Swaaneweide and ‘The Widow Ras’ at the foot of the Steenberg Mountains
Steenberg existed even before Simon van der Stel had built his great house in the heart of the Constantia Valley. Steenberg, ‘Mountain of Stone’, has a romantic ring, but the original name was more beautiful still, for it was called ‘Swaaneweide’ – The Feeding Place of Swans. Whether swans did indeed fly down to drink and swim in the cool clear waters of the farm, or whether the first owner, Catharina Ras, was being nostalgic about her former home in Lubeck, on the Baltic coast of Germany, is hard to tell. Whatever her reason, she named her estate Swaaneweide, maybe she had mistaken the spur-winged geese for swans because today you will still find a large population of these spur-winged geese at Steenberg.
Catharina Ustings Ras was one of the most daring and controversial figures ever to settle at the Cape. Life was not easy when she arrived, only ten years after Jan van Riebeeck landed, for 1662 was far from being the age of rights for women. Yet this indomitable woman had boarded a sailing ship and made the perilous journey to the furthest tip of Africa. What she found was certainly no land of milk and honey. It was a fierce, wild place with laws to match. Keel haulings, hangings, lashings and brandings were normal occurrences. This being no place for a lone widow of twenty-two, she immediately found herself a second husband, Hans Ras. He was not a particularly eligible catch – a soldier and free burger with a penchant for female slaves. But he had a house on the Liesbeek River, which he had bought from Jakob Kluten, founder of the famous Cloete family, whose name has dominated Constantia for more than two hundred years.
Once the wedding knot was tied, Catharina’s life seemed to take on very dramatic overtones, which marked its course from that day forward. Two wagons left the ceremony, with the bride and groom in one and the guests in the other. Lit from within by good Cape wine and overcome, no doubt, by the spirit of the occasion, the drivers decided to race one another back to Rondebosch. While the guests clung fearfully to their seats, praying to Heaven with truly Protestant fervour, the wagons vied for position and as the road was rough and narrow, a collision soon occurred. Enraged at this conduct on his wedding day, the bridegroom jumped down from his seat and soon became entangled in a fight, receiving a knife thrust, which almost proved fatal, the weapon breaking in two between his ribs. He survived this incident and lived to father several children, but came to an unfortunate end, when he was killed by a lion some years later. Legend has it that, like Annie Oakley, Catharina courageously fetched a gun, leaped on her horse and gave chase finally shooting the lion herself.
Fate had a good deal more in store for the girl from Lubeck, for a Hottentot murdered her next husband and his successor was trampled underfoot by an elephant. Seemingly no less endowed with energy than Henry VIII, who surprised all Europe with his impressive total of six wives, Catharina then took unto herself a fifth husband, a hardy German named Matthys Michelse.
In 1682 Catharina Michelse, also known as The Widow Ras, had asked Simon van der Stel for a portion of ground at the foot of the Ou Kaapse Weg and he agreed to lease 25 morgen to her. After he became the owner of Groot Constantia in 1685, she asked him for a legal title deed and a mandate was granted to her in 1688 to “cultivate, to plough and to sow and also to possess” the farm below the stone mountain.” According to Baron von Rheede tot Drankenstein, who visited the farm and was served a luncheon of “radishes and freshly baked bread and beautiful cabbages“, Catharina was a fiercely independent woman, “riding bare-back like an Indian and her children resembling Brazilian cannibals!“
In 1695 Frederik Russouw bought the farm. There to witness the deed, were Henning Huising (owner of Meerlust and uncle to Adam Tas) and Hugo Goyes. Russouw, a powerful and wealthy member of the Burger Council and it was he who built the new U-shaped house in 1695. He also made the first wines at Swaaneweide.
As time passed, the Dutch East India Company decreed in 1741 that from May to August each year, Simons Bay would be the official winter port, because “the north west winds in Table Bay had been causing untold damage and loss of life.” Because Swaaneweide was exactly one days’ journey from Table Bay and one days’ journey from Simons Bay, this meant that many travellers would be obliged to overnight at the farm. Christina Diemer (the widow of Frederik Russouw) became the recipient of a highly profitable business of supplying hospitality to travelers and provisions to the fleet.
When Christina Diemer died, it was her youngest son, Nicolaas Russouw and his wife Anna Maria Rousselet who inherited the farm. He had received the farm before Christina died and made an agreement to relinquish any further claim on the estate. Nicolaas and his wife had the farm from 1765 to 1801. It was Nicolaas who had the fine new “Holbol” gable built on to the front of the original house, the only one of its kind in the Cape Peninsula.
When Nicolaas died, his son Daniel bought the farm in 1802 from his mother, Maria. Due to difficult times and unfortunate circumstances, he sold it to Johannes Adriaan Louw of Fisantekraal (a brother-in-law) and Frederik Anthon Olthoff. The Deed of Sale is legally phrased and cut and dried and a letter appeared before the Master of the Supreme Court in August 1842, stating firmly that the sale to the two sons-in-law had been legal. All Daniel Russouw’s children were paid a cash share and signed acceptance of such a share. Still, the Russouw blood flowed in the Louw children’s veins. Nicolaas Louw’s greatest passion was Steenberg. He went straight from school into farming and his three children, Andrew (architect), Jean and Nicolette inherited the property jointly when he died in 1976.
Steenberg remained the property of the Louw family until 1990 when it was purchased by J.C.I. (Johannesburg Consolidated Investments), and then re-developed as it is today. The historical buildings have been painstakingly restored. The ‘Werf’ area of the farm includes the circa 1740 Manor House and Jonkershuis (young man’s house), barn and the original wine cellar. The main gable is the only surviving example of its type in the Cape Peninsula. It is a convex-concave or “holbol” outlined by heavy mouldings in a small keystone.
The original Manor House, Jonkershuis and Barn houses the 30 suite 5 star hotel, while Catherina’s Restaurant is situated in the original winery. Catherina’s Restaurant is open to the public for breakfast, lunch and dinner and serves a fine table of contemporary cuisine with a nuance of a Cape influence. Steenberg has been developed to include an 18-hole championship golf course and 210 residential units. The golf course, originally designed by Peter Matkovich, is in keeping with the natural environment and complements the indigenous character of the estate.
The 210 residential erven all have direct frontage onto the fairways providing a “park-like” setting and an open vista extending significantly beyond the boundaries of the properties themselves. Design of the homes is strictly controlled and all conform to a set of architectural and urban design guidelines. Steenberg underwent extensive soil and micro-climatic analyses before a complete replanting program was begun. There are about 70ha under vine of which 60% is white namely: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Semillon and Muscat de Frontignan. The red varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Shiraz. The farm is also one of only a handful in the Cape to have invested in the Italian red variety, Nebbiolo. Contact Road Travel Africa to book your stay at this fantastic hotel, your round of golf on this magnificent golf course, your excellent meal at this fabulous restaurant, your wine tasting at this brilliant wine estate or your treatment at this wonderful spa.