Sure a Karoo farmstay is about peace, quiet and open spaces. But then there’s the bonus of a history lesson… Every farm has a story to tell…
Words: Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit
Pictures: Chris Marais
There was once a time when a thoroughbred horse was made even more special by having the word ‘Karoo’ on its birth certificate. The Karoo’s natural advantage lay in the calcium prevalent in its soil and water – crucial for good bone formation in horses. So there were these massive horse farms out here, turning out winners at all levels of races in South Africa and, indeed, the world at large.
Charles Southey, of Culmstock Farm near Middelburg in the Eastern Cape, made good money in his time with ostriches, merino sheep and shorthorn cattle. But his real passion was horses, so he imported a batch of fine mounts from England. They were swum ashore at Port Elizabeth and then walked all the way (about 400km) to Middelburg.
Alas, the thoroughbred boom did not stand the march of time. Man-made horse feeds with added calcium were introduced, and the Karoo no longer had the ‘sense of place’ cachet for breeders. You could now bring a horse up just about anywhere, give him calcium-laced feed and send him on his merry way to the winning post.
We’re hearing all this on a visit to Mount Melsetter House and Hunt, a working guest farm currently owned by David Southey, one of the descendants of the hardy Charles. You come to Mount Melsetter to hunt, hang out, admire sheep, hike, ride your bike and generally breathe in the fine Karoo air. And while you’re about it, manager-hosts Candy and Mike Ferrar will feed you great Karoo fare and give you a sense of local history.
But if you want to talk about old-time farmers who walked their livestock about the Karoo plains, you’ll need to visit Wellwood up in the mountains near Nieu-Bethesda village. It’s obvious to one and all that the Rubidge family are part of the human DNA of this region. You only have to look at the local names of things around here: Rubidge Kloof, Rubidge Stream and many Karoo fossils bearing the name Rubidgea.
In the mid-1800s Charles Rubidge and his son Richard began a breeding line of merinos that would become a South African hallmark. And they worked hard for that reputation. On 23 March 1873, Charles and Richard sailed to England and the Continent in search of suitable rams. They spent some time in Paris, and inspected the flocks of the best breeders before going to Rambouillet, ‘where father bought two rams’, according to the family diary.
‘We took a boat to Southampton where we were detained, a difficulty arising re landing the sheep. The authorities stating they could only consent to their landing if they were slaughtered first. However they were eventually loaded and placed in quarantine’. They arrived in PE on 9 August. ‘August 11: Left PE by the Midland Conveyance Coach taking the two imported rams as full fare passengers at £5 each. December 1873: Great drought all sheep sent away’.
Robert and Marion Rubidge now run Wellwood with brother Bruce (the famous palaeontologist) who is in Johannesburg.
We rootle around the famous Wellwood Fossil Museum and then drive past alpaca-guarded flocks of sheep to Trymore Cottage, the home fossil expert Sidney Rubidge (Bruce and Robert’s grandfather) built for his retirement in the 1950s.
We park on the massive stoep with glasses of wine and watch the rams. One could self-cater at Trymore, but we’d heard about Betty Koopman’s great cooking and so we ordered an exquisite venison pie for supper.
Marion Rubidge comes from the Graaff-Reinet-based Maasdorp family. Her father, Charles, is not a young man. But he’s an avid pilot and, the story goes, on Sundays he skims over the Wellwood lawns in his light plane and drops the Sunday Times “for the children”.
By now you may well have heard of Jolynn Minnaar, the dynamic young Karoo woman who produced the award-winning documentary on fracking called Unearthed. You may even have heard of her mother, Lynne, the co-author (with Albe Neethling and Annatjie Reynolds) of the very popular Karoo Venison cook book. But have you seen what’s going on in Johan Minnaar’s old workshop on Groenvlei, their family farm between Nieu-Bethesda and Murraysburg?
Johan and his son Johnny are busy restoring a classic black 1963 Studebaker Lark, said to be one of the iconic convertibles of its time. And it’s a bit of a nostalgic mission for Johan. “My first car was such a Lark,” he will tell you. “But I couldn’t afford to keep it. Instead, I sold it to get a bakkie. After years of searching, this one was found. And now we work on it when we can.”
There are two farmhouses on Groenvlei – one of them is reserved for you and your extended family. When we stay here, we always feel like phoning up a posse of friends and telling them to scoot on over. That’s because the place literally sprawls into a complex of great holiday stuff: many bedrooms, reading nooks, ping-pong table, volleyball nets outside, tennis courts and dogs that love to accompany you on farm walks.
Groenvlei has been a guest farm for 24 years. Lynne says some regular visitors love it so much they want their ashes strewn over the farm. “On their first day, the city kids don’t go much further than the stoep,” she says. “The next day, they’re running around the lawn and up to the cow shed. After that, you don’t even see them. They’re off, somewhere in the veld.”
Groenvlei is nearly 200 years old, so there are loads of historic relics on the farm. Take for instance the rebuilt fireplace in the waenhuis (wagon shed). According to the Minnaars, the farmer’s wife used the fireplace to bake and cook. And the farmer used the same facility for his blacksmithing.
Heading south on the N9, we arrive at the village of Aberdeen and jink westwards on the Beaufort West road. Almost immediately, we turn right on the Palmietfontein route, which takes us closer and closer to the fabled Camdeboo Mountains. Suzanne and Koos Lategan are our hosts at Waterkloof Farm, and once again we have an entire homestead to ourselves. We could sleep in a different room every night for a week and still have beds to spare.
By now, you’ll have gathered, one becomes something of a stoep-sitting expert on a Karoo farm. Very little beats a glass of wine and a cheese-and-biltong snack, with sheep mowing the lawn in the foreground and these gorgeous old mountains in the distance. We drift into a reverie of companionable silence. There is at first only the buzz of insects. Then a rooster crows somewhere far away. A woodpecker taps at a tree. Some Ring-necked Doves begin churring.
More wine? Nearby is an old stone kraal with ferns growing between the rocks. Behind that is a ruin that used to belong to a certain Mr Wilkie. Who sold the property and used the money to start a circus, later joining with a certain Mr Boswell. Add a fellow called Tickey and a white-faced clown called Francesco and you had your old-time Big Top travelling magic.
Ask the Brothers Lategan, Koos and John, to take you up into the hills to see the famous Cango Caves Stationary Engine, a gleaming black monster of a machine that still works when prodded in the right places. And it runs on anything with a kick – diesel, petrol, even mampoer that’s been brewed right.
We head back to Graaff-Reinet and take the R63 to Somerset East. Stopping off to pay homage to the late Walter Battiss, King of Fook Island, we continue on the Cookhouse road and turn off at the sign to Olivewoods Farm. Now we’re in the deeply-wooded Boschberg mountains, and there in the distance is a white, double-gabled house sitting under evergreen yellowwoods.
Normally we’d stay in romantic Olivewoods Cottage, but tonight we’re in the Big House with owners Brett and Wendy Wienand. When you think Brett Wienand, you should think of ClemGold naartjies, which are firm and lovely and late in fruiting. When you think Wendy Wienand, you should think of a pioneer in the farmstay business. She actually published a little book more than 20 years ago entitled Stay on a Farm.
Wendy was ahead of the curve with her book, because Karoo farmstays are now, finally, becoming all the rage with road-tripping families. And why not? They’re inexpensive, cheery and good for young and old. We dine on a delicious leg of lamb, prepared by the hands of women who have been cooking mutton and lamb on Aga stoves for generations. And here’s a thing to remember: farmers always eat the finest meat.
The next day, Brett takes us on a heritage treat to the village of Bedford, in the form of the monthly stock fair. This is real old-school livestock trading, something fresh out of a Thomas Hardy novel – with an Eastern Cape twist. We have no idea who gives what bidding signal, because all the gathered farmers in the stands seem to be sitting still. But business is definitely being conducted, because the auctioneer pipes up in a loud voice: “Going, going, gone to Uncle Aubrey! Ten thousand Ront [sic] for a lekker Nguni cow!”
- Mount Melsetter Karoo House and Hunt near Middelburg in the Eastern Cape is known for wildlife and hospitality, and more recently for mountain biking. 049 842 1520, www.greatkaroo.co.za, www.gkcycle.co.za
- Wellwood Farm between Graaff-Reinet and Nieu Bethesda offers a peaceful retreat, a classically stylish guest cottage and one of the best private fossil collections in the world. 049 840 0302, www.wellwood.co.za
- Groenvlei Farm between Graaff-Reinet and Richmond has sprawling guest accommodation, perfect for large groups on a scenic and fascinating historic farm. 049 845 0305, www.groenvlei.co.za
- Waterkloof Farm near Aberdeen can easily accommodate more than a dozen guests, is situated under the splendid Camdeboo mountains, and has a legendary stationary engine. 049 846 9083, 083 273 7598
- Olivewoods Farm near Somerset East offers a romantic getaway of a cottage in one of the Karoo’s few densely forested areas, with glorious walks. 042 243 3533, 082 579 5084, www.olive-woods.co.za