Text and Photographs by CHRIS MARAIS & JULIENNE DU TOIT
The typical old-style Karoo kitchen, the kind you’ll only find in museums or outpost farms, still has a shiny peach-pip-and-cowdung floor. The centrepiece – making the kitchen the warmest, most social spot in wintertime – is the Aga or Dover stove. Sometimes there’s still an old brick or clay oven with an iron door.
For the rest, it’s a profusion of Victorian era labour-saving devices that would boggle the mind. Peach peelers, candle moulds, flapjack makers, coffee roasters, raisin pip removers and nutmeg graters – there was no shortage of domestic science innovation in the 19th century.
The blacktop highway threads between two mini-Table Mountains as you drive on through the Karoo Supergroup of hills that once lay at the bottom of a great sea. The road is flanked by amber sheeplands and thousands of red sentinels – the aloe ferox. In the distance, a windpump catches a gust of winter breeze and creaks as it spins. All of this under one big, blue sky.
This is the open road of the Karoo, a huge, panoramic sight that has imprinted on the minds of travellers for more than 300 years, whether they passed here in an oxwagon or in the air-conditioned luxury of a German SUV.
To make a living out here in this vast stillness requires the heart of a pioneer, someone who can do without slippers and suburbia and the convenience of a shopping mall. In times gone by, Karoo farmers were at odds with their natural surrounds and had to thrash out an existence with their livestock and their crops, degrading the land. That is changing. With the introduction of new land-sciences and the profitability of game farming, the Karoo Flats can breathe again – and recover. Venture onto a Karoo farm these days and you will find that tourism is bringing the farmer a welcome income stream.
There are still some wonderful old hotels in the Karoo, where the buffet table groans with bobotie, lamb chops, venison with cranberry sauce, sugared pumpkin and beans. A good red wine “from the Cape” and something utterly evil for dessert follows. The stairs echo with old memories as you ascend to a lounge where the fire is lit and the cigars await. Just more than a century ago, fortune hunters and soldiers sat here, in deep conversation with their cronies. From the ample bookshelves, you take a book of illustrations by, perhaps, Captain W Cornwallis Harris, and as you page through, the ‘old days’ appear – as if they never went away.
Old things that have been in storage for decades, grandma’s stuff that was left in her estate, the home of a farmer whose family has been here for many generations, restored guest houses in villages, private homes of town dwellers – these are all repositories of what is now known as Karoo Victoriana. Works of art, ceramics with a sense of humour, touching home scenes, sheep dip advertisements, hunting tableaux – around every corner in the Karoo, it seems, is a little something special from more than a hundred years ago. People cherish these memories around here, and passers-through marvel at these almost-wistful signs of respect for times gone by.
The Moederkerke (Mother Churches) of small towns in the Karoo stand out like a beacon for miles around, and are usually the most grandly-designed buildings of all. They each have their own stories, like the one in Cradock that was in fact modelled on a British church, the elegant St Martins-In-The-Field. The resident reverend at the time, so the legend goes, had an English wife – and wanted her to feel at home in the Karoo.
At the opening ceremony – in the presence of 15 ministers and 2 300 churchgoers – the builder withheld the keys because he hadn’t been fully paid. A few hours later, the money having been raised, consecrations were completed.
There is almost nothing so moody as a walk through a graveyard in the Karoo. Serious money was spent in the old days on headstones and statues, remembering a lost soldier, a mother, a man in his prime, a child taken before its time. Each stone has its own tale, deeply embedded in the local community.
On the night of February 27, 1871, a huge flood decimated the town of Victoria West as the Brak River burst its banks after a major cloudburst. People partying in a hotel, sleeping in their beds, farming families in their homes, others travelling in oxcarts – they were swept away in this disaster. The local graveyard remembers some of the dead, who were lucky enough to be found and buried there.
As far back as the 1850s, the ostrich feather was seen as a colonist’s ticket to Easy Street. Plumes in the hats of European gentry were all the rage. Then, with the big wars of the 20th Century, ostrich feathers took a back seat to sensible dress and hundreds of big bird farms across the Karoo settled back into penury.
The good news is that the ostrich is back, with a vengeance. All his parts now have some use, but his meat has hit the popularity highs with New Age eaters wanting less fat in their protein. An ostrich steak, or minced bird, are favoured delicacies in the food malls of our cities.
So that’s why you see the big-eyed birds wandering the Karoo again, in their thousands. But be warned: don’t jump out and pose for photos with them. They still kick like blazes…
It’s hard for a modern South African to believe, but there was a time out here in the Karoo when two, maybe three, million springbok would pass through a town in one day. These never-ending swathes of trekbokke (roaming antelope) would eat up everything in their path, responding to some mystical mass-call of greener pastures or waterpoints.
Farmers would stand on the stoep and fire into the melee of springbuck, stocking up on skins and biltong for the next year. Other forms of wildlife would be swept away in the path of the trekbokke, while raptors and lions and hyena would follow in their wake, gorging themselves.
And then suddenly, as if responding to some group order, they would turn and head back whence they had come, in small groups, in strange movement patterns. The days of the trekbok are long gone, but it’s still great to see a partial revival of springbok numbers (they even come in shades of black) all over the Karoo. The buck are back…
The sloping roof over the stoep; the wooden window shutters; the thick white walls; the ornate fireplaces; the solid iron stove, heating the whole house; the lintels; the small rooms giving way to a massive lounge – and the bathrooms, with clawfoot tubs and enormous shower roses and a metal flush chain over the toilet. Above all, the way a Karoo house simply ‘hangs’ together, is one of South Africa’s top style icons. And, thankfully, there are still many villages in the Karoo that, almost by accident, have managed to survive the Bad Taste Tsunami of the 60s that swept over most of the country and destroyed its architectural heritage.
Some say it’s the salvation of the Karoo, other call it the Karoo’s very own weapon of mass destruction. The partial reputation of the Karoo was built on its delicious, herby lamb. But many a Karoo settlement was established on the back of a wool boom that later went bust, turning them into ghost towns.
For the sake of the sheep, the jackal and the wild cat have been declared public enemies. Sheep stories abound in the Karoo, where fences never stood before the first woolly wonder made his appearance. Nevertheless, they make damn fine eating and even better wearing…
Once upon a time, 250 million years ago, the Karoo was a vast inland sea fed by glaciers and massive rivers, festooned with cycad swamps. Bizarre creatures of the Permian and Triassic ages roamed the land. One of the most common was the Dicynodont, a plant-eating mammal-like reptile that roamed the swamps in large numbers. Apart from its fossils, its footprints have been discovered preserved in mudstone here and there, as they were recently on the Asante Sana game farm near Graaff-Reinet.
By the mid-1930s, it was clear that the mountain zebra – endemic only to South Africa – would go the way of the dodo. It was fast losing ground to livestock herds. In 1937, however, conservation authorities set aside 1 712 hectares outside Cradock to form the seed area of what would become the Mountain Zebra National Park.
In the late 1990s, eminent British wildlife artist David Shepherd donated two paintings worth more than R1 million so the park could be expanded.
South African National Parks (SANParks) matched his donation, plus those of others, and bought nine farms. The Mountain Zebra National Park now sprawls over more than 28 000 hectares. The Rooiplaat Loop at the top of the plateau is a landscape photographer’s dream, complete with herds of mountain zebra, springbok, black wildebeest and looming mountains as a backdrop.
The Karoo Festival Diary is full and varied. However, the Williston Winter Festival still stands out as one of the main events.
The musical performance stage is Pure Karoo: the flipped-open back of a Leyland sheep truck where you play your songs in all weather conditions.
The delicious madness of the fast-paced, dust-stomping Nama Riel is the main attraction.
Everyone knows the Karoo is a dry place, but you should see it once a spot of rain has come down overnight. The formerly barren-looking veld presents itself in a blaze of colour, and in the towns the dust disappears from the air and all is bright and clear. The poet, WC Scully, a particular Karoo fan, used to love these contrasts. He said the Karoo (Bushmanland, in particular) gave him intellectual power, which he seemed to lose quickly on returning to “the land of corn and wine”.
Frans Boekkooi is one of the finest sculptors working in the Karoo.
The Boekkooi clan lives in the old blacksmith’s house just down the road from the Two Goats Deli across the Gats River in Nieu-Bethesda village, which snuggles deep into the Sneeuberg mountains about an hour’s drive from Graaff-Reinet.
When the Kimberley diamond rush started back in 1871, you arrived there either by horse or by ox. It was still a rail-less, road-free era.
The quickest way to the diamond fields was via ship to Port Elizabeth. From there, you made your cumbersome way across the Great Karoo, enjoying the sights and sounds of places like Cradock, Middelburg, Graaff-Reinet and Colesberg at your leisure.
Each hard day’s ride would get you another 75 kilometres closer to the diamond pits of Kimberley. Each night you stabled your horses, drank a pint at a hostelry and collapsed into a rough bed.
Soon there was a good living to be made in the Karoo, breeding the draught horses, carriage horses and riding horses needed by the endless stream of traffic headed north. The trekboers who had spent a nomadic life on horseback in the Karoo were already some of the most outstanding riders in the world.
The blockhouse – one of 8 000 erected all around the country during the Anglo-Boer War – used to be home to 7 – 10 Tommies, who would spend more than three months under this infernal corrugated iron roof looking out for their Boer enemies. Then another squad of Tommies would replace them.
Most days, nothing happened. The soldiers would grow bored, start picking fights with each other, making comments about another man’s girlfriend, goading the guy across the room. In typical, timeless Army style, they would pass the time catching snakes and lizards and keeping them as pets up there on the hill. Maybe setting them on each other. They also held corn cricket derbies in between pitched battles…
Once upon a time, travelling through the Karoo in a steam train was seen as the highlight of a foreigner’s trip to South Africa. Somehow you got a true sense of the Karoo’s pure space by traversing it in railroad style. Today, many of the once-beloved railway stations along the way have closed down, and most trains crossing the Karoo are carrying freight. But the tracks are still there, and the odd Heritage Steam journey still takes in the vastness of this great place.
We call them windmills, and we’re wrong. They’re windpumps, and they’re all over the Karoo. Photographers love them, because a Karoo windpump at dawn has a different kind of beauty to one at sunset; a broken down windpump tells a difference kind of story to a bright new one spinning in the breeze. Tourists love them, because they can buy little ones on the way to take home as keepsakes of the Karoo. And for the Karoo crafters, they’re an ongoing livelihood.
Head north from Matjiesfontein into the Really Dry Karoo to Sutherland, and spend the last daylight hours up at the Observatory, where the star-watchers hang out. There’s a kind of holy feeling up there on the hill, the giant telescopes look extra-terrestrial and lonely, hulking against the sky like cosmic guardians. As darkness falls, the stars light up above you and thoughts drift to quarks, quasars and a stiff whisky at someone’s fireside down in the town below.