An Artist Colony Thrives in the South African Desert

You learn from the museum that a nearby railroad line from Cape Town, the carving of the tortuous pass through the Swartbergs, a short-lived boom in ostrich feathers for Europeans and a gold rush that fizzled all contributed to the growth of the village, which today has 7,000 inhabitants, roughly 86 percent of mixed-race, 11 percent white and 2 percent black.

Back outside, it is hard not to be struck by the sharp contrast, even in the new South Africa, between the comfortable routines and living quarters of white residents and tourists, and the more pinched lives and flimsy shacks of the mixed-race and black residents who work in the hotels, shops and farms that are owned and managed by whites. On the streets, barefoot children sometimes pose for photographs, hoping for a few rand.

Prince Albert is known for its food and on our strolls we indulged. Sitting in the shade of a quiet side garden of the Lazy Lizard cafe, we munched on crisp loaves of homemade bread and a Karoo Plate, stocked with a cornucopia of the Karoo’s offerings — lamb, cheese, Bulgarian yogurt, figs and olives.

The source of the yogurt and cheese is Prince Albert’s landmark Gay’s Guernsey Dairy. Gay van Hasselt welcomes visitors with a jaunty flair, recalling how she started the farm, in 1990 with three cows and a stone kraal (barn). She now has 50 cows. She is proud that the villagers got used to thinking of yogurt, sometimes sweetened with flavors like strawberry — not as vrot melk — milk gone bad, but as a tart treat.

When the January desert heat proved enervating, we returned to our inn, De Bergkant Lodge, built in 1858 for a newlywed couple, one of 14 local buildings declared historic monuments, and swam laps to the sound of birdsong. The Swiss owners, Michi and Renate Soennichsen, dote on their guests.

Both the restaurants they recommended were of high caliber and cost no more than an inexpensive Manhattan spot. At the Olive Branch, a cozy, unpretentious room, Hendry Olivier, the chef, explained how he slow-cooked the lamb for four hours. After tasting it, we concluded there must be a virtue in grazing in a desert.

Somewhat more offbeat was Karoo Kombuis — or Karoo Kitchen — which is in a simple cottage on a back street. It has just three tables with checkered tablecloths in the front room and three in the back room. A blackboard on the narrow patio serves as the menu but offers only three entrees — though you can order any two in smaller portions. The restaurant’s other rules are cash only, bring booze and find the toilet through the kitchen.