Historic Wheatlands Country House in the Eastern Cape is a delightful farmstay wrapped up in legends that go back to the 1840s…
Words and Pictures: Chris Marais, www.karoospace.co.za
If you farmed on the Plains of Camdeboo during the Anglo-Boer War, you were often expected to feed passing combatants. Arthur Parkes, laird of Wheatlands Farm about 50km south of Graaff-Reinet, was a British sympathiser. So, when a Boer kommando pitched up in a cloud of dust one day, Parkes thought he’d immobilise them with lots of booze.
And then he would possibly alert the British Coldstreamers over in Graaff-Reinet to haul them away. At the time, Wheatlands was one of the most famous brandy farms in the Karoo. Arthur Parkes opened the doors of his vast brandy cellar and invited the Boers in for a free tasting.
By now, however, the Boers had learnt a thing or two about the dangers of mixing war and alcohol. Up north near Val Station, they had derailed a British train loaded with fine whisky for the officers and had ended up in a sorry, shameful state. So, at Wheatlands their commander made sure each man only had a tot of brandy before hustling them away.
Another time, the Boers made off with all of Lily Parkes’ freshly bottled jam – but returned the empties the next day. As is the time-honoured custom in the Karoo.
The stories of Wheatlands Farm go back more than 160 years and actually have their roots across the Atlantic, in the strife-torn Argentina of the 1840s. Thomas Parkes met Emma Bevans and, despite the fact that he was a bit wild and she was an avid Quaker, they married and produced five children.
Argentina was caught up in a cycle of revolutions, acts of banditry and general lawlessness. The Parkes’ home was repeatedly raided. One time, when Thomas was away on business, some rebels approached the homestead. Emma gathered the kids and the servants and, playing the family piano as loudly as she could, exhorted everyone to sing at top volume. The robbers were fooled into believing the house was packed full of festive people, and turned on their heels and left.
By 1843, the Parkes family could take the unstable South American country no longer and boarded an east-bound ship to South Africa. Thomas bought a hotel and bar in Uitenhage and, leaving his slightly outraged wife to run the establishment, trekked into the Karoo to look for a suitable farm. And then the legends began…
I am sitting in the lounge of the Big House (now a guest house) at Wheatlands, reading a book on the farm written by one of its most beloved inhabitants, Margery Parkes. The Big House is nothing less than a grand old Feather Palace, built back in 1912, when ostrich plumes brought great wealth to the Karoo.
The Big House is the central dwelling on the Wheatlands farmstead. With its various sheds and family homes, the estate has the look of a small village. Down the road is the Wheatlands Sports Club (the home of the 134-year-old Harefield Cricket Club), which comes complete with cricket pitch, tennis courts and large pool in the familiar shape of a farm dam.
The nearby Manor House, with its famous Widow’s Walk, is the residence of current owners, Arthur and Diana Short. If you’re a cricket fan, the name Arthur Short might ring a bell. He was a fantastic opening bat back in his day. Arthur was twice selected to represent South Africa, but never got to play a Test match for his country. More about Arthur Short in a minute, because right now I’m still caught up in the life story of this classic Karoo farm and the past generations of people who lived here.
Like the clan father, Thomas Parkes. What happened to him? Well, records are a little vague but we know he ensconced his wife and children at Wheatlands and then returned to his bar-hotel in Uitenhage. Emma stayed on the farm for eight years, briefly joined Thomas in Uitenhage and, upon his death, returned to Wheatlands.
By now, this part of the Karoo was in a boom phase. Wool prices were very good, and mohair farming was starting to take off. Wheatlands produced fruit for its brandy distillery, and built up large flocks of sheep and angora goats. The Wheatlands history contains its fair share of tragedy and misfortune as well.
But then I came across this wonderful anecdote that demonstrates how the Parkes and, later, the Shorts, came to be so highly regarded in the district. And it wasn’t all about the quality of the wool clip, either.
One winter shortly after the Anglo-Boer War, what is known in these parts as a ‘snow freeze’ fell on a nearby farm called Ebenezer, owned by the Hobson family.
Angora goats are devilishly fragile in adverse weather conditions, and so the Hobsons lost thousands of animals in the freeze. Arthur Parkes heard of their bad luck. He simply opened the gates between Wheatlands and Ebenezer and drove a large herd of his own angoras across to the Hobsons. “Take them all,” he said to his neighbour. “I cannot stand the brutes.”
Margery Parkes writes about the resident Wheatlands pet ostrich called Kok Hen. “Regularly, every July, Kok Hen would disappear for seven to eight weeks and reappear with a brood of some 15 chicks and a miserable under-sized wild husband, who just could not take the domesticated habits of his wife and would disappear again into the veld.”
Arthur Short and his son Dave are very successful mohair farmers. But there was a time when Arthur was more of a star on the sports field than in the veld. He was named in the 1970 Springbok cricket, touring squad to England. The next year he made the team once again, this time for a scheduled tour of Australia. This was the famous team that included cricketing heroes like Graeme and Peter Pollock, Barry Richards, Eddie Barlow and Trevor Goddard. It was also the team that whitewashed Bill Lawrie’s Australians 4-0 when they toured South Africa in 1970.
But these were the years of the anti-apartheid sports boycotts, and the tours to England and Australia were cancelled. Arthur Short, star right-handed batsman, never faced a ball in national colours.
“To get that close” he says ruefully. “It’s every boy’s dream to open the batting for his country.”
A few Saturdays later, we visit Wheatlands once more. This time we’re coming to take some match photographs. David Short is the Wheatlands captain. He’s an all-rounder who bowls a wicked slow ball. Today the home team is playing Jansenville. There’s a crowd of about 40 players, supporters and family members at the clubhouse. When someone hits a boundary they cheer, and then return to their discussion of livestock issues and the merits of certain breeds of sheep.
Jansenville goes all-out for 131 within their allotted overs. The players come trooping in for lunch, but the wives send everyone back onto the field because the food isn’t ready.
The kids are in the pool-dam. The rain clouds are coming in from the west. Soon the braai fires will be lit and stories will be told. As is the custom here in the Karoo.