Wake up with the rooster, fall asleep with summer rain falling on the tin roof. A farmstay in the Eastern Cape Karoo might just be the antidote to city blues…
Words and Pictures: Chris Marais, www.karoospace.co.za
In December 2013, South African families descended on dozens of Karoo hideaways in record numbers. Many of them enjoyed time in the towns, villages and settlements from Cradock to Nieu-Bethesda, Calvinia and De Rust. Most, however, went straight to their favourite Karoo farm. A place where the kids have their special spots, where the owners have become your friends and where the lamb chops alone are worth the journey.
You came for open skies, long walks in the summer veld and hillside sundowners with dreamy horizons. You came to escape and to rest up for the New Year.
Each farmstay offers something unique, its own hospitality fingerprint. And although you might already have found your “best Karoo farm”, here are six more in the Eastern Cape …
1. Lowlands Country House, Fish River
After midsummer rains, a stroll around the Lowlands Estate, at Fish River about a half-hour north of Cradock, feels like being in a world of all the greens you could imagine: karoobossie-green, Lombardy poplar-green, lucerne-green, pecan grove-green and Acacia karroo-green. Only the sheep persist in keeping their fluffy, off-white tones.
Anne and Dave Bowker run Lowlands. They are an exceptionally hospitable couple with deep roots in the Fish River community. In fact, Anne went to school in the house she and Dave live in, right opposite the guest house.
You can view the chickens free ranging on the lawns. Always check your bed before you flop down – one of the hens has a penchant for laying eggs in weird places. The colonial-style porch is for long, lingering breakfasts and the deck up at the dam is for sundowners and snacks. The dinners at Lowlands are legendary.
You have parachuted into 1820 Settler country here, with the Colletts, Bowkers, Bladens and Butlers as some of the leading family names.
Anne and Dave also manage the nearby Lowlands Manor, which is rented out to groups at a special package rate. Families love this rambling old farmhouse, especially during those mass get-togethers in December when everyone comes from all parts of the world and they just need a central South African hideaway where they can celebrate, huddle and bond.
2. Bloemhof Farm, Graaff-Reinet
If you’ve driven the N9 between Middelburg and Graaff-Reinet, you’ll have seen the turn-off to Bloemhof Farm along the way. In the distance, you would have spotted the top section of an old-time feather palace emerging from the tree line.
This is not the Little Karoo. Feather palaces are seldom encountered in the Great Karoo. Which is what makes Bloemhof Farm, owned by the Murray family, quite special.
This one was built in 1912, in the days when one good ostrich feather could be exchanged for passage on a boat back to England. Two years later, World War I marched along and there was no more time for follies and feathers. The market crashed. Fortunately for the Murrays of Bloemhof Farm, they had diversified. Not all their eggs were of the ostrich variety – in one basket, so to speak.
Bloemhof Farm is like a village in a time capsule. There’s a little school, a farm shop, an outside bell that still rings for meals, border collies darting about and a grand old mansion worth a good hour of exploration. Stand on the ivy-bordered porch on the top stoep and look south over lucerne fields and flocks of sheep, and catch the late sun lighting up the Agter-Sneeuberg range of mountains.
Accommodation for now is in the feather palace itself. Meals are by appointment. The current Murray in residence, Julian, is planning to build a series of self-cater cottages on the property. Watch this space.
3. Dwarsvlei Country Home, Middelburg
Speaking of stately piles just off the N9, Dwarsvlei Country House south of Middelburg fits the bill to perfection. The manor house – and the massive network of stud stables that surrounds it – was built by a Randlord in a time when money was plentiful and the champagne flowed.
Henry Nourse, a contemporary of Cecil John Rhodes, made his money on the Reef and invested some of it here in the Karoo, the perfect breeding environment for champion racehorses.
Walk around the dilapidated old stables, barns and other farmstead buildings and you might feel the horse-spirits of famous names like Greatorex, Pearl Diver, Dignitary and Polystome, all stallions of note in their time.
Nicky Enslin manages Dwarsvlei, and he will fill you in on the colourful history of this old farm. He will also cook up a storm for you in the manor house kitchen. And you can choose to sup in style in the classic dining room or to camp around the massive kitchen table, open a bottle of wine and enjoy less formal surrounds.
Speak to Nicky before you arrive and make the kind of meal arrangements you would prefer. Tell him what you and your family like for dinner, whether you would want a picnic hamper for day-walks and what your breakfast preferences are. And when you arrive at this historic location, all is set up for your Karoo farmstay experience.
4. Ganora Guest Farm, Nieu-Bethesda
It feels like Hester and JP Steynberg of Ganora have written the original handbook on farmstays in the Karoo. The first view of Ganora is the large hollow gorge with the green poplars poking through. It is beautifully situated and uncommonly well-watered for a Karoo farm. The Wilge River rushes through it, one of the major tributaries of the Gats River that bisects the nearby village of Nieu-Bethesda.
Turn down a windy, pretty farm road with the iconic Compassberg at your back. Pretty soon, the Ganora farmstead reveals itself down below – red roofs, white buildings with green trim. Classic old windpump and farm dam.
The farmhouse stands in the shade of pepper trees, amid the summer singing of cicadas. The wraparound back stoep has wagon wheels and an old pony trap on display. Hester pops out to welcome you and invites you inside for something cool to drink.
Ganora visitors – from across the world – return year after year. They love the cottages, the walks, the incredible Sneeuberg scenery, quick access to the village delights of Nieu-Bethesda, JP’s famous fossil excursions, the night skies, the delicious farm dinner menu and, most of all, their friendly hosts.
Ganora has been one of the top Karoo farmstays for well over a decade – and simply keeps getting better.
5. Doornberg Guest Farm, Nieu-Bethesda
First, the farmstead: oak trees everywhere, a dinkum goose pond, horses trippling down shady lanes, sheep everywhere and a shed with huge donkey photographs on display. You can sleep in the Van Heerden family house, a guest rondawel, in a separate farmhouse not far away – or the vleihuisie (marsh cottage), restored from scratch and with wetland and mountain views.
Peet van Heerden and his wife Hanna are your hosts. Hanna sees to the home hospitality while Peet the farmer can tell stories and legends of his neighbourhood: the Sneeuberg region around Nieu-Bethesda. You can self-cater, or request a meal from Hanna delivered to your doorstep.
In the early morning, go for a walk and watch Doornberg Farm wake up. It’s like being on the set of the movie Babe, full of bucolic atmosphere. If a Doornberg farm animal of any description came up and spoke good English to me, I would not be at all surprised.
And if you’re a mechanically-minded person, ask Peet to show you his workshop. It’s massive and old school. Peet van Heerden would rather fashion his own tools and parts here in his workshop than wait six weeks for a dubious delivery from China.
On your walk, you might also come across a lane where, on the left, there is a seemingly-endless array of old scrap, from wagons to car wrecks.
“Scrap? That’s not scrap,” Peet will tell you. “That’s my spare parts division. My staff and I know every piece lying there, and one day everything will be used somewhere on the farm.”
6. Vrede Farm, Tarkastad
Walter and Alida Schulze own Vrede Farm, a great little cattle spread out at the end of the Golden Valley near Tarkastad. They’re on the brink of turning Vrede into one of those farmstays to be rented out to groups of up to ten guests on weekends at a very affordable rate.
The Vrede home amenities are quite basic but very comfortable, and get this: it has the most farmstay-friendly stoep you ever saw. That stoep lures you to lurk for hours. Early morning coffee and rusk sessions segue into brunch and, oops, it’s time for lunch and a post-prandial nap already.
This is where you can walk for hours through the veld, sleep under the stars on hot nights or simply sit and gaze at the falling summer rains from that delicious stoep, with a little something sizzling on the braai nearby.
The farmstay part of Vrede will operate on a self-cater basis, and it’s the ideal breakaway for a couple of families who need the space, the bonding time and the relaxation – without having to spend a fortune.
Afore Ye Go…
- The most important fact to remember when booking a Karoo farmstay is that each season brings its own pleasures. In deep winter when the snows fall, some of the farms look like European Christmas scenes – and at night the place to be is right in front of a blazing fire, with a drink to hand.
- Also remember, you’re in reasonably rustic territory here. You’ve every right to a working shower, a decent bed and self-cater facilities that work. But don’t expect WiFi and the little five-star frills one gets in the city. That’s why you don’t pay city rates.
- Use the farm’s outdoors when you can. There will generally be bike- or hiking trails, farmyard walks, a farm dam where you can chill down on a hot day, perhaps a fishing spot somewhere and on a clear warm night you should look to the skies and wish upon a star, as they say.
- Find out from the farmer himself what activities are going on in the farmyard. They might be shearing sheep or goats, which is always fun for the kids. They might be working with horses and checking the fence lines. See if you can join your hosts for a short while as they go about their daily duties but remember: the first business of a farm is just that – the farm.