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The Virgin Sheep

The Virgin Sheep

Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit are our favourite experts on everything Karoo. They live, breathe and write the place. Here’s a web exclusive from one of their many adventures in this fascinating region. 

Words: Julienne du Toit www.karoospace.co.za 

Pictures: Chris Marais

“Come,” said my husband Chris. “There’s a sheep you must meet.” This was a few years ago, on a trip to Prince Albert. We were overnighting in the tiny hamlet of Klaarstroom, staying at Jeremy and Sharon Witt-Hewinson’s delightful guesthouse.

Klaarstroom from above.

Klaarstroom from above.

“If you make that sheep the focus of the article, we may never forgive you,” warned Jeremy, laughing.

Beside the BP garage was the general dealer with cheerful, animal-mad Estelle Gavin behind the counter. As with most general dealers in the Karoo, a dizzying array of goods was on offer. Cans of Koffiehuis alongside pantyhose, kettles, a second hand lavender bridesmaid’s dress and 1950’s copies of the Daily Mirror.

Of a virgin born?

Of a virgin born?

Prompted by Chris, Estelle told me and our Cradock farmer friend Michael Antrobus about her sheep, the Virgin Stertjie.

Stertjie (“Little Tail” in Afrikaans) had definitely had an immaculate conception, according to Estelle. She had not been with a ram for at least nine months (their gestation period is 5 months), and yet just the other day Stertjie gave birth to twins, provisionally named Dit and Dat (“This” and “That”).

Farmer Michael, politely disbelieving, complained that when he had Dorpers, he had problems getting them to conceive naturally, let alone immaculately.

“Bring them here,” said Estelle triumphantly. She took us outside to meet her animals. There was Tara, the lone horse of a one-horse town, and her sheep, all willing to be petted and patted. Stertjie did look very proud of her lambs, who head-butted her stomach, ignoring us in favour of their mother’s milk.

Tara the horse came over with ears pricked forward, nuzzled me enquiringly, then tried to eat my handbag.

A year later we passed through again, and stopped in for an update. Jeremy grimaced and admitted ruefully there may be something to the conception thing after all. Apparently a Dorper sheep can mate, and then ‘store’ the semen, or suppress the growth of the zygote for many months. “Not quite a virgin, but almost an immaculate conception.”

Early the next morning, before the light, we ascended the little koppie against which the town leans. What a privilege it is to watch a little Karoo town wake up. Below us was Estelle’s spread. We watched a man feed Tara the horse in the shed. The sheep (presumably including Stertjie, Dit and Dat) ran deliriously towards him for their feed too.

A short time later, Tara emerged from the shed. She caught sight of us on the hill and expressed great amazement, turning her head this way and that, first one eye, then the other.

But what astounded me most of all was the way she greeted us. A firm single nod. I nodded back. Then she nodded. Then I nodded. Very stylised, very courteous. We must have nodded to one another six times each before her attention was caught by a lamb and she wandered away to the paddock. I felt as though I’d been curtseying to a princess.

There was also a time when I found myself waving to an Angora goat. But that’s another story….

• For more great stories on the Karoo and its people, visit www.karoospace.co.za/ebooks

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