In and around this town on the eastern edge of the Western Cape Karoo, the people of Murraysburg are tough, fun-loving and fully aware of the power of country networking…
Words: Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais
Pictures: Chris Marais
Did you know that if you want to pluck a goose without being painfully pecked, it’s best for everyone concerned to to pull a sock over its head first?
I’m not saying that’s all we learnt from our recent visit to the Murraysburg district off the R63 on the eastern edge of the Western Cape Karoo. I’m saying that in the amazing array of people we met on this trip, one was a goose plucker and her great-granddaughter was a goose whisperer. And that’s something.
Tannie Dora Pienaar is in her mid-80s, lives on a farm called Toorfontein (Fountain of Enchantment), rides around the place on a bicycle and fully dotes on a beautiful two year-old sprite called Jelena.
Whenever she comes to visit from Beaufort West, Jelena darts off to find Granny and become her second shadow for the weekend. One of their big bonding exercises is to grab a bag of mealie pips and venture out to feed the 200-strong flock of rather strident geese. Jelena has no fear of goose or gander. She orders them around like a little sergeant-major at parade, lining them up and doling out tiny handfuls of pips.
OK, confession time. Tannie Dora doesn’t personally pluck her geese anymore, one of the Toorfontein staff does the sock trick and the feather harvesting for her. But she still makes some of the most sought-after goosedown duvets in this part of the Karoo – just check her waiting list of customers.
Tannie Dora never falls ill (touch wood). She drinks her kankerbossie (Sutherlandia frutescens) tea every day and darts about the farmstead like a 50-year-old. She has only one complaint about her life, “I seem to be getting shorter by the day.”
After this delightful woman and her equally charming great-granddaughter feed geese for my photographs, we leave them with one of our books and receive a bottle of Toorfontein olives and a bag of almonds in return. This exchange of gifts is a bit of a Karoo thing.
Jules and I would never have met Tannie Dora and the rest of the mob out here without the help and guidance of relatively new Murraysburger Adri Smit – who is an old friend. Adri is nuts about Murraysburg. Every small town in South Africa needs at least one Adri.
“Money was tight when I first arrived here in 2010 and I prepared myself for lots of lonely two-minute noodle meals,” says Adri, who manages a regional tourism website service. “But I hardly opened a pack of noodles because almost every day somebody in Murraysburg would invite me for lunch or dinner, often dropping off bottles of preserves, or vegetables and fruit fresh from the garden.The people around here make for stimulating company. They’ve done all kinds of things, been to all kinds of places and, very importantly, have a strong entrepreneurial spirit. And we have fun in Murraysburg. We organise movie nights under the stars, theme dinners, games evenings and an annual dance. It’s all done with passion. Come and visit us.”
Wow. So that’s how Jules and I find ourselves in Murraysburg, where Adri introduces us first to a vegetable trader who supports a wife and five kids, one of whom is studying to be a teacher at Free State University.
“Everyone just calls me Bhum,” he says. Bhum is a Murraysburg touchstone, a man who appears to be well liked by the people around him. He gets his produce from the central market in Port Elizabeth and, often, from the local farms. “I sell the basic items at a small profit,” he say. “So everyone can afford them.”
Around the corner we find Bernard Blaauw, who conducts his cellphone business from a bicycle. He flogs airtime, memory cards, starter packs, pay-as-you-go electricity cards and does on-the-spot battery repairs. Bernard’s best buddy is Abdul Kaium, a shopkeeper from Bangladesh, who has been in Murraysburg for three years. How’s your Afrikaans, Abdul?
“Mmm. About fifteen per cent,” he replies.
Socially speaking, the beating heart of Murraysburg is currently a rambling old house called Kweperlaan – Quince Lane. The place is so very Karoo, because it has many functions – as a guest house, healthmassage parlour, restaurant, gift shop and as the site of regular book-club and art-group gatherings.
Owner Jenny Ballantyne says the introduction of broadband internet here in 2008 really turned Murraysburg into an attractive option for country living. Jenny is part of an active local WhatsApp community. They always know who has free-range eggs for sale, who’s making pizzas tonight, who’s baking ystervarkies (little coconutcoated cakes), who’s offering a lift to Graaff-Reinet and who needs one.
It’s simple. It’s brilliant. It networks everyone.
“We know we’re living in a place with the normal small-town problems,” she says. “But we didn’t come here from Cape Town simply to be comfortable and do nothing. We need to organise things ourselves, and help to uplift the town and be uplifted in the process.”
Kweperlaan is also Magnificent Obsession Central, thanks mainly to Jenny’s partner Chris Barr, who is bringing to fruition a vision to restore the legendary leivoor (water furrow) system of Murraysburg. It may seem like a small thing, but water running down narrow furrows alongside roads, and feeding into large backyards full of fruit trees and vegetables, is a sign of a healthy Karoo town. If you can grow food you can go forward.
Chris, who comes from Cape Town’s world of high-tech and future trending, knows how to make a dream work – through good ideas and sheer persistence. He has walked a very long road down official channels and admin details involving all kinds of permissions and funding issues, but the journey seems to be paying off.
The revitalised furrows of Murraysburg will also enable the existence of a green belt of parks across the local township precinct, and bring benefits to everyone. A non-profit group called the Murraysburg Sustainable
Development Council has been established to carry the project forward.
Adri whisks us off to a really gifted wood carver called René Theron, a former navy engineer who used to help build ships. Nowadays, René carves transport items – vintage cars, motorcyles, steam trains, trucks and biplanes from another era. He makes them from pieces of imbuia, yellowwood and whatever else he can lay his hands on.
René accompanies our little gang out to Sekretariskraal farm, the home of Oom Frans and Tannie Hettie du Preez, who affectionately call him Swaerrie – little brother-in-law. Walking around their homestead, I keep thinking about those guys Mike and Frank from the hit TV show American Pickers, and how much they’d love to nose around here. Oom Frans and Tannie Hettie live in a space jam-packed with ancient stuff that ranges from a paraffin iron to the oldest post-office stove, a dinkum gramophone to a trekker’s wagon chest, a casting mould for bullets, and tools used to repair goat carts.
After tea and spanspek (honey melon) slices, we scoot back to Murraysburg to catch a soap-cooking session with one Linda van den Berg. We slide into her kitchen just in time for the magical moment when specific measures of lye and beef tallow are mixed to form soap, boerseep in particular. It’s specifically a laundry soap made to remove all manner of stubborn stain. Linda is also a trained nurse, so if there’s a local need (an urgent tetanus shot or something) she’ll happily fill in.She’s also the resident cake baker and ice-cream maker. Hmm.
We drop into bed at our self-cater on Brandkraal farm, owned by Peet and Maryn de Klerk. Just before we nod off, Adri sends us an SMS with the following day’s encounters. This is a connected countryside indeed.
After two days, we leave Murraysburg, continue our travels for a week or so and return to the area via Die Stilfees (The Quiet Festival), a beloved annual event held in a poplar grove on an outlying farm called Grootdriefontein.
Afrikaans folk singers doing original numbers take their turns on a wooden stage. More than 450 people browse the various food stalls, select ingredients for their picnic feast and settle down within sight of the musicians.
We come across the ‘old faces’ – Adri, Jenny and Linda. We meet some new ones, in the form of Paul Avenant and his three sons (Paul Jnr, Naudé and Willem). They are fully involved in the Stilfees, either as musicians or selling wine and turksvy (prickly pear) syrup.
Linda is serving some truly evil ice-cream flavours today – butterscotch, chocolate, granadilla and summer berry. Over there, shrouded in braai smoke from a nearby cookup, Adri is offering iced tea and ginger beer. And here’s Jenny, with her freshly ground coffee and home-made biscotti.
This is one group of Karoo people who, through good ideas and good friendships, will turn the worst of times into the best of times. As the folks from Kweperlaan will tell you, ‘This is a town small enough to get your arms around’.
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