The Art of Barrydale in the Little Karoo

From the street sweeper to the local hotel, the Karoo Saloon to Ronnie’s Sex Shop, there is artfulness in every pore of Barrydale and surrounds on the Western Cape’s Route 62

Words and Pictures Chris Marais www.karoospace.co.za

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Savannah, the wraith-like rocker lady from Namibia, has flown in specially to play at the Under Karoovian Skies show tonight – and is giving it a full go. The Windhoek-based diva is singing Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues, perched on a wooden stage with big skies and vast mountains as her backdrop.

This is the setting of the Karoo Rock Saloon, a joyous gem of a venue about 20 kilometres west of Barrydale on Route 62.

The sexy Savannah gets in touch with her inner Suzi Quattro with I Love Rock n Roll, the encampment of bikers from the Defenders Club in Cape Town smaaks her like crazy and then it’s the turn of the house band – the Karoo Kowboys.

Savannah from Windhoek singing the blues at the Karoo Rock Saloon.

The party revs up into the night and eventually co-owner Marius Slabber takes to the stage and joins the Kowboys with verve, gusto and a mean rhythm guitar while they dive right into a rollicking version of Hey Joe by Mr James Marshall Hendrix.

Passionately supported by his partner Janet Brewer, Marius is pursuing a rocker’s life out in the sticks. And we all have to agree – the likes of Iron Maiden, Pink Floyd and Hendrix could never find a better spiritual home than here on the vlaktes of Route 62.

Wow. Everyone knows about Ronnie’s Sex Shop, the legendary bar on the road to Ladismith. Now there’s the Karoo Rock Saloon on the other side of town. It’s even more fun being a Barrydaler these days, sandwiched between two such colourful entertainment spots in the middle of nowhere.

The next afternoon we check into the Karoo Art Hotel, our roost for the next few days. We’ve driven past this old establishment countless times but have never stopped over.

The Karoo Art Hotel – a legendary establishment along Route 62.

For lovers of the slightly offbeat and bizarre, like us, this place hits the spot. First, as you’ll read in the excellent book Barrydale Unplugged by Leslie Howard, the hotel has a good back-story. It has, in the past, gone by the names of the Bon Accord, the Valley Inn Hotel, the Barrydale and the Barrydale Karoo Hotel, and is now, simply, the Karoo Art Hotel.

There have been wild parties, legendary bar fights, crazy decor jobs and happy hookers along the way. At one stage, says the entertaining Ms Howard, it was known as the Moulin Rouge of the Karoo. Well. Could it sound more alluring?

There is colour everywhere, each room is a separate artistic statement and the hotel kitchen is the creative domain of one Derek Lowe, a chef who used to cook for the governor of St Helena Island.“That’s where I became really good at provisioning,” he says, eyes a-twinkle.

“The mail ship would arrive every five days with the basics, but perishables had to be sourced from somewhere on the island. I had access to lots of fresh mangoes, paw-paws and avocadoes, as well as lettuce, cucumber, carrots and potatoes. There was also fresh tuna from a little local fish market.”

Derek cooks with what is generally available within 70 kilometres from Barrydale. In true Karoo style, he buys his meats, veggies and fruit from the immediate vicinity and places like Prince Albert, Montagu and Villiersdorp.

Right across the road from this rich-yellow, gloriously-flagged hotel is Magpie, a collective of artists and crafters that fashions all manner of objects into stately, one-of-a-kind chandeliers. Not only do they have a thriving export business, but former US First Lady Michelle Obama once bought a brace of their chandeliers.

We meet Shane Petzer, one of the Magpie mob. He tells us how their creations are not mere fancy light fittings – they are “memory holders”. You can bring along a collection of broken heirloom China, your found objects like stones and feathers and little tsatskes, and the Magpie people will turn the lot into a chandelier of your life.

“I love the concept,” I say to Jules as we leave. “Wonder what it would cost?” “Oh,” says she. “Only about 35 grand.”

We make our way in thoughtful silence up to the Barrydale Strip, the jazziest 200 metres of the entire 600-odd kilometres of Route 62
which, by the by, was voted the top roadtrip destination in the world in a CNN Travel poll last year.

And jazziest of all on the Barrydale Strip is, doubtless, Diesel & Crème. This is where, it seems, most of America’s art deco, neon, priceless enamel pieces, soda fountain oddments, old movie posters, quacky plastic ducks, flags and beer signs have come to live.

It’s about the divine madness of builder-man Arthur Pharo, who has been collecting this stuff for years. He his wife Louise, now retired from a long career in the financial services sector, set up a fantastic roadside diner here in Barrydale. Their son Dean (away on a well-deserved break when we visit) is the day-to-day ops manager.

Right next to Diesel & Crème is the equally quirky The Karoo Moon Motel, very comfortable self-catering digs for travellers. Being a human crow with an eye for photo opps, I’m crazy about all the unique signage about the place. Later on, we’ll meet the guy who’s responsible for much of it, but right now it’s about a monster sugar rush, in the form of a famous Diesel & Crème Milkshake Special.

The brainchild of Dean Pharo, this range of milkshakes is what brings droves of Capetonians and other urbanites to Diesel & Crème, especially on weekends. We meet the hands-on milkshake magician behind the counter, Ashley Janniker, known by everyone here simply as Swag. Some years ago, this young man from Elsiesrivier on the Cape Flats came to work at the diner and discovered the joys of the Extreme Milkshake.

“I’m gonna make you guys my favourite – the Very Berry,” he chortles and bustles off to whip up the evil concoction. He returns with two massive, overflowing Consol jars that have double-wide straws stuck in them for added sucking power.

Both of us heave out of Diesel & Crème in a sugar haze. We scuttle back to the hotel, where we sit on the first-floor porch outside our room and watch the hoisted plastic terns outside the Magpie shop waving in the evening breeze.

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The overnight party guests’ camp at the Karoo Rock Saloon.

We’re on a dorp ramble around Barrydale shortly after dawn, and the air is fresh with last night’s rains. The streets are impeccably clean. “There should be a TripAdvisor for small-town streets,” I say to Jules, possibly still running on milkshake power. “If there was, you could give five stars to that guy over there,” she replies, as we approach Chrisjan Hendriks, who is clearing up the last stray leaf outside the OK Bazaars.

Chrisjan is astonished that we want to photograph him among his handiwork. We pose him in the street with his broom, shoot a couple of frames and congratulate him. The cleaner a town keeps itself, the more tourist-friendly it becomes – that is an undisputable fact.

After breakfast, we meet Quinton Faro, the Sign Painter of Barrydale. You’ll see his stuff all over the show, on local wine estates, private highway signs and a Banksy-type set of murals on the outside walls of the Karoo Art Hotel.

“I learn quickly and I never forget,” he says with pride, and gets back to his latest job, painting a bunch of streepmuise chasing each other around trompe l’oeil brickwork over a building arch.

We venture into the House of Books which, literally, is just that. You couldn’t swing a cat in here for fear of knocking over a pile of worthy tomes. The owner, Anton de Villiers, is a lovely man to photograph and speak to, if you feel like a decent kuier. It turns out he is also mad about cameras, both moving and still. In fact, he has shot no fewer than 82 videos of everyday Barrydale, which will no doubt become invaluable over time.

I snag a copy of Thunder, Flush and Thomas Crapper (An Encycloopedia) by Adam Hart-Davis and dig out R100 to pay Anton at his ramshackle till-point. “Damn!” says he. “I shouldn’t sell that to you – haven’t read it yet.” Too bad, pal. See you on the next go-round.

“Hey! Chris Marais!” someone shouts as we enter The Hub across from the bookshop. Oh dear. What has one done now? “Don’t you remember me? I built your wall back in Joburg.”

Meet Anthony Chidrawi, a man so in tune with small-town life that he feels comfortable wearing enormous woollen slippers mid-morning. I’ve got a pair as well, but I only wear them in winter in front of the fire, wrapped up in my Pep Stores blanket with my mitts around a mug of Jules’ hot soup.
The amiable Chidrawi did indeed build a wall for me in my previous life in Johannesburg. As far as I know, it’s still standing there. Now he’s a painter, a vegetable gardener, a restaurateur and a shop owner trading in just about everything. Anthony loves his multi-jobbing life in Barrydale.

Lunchtime finds us at The Blue Cow feeding a frenzy of koi and carp with bread crumbs as they thrash about the dam next to the eatery. “Can a bloke fish from here?” I ask the owner, Hannette Cooke. “Oh yes,” she replies. “But there are conditions.”“Like?”“You have to be over 60 years old and you have to wear a G-string while fishing.” She says some punter actually took her up on the challenge and did just that once.

After lunch we check in with Carol Morris at the classy Barrydale Hand Weavers, which also has an outlet on the Strip. She introduces us to master weaver Themba Tivane, who first learnt the art of the loom from missionaries back home in Swaziland. Carol and Themba have skills that complement each other, resulting in a highly successful business partnership.

She does the designs and marketing while Themba runs the weaving operation.

And then, on Sundays, Carol puts on her naughty hat and heads out west to the Karoo Rock Saloon for a couple of glasses of champagne with her good friend Janet Brewer, and they listen to some live, old rocker tunes live, and toast the Little Karoo in all its glory.

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