Once upon a time, Boetie Bester was the 17th-best truck driver in the world. Today, the genial and multi-talented Boetie is the barman at the Ramstal pub in Nieu-Bethesda, and a garlic farmer of local repute.
He and his wife Pikkie drove up from their base in Port Elizabeth many years ago and had a look at the tiny mountain village famous for its Owl House. They didn’t like it much. “But then we came back, spent four days here and really connected with Nieu-Bethesda,” he says.
They loved it so much they bought two plots. On one they built a sprawling bungalow of a house, and on the other they planted garlic. They were mentored by someone called The Brigadier, by all accounts a market-garden genius, now passed.
There was a bumper crop that year and most subsequent years, including the present one. Garlic does well in the Karoo. Planted in April, it fattens underground during the icy winters. Sometimes its thin, green leaves (which are ignored by almost every herbivore) are covered in frost or poke above kapok and snow. Boetie grows an Egyptian cultivar of the smelly bulbs. “The Ancient Egyptians would feed it to their slaves, and it kept them healthy. We have the pyramids thanks to garlic.”
This is the real deal, not that insipid irradiated stuff imported from overseas. Boetie’s crop, hanging from the rafters of a shed and piled in great heaps, is sold to buyers in Graaff-Reinet, Port Elizabeth and beyond. Growing garlic is quite labour intensive. Boetie says each bulb has eight to 12 cloves that must be broken apart so that about 70 000 little segments can
be re-planted separately by hand.
The idea for a garlic harvest festival was probably born in the Ramstal pub over a couple of beers shared by barman Boetie and co-owner, Ian Allemann. In fact, that venue is most likely the festival brainstorming centre of Nieu-Bethesda. After all, on a hot day in the Karoo Heartland, with a cold beer to hand, it’s possible to dream up all sorts of crazy stuff. Like a pumpkin festival, a midwinter festival or, yes, a garlic-harvest festival to celebrate the barman’s bounty.
Anyone can play. The buffet table is varied and constantly replenished throughout the evening. Each person (entirely voluntary) is asked to bring along a casserole-size dish of something garlicky, cooked with a liberal infusion of Boetie Bester’s garlic harvest. The garlic is free and so are the meals, placed on the table in waves of hospitality from local homes and eaten all through the evening.
Meanwhile, Mr Garlic himself, Boetie Bester, holds court in the way he does every night behind the bar, which is hardly at all. He’s the perfect barman, chatty when you want him to be, quiet when not. A real mensch.
“Sometimes visitors say they don’t have enough cash and there’s no ATM. I say you can pay me tomorrow. And they ask if I don’t want to take their car keys. They’re amazed when I say no. They almost always pay. Daar’s min mense wat gespring het” (There are few people who got away).
Usually, he presides over a pub that hosts more dogs than people. But at the beginning of November, for the town’s Garlic Harvest Festival, the ratio is switched. The food keeps coming. Garlic bread. Garlicky chicken-liver pâté. Spinach, cheese and garlic. Honey-roasted garlic and chilli. Lasagna, asparagus tartlet, prego steak, sausage, meatballs, garlicky chocolate cupcakes.
Victoria Nance, genius vegan bookshop owner, has brought along garlicky vegan Karoo sushi. Willie Olivier, originally from Rustenburg and owner of the peach-coloured house up the road dubbed the pampoenpaleis, has brought garlic snails. The subject of whether they are from his garden exercises the bantering barflies for quite some time. Artist Albert Redelinghuys shyly presents one of the sleeper hits of all the foods presented by local cooks – some kind of garlicky peanut brittle that proves hopelessly addictive.
Boetie actually has his Springbok colours in the little-known sport of truck driving. He has competed across the world, first in the regional Eastern Cape championships, then he became the overall South African champion, and then represented the country at the World Truck Driving Championship in France, where he cracked 17th position. It’s all about precision driving, navigating obstacles with millimetres to spare and reversing along narrow tracks with a trailer.
When he and Pikkie first came here, he was struck by the “rustigheid wat aan my gevat het” (the peace that touched me). Nieu-Bethesda turned out to be the perfect hidey-hole for a refugee trucker escaping the fast lane. And the garlic’s not bad either…
The Garlic Harvest Party is still scheduled for the first Friday of November at the Ramstal bar, Nieu-Bethesda. Bring something garlicky.
Pictures Chris Marais
Find more of Julienne and Chris’ Karoo stories on their website – www.karoospace.co.za