Words by Julia Lloyd
It’s been a little more than a decade since Julienne du Toit and her husband Chris Marais, both well-known and highly respected writers based back then in Joburg, packed up and headed off into the proverbial.
Well, maybe not so much of the romantic, spur-of-the-moment gallop into the sunset. No, their move from a pretty hectic life to a little house with a sunshine gate in Cradock was part of a very well-thought-out plot.
Doing the Homework
“Before Chris and I moved to the Eastern Cape Karoo, we did our homework on the region, found a home that was perfect for us, and planned to continue our little freelance journalism business. What really attracted us to Cradock was the quality of the people we met here,” says Julienne. “But nothing was rushed because you need to plan, you need to know the upsides and the potential pitfalls.”
Such is what you’ll find in this latest, much-needed offering of theirs, Moving to the Platteland, which Chris co-wrote with Julienne. He also took the beautiful photographs, reproduced in black and white in the book. Years of info and first-hand experience, and hundreds of interviews, make up this book, which is why it really is that definitive ‘A to Z’, not just for anyone planning a move and a change of lifestyle, but for everyone in love with our countryside.
Moving to the Platteland
Since their move, Julienne and Chris have made a name for themselves as the Karoo travel-writing team, producing a number of books and regular magazine articles on the area that have placed the loveliness of the platteland firmly on the map. Their joyful take on everyone and everything beneath those big skies has put the sexy back into small-town living.
“Up until the mid-90s, rural South Africa had all but emptied as people moved to the cities, but then the trickle back into the platteland began,” says Julienne. “You see, two things happened. The first was the ending of apartheid, and that led to a large number of skilled middle-class people being retrenched and getting offers of early retirement packages.
Living Large, Living Lean
“Many of these people decided to head off to their coastal holiday homes if they had them, or find new dorps where they could live on a smaller income.”
Crown this with the arrival there of emails, cellphones and the internet, and it became possible for people to work wherever they wanted to, as long as there was bandwidth.
“Some years ago, when we were settled in Cradock, Chris and I wrote an article for Country Life called Over the Hedge, on how to find your dream dorp and why. The response was phenomenal. Many people contacted us, recounting their stories and asking us questions. This also led to numerous articles on writers, editors, website designers, artists and all kinds of creative people moving to their dream towns and living quality lives away from traffic and the urban crush, while still earning city incomes.”
The Cast of Characters
It was the perfect world for Julienne and Chris to gather info from every imaginable kind of person, and in the book you’ll meet them – mining engineers who have become sculptors and guest-house owners, policemen who are now boutique crop farmers, bankers turned artists, accountants who are chocolatiers and people in the construction industry who now create Venetian masks.
“We’ve spoken to singletons, married people, young families, gays, mixed couples, techno geeks, builders, chefs, tattoo artists, milkshake makers, fairy manufacturers, sculptors, architects, mechanics, hotel owners, quilters,” says Julienne.
Then there are the former mechanics and train drivers, famous journalists and writers, deejays and ceramicists, a semi-retired futurist from Cape Town who moved to Murraysburg, and the diamond divers and moonshiners. The former domestic who became a restaurateur, several musicians, movie-set designers, a blacksmith, a former gunsmith turned hairdresser.
They Tell a Good Story
And they all have a story to tell in this book, a snapshot to show of certain aspects of the countryside, which humanises the platteland, shows you how interesting dorps can be when you start scratching under the surface. But with this comes good, practical advice on a startling array of issues so that you don’t make avoidable mistakes, and you do get every kind of info you can imagine on the upsides and downsides of dorp life.
How to find the right town, the schooling options, the jobs out there. Is it cheaper, how’s the social life, is the municipality functional? Running a guest house and the value of restoring a house. Tips on water storage, even dealing with all those new-found beasties that want to share your home.
From Shopping to Setting Up Shop
Shopping in the platteland, the secret delights of agricultural co-ops, kerkbasaar etiquette. You want it? Turn the page. (By the way, this book is also for people who love the city and will never leave it, yet enjoy travelling through the platteland and learning more about its dynamics).
“In the end,” says Julienne, “I think the general impression you will come away with is that the platteland really is an interesting place, with far more eccentric and fascinating people than you imagined. When we first moved here, quite a few people were under the impression that we had come to retire because, in the past, that’s what people did. When they were in their sixties, they moved to small towns, usually on the coast, to enjoy a life of well-earned leisure. (We’re still far away from that).”
Downsizing at the Right Time
Julienne says that nowadays the prime age for downsizing seems to be when people are in their fifties. “When the kids are out of the house and people are ready for a new, creative challenge and come with connections, experience and energy. But we were surprised at how many young people and young families are now popping up in small towns.
“Lifestyle and good schools are prime reasons. So is affordability of property. It has a lot to do with the ‘gig economy’, where anyone can live anywhere and make a living using the internet to find work.”
And the scale of semigration in South Africa? Julienne says it’s a very difficult statistic to get a handle on, because it’s not as if any department is keeping tabs on the trend. “I suppose the best way to measure it would be to look at the increased viability of schools, which indicates more young families in an area. We are seeing flourishing private schools or homeschooling tutor centres popping up in all kinds of places.”
The Third Option
So there appears to be a whole lot of folk anxiously looking for an alternative to jaded big-city life, which is why the arrival of Moving to the Plattenland is serendipitous. It’s for all the people out there who pound a steering wheel in gridlocked traffic, who wonder why they need to get across town and sit in a grey office in smart clothes for a job they can do anywhere in the countryside. It’s for anyone wondering if there still is a wholesome childhood to be had somewhere in this country, and for anyone yearning for horizons that offer time and space.
And, as Julienne says, “Moving to the Platteland also adds a third option to the angst-ridden, middle-class emigration debate – do I stay or do I go? This one neatly combines them both – go but stay. Consider the Republic of Platteland.”
Moving to the Platteland – Life in Small Town South Africa by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais.