A few months ago, we arrived an hour early for a wedding in a little kirk over at Fish River Station north of Cradock. We were clearly out of practice in the ways of weddings and had misread the invitation.
My husband Chris Marais nosed the bakkie into the ample shade under tall conifers around the stone church, built by British Settlers more than 150 years ago. As befits the Presbyterian faith of its founders, the building is plain and well-proportioned, demure as a Quaker, topped with a singular white cross handmade by a farmer.
We sat quiet with the doors open. Chris wore his best jeans, boots and ironed shirt.
I was in my smartest summer dress and sandals. Except for the birdsong, the shush of the breeze through the pines, and the high, steady note of cicadas, there was silence. Chris broke it with the dreaded question that had been on both our minds. “Do you think we got the date wrong?”
Luckily, the first bakkie arrived nearly 40 minutes later, heralding a sudden dusty rush of country vehicles, all converging on the church. The groom Jason Collett walked around shaking everyone’s hands. We goggled at the lissom legs, high heels and short flowery dresses of the city girls who had come from across the world to see their best friend Estie Anderssen of Somerset West marry the love of her life.
The ceremony started on time. The small overflow of guests, mostly parents with busy young children in their Sunday school best, sat outside on chairs beside the old quince hedges, where local farmers once hid their rifles from marauding soldiers during the Anglo-Boer War.
Beaming from ear to ear, the freshly married couple walked through a line of family and friends throwing petals and leaves. Then it was off to the reception, held in a massive old shed near the farmstead where Jason had grown up. Pepper tree branches dangled from the rafters above long tables, the braai fires glowed and a squadron of local women bustled about the kitchen area in a cooking frenzy.
Tying the knot on a Karoo farm comes with its own special set of blessings. They include happy parents who don’t have to pay a king’s ransom for a venue. Add in the wide-open veld, the clarity of light, dirt roads, ironstone koppies, old ruins and windpumps that all make perfect backdrops and, as a photographer-friend once told us, “You can lose yourself in the space.” The Karoo’s beauty is subtle and generous. It does not outshine the bride; it acts as a frame and a romantic foil.
We’re not frequent wedding guests, but Karoo born-and-bred Lindy Truter is a veteran of these timeless romantic rituals. She is a photographer, travelling across the country to capture happy couples saying ‘I do’. But the Karoo weddings she attends have a special place in her heart.
“It’s down to knowing the nuances, what makes the Karoo work, the kerkwerk en dansskoene (church work and dancing shoes), the absolute chaos that went on beforehand, and getting the farm ready for the wedding.
“Karoo people are authentic and real, and to them it’s all about relationships. Often I’ll find it takes a little bit longer with family photos because everyone’s groeting and congratulating. Also, they’re not too bothered about frills and fancies. And the scenery is something so different. I love it.”
We attended Rosemary Borens’ wedding to Andre Blaauw too, at the beginning of 2019. She’s quite famous in our hometown of Cradock as the beaming and beloved receptionist at the Victoria Manor hotel.
The wedding took place on Bankfontein farm between Cradock and Graaff-Reinet, where she’d grown up.
Here again, we saw the joy in relationships, the timelessness of the surrounding ironstone koppies and sunstruck bossies. The wedding guests, including us, were in country-elegant or Xhosa traditional. Border collies lay panting on the grass in the shade. Chinese lanterns bobbed under trees. Toddlers were drawn to the red carpet between the seats, like iron filings to a magnet.
The aroma of two lambs on the spit drifted up to us as the couple exchanged their vows. Later, at the reception, nearly everyone stood up to give words of encouragement and advice. “Never go to bed angry with one another. And make sure your man is fed before telling him about a problem.”
The party carried on late into the night, and the next morning we overheard an intriguing fragment of conversation from someone gingerly holding his head, “Oupa was die DJ. Daar was die begin van die probleem.” (Granddad was the DJ. That’s where the problem started.)
Of course, not every bride or groom is lucky enough to be born and raised in the Karoo. But more and more farmstays in this charismatic, very central and currently drought-stricken semi-desert are gearing for wedding functions. Shearing sheds are being converted into reception areas. Old milking parlours are being turned into chapels. Another income stream is opening for the beleaguered farmer.
Many venues are quite rustic, others sleekly elegant. But what they all seem to offer is time. Nothing is rushed. No one is hustled out so the next wedding party can set up. Festivities can spread over a weekend and often do.
Our friend Janneke Schulze married Niel Marais on Sweetfontein farm near Britstown earlier this year. “One of the things we loved was that our two families had the weekend to kuier and bond,” says Niel.
Janneke adds, “People in the Karoo are so hospitable and helpful. It felt personal, and the venue was something unique. We loved the simplicity of it.” When asked what they loved about their ‘wedding weekend in the Karoo’, people always mention die eenvoud. The simplicity. They also talk about the jol.
At almost all such venues, there is a dance floor. Here, a word of warning – Karoo people know how to ‘move it’. They grow up dancing sokkie or langarm and think nothing of twirling their partners about like dervishes if the rhythm is right.
There are three more wedding issues worth mentioning. Firstly, the feast. This is the land of domestic goddesses who prepare delicious food for dozens of people at a time. There are always caterers and, of course, Karoo lamb is best at source.
Second, the weather. This is a semi-desert and it seldom rains. Or if it does, everyone celebrates and it’s considered excellent luck.
The third factor is cost, and the venue hire and catering often account for around half of what weddings in the cities cost. Karoo weddings also are almost always better value.
Accommodation in nearby towns is generally very affordable and, as bride Janneke remarks, “The venue is a roadtrip away, so our guests were the ones who really wanted to be with us.”
Ingrid Collett of Adamsfontein farm at Fish River oversaw the catering and decor for her son Jason’s wedding to Estie, and later her daughter Christine’s wedding to Dylan Pretorius. In the process she transformed a neglected old shed into a rather lovely venue.
“I am really shocked at what people pay for weddings. Shouldn’t people keep it simpler, and concentrate on the marriage rather than spending so much money on one day’s celebration? I’ve heard of families who are still paying off the wedding, while the bride and groom are already getting divorced!”
For Christine, there was never a question of getting married anywhere else. “It was very sentimental. This was the place I grew up. This was my playground, my backyard. It was like a community wedding. Everyone I’ve ever known and loved and that was special to me was there.”
Photos by Chris Marais and supplied