Paarl is the third oldest European settlement in the Republic of South Africa (after Cape Town and Stellenbosch) and forms part of the Western Cape Province. The 2001 census reports Paarl to have a population of approximately 108,000 which makes it the largest town in the Cape Winelands. It is situated about 37 miles northeast of Cape Town in the Western Cape Province and is renowned for its illustrious past and haunting scenic beauty.
The district is particularly well known for its Pearl Mountain or “Paarl Rock”. This huge granite rock is formed by three rounded outcrops that make up Paarl Mountain and has been compared in majesty to Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) in Australia. (However, they are not geologically similar. Paarl Rock consists of intrusive igneous rock, while Uluru is a sedimentary remnant).
In 1657, while Abraham Gabemma was searching for additional meat resources for the new Dutch settlement at the Cape of Good Hope, he saw a giant granite rock glistening in the sun after a rainstorm and named it “de Diamondt en de Peerlberg” (Diamond and Pearl Mountain). Gabemma was the Fiscal (public treasurer) at the settlement on the shores of Table Bay. The “diamonds” soon disappeared from the name and it became known simply at Pearl Rock or Pearl Mountain.
Then, in 1687, just 35 years after the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck at the Cape, land for farms was given to some Dutch settlers on the banks of the Berg River nearby. The fertile soil and the Mediterranean-like climate of this region provided perfect conditions for farming. The settlers planted orchards, vegetable gardens and above all, vineyards, which today produce some of the best red wines in the world. Paarl also hosted a match from the ICC Cricket World Cup 2003.
Like many towns in the Cape Winelands, Paarl is home to a prosperous community, with many well maintained and attractive Cape Dutch houses, beautiful gardens and streets lined with old oak trees.
Paarl boasts a unique cultural attraction: it was here that the foundations of the Afrikaans language were laid by the Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners. The “Afrikaanse Taalmonument” (monument to the Afrikaans language) on the slopes of Paarl Mountain, the Language Museum and the Afrikaans Language Route through Dal Josaphat are memorials to this achievement.
The former headquarters of the wine industry in South Africa is also situated here. This was the famous “Co-operative Wine Growers’ Association” (better known by its Afrikaans initials KWV). The KWV became a South African institution that has acquired an international reputation based on its unique achievements and its imprint of quality on the local wine industry. Over the past decade, however, KWV became a completely profit-driven private company that has no administrative role anymore. (KWV’s main wine production and maturation facilities are on its Paarl premises, while its brandy production takes place in Worcester and grape juice concentrate production in Upington in the Northern Cape).
The town and its surroundings attract many visitors with an array of activities and interests. There are magnificent Cape Dutch buildings (17-19th Century), scenic drives, hiking trails and the Paarl wine route, with its many wine tasting opportunities (including vintages from the famous Nederburg estate) and excellent restaurants.
The Paarl Rock itself is these days a popular Mecca for rock climbers. However, in the pioneering period of rock climbing in South Africa, the mountain was ignored or shunned because its steep faces were so smooth and unfissured that climbers could find no place to attach “runners” or anchor points for belays. The first serious climbing routes up the rock were pioneered in 1969 by climbers from the University of Cape Town (notably J.W. Marchant and J. Knight), who established a few routes on which the rope was run out for 330 feet or more with no protection whatsoever. This was in the days before bolting was possible and these achievements are still held in high regard today. Nowadays protection is afforded by bolts in the granite and there are on Paarl Rock a few dozen spectacular, beautiful and very hard routes that attract the best climbers of the current generation. (All of these climbs remain dangerous for the inexperienced.)