Pictures by Chris Marais
There were many surprises when we moved down from Johannesburg to the small town of Cradock in 2007.
One was that everyone waved at us. And they mostly had (still have) white bakkies, making it difficult to correctly identify people at a distance.
So we just wave at everyone too.
Pep of the Platteland
One surprise was the shopping.
Our elegant friend Elaine Hurford, who lives in Prince Albert, had some invaluable advice. Do not underestimate Pep, she said.
“This is the Woolworths of the platteland.”
Apart from being a purveyor of ever-changing bargain clothes and magical oddments, it has a mysterious and unpredictable side.
Sometimes, said Elaine, Pep have end-of-range Zara garments “at a snip”. Occasionally they stock red satin pyjamas, she confided.
Another thing we learnt when moving to Cradock, is that things are not necessarily where you might expect them.
Goods in Odd Places
The undertaker, for example, sometimes displays pumpkins or bags of potatoes for sale in the shop window.
The gun merchant also does jewellery.
I have bought olives from the hairdresser, eggs from the vet, chicken from the accountants, biltong from the doctor and some amazingly fresh fish from a second hand car dealership (now closed, alas).
Practically every little town has some quirky and amazing shop.
One where you could spend an hour or more is Calvinia’s Hantam Huis shop.
Here you can pick through excellent books, enamelware, and arcane items like handmade doilies, tea cosies and beaded jug covers.
Chandeliers, Wirework, Dagga
Not far away, just to show Calvinia’s diversity, is a Hippy Shop.
Then there is Sophie’s Choice in Willowmore – ideal for lovers of chandeliers, plaster angels and beauty in all forms.
The Rooi Granaat in Loxton is one of the few places I’ve ever found signed copies of Deon Meyer’s books. (The goat’s cheese is excellent too.)
Wirework is quite common in South Africa, but the best made incarnations, often combined with beads or stained glass, come from an upliftment project at Glaasstudio in the otherwise ragged Free State town of Jagersfontein.
Daggaboer Padstal south of Cradock is tops for sheepskin slippers, mohair goods, lemon curd and slaphakskeentjies. (Before you ask, a sign at the entrance says the dagga sold out at 6am.)
Draadkarretjies and Books
Philipstown is the best place to find authentic draadkarretjies (wire cars) made by true masters like Johannes Thile and Kiewiet Plaatjies.
There’s no shop. Just ask about them at Merino Motors. You can’t miss it.
Graaff-Reinet has Eira Maasdorp’s famous Reinet Antiques and the Windmill Junction where you could spend hours.
It also has the quietly wonderful McNaughton’s Karoo Books, and we can never drive through the town without stopping there.
Other great places for books include the Springbok Lodge and Restaurant, Dustcovers in Nieu Bethesda, Aberdeen Books and Crafts, plus various eccentric bookshops along the main street of Richmond on the N1.
And if you are in Richmond, don’t miss the embroidered goods, skuinskoek, homemade toys and rusks at the Vetmuis Plaaskombuis.
The Williston Mall
In Williston, there is an entire mall. Sort of. Actually, it is more fun than a mall, because you never know what you’re going to find. Owners Pieter and Elmarie Naude are both creative and eccentric people.
You may find brilliant art, or battered chamber pots full of succulent plants, or Elmarie’s famous illustrations of generously built ladies swanning about the Karoo. There might be antique biscuit tins, enamel signs, old books, crocheted willie warmers or rocks with eyes glued to them.
Pieter and Elmarie are restless recyclers and redecorators, constantly re-organising and refining their playground, the Williston Mall. There are usually cats, ducks or chickens pottering around, along with ancient and picturesque cars.
Thanks to Elmarie and Pieter’s daughter, this is a child-friendly place. If she’s around, Bianca is the charismatic hostess.
Every little platteland town has a herbalist offering cures for eyebrow-raising conditions.
There is also invariably a ‘China shop’, selling an array of cheap offerings from bicycles to rucksacks, wigs and sneakers with brand names that are just slightly off.
You have to admire the hardiness of these shop-owners who, without being able to speak a word of any South African language, somehow thrive in the tiniest dorps.
Just pay attention while browsing. A friend of mine was fingering a blanket when she suddenly realised that this was part of the owner’s actual bed. Red faces all round.
General Dealers in the Karoo
The best thing is combing through those genuine old time former trading stores which have a little bit of everything. The General Dealer in Middelpos still sells sweets in twists of paper.
C&D Stores in Tarkastad is an absolute treasure.
Set in a deconsecrated Catholic church confessional (“so you can’t lie about the size of your fish” say owners Alan and Annabelle Hobson), it is replete with thousands of feathery ties.
The names alone are fascinating: Pappa Roach, Woolly Bugger, Tiger Rabbit, Angus Red Eyed Bugger, Hackle Wet Fuzzy Wuzzy, Whisky Fly, Horrible Matuka and Cul de Canard.
There are honesty shops at Gamkapoort Dam (crafts) and Nieu Bethesda (honey-based beauty products).
Udder Cream and Perdesalf
But agricultural co-ops remain my absolute best. Don’t let the XXL two-tone farmer’s shirts or scary-looking calf weaning rings put you off.
There are true treasures inside, if you know where to look. Don’t leave without buying pink udder cream (otherwise known as speensalf, wonderful for chapped hands).
No farmhouse or surburban home should be without perdesalf (horse liniment) which is excellent for healing bumps, sprains and bruises.
Co-ops also sell waterproof boots of all kind, from Wellingtons to farming boots that will survive decades of rough treatment.
Here you will also find sublime mohair socks and diesel cheaper than anywhere else.
They double up as hardware stores and suppliers of industrial-sized bags of Montego dog food.