Photographs Francois Oberholster l Production Marian van Wyk
Albert van Niekerk and his dog, Benji
WHERE The farm Varsfontein between Caledon and Greyton in the Western Cape
Albert and his girlfriend Anmar with Benji on the front stoep of the cottage he restored.
Albert van Niekerk, a winemaker, grew up in the Overberg and his family has been farming in this region for six generations. About 60 years ago, his grandfather bought a neighbouring farm which had two houses and a barn on the property.
The older house dates back to the 1880s; the other one was built higher up the hill in the 1920s. Both were rented out for a short time before falling into disuse.
Yet the property has always held sentimental value for the Van Niekerks. “From an early age, all our uncles, aunts and cousins would have picnics with my grandparents here under the oak trees,” Albert explains. Later, he and his university friends would have braais at the older house, which they jokingly dubbed “the haunted house”.
It had always been Albert’s dream to fix up this older house, but it made no financial sense. When he got a job in the area in 2018, he started looking for rental homes. “The only options were in Hermanus or Onrus – at a fairly steep price,” he says. “But then I realised that the perfect opportunity to restore the ‘haunted house’ had presented itself.”
A budget-savvy solution
Albert entrusted the renovation project to JM Crous Bouers, a local company that has taken care of any construction work needed on the Van Niekerks’ farm for many years.
Despite the house’s dilapidated appearance, its corrugated iron roof structure, interior doors and walls were all solid and in good condition. It could be restored with minimal changes, a bit of refurbishment and a lick of paint. Albert also decided to break out the interior wall between the living room and kitchen, thus creating a larger open-plan living area.
Unfortunately, 60 years of wear and tear made the original wooden floors unsalvageable. “Simple cement floors were an affordable solution, and they cool down the house during our hot Overberg summers,” he says.
All that’s been added is a sun porch outside the kitchen door. Today, the end result is very close to what the house would have looked like originally. “My budget was limited, so my main focus was to make the house liveable. I think that’s what forced me to keep it as authentic as possible. Major changes would have cost too much.”
The glass in the interior doors was replaced and Albert created a stained glass effect with a special tint he bought from PNA. The display cabinet is an heirloom piece.
Workbenches from Buco serve as kitchen counters; a hole was cut in one to accommodate the double sink. Tea towel from Skinny laMinx
One of the few changes to the original floor plan was the addition of a sun porch outside the kitchen door.
Furniture and décor
In keeping with the style of the house, Albert filled it with a combination of retro and antique furniture pieces that he purchased or inherited over time.
“I’ve always been drawn to old furniture. I have collected many pieces over the years and almost every one has a story,” he says.
One such piece is the display cabinet that was previously used to store medical equipment in his grandfather’s consulting room. When he retired, no one wanted it. Albert kept it until he could find a place for it. Albert also had his eye on the mid-century mustard-yellow lounge suite that no one in the family wanted. “It lay in a barn for years, covered in a thick layer of dust, but I was able to refurbish it by cleaning the upholstery and oiling the wood a little.”
Decorating the house, however, was something Albert did not have to do alone. His girlfriend Anmar Sprong, a fellow winemaker in the area, provided invaluable input during all the phases of the restoration.
Between Anmar and Albert’s mom Elsabé, all the finer details were worked out. “I must admit, a lot of the stuff they brought in I sneaked out again when it got a little too cluttered for my liking,” he says with a smile.
Albert does not regret for one moment the time, effort and money he invested in the project. “The house and yard form a major part of my family’s history. It would have been an injustice to let it fall into total disrepair. Being able to revive it, rather than demolish it, was not only very important to me, but also to the rest of the family who attach as much sentimental value to it as I do.”
The wardrobe in the main bedroom is a second-hand find from Facebook Marketplace. Old suitcases from a second-hand shop add character. Scatters from Skinny laMinx
Making it work
The house has never had electricity in the 140 years of its existence. Somewhat isolated, it could not be connected to any existing water or electricity network. Albert, therefore, relies on a more natural way of doing things.
A windmill pumps water for the bathroom from one of the springs on the property. But since the spring water is brackish, rainwater is collected in a tank for drinking and use in the kitchen. “The house is at the foot of a steep hill and thanks to gravity we don’t need pumps,” he explains.
For electricity, the cottage is equipped with 10 solar panels that can generate 5kW of electricity, run a converter and charge a lithium battery, all set up and installed by Cedar Solar. “It was a huge moment for all of us when we were able to switch on lights for the first time!” says Albert with a chuckle.
Although small, the system generates more than enough electricity for the house. For the rest, Albert relies on gas for cooking and heating water. “You have to learn to make adjustments to your daily life, such as switching off lights or rather boiling water on the stove than in an electric kettle,” he explains.
A René Magritte print provides contrast to the antique furniture in the guest room. Yellow cushion from Skinny laMinx; botanical cushions from MRP Home; towel from Mungo Design
The bathroom was updated with a black and white tile combination from CTM.
The house is situated at the foot of a hill. Water from storage tanks at the top house is gravity-fed downwards, so no pumps are needed.
Gravel, bricks, cement 12 108
Lintels, plastic sealant 3 225
Carpentry 2 716
Paints and materials 5 802
Tiles 8 352
Geyser 3 300
Doors and windows 6 117
Electrical wiring 800
Solar system 90 000
Electrician 6 403
Plumbing 8 197
Lighting 3 300
Extras 12 000
Building contractor 52 300
Albert's tips for using solar power and rainwater
• Activities that require a lot of power (washing laundry, for example) must be carried out before noon so the batteries can recharge fully in the afternoon.
• Keep boiled water warm in a thermos so that you don’t have to use the kettle unnecessarily.
• Invest in individual solar-powered outdoor lights to reduce the load on the system.
• Utilise all possible roof surfaces to collect rainwater.
Buco 021 927 5000
Cedar Solar 011 794 4664
CTM 010 003 9987
J.M. Crous Bouers 083 310 2339
Mr Price Home 0800 212 535
Mungo Design 021 201 2374, 044 533 1395
PNA 011 672 4391
Plascon 0860 20 40 60
Prominent Paints 0861 77 66 46
Skinny laMinx 021 424 6290