🕒 10-minute read
This story was first published on 6 April 2016 and was updated on 29 January 2018 by Leigh Hermon.
The quirky agricultural soul of Fouriesburg in the scenic foothills of the Eastern Free State trots out a few surprises…
There can’t be too many dorps where you can drive down the main road in a 1936 Morris 8, and have to stop for the local butcher crossing the road, taking his horses to graze on an empty lot. But that’s what happened to me in Fouriesburg.
Chantal Bell had come to collect me in one of her dad’s restored vintage cars to go horse riding on their farm just outside town. The Morris gleamed with polished pride and the doors opened from the front as speed was not an issue in those days.
Of course, when we saw Japie Weideman and his fine Boerperde, I had to leap out to photograph them. “Lots of people in the village keep horses,” explained Chantal as we drove to Denhaven Riding School. Her mounts are the kind of paint horses that cowboys ride, and make you want to yell “Yeehah!” as you canter forth across the Free State prairie.
I also met the town’s only baker. It was at the crack of dawn, when the first fragrant loaves were emerging from the oven. Greg Nerf of Nonna Bakery escaped to Fouriesburg from a career in retail in Joburg five years ago, saw a gap in the market, had some fun training as a baker and now employs a small team.
He still can’t get over the fact that he hasn’t taken the keys out of his vehicle’s ignition since he got to Fouriesburg.
“There’s virtually no theft here – in the five years I’ve been here, there was a bicycle stolen but the cops got it back within hours,” he said. “Only livestock gets stolen.”
So that was the butcher and the baker. Apparently, Fouriesburg is still looking for a candlestick maker… The unassuming little dorp on Lesotho’s border is dotted with beautiful sandstone buildings and is often seen as a poor cousin to classy Clarens nearby, but is a firm favourite with those who enjoy its warm country hospitality – it was voted Kyknet Kwêla Town of the Year in 2013.
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“Many people don’t realise the beauty here. And it’s become an activity mecca for the Eastern Free State: there are amazing 4×4 routes, horse riding and fishing, and rock paintings to hike to,” said Martie Craig of Fouriesburg Country Tours. “Yet it’s still a village where kids can ride their bicycles or horses in the streets. There’s just so much potential here.”
She and hubby Clive visited 20 years ago and bought the local hotel from one weekend to the next. They started putting together tour packages for guests, taking them on day trips to nearby cherry farms, Golden Gate Highlands National Park and into neighbouring Lesotho to see the Katse Dam, part of the Highlands Water Scheme, or skiing in winter at Afriski. Regular guests wanted to tour further afield with them, so Fouriesburg Country Tours evolved and now they offer Namaqualand spring flower tours, as well as going as far afield as Serengeti.
I stayed at the Fouriesburg Country Inn, which they recently sold to prominent local farmer Gilly Scheepers and his wife René, and was invited to their farm to watch the annual sheep shearing. Manager Nadine Lynn took time out from her hotel duties to drive me there and, as we cruised along, I remarked on the lack of traffic lights in the dorp.
“If you get to a traffic light, you’ve missed Fouriesburg,” joked Nadine. She left Johannesburg as a newly qualified hospitality school graduate and 13 years later she’s still at the Fouriesburg Country Inn. “I don’t miss that place,” she says of the city, adding that she’s gained wide experience at the 36-bed establishment.
An Agricultural Hub
The Scheepers’ farm was a buzz of quiet activity as the shearing team methodically went about the business of hand-shearing more than 5 000 animals in Gilly’s flock. Each sheep was dragged unwillingly into the large sandstone shed, but once the expert shearers got going, they assumed a languid expression, as though they were relaxing at a beauty spa. “It’s the way they hold them,” explained Gilly. “Then they don’t struggle.”
The previous day, a group of school children had visited. “Kids these days don’t know where their food comes from,” said Gilly. His latest idea is to start a shearing festival so people can appreciate farm visits and farmers’ contribution to the economy.
Next Nadine took me to Manitoba, the Scheepers’ egg farm. Being squeamish, I skipped the tour of the massive sheds of battery chickens and joined Xandrie Exley in the packing shed, where a conveyor belt delivers the eggs as gently as any human hand. “We call it the Anaconda,” said Xandrie with a grin. The eggs are sorted automatically for size and packed according to preset instructions on a machine. It’s a very slick example of a modern factory farm.
Ionia Cherry Farm was more my style. Farm manager Brian Webbstock kicked off by introducing me to some “apprentice cherries” – dormant nodes on a branch, sleeping through winter. “They’ll swell and become a bunch of cherries,” he assured me. On a tour through the orchards of 14 cultivars, there were lots more fascinating facts. “With cherries, from flower to fruit is just six weeks. Each fruit needs 1 000 cold hours before it develops,” explained Brian, a former restaurateur from Cape Town. “It’s one of the shortest production cycles of fruit.”
During cherry season, visitors can pick their own fruit. We ended the tour in the packing shed, where the cherries are sorted according to Brian’s “precision German machine” – a piece of wood with different size holes cut in it. The fun part was tasting the result of Brian’s experiments with cherry jam, chutney, liqueur and even mampoer. “Nothing goes to waste,” he said, lifting the lid of a large stainless steel vat that once did duty as a milk tank.
Biggest surprise was finding a wine farm amid the koppies outside Fouriesburg. John and Trish Critchley left Cape St Francis nine years ago after their house burnt down, and were en route to Joburg when they fell in love with the Eastern Free State. “We found this rundown house and fixed it up,” said Trish, showing me the before pictures of what is now a gracious guest house.
Everyone thought John was crazy trying to grow grapes in this soil, and at an altitude of 1700 metres, but his vineyard of Shiraz, Pinot Noir and Pinotage gets plenty of vermiculture compost and mulch. “Reds need less equipment and I prefer to drink them,” he explained, showing me barrels of Bald Ibis wines maturing in an old barn.
Let’s Go Shopping
In town, Doherty Centre is Fouriesburg’s answer to Clarens’ sophisticates. “It’s our ‘mall’,” said Linda Esterhuizen with a chuckle, at the surprisingly well-stocked Doherty Art gallery. It specialises in South African art and Linda confided that she recently sold a painting for R240 000 to a collector. “He just phoned and transferred the cash into our account,” she said. Her neighbours in the centre include a wine emporium, The Ginger Pig restaurant and Lize’s Scheeper’s gift shop, Die Hoek Winkel.
I had another unusual encounter at Jenlee’s Country Shop, at the intersection just outside town where the road runs towards the Lesotho border. Having wandered through the menagerie of farm creatures in the yard, and meeting Chris and Lynn Freeman at their little craft shop, I was going up the steps of the main building when I was greeted by a rather overgrown hanslam who looked at me quizzically.
Feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland, I was about to place my order for tea when an even larger sheep strolled out of the shop with a proprietary air and glanced to where a third sheep was taking great interest in the remains of the last guests’ table.
“Watch out, they like to steal the sugar off the tables,” warned owner Liz Lee as she emerged to shoo off the hanslams. Her shop turned out to be a magpie collection of everything you imagined a farm stall could stock – from cherry chutney to rusks – and anything useful to someone at some time, like a torch, a brass school bell, old movie posters, you name it. “If it’s vintage, people are interested,” commented Liz.
I came away with just the cooking pot I’d been looking for, for ages – and a new appreciation for this little many-horse town.
- There aren’t too many eateries but you can expect honest boerekos at reasonable prices at Di Plaasstoep pub and restaurant or Windmill Pub & Grill. The Ginger Pig (+27 (0)58 223 1006) is more upmarket and dinner at Fouriesburg Country Inn gives you the chance to select a bottle from their wine cellar.
- In town, the Fouriesburg Country Inn’s hospitality has been famous since 1893 when the dorp was established.
- If you want to brag you’ve stayed on a Free State wine farm, book in at Rose House, a gracious old sandstone guest house, or at one of their self-catering units in a converted barn.
- For more options and activities like farm tours, hiking, horse riding, fishing, 4x4ing and mountain biking, visit fouriesburginfo.co.za for more information.
Words and Photography Marion Whitehead