By Julienne du Toit
Photographs by Chris Marais
Winter comes hard in the Karoo. One minute you’re marvelling at how mild the evenings are, and the next you’re exhaling clouds of mist like a snorting horse, and cannot fall sleep without socks, beanie and a hot water bottle.
On a farm called The Rest near Nieu Bethesda, farmer Paula Kingwill and her husband Iain North pay very close attention to the Norwegian weather website http://yr.no, which seems to have an uncanny handle on Karoo climate, even giving mostly-accurate forecasts for individual farms.
Weather dominates life up here in the aptly named Sneeuberg mountains.
In summer, the birdsong on The Rest will wake you.
When it snows, it’s the silence. A profound, ringing silence that calls you outside to hear it.
Then the fresh icy air will slap you on both cheeks, frisk your exposed bits and send you reeling back to the fireside and hot coffee.
Frogs Like a Hundred Spanish Dancers
The Seekoei river, all lined with poplar trees, is a secret and wonderful ecosystem of its own, flowing across the road to the main farmstead. All day long you can hear tree frogs clicking away along the river, sounding like a hundred Spanish dancers quietly practicing their castanets.
In summer it is a clear trickling stream with that can rise to a roaring car-eating torrent in a rainstorm.
In winter, the Seekoei’s clear pools sometimes ice over, freezing the waving algae and everything else into stillness.
A Remarkable Karoo Farm
But it’s not only the weather that makes The Rest an unusual Karoo farm.
In brief: it has cattle instead of sheep; it has white farmworkers and a black shareholder; it offers drama therapy and has a classic Chartres labyrinth on a hill, laid out using Karoo rocks.
Paula is a fourth generation descendent of the Kingwill family who have been farming in the Nieu Bethesda district for nearly two centuries.
But she chose to study dramatherapy – not an oft-trodden path for a Karoo farmer – wanting to help heal the terrible pain South Africans uncovered during the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions hearings.
Paula studied drama and psychology in America, but found the Karoo and The Rest tugging constantly at her heart. Especially the mountain that looms up behind the house.
The Best Handyman Around
“If there is reincarnation, I want to come back as a mountain. I want to come back as Alwynskop. When I was overseas, I always dreamt of it. I missed it, like I missed my family.”
In Cape Town, she met Iain North, known to all his friends as E. He is an actor, a light technician, singer, metalworker, woodworker. He played in a band called The Honeymoon Suites and is still the chief lullaby singer to their two Huckleberry Finn children, Callum and Kyla. He’s also the one fixing the burst pipes and frozen geysers in winter.
On a farm like this, you marry the best handyman you can find, and that’s exactly what Paula did, they joke.
The Drama Cattle Farmer
She says she handles the drama and the farming and he handles everything else.
Cattle, she maintains, are “much better for the veld. They’re not as selective as sheep and have broader mouths, so they don’t cut down a plant to its roots. They eat the Karoo bossies as well as grass. And being large animals they deposit large amounts of poo and pee. Their hoof action is good for the soil and the vegetation.”
Their grassfed beef is sold in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Grahamstown under the label Karoo Choice.
Paula also noticed how the nature and disconnecting at The Rest helped to heal and transform people.
“A few years ago we asked a friend of ours to look after the farm while we were away on a trip overseas. He brought with him his friend from Jo’burg, a very high-powered businesswoman in need of a break. She brought her two children from a previous marriage.
Reconnecting on The Rest
“The first week she actually had a mental breakdown. It was the first time she’d been completely out of touch. She couldn’t keep checking her cell phone for updates. There was no way of connecting with the office at all. She couldn’t call, she couldn’t text.
“But by the second week, she was getting through it. She found herself spending entire days at the river, playing with her children.
“She went back to being a high-powered businesswoman afterwards, but she still tells us it was the best thing she ever did, one of the most important times of her entire life.”
The Hobbity Space
Apart from the veld, the other healing happens in a charmingly Hobbity building called The Space, a round and distinctive building that has a sprung floor, a skylight and a fireplace.
It was literally handbuilt using local poplar wood and cow poo, grins Iain. The roof was created using method called reciprocal construction.
Each pole supports every other pole. Appropriately enough.
Freedom and Barefoot Safety
It is a place of light, huge windows, expanse and a feeling of freedom and barefoot safety.
There are regular workshops and retreats here.
“I wanted to find a way to help people engage with their creativity and their own capacity for healing. To reconnect with their inner dance, their strength and creative impulse. Everyone has a source of strength, but we sometimes forget how to source it.
“The workshops appeal to all kind of people. Mothers who are wondering who they are. People negotiating a life transition – a loss, an empty nest. People who need to let go of the stuff that holds them back.
“It’s also a place where you don’t have to do anything at all. Just be.”
To find out more, visit http://www.karoorest.com.