By Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit
Photographs by Chris Marais
There was once a time when a thoroughbred horse was made even more special by having the world “Karoo” on its birth certificate.
The Karoo’s natural advantage lay in the calcium prevalent in its soil and water – crucial for good bone formation in horses.
So there were these massive horse farms out here, turning out winners at all levels of races in South Africa and, indeed, the world at large. Several of these farms are now open for visitors and one of most scenic of these is Mount Melsetter, Karoo House and Hunt.
The Southeys are a legendary Karoo family, and they have a long history on Culmstock Farm near Middelburg in the Eastern Cape. First owner Charles Southey made good money in his time with ostriches, merino sheep and shorthorn cattle.
But his real passion was horses, so he imported a batch of fine mounts from England. They were swum ashore at Port Elizabeth and then walked all the way (about 400km) to Middelburg.
To this day, the sheep farmed around Culmstock’s highest point, Mount Melsetter, are still herded to be shorn by men on horseback.
Charles Southey was also the man who imported fallow deer into the Karoo. There is no information about how they were transported this far, but they have thrived here ever since. They regularly thrill children around December because they do bear a certain resemblance to reindeer.
In the elegantly sprawling farmshouse, you’ll sit down with something cold to hand at the Saddlebum Bar and hear stories. Host Mike Ferrar has a particular talent for finding and recounting the anecdotal history of the area in general and this farm in particular.
He and Candy run this lovely farmstay, which offers fossils, walks and stunning views of the iconic mountains Teebus and Koffiebus. Through Candy and her brother David, the farm is still owned by Southeys.
Candy and Mike will feed you great Karoo fare. Don’t forget to ask about the epergne.
But if you want to talk about old-time farmers who walked their livestock about the Karoo plains, you’ll need to visit Wellwood up in the mountains near Nieu-Bethesda village.
It’s obvious to one and all that the Rubidge family are part of the human DNA of this region. You have only to look at the local names of things around here: Rubidge Kloof, Rubidge Stream and many fossils bearing the name Rubidgea.
In the mid-1800s Charles Rubidge and his son Richard began a breeding line of merinos that would become a South African hallmark. And they worked hard for that reputation.
On March 23, 1837, Charles and Richard sailed to England and the Continent in search of suitable rams.
They spent some time in Paris, and inspected the flocks of the best breeders before going to Rambouillet, “where father bought two rams”, according to the family diary.
“We took a boat to Southampton where we were detained, a difficulty arising re landing the sheep. The authorities stating they could only consent to their landing if they were slaughtered first. However they were eventually loaded and placed in quarantine.”
They arrived in PE on 9 August.
“August 11: “Left PE by the Midland Conveyance Coach taking the two imported rams as full fare passengers at £5 each.
Robert and Marion Rubidge now run Wellwood, with brother Bruce (the famous palaeontologist) up in Johannesburg.
We rootle around the Wellwood Fossil Museum and then drive past alpaca-guarded flocks of sheep to Trymore Cottage, once home to world-famous palaeontologist Sidney Rubidge. Once there, we park on the massive stoep with glasses of wine and watch the Wellwood Rams.
One could self-cater at Trymore, but we’d heard about Betty Koopman’s great cooking and so we ordered an exquisite lamb and venison pie for supper.
Marion Rubidge comes from the Graaff-Reinet-based Maasdorp family. Her father, Charles, is not a young man. But he’s an avid pilot and, on wind-free Sundays he skims over the Wellwood lawns in his light plane and drops the Sunday Times “for the children”.
By now you may well have heard of Jolynn Minnaar, the dynamic young Karoo woman who produced the award-winning documentary on fracking called Unearthed.
You may even have heard of her mother, Lynn, the co-author (with Albe Neethling and Annatjie Reynolds) of the very popular Karoo Venison cookbook.
But have you seen what’s going on in Johan Minnaar’s old workshop on Groenvlei, their family farm between Nieu-Bethesda and Murraysburg?
Johan and his son Johnny are busy restoring a classic black 1963 Studebaker Lark, said to be one of the iconic convertibles of its time. And it’s a bit of a nostalgic mission for Johan.
“My first car was such a Lark,” he will tell you. “But I couldn’t afford to keep it. Instead, I sold it to get a bakkie. After years of searching, this one was found. And now we work on it when we can.”
There are two farm houses on Groenvlei – one of them is reserved for you and your extended family. When we stay here, we always feel like ‘phoning up a posse of friends and telling them to scoot on over.
That’s because the place literally sprawls into a complex of great holiday stuff: many bedrooms, reading nooks, ping-pong table, volleyball nets outside, tennis courts and Great Danes that love to accompany you on farm walks.
Groenvlei has been a guest farm for 24 years. Lynne says some regular visitors love it so much they want their ashes strewn over the farm.
“On their first day, the city kids don’t go much further than the stoep,” she says. “The next day, they’re running around the lawn and up to the cow shed. After that, you don’t even see them. They’re off, somewhere in the veld.”
Groenvlei is nearly 200 years old, so there are loads of historic relics on the farm. Take for instance the rebuilt fireplace in the waenhuis (wagon shed). According to the Minnaars, the farmer’s wife used the fireplace to bake and cook. And the farmer used the same facility for his blacksmithing.
Heading south on the N9, we arrive at the village of Aberdeen and jink westwards on the Beaufort West road. Almost immediately, we turn right on the Palmietfontein route, which takes us closer and closer to the fabled Camdeboo Mountains.
Suzanne and Koos Lategan are our hosts at Waterkloof Farm, and once again we have an entire homestead to ourselves. We could sleep in a different room every night for a week and still have rooms to spare.
By now, you’ll have gathered, one becomes something of a stoep-sitting expert on a Karoo farm. Very little beats a glass of wine, a cheese-and-biltong snack, with sheep mowing the lawn in the foreground and these gorgeous old mountains in the distance.
We drift into a reverie of companionable silence. There is at first only the buzz of insects. Then a rooster crows somewhere far away. A woodpecker taps at a tree. Some ring-necked doves begin churring. More wine?
Nearby is an old stone kraal, with ferns growing between the rocks. Behind that is a ruin, which used to belong to a certain Mr Wilke. Who sold the property and used the money to start a circus, later joining with a certain Mr Boswell. Add a fellow called Tickey and a white-faced clown called Francesco and you had your old-time Big Top travelling magic.
Ask the Brothers Lategan to take you up into the hills to see the famous Cango Caves Stationary Engine, a gleaming black monster of a machine that still works when prodded in the right places.
And it runs on anything with a kick: diesel, petrol, even mampoer that’s been brewed right.
We head back to Graaff-Reinet and take the R63 to Somerset East. Stopping off to pay homage to the late Walter Battiss, King of Fook Island, we continue on the Cookhouse road and turn off at the sign to Olivewoods Farm.
Now we’re in the deeply-wooded Boschberg Mountains, and there in the distance is a white double-gabled house nestled in evergreen yellowwoods.
Normally we’d stay in Olivewoods Cottage, but tonight we’re in the Big House with owners Brett and Wendy Wienand.
When you think Brett Wienand, you should think of ClemGold naartjies, which are firm and lovely and late in fruiting.
When you think Wendy Wienand, you should think of a pioneer in the farmstay business. She actually published a little book more than 20 years ago entitled Stay on a Farm.
Wendy was ahead of the curve with her book, because Karoo farmstays are now, finally, becoming all the rage with road-tripping families. And why not? They’re inexpensive, cheery, good for everyone and relatively safe.
We dine on a delicious leg of lamb, prepared by the hands of women who have been cooking mutton and lamb on Aga stoves for generations. And here’s a thing to remember: farmers always eat the finest meat.
The next day, Brett takes us on a heritage treat to the village of Bedford, in the form of the monthly stockfair.
This is real Old School livestock trading, something fresh out of a Thomas Hardy novel – with an Eastern Cape twist.
We have no idea who gives what bidding signal, because all the gathered farmers in the stands seem to be sitting still. But business was definitely being conducted, because the auctioneer piped up in a loud voice:
“Going, going, gone to Uncle Aubrey! Ten thousand Ront (sic) for a lekker Nguni cow!”