Words and Photographs by Chris Marais
This story’s got rocky mountains, deep valleys, hidden Karoo farms, salty old cowboys, saucy young cowgirls, melt-in-the-mouth brownies, full moons, sure-footed steeds, bakkies that skrik vir niks and a Quixotic sense of mission to match. Willie Nelson songs come to mind.
So it’s no hardship ahead as we turn left off the N9 (with the Nieu-Bethesda road to our right) and head on past our friend Julian Murray’s ostrich feather palace on Bloemhof Farm, through Glen Harry Game Reserve and right up to Elandskloof, home of Karoo Ranching.
The squeaking elves in the back of the old Karoo Space bakkie are in full throat as we cross the dry mountain stream and park up in the homestead. There are horses everywhere, some of them even doing duty as rather charming lawnmowers. Baboons bark down from distant mountain slopes.
Meet the Truters
Members of the Truter family emerge from the old 1890s Karoo house, close to the super-sized Wool Boom house to meet us, and they’re all easy on eye: patriarch Jimmy, his wife Dickie and daughters Julie and Lindy.
Dickie brings a jug of her home-made pomegranate juice out onto the stoep and Jimmy gives us the lowdown on Elandskloof Farm.
“We live on Verdun, a farm I inherited from my dad at Kommadagga, south of Daggaboer,” he says. My eyebrows would have lifted in earlier times, but I’ve been in these parts for a while now and I know they don’t farm cannabis down there at present.
“Elandskloof originally came from Dickie’s family, and we used to stock sheep here. But then came the boom in game farming, and the jakkalse and rooikatte began running riot. Eventually we turned Elandskloof into a cattle farm, running a genetic mix of black Angus and Nguni. They’re tough, they love the mountains and the jackals don’t worry them.”
There’s an Afrikaans saying for the way the Truters farm:
“’n Mens moet wydsbeen boer.” Be adaptable and diverse.
The Cowboy Experience
The long-limbed Julie, who must have felt she was hugging hobbits when she bent down to greet us, has taken that belief and given it all kinds of new meaning. After many years of overseas adventures and a climb through the corporate world, Julie decided to come to Elandskloof and re-imagine the whole concept of farming in the Karoo.
When you visit their website www.karooranching.co.za you may be as stunned as I was to see fabulous people in trendy winter cowboy gear on fabulous horses in fabulous landscapes. You may even think it a tad out-of-Karoo and super-styled, because normally stockmen are clad in BKB blue overalls and the farmers in two-tone shirts.
Well yes and no, as it turns out. Since becoming Karoo residents 12 years ago, my wife Jules and I have unearthed all manner of ‘outlandish’ assets here in South Africa’s dry spaces: raunchy burlesque on a Saturday night in Steytlerville, a Bavarian castle outside Loxton, a book hotel in Bethulie, contemporary art in Richmond, dancing cement statues on a farm in the middle of nowhere, an alien research centre (alas, now closed) in Smithfield, tuk-tuk tours in Uniondale, a Willy Warmer knitter in a Williston old age home – and we’re not even in first gear yet. Finding these stories (for us and our readers) is like hunting for diamonds in the dust.
So welcome to Karoo Ranching where, in the autumn and winter months, you get to dress up as a cowboy and ride off into the distance. Elandskloof becomes a film set, a photographic backdrop, a wedding venue and a great hideaway for corporate workshops. They even hold cattle drives from time to time, but there’s no chance of being a City Slicker and pitching up in your loud t-shirt and baseball cap. Your hosts will gently urge you to pack those items away and, if you didn’t bring the right gear, head for the farm shop, where standard stockman shirts are available for a song.
“A dark world needs the light.”
Helping to sell the new narrative of Karoo farming is Julie’s sister Lindy Naude, a wedding photographer from Jeffreys Bay. It is her job to bring visual romance to Karoo Ranching, and a different way of looking at farm life.
“The images you see in agricultural magazines are mostly flat, middle-of-the-day photographs,” she says. “Farming always comes across as a hard, hard world. But there’s another way of making those pictures that inspires, that speaks to the heart.”
She’s all about the soft, golden hours that book-end most days.
“A dark world needs the light.”
Overseeing general operations on Elandskloof is Pieter Salman Bantom, who lives on site with his fiancée Valerie.
It seems to me that Pieter is whoever you want him to be, on Elandskloof Farm. When the Truters and their guests are away, he’s the guy who looks after the cattle and horses, keeps the fences in order and tends the farmstead. Before events, he prepares the farm and makes sure the horses are groomed, watered, saddled and ready for action. And sometimes you’ll even spot Pieter featuring in one of the Karoo Ranching shoots – a fact which still amazes him. I think Pieter Salman Bantom is the real cowboy in this script.
Into the Mountains
A couple of hours and a whole lot of pomegranate juice later, Julie and Pieter are mounted on a pale Arab called Champagne and a feisty bay that goes by the name of Stalin. We’re all going on a small shoot in the mountains.
We drive up a hill with Dickie at the wheel, Jules in front with her while Jimmy and I share the back of the farm bakkie and plenty of old army stories. Turns out we are of similar vintage, and once served our time at the same infantry boot camp.
The vehicle stops at a point. Out comes the juice and some of the crumbliest, most delicious brownies you ever feasted on. Full of sugar, I follow Jimmy up into the mountain. In the true tradition of old-time troopies, there is no end of light mockage as we huff and puff our way up through the rocky terrain. Eventually I have to stop, to “blow the horses” as they say.
“Too many Texan Plains back in the day,” is my excuse. Jimmy laughs and says we don’t have far to go before meeting up with Pieter and Julie on their horses.
Dickie and Jules end up following us, and their conversation is a little deeper.
“We spoke about hard times and good times, and how one should cultivate an attitude of gratitude,” my wife recounts.
Jimmy & Dickie
Dickie grew up on Elandskloof, and told Jules about the railway line that ran through their farm. She remembered four trains passing their home every day. In fact, the school governess who taught at Elandskloof used to catch the train to the farm in the mornings and ride it back home later in the afternoons.
“I met Jimmy after a rugby club match and that was that,” she confided. In addition to Julie and Lindy, the couple also have a son called Andrew, who farms with his dad at Kommadagga.
Meanwhile, Jimmy and I find the riders but the rain has begun falling. Not the vicious Karoo thunderstorm one often gets, just a gentle drifting downpour that softens the landscape yet still threatens to soak into my camera bag. The skies are dark and my photo-prospects are bleak.
Then it all changes. The rain stops, the clouds shift a bit and some sunlight begins to dance on my horsey models. I, too, manage a few happy little Nama Riel steps out there on the veld.
When we finally connect with Jules and Dickie, Jimmy treats us to some veld philosophy. He has the utmost respect for the simplest and most common of Karoo bossies – Pentzia incana, or Anker Karoo.
“In the Anker Karoo, you see true character and strength. It has its own beauty, and a subtle herbed smell that endures. Through the hard times it is there, waiting for the rain. When it falls, it turns green and spreads. It trusts that the rain will come, and it is patient.
“When it becomes old and woody and moribund, it is still useful, sheltering other seeds and plants. Even in death, it holds the soil together. It is a blessing that endures.” Maybe in my next go-round, I could be reborn as a piece of Anker Karoo.
Jimmy and Dickie say their salaams well after sunset and, armed with many warnings about roadside kudus on the Pearston – Somerset East road, head off to their Kommadagga spot. It’s just us, the Truter girls, the moonlight and a well-chomped lawn.
Something happens in the near-dark, creating a kind of confessional mood. Dreams, fears and stories flow out of all present.
They’re farming beauty out at Elandskloof in the Karoo. It’s a daunting yet elegant mission and someone has to do it, right?