by Robyn Vogels
It was an absolute delight to chat with this young couple from the Western Cape who arrived in Australia just two years ago. They left behind a beloved homeland, a family farm and all that is natural for them, to move across the globe to start all over again, alone. It takes true South African stamina to chase your dreams. To ignore the nay-sayers and go against the grain with enthusiasm and sheer determination. Nika and Dirk’s story is truly inspirational. Arriving as a couple, they are now a family, all whilst navigating bush fires, COVID lockdowns and intense homesickness.
Dirk Bester is a fifth-generation farmer from Swartland, Western Cape. He and his wife Nika were invested in their land and country. However, a spike in farm attacks and talks that land grabs might happen, meant the family needed to reassess … But where to and how?
Dirk and his dad visited Canada and the USA in hope of finding where to move the family farm. They returned to South Africa feeling like they had not found their place just yet, although the opportunities looked amazing. Then on holiday to Victoria and Tasmania in Australia early 2018, Dirk and Nika realised this was the place to set up their life. The climate and agriculture had many similarities to the Western Cape, so they began their visa journey and their dreams.
Although Dirk’s family farm in South Africa was a sheep and grain farm, there was that dream of owning a vineyard. Besides, after some investigation, they realised a commercial grain farm was really expensive to set up in Australia. “You have to do the calculations over and over when you have to convert R10 to $1,” says Nika.
So, with the support of loved ones back home, they started building their dream vineyard.
On an elevated cool site in the foothills of the Victorian Alps, the Victorian High Country, they found a boutique 20-year-old winery for sale and bought it in September 2019. The vineyard had mostly Italian grape varieties and is on a major tourist route with amazing views. It needed some love, so the young couple went about rebranding, started renovations to the current buildings and planning for expansion.
Nika had heard many concerns about all the red tape, rules, and strict regulations in Australia. However, she found that there was always a purpose behind these set rules. “I was amazed to be sitting down with a person to help us with planning permits and building permits; he was so respectful of our endeavours,” says Nika. Not only did they have council backing but also the local mayor actually came to visit them and said he had seen their plans and was excited.
It is amazing to consider what this couple has accomplished in the last two years despite so many adversities. They commenced the restaurant and cellar door renovations first and were excited to open the doors, but sadly, they had to close after just three weeks with the beginning of COVID restrictions. As if that wasn’t enough, a few months earlier, bushfires raged close enough to taint their entire crop in smoke. “No harvest for our first year on the farm is really heartbreaking,” Dirk says. Chefs and newly acquired staff had to be let go.
During the pandemic they added a distillery to the winery so that they can use the unwanted grapes and skins for gin and brandy. Dirk says: “It was a no-brainer that I would import stills from South Africa. I knew the equipment and its standards.”
As if this was not enough to juggle, the young couple became a family. Their little boy, Dirk Junior (the 6th Dirk in a row) arrived late December 2020. There is no describing the joy this brings but also the heartache when you are so far away from grandparents and loved ones. Without any means to even travel internationally to celebrate the birth.
Nika describes that she and Dirk are workaholics. They push each other all the time. They often laugh, “It’s been two years, why aren’t we finished yet?” But they realise they will never be finished; they love this dream they are creating.
“The neighbours have been amazing,” says Dirk. “We have people just drive up the driveway and offer to help or inviting us over to dinner. The local media has supported us, the council, the town … everyone. We really like being rural.” Nika and Dirk have also been amazed at how the Australians have embraced their menu. To start with, they only added a few South African inspired items alongside a core of local favourites. It did not take long to realise that Australians embrace variety and were very keen to try new things and the ‘unknown’ choices started selling. “Our inspiration comes from the spice route: North and Southern Africa, South Asia and Europe,” explains Nika. “We love the depth of spices in food and in the beginning thought we had to play it safe, but the Aussies loved it, especially things like peri-peri and bobotie.”
What do the next few months hold for the young family? Well, their three gins, including a Rooibos Gin, are selling online while they wait for restrictions to lift to open the restaurant and cellar door again. The first estate wines are about to be bottled, which they are very excited about, and they are venturing further down the whisky, brandy and rum route in the distillery. They are also finishing four luxury eco-cottages on the farm overlooking the valley.
I asked the couple what advice they would offer to other South African farmers and entrepreneurs. Here are their top tips:
“We quickly learned, don’t bite off more than you can chew. Here, you have to take smaller steps. It’s just different; you have to think differently. Australia has amazing opportunities, but you can’t take them all on at once,” Nika says. “Hold on to that can-do spirit, then you will always find a way to do what you aimed to do,” Dirk adds.
It surprised me to hear that Nika had read our book, Your Move Guide to Australia. So, I had to ask if it helped, after all, it has a very “city” orientation to it. Nika laughed, “Robyn, it was great! Especially the slang – out here in regional areas can be whole ’nother kind of English!!”
Nika and Dirk have arrived with a positive, can-do attitude. They have been open to suggestions and gracious with the support they have received from locals. It is a true recipe for success. We wish Nika and Dirk all the best and hope to visit them soon.
Visit Glenbosch’s website here.