Positively Platteland

Decades of freelancing for the magazine have given Chris Marais many glimpses into the possibility of a great future for the platteland. And nowadays he takes his lessons from the Karoo…

Pictures: Chris Marais, www.karoospace.co.za

In 20 years of wandering the South African rural landscape in search of a good story, I have discovered two narrative streams of Life.

The one tells a sad tale. Corruption, local governance that stinks, cronyism, occasional racism, load-shedding, a growing water crisis, masses of unemployable and unskilled citizens, nepotism, petty politics, bad service delivery, closed schools, empty playgrounds and, on occasion, padstal jaffles you wouldn’t feed to your dog.

But I don’t paddle in that pond. With my wife Julienne du Toit, I search for the shiny bits in the countryside. Shiny bits and possible solutions we can hold up to the light so you can see them. Be inspired by them. And I know all is not lost in South Africa. Not by a long chalk. Most of our lessons over the past two decades have come from the Karoo, a place we love dearly. Here’s why.

When I look out of my office window early in the morning, I see the youngsters marching off to Cradock High School in dribs and drabs, little rag-tag mixed-race flashes of uniforms and excited teenage chatter. I think of the apartheid racial silo I was brought up in, and I bless these kids.

We’ve just come back from the Hantam School (it’s got a very long official name) on a farm near Colesberg, in the Northern Cape. Farmworkers’ children (and now from all sorts of backgrounds) have been educated at the Hantam School in their thousands for more than 25 years.

Speak to those teachers. Marvel at their focus. They do not get depressed about the Big Picture of South Africa. They’re too busy fixing the Little Picture. Which, ironically, is bigger than the Big Picture. If you get my drift.

Drive across to the Karoo Eisteddfod in De Aar, where a farmer’s wife leads a team of dancers, artists, education experts and drummers in bringing some fun, perspective, life skills and pure, untrammelled happiness into the local schoolchildren’s after-hours.

And if you know anything about De Aar and the horrific scourge of foetal alcohol syndrome that stalks the area, you’ll fall in love with the people working, dancing, laughing and basically trying to keep it all together in a church hall just near the eastern outskirts of this hard-scrabble town.

In both Colesberg and Graaff-Reinet, there are successful, long-established tourism schools, where graduates are filtered into the ever-growing hospitality grid of the Karoo and beyond.

So we’re on tourism. Have you noticed that the Karoo suddenly has a string of exceptional hotels? Many of these ‘overnight successes’ have been around for yonks, before the rinderpest. Some were established less than ten years ago. What about those Karoo hotels of days gone by, where you were served foul fare by grim-faced locals, and beds were mostly remembered by their swaybacks and their flea colonies?

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Nowadays, you can easily embark on an eight-stop Classy Karoo Hotel Route itinerary, from the revamped Lord Milner in Matjiesfontein all the way east to the Swartberg Hotel in Prince Albert. But platteland tourism doesn’t just happen in the towns. In fact, the new buzzword in the local hospitality sector is Karoo Farmstays, more than 50 of them.

Agri-tourism is all about getting the hell out of Dodge with the kids, holing up for all the days you can spare on a delightful Karoo farm and falling in love with a donkey. It’s waking up to clean air and pesky cockerels. Dining on the farmer’s lamb chops and watching the shearers hand-clip dozens of sheep in deep and silent concentration over in the ancient shed.

Staying on the farms now, have you picked up on the Food Revolution in the Karoo? Specifically the Food of Origin theme at local festivals? Olives from this farm, fresh cuts from over the hill, kudu salami from that local, a range of cheeses that would make a Cape Town deli owner salivate – and each morsel with its own back-story.

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Back-stories. Preservation. One of our 2015 assignments was to cover the Stars of Sandstone event in April. Old steam locomotives chugged out of the pages of nearly-forgotten history and into our working days on a Ficksburg farm complex called Sandstone Estates. All is really not lost.

And despite the fact that geologists are pottering about the Karoo and showing an unhealthy interest in our so-called ‘gas wealth’ when they should be ring-fencing our precious water resources, other specialists are revelling in uncovering more of our very ancient history. Professor Bruce Rubidge, a son of the Karoo, is the director of the Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences at Wits University. He often visits the family farm, Wellwood, just outside Nieu-Bethesda, in the heart of ancient-fossil country.

“To palaeontologists, the rocks of the Karoo Supergroup hold the key to understanding the early evolutionary history of the major groups of land vertebrates – including tortoises, mammals and dinosaurs,” he says. Palaeo-tourism. Now there’s a thing.

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The back-story of the Karoo is being told in countless graveyards where Boer commandos and Brit soldiers lie buried. It is being told at deserted little railway sidings, through the song of the old Aermotor windpump at sunset, in a family kitchen with peach-pip floors and in the many old-age homes where the real anecdotal treasures sit.

It is being told at any number of cultural and literary festivals that have blossomed over the past decade, from the quirky Bookbedonnerd Litfest in Richmond to the Nama Riel extravaganza at the end of each winter in Williston to a crazy pumpkin festival in Nieu-Bethesda. That’s just for starters. And always with red wine.

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It is also being told on the ancient rocks all around the region, where Bushmen etched and pecked the news and observations of their days. You see the clear outline of a gemsbok on a black slab of dolerite on a hill. You look up and there, in the background, goes a herd of very live golden gemsbok – each worth far more than my bakkie.

The story of the Karoo is also being told in Country Life magazine. Picking up on all these stories are groups of ‘incomers’ – people who have fled the cities of South Africa and crowded foreign countries. They bring their insights, their skills and their positive outlook on the world. They breathe new life into many marginal villages that were hanging in there, existing from one Sassa Allpay Day to the next.

In the Karoo, we now have blacksmiths who write blogs on their websites when they’re not striking metal in forges. We have electricians who are equally at home behind their laptops. We have farmers who keep their old windpumps whirring and invest in stock options. The hi-tech-lo-tech can-do people.

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Speaking of energy and one has to return to De Aar. When last were you there? Have you seen the solar farms stretching to the horizon? Or the Cookhouse wind farms on the mountains just off the N10 between Cradock and Port Elizabeth?

platteland (27)It seems that, while we were all bemoaning the end of South Africa as a working country, a whole bunch of other people were grafting in the background, on an entirely different scenario. Especially in the field of renewable energy.

The platteland – and the Karoo in particular – is becoming a darling destination for organisers of big events. That’s because we have the space (in terms of beds and geography) to accommodate them all.

These days, we don’t even raise an eyebrow when 100 Harleys come steaming through town, the riders’ faces lit up in beatification and wind-burn. Or when 50 vintage MG cars are parked down in Market Street, disgorging 100 drivers and passengers in search of a true Karoo experience.

Never mind big events. Big Ideas are here in the Karoo. Take, for example, the concept of the Mountain Zebra-Camdeboo Corridor Project. It will link the national parks outside Graaff-Reinet and Cradock into one enormous conserved area, with buy-in from the large contingent of landowners along the way.

Solar. Wind. Innovative land conservation. Now add SALT – the Southern African Large Telescope complex outside Sutherland, which keeps an eye on the sky. And throw in the mind-boggling prospect of SKA (Square Kilometre Array) outside Carnarvon, which will hold a giant ear to the heavens. Big ideas, all of them. Already in action.

Sometimes, what gets us really excited about living in the Karoo, and about the future prospects of this country, has nothing to do with all the grand projects currently in motion. It’s something as simple as popping down to the Vukusebenze Shelter here in Cradock and seeing Gussie Botha, her husband Baba and their team feeding more than 200 hungry and often homeless people in the middle of a wicked winter. Community outreach is a very strong culture in the Karoo – indeed, in many other rural areas of South Africa.

Then there is that singular act of kindness that happens every day in a million ways across the country, in the form of a shared experience, a handshake and a promise kept. It hardly ever makes the headlines, but perhaps it should.

So. Rural South Africa – and our world, the Karoo, in particular – has its challenges. But no one’s turning off the lights. In fact, they seem to be going on all over the place.And as they do, we will reflect them back to you.

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