Small towns often yield the best treasures. I called sleepy Grahamstown home for three long years, and its rambunctious student life - a deluge of cheap alcohol designed to liven up the town’s boring horizons - inhabits a liltingly happy space in my memory.
While older establishments such as the Rat and Parrot and Friar’s are better established in the minds of most as Grahamstown’s premier dens of iniquity, the best nights out are had away from the upper end of New Street and its crowded, cigarette-smoked haunts. For a relatively small place, Grahamstown has a lot of well-kept secrets, but the Lowlander is one of its best. Tucked under a white tablecloth dining room on the grounds of one of the town’s most prestigious boarding schools, it’s a dark, bark-floored basement of studenty abandon.
Drinks are cheap; pizza’s too. R25 will buy you a crunchy, thin-based alcohol sponge dismissively served to you by an inattentive waitress on a wax paper-covered hunk of wood. They admittedly have meagre toppings, but it’s made up for by being slathered in cheese that strings ever so satisfyingly.
Like the premises itself, the food is rather rustic; not in a Jamie Oliver, manufactured authenticity sort of way, but rather in a manner that is genuinely and gleefully unsophisticated, verging on slapdash. It’s all strangely comforting, from the old mismatched seating to the bare plumbing and wiring tracing the joins in the walls; the floor covered in bark chips, cigarette butts and 50c coins lost among them.
The Lowlander is also one of the few places outside of Port Alfred where brews from The Little Brewery on the River are on tap. The Kowie Gold Pilsner is their flagship beer, but it isn’t anywhere near as good as the Coin Ale: rusty, rich and tangy with veins of smoke and barbeque sauce. An odd beer, but wholehearted and delicious nevertheless.
In between the surreptitious hook-ups in the dark recesses of one corner, and guitarists tuning up in the other, is room for scores of pre-drunk Rhodes students. Grahamstown is generally thought of being a student town first and foremost, and it’s probably because of places like this. But it’s a gorgeous place for a traveler, too. Stand outside the front door in the crisp winter air with the stars above, a beer in hand, and just be: it’s carefree here. The men chasing each other on the unilluminated rugby pitch would agree, as would the students inside singing along to jangling covers of rock classics.
From my desk in Cape Town I sometimes forget why I spent three years in this small town, unsophisticated, rowdy and completely detached from whatever else is happening in the rest of South Africa. One long night in the Lowlander and I remember: it’s actually a great place.