You get to the estate called Boschendal by passing through the sleepy little university town of Stellenbosch, just 40 minutes or so from Cape Town, and by traversing Helshoogte (Hell's Heights) Pass, a twisty road that's not nearly as fierce as its name implies. Once over the crest, the road dips down toward the distant valley and the town of Franschhoek (French Corner).
This is how my ancestors got here after they debarked in Cape Town more than 300 years ago and were granted their farm lots in these golden valleys, surely among the most beautiful landscapes on earth. They arrived in 1689, refugees from religious tyranny in France, and made their way into the valleys of the Drakenstein mountains by oxcart. Then they settled into their assigned farms, clearing the bush and fighting off leopards and the ever-destructive baboons, over the years building a number of the gabled Cape Dutch mansions that still stand. Among them is Boschendal, one of the grandest of them all.
Last March I stood on the front steps of Boschendal's manor house with my mother, the sun slanting low over mountains that seemed made of soft purples and mist, looking past the whitewashed walls of the household garden to the geometric rows of vineyards beyond, the originals planted three centuries ago by long-forgotten workers. I was trying to pretend the estate still belonged to our family, who bought it in 1715. No matter that in the early 1850s my direct ancestor, Luttig de Villiers, fled what he regarded as the intolerably bureaucratic Cape for the endless emptiness of the African plains, where he raised sheep in the arid interior instead, leaving Boschendal in the hands of his cousins, who eventually sold it. "Well, let's buy it back," my mother said. Boschendal's current owners, the Anglo-American Corporation, a successor to Cecil Rhodes's gold and diamond conglomerate, had put the old place up for sale, together with its 850 acres of vines and thousands of fruit trees. My mother leaned against the front door in a proprietorial way. My sister and I rolled our eyes, but Mother has always been an optimist, and it didn't faze her at all that the rumored asking price of $50 million was about $49.9 million more than we could afford.