By Julienne du Toit
Pictures by Chris Marais
A friend, living in London, once told me that she remembered the Karoo best when she thought of bedsheets, dried by sun and wind.
She had a whimsical but intriguing theory that while you slept, the Karoo’s sun energy would seep gently back into you through the sheets.
I sometimes think of that when we’re having guests from The Big City – anyplace larger than our home in the Eastern Cape river town of Cradock. Before they come, I wash the sheets and hang them up on the line, so they dance in the Karoo light.
A few hours later, I take the sweet-smelling, crispy sheets, pillowcases and duvet cover down and spread them over the spare double bed. I don’t even iron out the creases. They come fresh from the sun.
First Time at Die Tuishuise
A laundry day is also good for reflection. Like, why we moved here from Joburg.
Chris and I first visited Cradock in 2003, as part of an assignment on the Eastern Cape for an in-flight magazine. Cradock was our last stop.
We were booked in at the Tuishuise, an avenue of candy-striped Victorian-era houses in Market Street restored by the untiring Mrs Sandra Antrobus.
When we were invited for lunch at the Antrobus farm, Longacre, we met Sandra’s delightful husband Michael, with a smile as wide as his floppy hat.
Sandra & Michael Antrobus
Maybe it was because it was our last stop, maybe it was the people we met, and Sandra’s fizzing energy. Maybe it was our first sight of a donkey-eared, orange-muzzled mountain zebra at the nearby national park named for them, or the herons and egrets roosting in the giant pines along the main street.
Anyway, something about Cradock left a sweet taste in our mouths.
By then, we’d already become mesmerised by the Karoo. Every time we crossed the endless middle plains of South Africa on magazine assignments or book missions, we found something more to like – the silence, the spinning windpumps, the friendliness of the people, the modest yet Churchillian succulents bull-doggedly surviving in white fields of quartz.
Once we set a whole new land-speed record between Johannesburg and Cape Town – 27 days, most of them spent drifting around this intriguing semi-desert. Taking photographs. Taking names.
Those Striped Donkeys
Just stand at the side of a Karoo road in the middle of nowhere, and the land will engage all your senses. The road will begin to sing long before the distant truck comes into view on the horizon. A windpump – probably a Climax – will creak and groan in the silence. A fragrance of clean herbs will rise from the knee-high Karoo shrubs. Overhead, cirrus clouds fatten and spread in an incandescent sky. And the wide horizons make you feel safe.
When something is right, it’s just right. We ended up buying the first Cradock house that estate agent Alida Erasmus showed us. The house is full of light, with a happy feel, built in the 1930s with wooden floors, high ceilings, sash windows and a kitchen with a pantry. And a wooden front gate with attitude.
Outside, a grapevine covers a pergola in the courtyard, and great python of a wisteria clambers up a giant camphor tree. There is an apricot tree, a peach tree, a lime, a lemon, a navel orange, a loquat, and best of all, a prolific pomegranate tree that feeds us breakfast in late summer.
Artichokes thrive in the garden.
One house away is a little municipal nature reserve, and the fallow deer there often gaze at us through the fence. The children all think they are Santa Claus’s reindeer.
Seasons are extreme. Winters often involve snow-capped mountains and heavy frosts. Steamy summer payback, though, comes in the delight of the early morning walks and the late afternoon stoep sessions – the bookends of the day.
As soon as the sun slips behind the Scotch pines in front of our house, we practise the time-honoured Karoo art of stoep sitting, a ritual performed with some kind of drinkable in hand.
In fact, let it be said that we have become Cradock’s All Time Karoo Champion Stoep Sitters. We will take on all comers. We can sit on our bums and talk utter crap and eat home industry rusks far better than anyone we know.
This is what happens at dusk over Cradock and in fact, most Karoo towns.
The air cools, the children play with their bicycles in the streets, the herons fly home to their roosts, the swifts and swallows chirr ecstatically in the sky.
When they’re gone, the kestrels come out and flutter through the twilight. Then there’s a clear night sky full of stars, and that distinctive velvet silence of the Karoo. And there we are, still on that front stoep, setting all kinds of endurance records for having a fine time.