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Trout, setters and peonies: A Winterberg tale

Trout, setters and peonies: A Winterberg tale

On the far side of Tarkastad in the foothills of the looming Winterberg range, we cross over from scrubby Karoo straight into Bonnie Scotland. We pull over, climb out of the bakkie and inhale some of the cleanest air in the world.

Fresh air in spades

Nearly a century ago, a National Geographic crew arrived to measure air quality in this little Scottish pocket of the Eastern Cape Midlands, as part of a survey hoping to prove that the United States had the healthiest climate worldwide. They were astounded to find that the Winterberg breezes were finer than anything available in the USA, second only to a region outside Christchurch in New Zealand.

So, there is fresh air in spades. There are also clouds of Amur Falcons hawking delicious late-summer insects from perches on the roadside fences. These handsome bug-raptors hail from Siberia. Every October, they pack up and fly south on holiday, stopping off in north-east India, Somalia and Kenya before settling in this part of South Africa for the season. The annual 22 000-kilometre, Amur Falcon round-trip is one of the longest migration routes of all birds.

Adding to the destination appeal of the Winterberg is that here, in this cradle of mountain grassveld, flyfishermen get to land some seriously hefty trout. But the real drawcard of the Winterberg is the hardy clans who live among these hilly ranges.

Farmers’ wives drive long distances on often-dodgy dirt roads to little towns like Bedford and Tarkastad, picking up their children from school and heading off to get supplies. They are cheerful and capable, the kind of women who know how to warm a lamb before the Aga, make jam, change a tyre, deal with a breach birth and inject an ailing beast – all before breakfast. These are the people you want as neighbours when you’re in a tight spot.

In many ways, the Winterberg is its own isolated and very hardy human eco-system, with a surprising number of young families. It’s a small, close-knit, warm-hearted community of enterprising people.

Peonies in the springtime

Our Winterberg hosts are Wendy and Neil Scott of Glen Etive. We arrive in deep mist, which completes the Highland look of the area. The Scotts have been farming here since 1878. During the Anglo-Boer (South African) War, the resident Scott was ordered to stay put on his farm by the various Boer sympathisers in the area. Apart from his regular farming chores, he planted a lot of acorns that, by 1910, were hardy young saplings. Today, the Glen Etive homestead is surrounded by large oak trees.

Wendy Scott farms with peonies in the springtime. Her daughter-in-law Caroline is also involved in the cultivation and export of what has proven to be a rather amazing ‘crop’. They are extravagantly beautiful and thrive in the icy penetrating cold that the Winterberg seems to specialise in – peonies adore heavy frosts.

But in the late summer (which is when we pitch up for our visit), Wendy harvests raspberries, which love the cold weather as their growing season. They’re delicious fresh, but are a perishable crop, and their saving grace for Wendy is that they freeze well.

She employs eight women or more over several months to pick from a nearby field of plants. “You need soft hands. The women are much better than the men.” And what about the birds devouring her crop? “The birds can share the berries,” says Wendy magnanimously.

No poisons are sprayed, but Wendy places jars of insect attractant at either end of each raspberry plant row to divert the insects from the berries. And at regular intervals in the kitchen, Wendy opens the freezers and hauls out berries to be turned into jellies, jams, juices and syrups, and sells them to dealers across the Eastern Cape.

Joyous bounding of red-setters

Winterberg, warmed by an aga, sheep
Neil is equally industrious around the farm, with an interesting sideline of breeding (and hunting with) Irish red setters. His day job is working with his Dohne Merino sheep and wagyu cattle. Originally from Japan, Wagyu beef is marbled, tender and said to be the healthiest meat in the world. (FYI, a Wagyu steak sandwich on Wall Street, New York City, goes for a handsome $185 – just under R2 500 last I checked).

On our first afternoon in the Winterberg, Neil loads us and two of his red setters called Humphrey and Jimmy into his bakkie and we drive into the chilly mountain mist. As we bounce along on the rocky farm track, he tells me about the popular Grey-winged Francolin shooting in these parts, and the dog trials they stage up here in May.

“People come from across the world and walk in these mountains,” he says. “But very few partridges [francolins are commonly called partridges in these areas] meet their maker during this time. It’s mostly to do with training dogs and having fun.”

There are few things more joyous than a red setter bounding through the herbed, heather-like bushes, a soft drizzle falling, cows grazing in the distance. This is truly like being teleported into the Scottish Highlands. Except, of course, for the laird’s shorts that are ‘Eastern Cape Agri’ to the core.

The Scotts point us down the road in the direction of Matthew Morgan’s trout dams and hatchery, co-founded with Rhodes University ichthyologist Mike Davies. The water here comes from a natural fountain, runs straight through the hatchery and is led onto pastures. “It’s the best fertiliser,” says Matthew.

But managing a trout hatchery is not an easy business. If the water stops moving, the fish die within minutes. Also, once a year they need to harvest and fertilise eggs. “It’s a hell of a process,” says Matthew. The fish have to be caught, the best ones (which usually struggle mightily) are chosen, the eggs gently stripped along with the milt (semen) from cock fish. He may be biased, but Matthew reckons the best fishing destination is right here, in the Winterberg. It’s like Dullstroom without the crowds.

In the foothills

flyfishing for trout in the Winterberg
In the early evening, we return to Glen Etive, which has been without power for two days after a vicious storm in Tarkastad. Currently, there is also no way to communicate with the outside world. But the Scotts are used to this kind of thing.

In the winter, the Aga exudes warmth all the time. Practically every home up here has a fireplace. Families live off the land eating their lamb, beef, venison or trout. Wendy has a little veggie garden with artichokes and all kinds of other green things. And there are many, many dogs for additional company. Suddenly the concept of being stranded in the Winterberg is rather appealing.

In the morning, we visit the nearby Winterberg School in the foothills of the mountain range, and in operation since 1993. The school provides farm workers’ children with access to high-quality education, while allowing them to remain at home with their families. The school bus clocks up around 700 kilometres each day, ferrying 140 children from the farms to Winterberg School, or on to the Tarkastad high schools and back again.

Some pupils are the first generation in their family to receive a structured and quality education. The winner of last year’s reading prize, for example, has a father who is unable to write his own name. There is also a former student of the school who has received private scholarships to extend his education at St Andrew’s College and Rhodes University in Grahamstown.

When we arrive, Joanne King and staff are preparing for a parents day and jumble sale the next day, sorting out an astounding array of local donations. Jo is chuffed to have rescued a tie bearing the signature of Eastern Cape cricketing hero Kenny McEwan, which was dropped off by a farmer’s wife. “Can you imagine? He would have been devastated.”

She later tells us that R5 300 was raised through the jumble sale, and that the owner of the signed tie is indeed extremely grateful that his treasure was saved. Alongside the support of charitable or corporate donors, the Winterberg Farmers Association came up with a novel method of raising funds. Farmers donated pregnant cows to form a ‘Winterberg School herd’ that is managed on one of the nearby properties. The calves sold at auction every year contribute much-needed funds to the school coffers. The school also raises money by selling Winterberg Winners Recipe Books.

Hardy travellers of the Winterberg

Also on the school premises is an adult skills-development programme called Luncedo (Xhosa for ‘we help ourselves’), where ten previously unemployed women, now trained in sewing and crafts, have established a business producing quality clothing and home decor in traditional Xhosa designs.

Nearby, Mandy Levey and a group of local women from the Thobelani Craft project, make one-of-a-kind, pit-fired clay pieces, using unlikely tools like expired credit cards and porcupine quills. The handmade items are popular with hunters in season, and the hardy travellers who have discovered the Winterberg.

The Wheatland Church is also run in co-operative style. Member families contribute R2 000 annually for a visiting pastor. The little church is ‘unplugged’, so someone in the Winterberg congregation has to link the organ to a vehicle battery during a service.

Just before we leave the area, we drive out with Neil one last time to see his beloved Dohne Merinos. While Chris and I are trussed up in thick jackets, he wears a thin jersey and shorts. “Yes, sometimes it gets really cold up here in the Winterberg,” says Neil. “And then I’ve been known to put on an extra T-shirt…”

Braeside Country Cottage Joanne King on
045 848 0022, 082 789 916,
[email protected]

Ventnor Cottage near the trout hatchery.
Carol Morgan 045 848 0152

Bryanston Cottage Angela Hattingh
045 848 0020

Pictures Chris Marais

Find more stories and photos by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais on www.karoospace.co.za

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