The Feathered Nest

The Feathered Nest

30 January 2013

(This article, by Nancy Richards, appeared in the Sunday Times in January 2013)

Chance encounters add an unexpected high note to a simple stopover …

HEAR them before I see them. Upwards of 1000 flocking ibis making a racket like a badly chaired board meeting. Of all the available trees in the heart of Montagu, why they should all choose the same one is a mystery. But they do. Swooping in over the lei dam from all directions — fighting, flapping, nesting, grooming — there’s even one hanging sort of limply from a branch, maybe dead. This is bird life gone mad. A David Attenborough moment without the whispering.

On the other side of the road from the bird tree is the Ibis Gallery. I knock at the mint-green door, hoping for some insight into the messy, massing phenomenon. Artist Carolyn Metcalfe invites me into her paint and ceramic sanctuary and closes the door behind us, reducing the cacophony to background sound. The birds, she tells me, arrived about 15 years ago — egrets first followed by ibises, cormorants, herons and weavers. She’s raising a hatchling on a tempting mix of boiled eggs, grated carrot and dog food. Head tilting this way and that, he stalks the dedicated rescue room on star-shaped feet and, like those before him, will one day fly through the open window to re-join the squawking social network in the boughs outside. But Carolyn is not only an ornithological ICU. Hot off the press is a copy of The Beautiful Bowls of Carolyn Metcalfe. She produces about 12 of these kaleidoscopic maiolica pottery bowls a year. They are exquisite — and, unlike the fledging, soon-to-be-gone ibis, lifelong collectors’ items.

Croatian Kati Pallick is also a bit of a collectors’ item. She owns The Olive House in Bath Street, where we had dinner the night before in the company of Josephine the nattering parrot. Had it not been so peak-seasonally packed and chaotic, we may have caught Kati and her partner George, dancing as they are wont to do, particularly when serving their famous Croatian burger or Cevapcici sausage with chacha sauce. Kati moved to Montagu two years ago so her son Pero could go to school here. She has utterly embraced the local creative spirit and the walls, floors and ceilings of the rambling historic homestead are covered in community, caring and recycled artworks. The Balkan/Adriatic fare is an unexpected extra on the menu and the pool in the back garden is a cool-down option for when the going gets dry and hot, as it so can in this part of the world.

There are two pools at the Montagu Country Hotel — one cold, one heated to a wallowing 32°C. between the two and among the iceberg roses is a notice that reads: “The purpose of life is to be happy, useful, honourable, responsible, compassionate — above all to have made some difference that you have lived at all”. It’s an actioned maxim. Emmerentia Stanfliet, head housekeeper, sings songs of praise as she goes about her work and hotel owner Gert Lubbe, also president of the Breede River Rotary and Hospice board member, came to Montagu from Stellenbosch with a view to living a more meaningful existence. Though it has to be said, he’s also had a lot of fun furnishing the hotel back to its extreme art-deco roots. I happen into a lounge heavy with velour, polished period-piece suites and Gatsby styling. In a corner there’s a young man at the piano, fingers poised. He breaks into a rippling nostalgic melody, then another and another. Between riffs we get chatting. He’s practising for duty at the baby grand in the dining room tonight.
William Tamanie has never had a lesson in his life. Clearly a natural of note. He also paints, and some of his work is on show at The Olive House. His mother was once a waitress at the hotel — in the 13 years since she died, he’s been coming here to teach himself the piano. Lubbe hopes that one day his talent will be spotted. Had we stayed longer, there could have been more chance encounters in Montagu.

Just as we were leaving, Metcalfe called to invite us to the moonrise and wine gathering on the white footbridge. It happens every month at full moon, when a group of neighbours cluster together, like sacred ibises, to watch the moon rise over the mountains. Nice. — © Nancy Richards