Who knows what stories a Karoo farm has to tell . . . Naomi Myburgh learns more about the Three Sisters and other treasures…
Words: Naomi Myburgh
Pictures: Naomi Myburgh, Loftus Viljoen and the Hamman family
With the sun setting early on this autumn evening, and many miles still ahead of me out here in the depths of the Great Karoo, I have no choice but to overnight at Three Sisters. Puddles of rainwater sparkle everywhere as they catch the sun’s last rays, testifying to the good rainfall the Karoo has been blessed with – but I sense a ghostly presence in the gathering twilight as I cross the railway line on the dirt track to Three Sisters Guest Farm.
All that interests me after booking in, however, is a chance to experience the local cuisine. I soon find out though, that while Three Sisters appears on the map, it is not a town. The Shell garage, a stone’s throw from the farm, is the only sign of life for miles around, and the diner is closed. So I have to make do with takeaways.
Later, as a full moon rises gracefully over one of the most famous landmarks in South Africa, the three Basotho hat-shaped hillocks known as the Three Sisters themselves, I remind myself that I’m on a property which has been owned by the Hamman family for one and a half centuries – so there could indeed be ghosts around.
Ghosts or not, though, the farm is a treasure chest of stories . . .
For a start the current, fifth generation of Hammans just happens to include three sisters, Michelle, Nicolette and Antoinette. Then there’s how the three famous peaks, which are actually on the farm, got their name. According to Bushman lore they were originally three naughty human sisters and are what they are now as the result of a witch’s spell. Another story goes that they were given the name by an English aristocratic who was travelling through the area. When the train arrived at the station – which at that stage marked the end of the line – she was asked what she thought its name should be. “Why, Three Sisters, of course!”
Fossils found on the farm date back to when the Karoo was still a swamp, and Bushman paintings also form part of the farm’s rich heritage. The foundations of a Khoisan kraal have been discovered on the farm, and high in the mountains is a spring where local people hid their horses from the English during the Anglo-Boer War. (However, 100 of the Hammans’ horses were still seized.) The ruins of abandoned shepherd’s huts can be found in the fields, and interesting fragments of porcelain are found in the old rubbish dumps.
A few small graveyards are the only reminders of unfortunates who died here while on their way to the diamond fields. Victims of the great flu epidemic and the Anglo-Boer War also found there last resting place on the farm. In the days before motor cars and tarred roads, a coach stop where tired horses could be exchanged for fresh ones stood on the farm.
Then there’s the story of how the first Hamman to own the land, Dirk, came to buy it. Dirk was on his way by coach to the diamond fields to seek his fortune when he became seriously ill. Fearing that he might have a contagious disease, the other passengers dumped him at Three Sisters. A Khoisan man, the proverbial Good Samaritan, found Dirk in the shade of a boulder and healed him with a magic herbal potion. The surroundings, meanwhile, crept into Dirk’s blood. He eventually continued his journey to Kimberley, made his fortune, and came back to buy his dream farm. With him he brought a piece of diamond which was later set in a ring and has been passed on to his descendants ever since.
In 1990, in the capable hands of Ina Hamman, the original farmstead was converted into guest accommodation without the loss of any of its rural charm. The brass bed in the honeymoon suite dates back to the Huguenot era, the floors are still the original Oregon pine and the furniture is from the Art Deco period.
I wake up early the next morning and decide I cannot leave without first exploring the surroundings. The werf is enormous and oozes history. In the family cemetery, ancestors rest peacefully. Right in front of the homestead, three venerable Beefwood trees inhale the fresh Karoo air.
The park-like garden with its water features contrasts starkly with the arid surroundings – Johan has created a real oasis here in the Karoo. Seventy-year-old rose bushes provide midnight snacks for kudu, sundry bird species celebrate life in the trees and peacocks strut proudly in the yard. With autumn in full glory, I could easily imagine myself on a Boland wine estate, my footsteps making no noise on the thick carpet of leaves under the trees.
Johan invites me to join him for morning coffee at an enormous yellowwood dining-room table, and yet another story emerges . . .
The table was originally made in Knysna for the forebears of the well-known rugby Springbok, Mannetjies Roux. While it was being transported to the Rouxs’ home, the train was seized by a Boer commando. Needing something with which to smash some railway equipment, they proceeded to break a leg off the table. The then mistress of Three Sisters farm saw potential in what remained of the table, bought it and had the leg replaced – and today it’s a treasured Hamman family heirloom.
Just like the Hammans through the years, so loyal farmworkers have left their mark on the property. The shepherd, old Gert Baadjies, and Ai Kaatjie, his wife; Anna Plaatjie the nanny – slow but blessed with a heart of gold; Jan ‘Ou Snel’ Kombuis, whose nickname (‘old speedy’) did not exactly fit him; and Nellie Jantjies – moody, but well known for her loyalty.
There are more stories – of a treasure hidden away somewhere in a cave; of Kruger pounds buried in the yard; of Oupa Doeloe who catches naughty children; and of a ghostly white-bearded Oompie sometimes seen on the farm’s antique ox-wagon.
When I say goodbye I realise the impact time has made on this place. And as I drive out over the railway tracks, I sense the presence of ghosts again, even though the sun is shining brightly. But I have to smile – it’s only Oupa Doeloe and the white-bearded Oompie on the ox-wagon . . .