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Away with the cows on the Grootrivier pass

Away with the cows on the Grootrivier pass

Yes, no three words in my limited vocabulary ring so clear. They conjure up adventure and the yearning to set off on new journeys of discovery, to go beyond the regular, to follow and live new dreams.

Thus, with regularity, up the pass I must go. My wife and I say it often, “Just quickly going up the pass…” To Plett, to the Crags (to collect post), to fetch milk, to buy plants.

My parents used to say it when they lived here in Nature’s Valley many years ago. In the early 1970s my father bought a plot in this coastal village for R5 000 and built a double-storey brick house for R6 000. In writing this I am so struck by the absurdity of these numbers that I spend the next two hours finding the papers in our disorderly archives. For there, indeed, written in fountain-pen ink, is a sepia-coloured document showing these exact amounts.

That’s the moment Lynn walks in, catching me grinning widely. “Why are you grinning like that? It can only mean trouble,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I am going up the pass,” I roll back, “I am going to photograph up there.” She slips on her worn Birkenstocks, “Well, I am coming with you.”

A magical floral kingdom

Grootrivier Pass cows

So we climb into the bakkie and drive up the Grootrivier Pass. First it winds through some of the most pristine Afromontane forest on planet Earth, where the enormity of some of the old yellowwoods brings us great joy. These forests have been undisturbed for eons and are now part of the Tsitsikamma National Park.

At one point up the pass, the forest abruptly changes to Cape Fynbos. Somewhere around this stage, when taking our many European visitors up the pass, I pull up next to the fynbos, look knowingly smug and recite the following, “South Africa is home to one of the world’s hottest hotspots, the Cape Floral Region.

A World Heritage Site at the tip of Africa, this majestic floral kingdom of fynbos is one of six on Earth and is the only one to be fully contained within a single country. Incredibly, it has the highest known concentration of plant species in the world.
“Its nearest rival, the South American rain forest, has only one third the number of species.

Even more remarkable is that 70 per cent of the Cape’s impressive 9 600 plant species grow nowhere else on Earth.”
After a few more sharp curves the pass swings onto a plain that rolls a carpet of green up to the Tsitsikamma Mountains in the distance. These meadows are so lush that, with the mountains in the background, they remind us each time of the Bavarian landscape that lies beneath the Alps, bringing back memories of the four years we lived in München in the early 1970s.

Waving meadows

milktert Pass
Down here in Africa, these pastures shimmer with green light, dotted at times by grazing Jersey cows. This is where the Wilsons work their dairy farm called Loredo. Every morning and afternoon since the early 1980s, the cows are herded from one of 20 camps and walked along the tar to be milked at the dairy.

During those long-ago days, I once had a new white car and every time I went up the pass I would return with a white car splattered with cow dung. Twice a day, this tarred regional road R102 is dotted with slimy, smelly, brown-green dung, every day of every year – till the cows come home.

In the beginning I used to call Mr Wilson ‘Farmer Brown’ because his gumboots were clogged with brown dung and his pants wore streaks of the same stuff. Our first conversation, in the early 1980s, was about cow dung. “Cattle manure,” explained Peter Wilson, “is basically made up of digested grass and grain. Cow dung is high in organic materials and rich in nutrients. It contains about three per cent nitrogen, two per cent phosphorus and potassium.” I was dunged out for words.

Ten years later, I ran into him again, this time with clean pants and shoes. Why? Well, Mr. Wilson now had a dairy manager. This time I was well prepared and asked him whether cows contributed to global warming? I realised my mistake too late.

The dairy farmer breathed in deeply then exhaled in short puffs. He waved his brown arm over his green meadows and said, “Eating all this green grass bloats the ‘Girlies’ [as he lovingly calls his herd of 200 Jersey cows], so they tend to fart and burp a lot. Ha-ha (pause). Ha-ha (pause). Ha-ha (pause). A cow releases, on average, 70 to 120 kilograms of methane per year.

Methane is a greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide. So yes, my 200 girls add a little to global warming, but produce 3 400 litres of milk per day. It’s like you driving up and down the Grootrivier Pass.”

Pasturefed

Grootrivier Pass cows
The Loredo plateau has a number of private houses and places offering accommodation – Wild Spirit and Rocky Road backpackers, Lily Pond Country Lodge, Kurland Hotel, Loredo Farmstays and a campsite. By far the most special to us is the Natures Way Farm Stall.

My wife suffers from a condition I have come to call the ‘Oh-yippy-let’s-stop-at-this-farmstall’ syndrome. Through the years we must have stopped at every farmstall in this our beloved land. Honestly, after 40 years of farmstall stopping, I can’t see another koeksister, or some fudge or home-baked cookies. I’d rather just drive into the sunset or, even better, talk dung and cow farts to Farmer Wilson.

We regularly collect our milk from this beauty of a place, thriving on the ambience that surrounds this real farmstall, edged on one side by the Wilsons’ nursery and dairy, southwards by tall indigenous forests and, on the other side, the pastures of Loredo spreading their greenness all around to the Tsitsikamma Mountains.

To the east, Peak Formosa at 2 000 metres lifts above the shoulders of the other mountains. One morning, while having breakfast on the farmstall veranda, I picked up a conversation at the next table where Mrs Wilson was holding cow with a German family.

But, sorry, let me first say that Judy Wilson manages the farmstall and is one of those efficient, organised and superbly strong women. On one occasion, I told her that she was a very fine and lovely lady. She shrieked with delight and motioned to throw her strong arms around me, which made me falter backwards into Maxwell who was stacking newly baked Ciabatta and seed bread.

Right, so back to her talking cow with the happy German family who thought they were back in the rolling hills of Southern Bavaria. “All our Girlies,” said Mrs Wilson, waving her strong arms towards the herd being herded along (and dunging up) the R102, “are pasture fed Kikuyu grass based with clovers oversown with rye. Each cow has a full history and family tree.”

At this stage, her conversation was interrupted by Godfrey, the finest of all Afro-Africans from Zimbabwe, bringing a breakfast of croissants filled with bacon and scrambled egg, garnished with tomato and grated cheese. Judy Wilson talked on, “All of our Jersey dairy cows are inseminated artificially, mostly with imported semen from proven European bulls.”

For a few moments, the country air was quiet, almost edible. “But-but aber entschuldigung”, apologised the father of the German family, “But-but why can’t you use the South African bulls?” Just then a white car passed down the country R102 and slowly changed from white into a splattered cow-dung green.

Judy Wilson’s answer rang out sternly, “Because the South African Bulls are all blue.” The Germans stared blankly into the pastures, and at the next table a farmer from upcountry snorted out a laugh.

Place of much water

Nature's valley

Besides the tourists and locals that pass here, there are calves in various pens, Girlies about to calf in other paddocks, goats and chickens and cats and silly little bunny rabbits jumping around, and Pig. Pig is an enormous being, the Natures Way mascot, an institution, a circus act, a superhero who lives in the field in front of the farmstall.

Pig’s fame has now stretched around the world. Born the runt of a litter of piglets from a wild African bushpig father and a domestic pig mother, Piggy grew up bottle fed, in the Wilson’s farmhouse. When he grew so big that he started to knock over furniture, he was moved to the field in front of the farmstall, where he now happily snorts out his life with his best friend, Calf. At the side of his camp, a hard broom is provided for personal pig scratching by kind human beings.

Turning left out of the farmstall, the road leads past the track to the Wilson’s farmhouse. A Scotsman, Lorrie Read, built it in 1886 (hence Lo-re-do). Mr Read was said to have been quite a bull, fathering nine children. The original double-storey house has thick mud-brick walls, yellowwood ceilings and floors, and a curved staircase with a balustrade carved out of hard pear wood.

Until the turn of the century, the house was a stagecoach halt on the Knysna-Port Elizabeth route, the arrival of the coach heralded by a bugle. Bordering Loredo are the polo fields and pastures of Kurland estate.

The original farmhouse on Kurland was once the home of the legendary Nicky Behr, a descendant of Baron Peter Behr from the Duchy of Kurland that no longer exists, but once was in today’s Latvia. The greater family owned several castles – one the spectacular Scheck Castle – before they had to flee the country.

This gracious old farmhouse at Kurland was transformed into a magnificent country hotel. Oak-lined roads lead along white-fenced fields through landscapes typical of East Yorkshire. I stop there and ponder. Coming up the pass from Nature’s Valley, one travels through temperate African forests, the fynbos biome, the rolling Bavarian-type pastures and hills of Loredo, and the English landscapes of Kurland.

With my pixels running wild, my breathing quick and my imagination stretched, I see a pretty cross-legged Frauline oozing almost everything, next to me. The seat is old and worn, but she is young and taut.

Taking a deep breath, I explain to her, while running my hand along the peaks of the Tsitsikamma range, “Tsitsikamma is a Khoisan word, meaning Place of Much Water. The national park that starts beyond the Loredo Plains incorporates 80 kilometres of rocky coastline with spectacular sea and landscapes, a remote mountainous region with secluded valleys and deep river ravines. Mmm… mmm… , would you like to come down the pass with me?”

A flock of hadidas flies past and destroys all romantic thoughts. My wife Lynn now sits next to me, rolling her eyes and with a knowing smirk.

Driving into the sunrise

Grootrivier Pass cows
We drive on to photograph the Wilson’s new wedding venue, a long, tall barn between the forests and the pastures, with a wooden farmhouse for farmstays, and self-catering cottages. Next day, at the first milking on a low-light morning, I find myself walking with the Girlies, notepad in hand, writing down the names on their ear tags. Each ear has a tag, so I enjoy the double here and the double there. This is not a pub crawl but a cow crawl.

Beneath me my legs are sliding on mud and dung, something squelching through my sandals, through my toes, streaking upwards till I even have some on my hands. There is Double Brandy, and Double Dot. Bar One, Fiasco, Amorous, Zuma, Skunk, Godiva, Tickle, Ditsy, Moo, Milky, Mos-Cow and Erect. All double of course. I double pat Amorous, stroke Girlie Godiva, scratch Tickle but miss out Zuma because she is partially covered in dung. I find that Erect has only one ear tag and wonder if it has been ripped off in a scuffle with a Blue Bull?

Just as I am enjoying all the patting and slapping and spanking, Farmer Wilson arrives and steps out of his big Land Cruiser, cleanly dressed, his hair neatly combed probably by his wife. Milky and a few other cows moo their greetings and the cattle egrets in the tall dead eucalyptus look down, flutter a bit, then fly away to other fields.

To top it all, Peter Wilson says nothing, just looks at the green cow dung up my legs, and grunts out those long, double, guttural bursts of laughter. You know, hugely irritating, like “Ha-ha (pause). Ha-ha (pause). Ha-ha (pause).” Then he drives into the sunrise and I slowly drive down the pass.

Handy Contacts

Natures Way Farm Stall
[email protected],
www.naturesway-sa.com
Loredo Farm and accommodation
[email protected]
Kurland Hotel and Polo Estate www.kurland.co.za
Lilypond Country Lodge www.lilypond.co.za
Wild Spirit Backpackers Lodge
www.wildspiritlodge.co.za
Rock Road Backpackers
www.rockyroadbackpackers.com
Tsitsikamma Sunrise
www.tsitsikamma-caravanpark.co.za

This story was first published in our June issue of 2018

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