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Snow Patrol: Cold in the Karoo

Snow Patrol: Cold in the Karoo

This story was first published in the July 2015 issue of SA COUNTRY LIFE.

? 8-minute read

Every year a little group of us venture out in search of Karoo snowfalls. They say 2015 is going to be a white winter. Bring it on, we say…

Our home-town Snowbirds (who are also our Rainbirds, our Droughtbirds and our Springbirds) tell us that, because of the late showers we’ve just had, we’re all set up for a very cold and snowy winter.

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That’s fine. We’ve just replaced our old and cracked half-Wellingtons, bought stacks of candles (also for those romantic, precious and often non-scheduled load-shedding moments), TwoPack the long-haired German shepherd has grown his winter undercoat – and now we’ve just got to convince our mate Ryno Ferreira to go out and buy himself another old Land Rover Defender.

Because that’s how the Cradock Snow Patrol rolls most years, you see. We – my wife Jules, Ryno, TwoPack and I – are the lurkers in the big old badass Land Rover who venture out to see the Karoo stroked by the white hand of winter every year.

Meet the Snow Patrol

There are willing informants across the region: Dirk in Calvinia, Piet in Williston, Oom Leon in Carnarvon, Oom Johannes outside Beaufort West, Marion over near Fish River, David in Graaff-Reinet and Katrin in Nieu-Bethesda. And many more. Whoever you speak to on a darkly clouded, icy-cold day will tell you where it is – up on the Compassberg, or the Swartberg, Roggeberge, Towerberg, the Nuweberg mountains, Wapadsberg Pass and Swaershoek Pass.

Sometimes, however, they come across as a bit vague. That’s when you know: there isn’t full snow, it’s just kapok (sleet). They actually want to lure you over the mountain to come and burn meat, drink wine and bring news from the Heartland. Karoo people just love to socialise.

The Karoo turns into a magical landscape when snow falls

When snow falls on a faraway Karoo farm, there’s a kind of landscape magic that happens.

Back in August of last year, our Snow News Network comes alive, and they tell where the falls are. When a Karoo winter becomes intense, the mountain names and places around here start making sense. The Sneeuberge. The Agter Sneeuberge. The Winterberge. The Grootwinterhoekberge. Everything speaks of snow and ice.

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Ryno pitches in his Landie. TwoPack is so excited he can bite himself. Jules and I are dressed in the shape of your typical Icelander, complete with scarves, beanies, boots and jumpers. The sign at the Cradock/Graaff-Reinet turn-off says the Wapadsberg Pass is closed today, due to the weather. We crunch on through in the Defender and the drive begins.

As we approach the Wapadsberg, the dolerite bastions stand out craggy and dark grey, with snowdrifts on their flanks. There’s a dirt road into the Agter Sneeuberg and we take it, stopping at a field of snow, with a frozen windpump as its centre-point.

This is where, with the dog darting about attacking imaginary rabbits in snow-covered bushes, we have our morning coffee. Then it’s back to the tar road, upwards and over the pass, stopping for a grandstand view of the weather that sweeps across the plains below.

Blinko Day

The Lootsberg Valley, flanked by the Wapadsberg Pass and the Sneeuberge that eventually lead you to Nieu-Bethesda, could easily be a landscape location for an upcoming season of Game of Thrones. I can just see the White Walkers doing their zombie shuffle through the snowy plains below, sniffing at the windows of isolated farmhouses, rattling the locks on barns, leaving tracks that disappear with the first melt of next week.

I can just see Jon Snow, the Bastard of Winterfell, making his way down past the deserted tracks and graffiti’d hut near Bethesda Road Station, where the trains don’t run. The forbidding mountains stand together and form this amphitheatre for dramatic giants. Their majestic ramparts make the farmsteads below look tiny and remote.

I can just see American rural author Annie Proulx (Brokeback Mountain and The Shipping News) hiding out in one of those old Karoo farms in the distance, having stocked up with firewood, whisky, a collection of inspiring books, essential groceries, petrol for the generator (two hours’ writing a day), even an old Underwood typewriter with two new ribbons for when the Od School urge arises.

She will tell you all about a Blinko Day: the kind of day that changes every hour – one moment blue sky and bright, the next grey with brooding snow clouds, before the sun comes blinking through again. The light kind of blinks in and out, one supposes. It’s that kind of bleak landscape, that terrible beauty one comes to love so much. But it has to be admired from the inside of an anorak, in the comfort of an all-terrain vehicle.

The Good, the Bad and the Snowy

To adapt a Woody Allen phrase, to give it a Karoo twist: ‘A snowy winter is fine, if you happen to be dressed for it’. Meaning if you’re a silly tourist in a T-shirt and your car gets stuck in a drift somewhere between mountain towns; if you’re one of the destitute with no reasonable shelter to speak of; if you’re a freshly shorn angora goat; if you didn’t stock up with said wood, whisky and wise words beforehand – then a snowy Karoo is the enemy.

The street signs that Chris and Julie follow while hunting for snow in the Karoo

All roads lead to Nieu-Bethesda in the wintertime.

With a nod to the ever-looming Compassberg, we chug into Nieu-Bethesda for brunch, interrogate said Katrin about snowfalls further into the mountain, and leave the village, which stands untouched by a single white flake. But that could change in a heartbeat and, when it does, you just have to be here to see it.

We take the Bergplaas dirt road running parallel to the N9 into the Lootsberge. Tongues of mist descend the kloofs and
ravines. Farmers have left their irrigation on overnight, and the water sprays have become icicles hanging suspended from gates.

Like Annie says, we’re in the middle of a Blinko Day and the sun is coming and going behind the puffy clouds over the icing-sugar hills.

The landscape changes as we move from the deserted tracks of Nieu-Bethesda Station through groves of ghostly poplars, along windy fence lines and past farmhouses in the distance, where little plumes of smoke puff out from chimneys.

Ah. They’re all sitting around the Aga stove in there, tucking into a bowl of oxtail soup, wrapped up warm and watching the snowflakes dropping down onto the yard.

Continuing on the Bergplaas Reserve road, it becomes a bit of a game drive. Springbok stand with their burms to the wind, their thin fur fluffed up. The black wildebeest lie like huge dolerite boulders on the ground. Eland stand close to bushes and thorn trees that act as windbreaks.

The railway tracks lead off into snow covered Karoo lanscape

An old railway line heads off through the bleak and beautiful face of a Karoo winter.

The sun disappears and the light goes gunmetal-grey and suddenly we must be in Patagonia. All is bleak, hope is lost and the end of the world is nigh. The landscape is eating us up. We are but shivering specks moving slowly through a forbidding world.

Driving past an old, currently-deserted farmhouse (open, one hears, for groups of visitors who book) we have the urge to break a window, make a fire and see if they’ve got sardines somewhere. But we’re good burghers all, so we drive on until the sun comes out and cheers the land and we’ve looped back onto the N9 on the other side of the Lootsberg.

Munching on a bag of biltong from the Jagtpoort Farmstall where the Big Coke Sign lives, we crest the mountain pass and come across a family from Gauteng enjoying the snow. And guess what? The guy is dressed only in a T-shirt and cut-off jeans.

He’s busy having the bright side of his very own Blinko Day right now…

Chris and Julie were not the only ones looking for snow in the Karoo

Crazy fun – snow lovers from Gauteng snapped in passing at the top of the Lootsberg Pass.

P.S. Our mate Ryno flogged his Defender, so we’re going to have to make another plan this winter.

P.P.S. There’s a great website for snow news, Snow Report SA.

*Read the rest of ‘Karoo Snow Patrol’ in the July 2015 edition of Country Life, available as a Zinio digital download.

Words Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit

Photography Chris Marais of karoospace.co.za

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