Midway between Steynsburg and Middelburg in the district of Schoombee is the KarooSpooR56, a farmstay route in the heart of the Karoo…
Words: Heather Dugmore
Pictures: Rob Southey
When the Karoo Blue Cranes fly high, soaring to one kilometre, it is said that they are calling the rain. And when the rain comes, you smell the stuff of which South Africa is made; the stuff that drives those with a love of space and solitude and the smell of the soil, towards the great plains and blue mountains of the Karoo.
This is a world of fifth and sixth generation farmers, of 250 million-year-old fossils, of horseshoes in the veld dating back to the Anglo-Boer War when horsemen crossed the Karoo in their thousands; of winter venison hunts; of cheesemakers, painters, photographers and chefs. This is the world of KarooSpooR56.
It’s a world where myth, reality and imagination meet, a world that rises up to greet me as I drive towards the ancient mountain outcrops of Teebus and Koffiebus on a crisp Karoo morning, when the landscape looks strong and new.
As the sun lifts the lids of the two outcrops said to resemble the old tea and coffee pots of the early Dutch settlers, I find myself on a stretch of the R56 that offers a wonderfully eclectic choice of activities and farmstays. It’s the scenic tourist route between Durban and Cape Town, where Schoombee is the halfway point, about 800 kilometres to either city.
I take the turnoff to the farm known as Mount Melsetter, Karoo House & Hunt. Hosts Mike and Candy Ferrar (an outstanding cook) offer a fine cup of coffee and homemade rusks before we head into the veld in search of Permian and Triassic era fossils from 250 million years ago, and Stone Age middens created by Bushmen hunter-gatherers thousands of years back.
Mike, an attorney by profession who combines law with stock farming, hunting, palaeontological walks, bird watching and bike trails, explains that the name KarooSpooR56 is inspired by the millennia of footprints, spoor and tracks that have criss-crossed the Karoo: from prehistoric animals to the great migrations of game, the Bushmen, the early wagon tracks, farming livestock, Anglo-Boer War horsemen, modern stock horsemen, trail riders and the railway tracks laid down by the Cape Government Railways.
The great migrations are no longer, but wild antelope are still a common sight in the Karoo. Hunters head here from across the world in winter, with several antelope species on offer for venison and trophy hunting at several of the farms on the route, including Mount Melsetter, Vriesfontein, owned and managed by Deon and Dionne Schoombee, and Hillston Farm, owned and managed by Riana and Jonathan Southey.
Their daughter Adrienne Southey joins us on the walk, and we add our tracks to the ancient lineage as we discuss the district’s family tree. Everyone is either related or they can tell you exactly what has happened in each other’s lives for hundreds of years.
Adrienne, a cordon bleu chef, is part of the family business, helping to run the farm, doing the catering and offering culinary classes on request. She caters for weddings and other functions of up to 120 people. Guests are booked into Mount Melsetter, Hillston and all the other farms that offer accommodation on the route.
Several fellows have unsuccessfully tried to lure her away, as all applicants need to get past her brothers, William and James. “They have very strict standards,” she laughs. Single is no longer the whispered condition it used to be in the Karoo, and let it be noted there are a number of eligible single men around here too (including William and James) who haven’t yet applied to Boer Soek ’n Vrou.
The layers of the inhabitants’ lives are like the layers of the Karoo – not immediately apparent – but readily revealed to those who care to take a walk in the veld where the ancient outback settles in your soul.
The people here are in it for the long haul, it’s not a flashy, fast fortune world. Those with considerable finance generally make no show of it; it goes against the grain and it goes against the humility required when you live with the elements. For generations these farmers have lived through times of drought and times of plenty, through good economic years and bad.
Dating back to 1860 is Manor Holme, my next stop on the route. It’s the family farm of farmer and photographer Rob Southey – who lives on nearby Lucernedale with his wife Kelly and daughter Jessica. Rob took the photographs for this feature and offers photographic workshops and birding outings to KarooSpooR56 visitors.
Following in the footsteps of their forebears, Rob’s father and mother Julian and Trish Southey farm Merino sheep and Sussex cattle on Manor Holme. Trish is also an accomplished gardener, watercolour artist and quilter. She offers workshops in all three pursuits for visitors, including art sessions for children.
It’s shearing time and I take the opportunity to experience this seasonal activity on KarooSpooR56, when traditional hand-shearers from the mountains of Lesotho arrive to unlock the golden fleece, moving from one farm to the next. Once you have smelt and touched freshly shorn wool you never forget it – it takes you back to the roots of being human, when we first domesticated animals and used their fleece and skins to protect us from the cold. Out here you are somehow more grateful for human comforts, and for the delicious meals the hosts on this route lovingly prepare. Like roast lamb, freshly baked bread, farm butter and fig preserve.
All who visit the farms on KarooSpooR56 are unable to resist the temptation of calling it the breadbasket or oasis of the Karoo. Which it is, or part of it is, because the Fish River Tunnel, which starts at the Gariep Dam 82 kilometres away, heads underground until Teebus Mountain, when it surfaces into the Teebus River that ultimately flows into the Fish River. This provides exceptional water for the farms from here to the Fish and Sundays River valleys.
Stilts, coots, kingfishers, fish eagles…you’ll find them on all the dams in the KarooSpooR56 area, attracted by the abundance of water. It also makes the area a river rafting hotspot as water flows strongly down this section of the Great Brak River, over a series of rapids, towards Grassridge Dam – well known to paddling enthusiasts as the start of the Fish River Canoe Marathon. James Jordaan of De Keur farm operates the popular Karoo River Rafting on the route.
If you’re a fan of ‘farm of origin’ produce, as I am, the obligatory next stop on the route is the farm Vriesfontein, home of Pierre and Charma van Vuuren’s Schoombee Karoo Butchery. Pierre operates hunting safaris under the banner of Kwando Safaris and is an accomplished butcher with an on-farm abattoir and butchery. This is no back-of-the-bakkie business; this is high quality, professionally prepared and packaged lamb, venison, biltong and salami, all veld-raised of course.
Venison hunters on any of the farms in the KarooSpooR56 area have the advantage of this butchery on tap, as Pierre will prepare the meat for you. If you want him to make biltong after a hunt, he’ll post it to you when it’s ready.
Or courier it if the postal workers are on strike. Vriesfontein is a rich site for Anglo-Boer War artefacts, including an old hand-dug well for the British soldiers’ water supply at one of their campsites. An astonishing 7 000 British troops were stationed in Middelburg during the Anglo-Boer War, and there are many evocative tales of how the Boers masterfully eluded them, including signalling whether the coast was clear by using mirrors on the mountain tops.
No doubt they slaughtered and milked a couple of cattle and sheep on these very farms, as they made their way across enemy lines. For those who find the notion of dairy from sheep strange or even off-putting, Charles and Bruce Lord of Beaconsfield Farm explain that sheep have been raised for milk for thousands of years and were milked long before cows. They produce the most delicious halloumi, ricotta, pecorino, feta and yoghurt from sheep’s milk on the farm.
An aspect of the KarooSpooR56 area I really enjoy is that all these offerings are within five or ten kilometres of each other, on a route that extends for about seventy kilometres. You also have a choice of accommodation – from the three-star, highly recommended accommodation of Mount Melsetter and Hillston to self-catering cottages in the veld.
You can explore the route in any type of vehicle, or you can saddle up and take in the region on horseback with Waterlea Karoo Trail Rides. Some treat a visit to this area as an en route adventure, others as a destination for a Karoo farmstay holiday where they spend time at each of the eleven farms on KarooSpooR56.