Text & Photographs by Chris Marais
Adri Smit is nuts about Murraysburg, the charming little dorp west of Graaff-Reinet.
“Money was tight when I first arrived here in 2010 and I prepared myself for lots of lonely two-minute noodle meals,” says Adri, who manages a regional tourism website service.
“But I hardly opened a pack of noodles because almost every day somebody in Murraysburg would invite me for lunch or dinner, often dropping off bottles of preserves or vegetables and fruit fresh from the garden.
“The people around here make for stimulating company. They’ve done all kinds of things, been all kinds of places and, very importantly, have a strong entrepreneurial spirit.
“And we have fun in Murraysburg. We organise movie nights under the stars, theme dinners, games evenings and an annual dance. It’s all done with passion. Come and visit us.”
Wow. So that’s how my wife Jules and I find ourselves in Murraysburg, where Adri introduces us first to a vegetable trader who supports a wife and five kids, one of whom is studying to be a teacher at Free State University.
“Everyone just calls me Bhum.” He says. Bhum is a Murraysburg touchstone, a man who appears to be well liked by the people around him. He gets his produce from the central market in Port Elizabeth and, often, from the local farms.
“I sell the basic items at a small profit,” he says. “So everyone can afford them.”
Abdul & Bernard
Around the corner we find Bernard Blaauw, who conducts his cellphone business from a bicycle. He flogs airtime, memory cards, starter packs, pay-as-you-go electricity cards and does on-the-spot battery repairs.
Bernard’s best buddy is Abdul Kaium, a shopkeeper from Bangladesh, who has been in Murraysburg for three years. How’s your Afrikaans, Abdul?
“Mmm. About fifteen percent,” he replies.
Jenny & The Whatsapps
Newish resident Jenny Ballantyne says the introduction of broadband Internet here in 2008 really turned Murraysburg into an attractive option for country living.
Jenny is part of an active local Whatsapp community. They always know who has free range eggs for sale, who’s making pizzas tonight, who’s baking ystervarkies (little coconut-coated cakes), who’s offering a lift to Graaff-Reinet and who needs one.
It’s simple. It’s brilliant. It networks everyone.
“We know we’re living in a place with the normal small town problems,” she says. “But we didn’t come here from Cape Town to simply be comfortable and do nothing. We need to organise things ourselves, help to uplift the town and be uplifted in the process.”
Bringing the Furrows Back
Jenny’s partner Chris Barr is bringing to fruition a vision to restore the legendary leivoor (water furrow) system of Murraysburg.
It may seem like a small thing, but water running down narrow furrows alongside roads and feeding into large back yards full of fruit trees and vegetables is a sign of a healthy Karoo town. If you can grow food you can go forward.
Chris, who comes from Cape Town’s world of high-tech and future trending, knows how to make a dream work: through good ideas and sheer persistence.
He has walked a very long road down official channels and admin details involving all kinds of permissions and funding issues, but the journey seems to be paying off.
The revitalised furrows of Murraysburg will also enable the existence of a green belt of parks across the local township precinct and thus bring benefits to everyone. A non-profit group called the Murraysburg Sustainable Development Council has been established to carry the project forward.
The Carving Rene
Adri whisks us off to a really gifted wood carver called Rene Theron, a former Navy engineer who used to help build ships.
Nowadays, Rene carves transport items: vintage cars, motorcyles, steam trains, trucks and biplanes from another era. He makes them from pieces of imbuia, yellowwood and whatever else he can lay his hands on.
Rene accompanies our little gang out to a farm called Sekretariskraal, the home of Oom Frans and Tannie Hettie du Preez, who affectionately call him ‘Swaerrie’ – little brother-in-law.
Walking around their homestead, I keep thinking about those guys from the hit TV show American Pickers, Mike and Frank, and how much they’d love to nose around here.
Oom Frans and Tannie Hettie live in a space which is jam-packed with ancient stuff that ranges from a paraffin iron to the old post office stove, a dinkum gramophone to a trekker’s wagon chest, a casting mould for bullets and tools used in the repair of goat carts.
After tea and spanspek (honey melon) slices, we scoot back to Murraysburg to catch a soap-cooking session with one Linda van den Berg.
The Boerseep Lady
We slide into her kitchen just in time for that magical moment when specific measures of lye and beef tallow are mixed to form soap, boerseep in particular. It’s specifically a laundry soap made to remove all manner of stubborn stain.
Linda is also a trained nurse, so if there’s a local need (an urgent tetanus shot or something) she’ll happily fill in. She’s also the resident cake-baker and ice-cream maker. Hmm.
We drop into bed at our self-cater on Brandkraal Farm, owned by Peet and Maryn de Klerk. Just before we nod off, Adri sends us an SMS with the following day’s encounters. This is a connected countryside indeed.
This is one group of Karoo people who, through good ideas and good friendships, will turn the worst of times into the best of times. As the Ballantynes will tell you:
“This is a town small enough to get your arms around.”
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