They seem, particularly those bountiful grey-yellow ones that look like dirty miniature Yorkshire terriers suspended by collar and tail from snout above, to have mulish minds of their own. No skilful insertion of fork or frequent dab and swab of napkin can keep sauce or crumb from clinging on and wagging incessantly with every chomp and chat. No unblinking fixation from dining companion or undisguised giggle from small child can convince hairy web to release its morsels.
Indeed, it seems to me that a moustache is not an easy thing to have. Yet, report fashionistas, densely forested upper lips – such as those favoured by 70s porn stars, I am told – are making a comeback.
So, when, during a trip through the Northern Cape, I encountered a moustache cup at the Calvinia Museum, I wondered if the clever invention too, might stage a reappearance, and move from being charmingly displayed in a dusty dorp to sparkling on the shelves of Spilhaus in Sandton and the V&A Waterfront?
Calvinia’s moustache cup, with its little bridge just inside the rim preventing bristly bits from bobbing in beverages, is among a handful of items that suggest that European settlers – who arrived the Hantam area in the early 1850s – had the time and/or inclination to concern themselves with anything other than farming. Any other frivolity is merely hinted at by the exhibits of an antique suppository device, a domino set and some black wedding gowns. Indeed, it seems that early Calvinia was a party waiting to happen.
Agricultural activities on the other hand, are extensively represented by serious things like a bucket pump, flourmill, cobbling and blacksmith workshops, and soap and candle-making utensils. An entire room is devoted to the district’s history of sheep farming. Pay attention and you will know that Cape fat-tail makes the best boerewors, while Dorpers are Africa’s version of the Beaver. They are well known for chewing through gates and fences.
You will also meet the shaggiest stuffed sheep you are ever likely to come across. This particular Merino had a passion for travel and evaded his shepherd in 1972. When he came home three years later, his incredible fleece measured 38 cm deep. As a result, he was spared the chop, stuffed instead and added to the Calvinia Museum collection. There he looks immortally warm, but sadly still in his glass case.
Then there is the bizarre four-legged ostrich, which, it evolves, is not the result of a genetic jumble but rather the work of an enterprising carpenter called Du Preez. During a slow period at work, Du Preez fixed two artificial legs to a stuffed bird and made some extra money from naïve and/or bored spectators. Indeed, a party waiting to happen in Calvinia.
From wild wool and four-legged feathers, to the Calvinia quadruplets… The Lombard room features memorabilia of this famous foursome who were born in the dorp in the 1950s. There is an imitation display of them in their cots (no stuffing), and pictures of them as rugby playing schoolboys, at their matric dance and with their bakkies.
The Calvinia Museum is located at 44 Church Street in a splendid art deco building that was built as the town’s synagogue in 1920. There is an indigenous garden alongside it displaying some of the area’s unique flowers, bushes and grasses.
Curator, Maxie Hugo is currently photographing old homes in Calvinia West, which she says, is not widely enough represented in the museum. These are largely the original homes of the working class of old Calvinia.
While there is little evidence of partying in the early days, Calvinia is making up for it these days. The Hantam Karoo is at its most splendid in spring when the flowers bloom. In August, Calvinia holds its annual two-day Hantam Vleisfees (meat festival). During this time, you can join the locals to celebrate the abundance of life in sheep country as you gorge yourself on lamb chops, lamb curries, lamb kebabs, lamb barbeques, leg of lamb and, for some variety, mutton stew. If you have the heart for it, you can try “a true Karoo delicacy”, an entire lamb’s head.
Other entertainment during the festival includes a street party, music concert, vintage car rally, dancing and the annual Miss Vleisfees beauty pageant.
So, if you are a flora-phile carnivore with a penchant for lamb, time your trip to Calvinia to coincide with the Hantam Vleisfees. And do not leave town without visiting what is surely one of the country’s most fascinating rural museums. Contemplate the comeback of the moustache cup, say hello to the shaggy sheep for me, and try not to be fooled by the four-legged ostrich.
(First published in The Weekender.)