STORIES FROM THE PLATTELAND
Escape to Pete Reinders’ garden and discover the marvelous golden years of a retired country doctor
See the man in the early morning light, puffing on an old pipe as he checks on the state of the Sri Lankan gourds, purple Russian tomatoes and the leivoor dam down at his vast veggie patch in Prince Albert.
As he stoops to greet the cheerful kohlrabi, Zingy the cat springs onto his shoulders and perches happily. Within the half-hour, he has to shrug Zingy off because Mila the other cat is now jealous and also wants a ride on her favourite human.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone enjoy his retirement years quite so much,” my husband, Chris, whispers as we watch Dr Pete Reinders in his new, fresh realm of things a-growing and things a-crowing.
Dr Pete has always dreamed of being a farmer. Back when he and his wife Megan were living and working in Cape Town, Pete read both The Lancet and Farmer’s Weekly on a regular basis. And when a medical practice in Prince Albert came up for sale, he bought a smallholding on the outskirts and became the new town doctor, with a side interest in spinach.
Most of us, when we think of the concept of a small town medico, imagine it’s a bit of an exercise in semi-retirement. After all, it’s so quiet in the country, right?
Doc on the spot
That may be if you’re a pensioned-off somebody with few cares in the world. But if you’re the go-to person for every disaster, road accident and general medical emergency in the district, it can scale right up to the proportions of Baragwanath Hospital on a Friday night.
“I couldn’t ever have an extra glass of wine in the evenings, for fear of that phone call, after which I would rush out to a major accident,” says Pete.
Prince Albert is a tucked-away little village in the shadow of the Swartberg Mountains, but it also lies between the N1 and the N12, two busy national roads with very high night-accident statistics. Dr Reinders often had to treat multiple crash victims in the early hours before dawn.
“I would have to stabilise them so they could be sent by helicopter or ambulance to hospitals in George or Oudtshoorn,” he says. “There’s nothing more isolating than standing man-alone in the chaos of a big accident, knowing you are the only one between the injured and death. You can’t scan them, you can’t X-ray them — you’re just working on gut feel.”
That’s the worst part. But it’s far from being all bad.
Tapping into grass roots
“On the other hand,” he continues, “being a country doctor is the best way to tap into the whole community. You get to know everyone, from the retired astrophysicist to the farmworker. And your grateful patients bring you gifts, like a homemade pie or a milk tart.”
Pete Reinders would do house calls, which sometimes even involved the stitching up of a beloved family goat.
“And everyone in the consulting rooms would gather for a lekker skinder. I would come out to call in the next patient and Michelle, the receptionist, would say: ‘I’ll send them in now, doc. We just need to finish this story’.”
Jeremy Witts-Hewinson of Klaarstroom says he has the distinction of being Pete’s very last patient at his consultancy before the doctor began his well-earned retirement.
“I was feeling totally vrot. Pete sat me down and I described my symptoms. And you know that way he has of looking at you sort of indirectly? He did that, then he said it sounded very much like tickbite fever. He took some blood for testing, prescribed antibiotics and off I went. That was the Friday. On the Monday after his retirement, the doc called me and confirmed his original diagnosis.”
Few people think of the challenges that face a gardening doctor’s wife, but the very personable Megan Reinders has a great story to tell:
“One year, we had a glut of apricots, and there’s only so much chutney and jam a soul can make. So I thought I’d try cooking up some apricot liqueur, and went off to buy the vodka base. Well, by the time I bought the ninth bottle of vodka in 10 days, word had spread: ‘The doctor’s wife has a drinking problem!’”
But when their son Richard had a serious accident some years back, the whole community of Prince Albert came to the Reinders’ aid.
Megan was at Richard’s side in Cape Town for five months. Pete was on his own. “People would come over with ready-made meals for him. And they donated money, small amounts and enormous ones. This was all put into a fund account for Richard’s medical and recovery expenses,” says Megan.
When Richard came back to Prince Albert, the community carried on helping by interacting with him and encouraging him to speak.
“That constancy of support, the countless little ways of showing it, the patience. I cannot think you would find that easily in a city,” she says.
The gout doctor
The first time I heard about Dr Pete Reinders and his amazing food garden was more than 10 years ago on a visit to Prince Albert. Chris had a case of killer gout, and went in to see him. Pete changed the strength of his prescription medication and sorted out the problem in two ticks. After the consultation, Chris (who had never been much of a fan of green edibles) came back almost breathless and reported:
“Man, you should see the spinach in that doctor’s patch!”
On a visit to Prince Albert in 2017, we booked into Karoo Khaya, Megan Reinders’ self-cater cottages on their property, with the express intention of finding out more about this legendary market garden.
Apart from regular produce, the doc specialises in heirloom vegetables you wouldn’t be able to source in normal stores: red and green kohlrabi, reddish green chicory, and boerbone that taste mild and nutty as edamame. He’ll try almost any seed he can get his hands on. There are tomatoes in every colour, even iridescent purple. Pete is fascinated by a strange gourd from Sri Lanka that looks like a snake and has outlandish pips but tastes delicious stuffed with feta and oven-baked.
Chefs come to forage
Here, in the middle of the Karoo’s dry heat, you’ll find subtropical visitors like a banana tree, a pawpaw tree, vines and Mexican vegetables called tomatillos.
There are also mulberries, with which Megan has a love-hate relationship. Once a year, she puts on her purple-stained mulberry clothes and deals with them, picking them and processing them into syrupy ice cream toppings and jam.
“There’s a reason that mulberry jam is quite rare,” she observes darkly.
Suddenly we hear a cry of delight from somewhere inside Pete’s Garden. Here’s chef Ridwaan Lockhart of the popular Simply Saffron Restaurant, full of the joys of discovery. Like many of the foodies in town, Ridwaan loves to come over and rootle through Pete’s patch.
“Look what I’ve found,” says he, showing us the contents of his two full baskets of early spring produce. “Kale, coriander, baby spinach, boerbone and onions.” He’s holding a yoga retreat over at his spot this weekend and has to cater for a bunch of people with discerning tastes.
Ridwaan and Pete fall into a deep discussion over what’s available now and what will shortly be featuring in the garden. The chef grins with affection at Pete as he scolds his ducks for eating up the earthworms.
“You should stick with the snails,” says the doctor to the smug ducks. Then he cocks his head sideways and listens for something out in the farmyard.
“Excuse me for a moment. I think I can hear the geese attacking my sheep.” He darts off to the rescue.
Indeed, there’s a bossy goose trying to marshall all the troops in the yard. The single sheep is fat and woolly. Sometimes, when Pete feeds the beasts, stray pellets land on the sheep’s back. The Angora goats will then simply dive in as if the sheep has become the dinner table.
The farmyard animals are as crucial to the success of the garden as the leivoor water. They devour the cuttings, trample whatever they don’t eat and in return deliver excellent fertiliser.
Two grand turkey cocks are parading around the farmyard, thrumming with passion, ugly wattles glowing red, tails spread and wings dragging on the ground. They are trying it on with three offhand and drab-looking turkey hens to no apparent effect.
All this farmyard politicking is being viewed by the overboss, Dr Pete Reinders. As he sucks on his pipe, Megan scolds him lightly:
“You should follow your own health advice.”
“I know,” says the doc, tamping down his pipe. “But then I’d live forever.”
If only… DM
This is an excerpt from Moving to the Platteland: Life in Small Town South Africa, by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais. The authors are offering a two-book special of Moving to the Platteland and Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo at only R520, including courier costs in South Africa. For enquiries, contact [email protected].