraging quick transience rather than a sense of community.
The railway line, he believes, is key. "The province has got to take the line away from the state and improve it," he says. "That would bring more visitors here. The solution here is not more parking — we only have 200 bays anyway. The solution is to take the train or an Uber or a taxi, and then we could fence or close the area off and make it a pedestrianised walkway."
He is surely correct to see the future of the village as tied up with the scenic railway line between Muizenberg and Simon’s Town. There is a historical echo here, because once upon a time the Trans-Karoo stopped at Muizenberg Station. After a couple of years, tourist guidebooks and ratings agencies made an appearance and the hotels — with rickety stairs and shared bathrooms at the end of corridors — didn’t always merit four or five stars. Muizenberg wasn’t threatened as a holiday destination, but it certainly suffered.
You can appreciate all the tended beauty of Kalk Bay as you walk down the Ponder Road stairway: the well-kept houses, the pot plants arranged on back steps, the unspoilt lushness of the small, carefully tended gardens
Kalk Bay residents feel that a better service run by the city would allow for greater commercial flexibility. They point out that holiday trains could run at the height of the holiday season and ferries could twirl into False Bay. The answer to Kalk Bay’s future doesn’t, then, lie with the road but with the railway and the sea.
Whatever the future brings, Kalk Bay is a village with a quiet but unmistakable sense of self. It is home not only to "Chris", one of the widely tolerated local derelicts, but poets, authors (Mark Gevisser stays here), puppeteers and former politicos. There are astrologers, too, and musicians who, when they aren’t recording their sessions, sell coffee out of the back of their bakkies in the shadow of the community centre on mild Saturday mornings.
It is home to the Brass Bell and the famous Cape to Cuba café. There are antiquarian bookshops, designer emporiums and back-street bagel and coffee joints.
There’s even a small mosque, which was vandalised and splattered with blood in January. The blood has been cleaned up and the desecrated Koran replaced, and the mosque’s doors remain open — the sign of a rare tolerance in these fraught and fractious times.