In the heart of Mohair Country, the southern Karoo town of Steytlerville is a place of flags, friendly faces and family crests.
Words: Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit
Pictures: Chris Marais
Steytlerville is clean, the streets are wide and the people are special. And rumours of a shape-shifter walking around are to be taken with a streepsak of salt. If you see someone who can turn from a man to a monkey in a second, from a farmyard pig to a fruit bat in the blink of an eye, then count yourself lucky enough to have seen the Steytlerville Shape-Shifter.
He was first spotted in these parts early in 2011 and there was so much related hype (even the Fortean Times carried an article on it) that a group of locals apparently wanted to market a special Monster Burger for the occasion.
But enough of all that twaddle. There are all sorts of better reasons why you should jump in your car and head down to Steytlerville for a visit sometime. Maybe nose around and see if you could live here.
You’re in the Willowmore-Steytlerville-Jansenville Mohair Triangle, which celebrates one of the leading industries in the Karoo. The First Lady of the USA, Michelle Obama, wears mohair cardigans. British football teams step out in swanky mohair suits. South Africa’s annual clip is estimated at more than 2 000 000kg, and much of it comes from this area. Mohair rocks.
And so does Steytlerville, where we recently spent a couple of days. Our first port of call was Noorspoort Guest Farm. We checked in and settled down around a bottle of good red with the owner, George Craven. George, who bears an uncanny (but understandable, really) likeness to his legendary late father Dr Danie Craven, is famous to us as having been the pioneer of rural in-migration, albeit well before its time. George Craven started Roep – Red Ons Eie Platteland – which translates nicely into Rescue Our Endangered Platteland.
You could buy a Karoo house back in 1981 for five grand. But there was no internet to speak of, living in the countryside was considered a backward step and cellphones were the size of breeze blocks. The bright city lights of South Africa were a lot more enticing than they are today.
If Roep had been launched sometime in the late 1990s, George Craven probably would have become a mogul of sorts. But the likeable man is at peace with what has transpired. “I’m very happy that people are re-settling in Steytlerville. The new arrivals are mostly quite civic-minded and a real boon to the town.”
On the way out to Noorspoort, we had driven through the Valley of Flags. George Craven had something to do with that project as well. “I was asked to paint the old flag on a roadside rock-face in 1984,” he said. “I was young and agile back then, and hung from a rope for three days completing the job.”
Then came the New South Africa and the existence of the flag was threatened. One of the young Craven sons came up with the idea of painting the new flag alongside the old one. The concept was expanded to include many other flags connected with South Africa’s colourful history. And then, finally, the people of Steytlerville began talking about “our flags” instead of referring to them as “the Craven flags.”
Bright and early the next morning, we left Noorspoort and made for the Steytlerville Pegasus Early Motoring Museum in the main street. It’s also simply known hereabouts as The Car Museum.
Michele Prinsloo runs The Verandah coffee shop that serves legendary muffins. “No thanks. We’re busy Banting,” we said piously. “Fine,” she replied. “How about free-range eggs?” And while Michele was scrambling our eggs and dusting them with delicious herbs, her husband Jurie took us around the remarkable little museum.
A word to the wise. Do not lay a finger on any of the highly-polished cars on display – it makes Jurie Prinsloo steam gently from the ear lobes. Stand back and let your eyes do all the touching. Included in the selection of old cars is a Ford GT40 (that Jurie once raced) and a Ford Anglia 1962 that would make any baby boomer think back fondly on childhood years. And what about that 1937 Model C Ford?
Across the road, tourism officer Corné Henderson introduced us to the ladies of the local Craft Shop. This is where you can buy some of the locally famous ceramic-mosaic bikinis.
John Calitz, the new owner of the old Royal Hotel, met us on the stoep. He used to be a demographer living in Midrand, and then he headed to the countryside. “Because of my surname, I first went to Calitzdorp,” he said. “And then I found out that this place was available. And that it lies in the middle of some very popular biker routes.”
Shortly after that, we came across a band of elderly bikers who were on a cross-country adventure all the way from the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast. They hadn’t heard of the Steytlerville Shape-Shifter, but they knew all about the Royal Hotel – which is exactly the way things should be.
Zig-zagging back across the main road, we visited the studio of Johan Trollip, an excellent artist with a genial mien. Johan used to be a major banker in his other life. He saw the world and then saw the light in Steytlerville, quickly becoming one of the leading painters in the region. “There are six other artists in town, so we often meet and collaborate,” he said. “We share ideas and we solve problems together.” This group is the perfect example of the new platteland creative class at work.
We were a bit late for lunch at Lizzy’s Khaya in Vuyolwethu, out on the way to Willowmore, but Lizzy Snoek greeted us with a dazzling smile anyhow. She is one of those incredible spirits you want to bottle and send out across South Africa. She was dressed in a swirl of green, yellow and orange and led us into her home-restaurant, where she fed us a feast of greens, beetroot salad, roast chicken thigh, meatballs and cauliflower with broccoli. “Corné told me not to bring out the roosterkoek,” she said laughing.
Lizzy Snoek’s greatest day of epic catering was when she fed 600 visiting doctors and health workers for World Aids Day a few years back. She made them boerekos – rys, pampoen, rooi vleis (rice, pumpkin, red meat). She hired pots and employed cooks. “And on that day I served lots of roosterkoek.”
Back in Steytlerville, the afternoon light was shining just right on the legendary family crests hoisted up on the main street. Corné’s mother-in-law, Linda Henderson, was one of the driving forces behind this world-class initiative, which was launched ten years ago.
“We decided to pay tribute to the people of Steytlerville by raising their family crests,” she said in a telephone interview later. “Collecting the family history of those who didn’t have crests was such a joy. People would tell us what their forefathers had done, and what was important to them. They also suggested ways that these could be illustrated. So you’ll find cotton reels, baking tins, shearing shears, soccer posts, rugby balls. Someone’s father had been a shopkeeper for a long time. I asked how they thought we could illustrate that. They said it was easy. Just put a shopping trolley there. One guy said that he was quite famous for drinking a lot – he suggested we add a bunch of grapes to his family crest.”
Although some of the crests are a bit faded, this is still (as far as we can tell) the only place in the world where you’ll find such a main street phenomenon. And then we drove on to hang out with another pair of phenoms, Jacques Rabie and Mark Hinds of the Karroo Theatrical Hotel.
It was late afternoon. The storm light was glorious on the skyline of Steytlerville and the mountains beyond. And when it rains in the Karoo, you need to be somewhere special with a glass of wine to hand.
The front stoep of the Karroo Theatrical Hotel was the perfect place to be. We’d known the owners for years, and they had been re-painting their hotel in different colours for as long as we could remember. This new colour combo, they assured us, was here to stay: gold enough to be grand, ochre enough to be true Karoo.
Jacques is still the hardest-working burlesque act we knew, socialising, cooking supper, marching off to fix something with a spanner and diving into his dressing room (which he shares with two full swarms of bees) for a quick photo shoot change of gear.
Mark is still the consummate host, the piano man and the visionary. And together they still make the Karroo Theatrical Hotel one of the most attractive offbeat venues in the Karoo.
Over breakfast at the hotel just before we left, another semi-grant, Geri Oosterbroek, put Steytlerville in a nutshell for us: “I love living here. Every day, every season, the light changes. You can drink the rainwater, you can breathe the mountain air.”
Where to Stay
- Noorspoort Guest Farm for a rural experience in a gracious old farmhouse not far from town. There is also a delightful self-cater house. 049 835 0001, www.noorspoort.co.za
- Karroo Theatrical Hotel for a delightful stay in a Karoo hacienda on the hill. Ask about the special packages including a Mark and Jacques performance every Saturday night. 049 835 0010,, www.karroohotel.co.za
- Steytlerville Villa Guesthouse offers comfortable rooms in a beautifully restored house off the main street.
049 835 0454, [email protected]
- The Royal Hotel is central, has comfortable rooms, offers a good breakfast and has a bar that is popular with locals and visitors. 049 835 0385, [email protected]
- Pegasus Early Motoring Museum on the main road is a must-see for anyone who loves cars, old enamel signs and some precious ‘petroliana’. The Collectables shop is also well worth some time. 073 315 0290
- Johan Trollip’s Art Gallery on the main road showcases some of this artist’s excellent work as well as that of others’ in the region. 084 487 8839
- Steytlerville’s family crests in the main road, the Valley of the Flags and the outdoor agricultural implements museum are free attractions.
- Founder of the family crests idea, Linda Henderson is also an estate agent, in case you fall in love with a house. 049 833 0024 083 299 1785, www.karoofarm.com
Where to Eat
- Lizzy’s Khaya is not only a source of great food, but Lizzy Snoek herself is a tonic for the heart and soul. 049 835 0341, 084 342 1137
- The Royal Hotel is justly famous for its burgers and slap chips, best enjoyed on the lovely verandah. 049 835 0385
- Grimaldi’s Theatre Hall at the Karroo Theatrical Hotel is a must-visit on a Saturday night (groups can also book other nights) for boerekos and the Steytlerville Follies. 049 835 0010, www.karroohotel.co.za
- The Verandah at the car museum has great coffee and brilliant muffins (double chocolate, apple, carrot and bran, and very cheesy). 073 315 0290
- Steytlerville Tourism – Corné Henderson, 049 835 0484, www.baviaans.co.za