A Story Behind Every Karoo Farm

groenvlei guest farm
karoo farmstays
The utter peace and tranquillity of time spent on a Karoo farm.

By Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit

Photographs by Chris Marais

 There was once a time when a thoroughbred horse was made even more special by having the world “Karoo” on its birth certificate.

The Karoo’s natural advantage lay in the calcium prevalent in its soil and water – crucial for good bone formation in horses.

So there were these massive horse farms out here, turning out winners at all levels of races in South Africa and, indeed, the world at large. Several of these farms are now open for visitors and one of most scenic of these is Mount Melsetter, Karoo House and Hunt.

melsetter farm
Melsetter host Mike Ferrar on sheep round-up.

Mount Melsetter Karoo House & Hunt

The Southeys are a legendary Karoo family, and they have a long history on Culmstock Farm near Middelburg in the Eastern Cape. First owner Charles Southey made good money in his time with ostriches, merino sheep and shorthorn cattle.

But his real passion was horses, so he imported a batch of fine mounts from England. They were swum ashore at Port Elizabeth and then walked all the way (about 400km) to Middelburg.

To this day, the sheep farmed around Culmstock’s highest point, Mount Melsetter, are still herded to be shorn by men on horseback.

Charles Southey was also the man who imported fallow deer into the Karoo. There is no information about how they were transported this far, but they have thrived here ever since. They regularly thrill children around December because they do bear a certain resemblance to reindeer.

In the elegantly sprawling  farmshouse, you’ll sit down with something cold to hand at the Saddlebum Bar and hear stories. Host Mike Ferrar has a particular talent for finding and recounting the anecdotal history of the area in general and this farm in particular.

He and Candy run this lovely farmstay, which offers fossils, walks and stunning views of the iconic mountains Teebus and Koffiebus.  Through Candy and her brother David, the farm is still owned by Southeys.

Candy and Mike will feed you great Karoo fare. Don’t forget to ask about the epergne.

wellwood farm
A gang of Wellwood rams comes visiting the Trymore guest cottage.

Wellwood Farm

But if you want to talk about old-time farmers who walked their livestock about the Karoo plains, you’ll need to visit Wellwood up in the mountains near Nieu-Bethesda village.

It’s obvious to one and all that the Rubidge family are part of the human DNA of this region. You have only to look at the local names of things around here: Rubidge Kloof, Rubidge Stream and many fossils bearing the name Rubidgea.

In the mid-1800s Charles Rubidge and his son Richard began a breeding line of merinos that would become a South African hallmark. And they worked hard for that reputation.

On March 23, 1837, Charles and Richard sailed to England and the Continent in search of suitable rams.

They spent some time in Paris, and inspected the flocks of the best breeders before going to Rambouillet, “where father bought two rams”, according to the family diary.

“We took a boat to Southampton where we were detained, a difficulty arising re landing the sheep. The authorities stating they could only consent to their landing if they were slaughtered first. However they were eventually loaded and placed in quarantine.”

They arrived in PE on 9 August.

“August 11: “Left PE by the Midland Conveyance Coach taking the two imported rams as full fare passengers at £5 each.

wellwood farm
Ancient teeth on display at the Wellwood farm fossil museum.

Robert and Marion Rubidge now run Wellwood, with brother Bruce (the famous palaeontologist) up in Johannesburg.

We rootle around the Wellwood Fossil Museum and then drive past alpaca-guarded flocks of sheep to Trymore Cottage, once home to world-famous palaeontologist Sidney Rubidge. Once there, we park on the massive stoep with glasses of wine and watch the Wellwood Rams.

One could self-cater at Trymore, but we’d heard about Betty Koopman’s great cooking and so we ordered an exquisite lamb and venison pie for supper.

Marion Rubidge comes from the Graaff-Reinet-based Maasdorp family. Her father, Charles, is not a young man. But he’s an avid pilot and, on wind-free Sundays he skims over the Wellwood lawns in his light plane and drops the Sunday Times “for the children”.


waterkloof guest farm
Chilling out on Waterkloof guest farm near Aberdeen.

Waterkloof Farm

Heading south on the N9, we arrive at the village of Aberdeen and jink westwards on the Beaufort West road. Almost immediately, we turn right on the Palmietfontein route, which takes us closer and closer to the fabled Camdeboo Mountains.

Suzanne and Koos Lategan are our hosts at Waterkloof Farm, and once again we have an entire homestead to ourselves. We could sleep in a different room every night for a week and still have rooms to spare.

By now, you’ll have gathered, one becomes something of a stoep-sitting expert on a Karoo farm. Very little beats a glass of wine, a cheese-and-biltong snack, with sheep mowing the lawn in the foreground and these gorgeous old mountains in the distance.

We drift into a reverie of companionable silence. There is at first only the buzz of insects. Then a rooster crows somewhere far away. A woodpecker taps at a tree. Some ring-necked doves begin churring. More wine?

The incredible stationary machine, originally from Cango Caves, now near Aberdeen.
The incredible stationary machine, originally from Cango Caves, now near Aberdeen.

Nearby is an old stone kraal, with ferns growing between the rocks. Behind that is a ruin, which used to belong to a certain Mr Wilke. Who sold the property and used the money to start a circus, later joining with a certain Mr Boswell. Add a fellow called Tickey and a white-faced clown called Francesco and you had your old-time Big Top travelling magic.

Ask the Brothers Lategan to take you up into the hills to see the famous Cango Caves Stationary Engine, a gleaming black monster of a machine that still works when prodded in the right places.

And it runs on anything with a kick: diesel, petrol, even mampoer that’s been brewed right.

olivewoods farm
The quiet, shaded elegance of Olivewoods Farm outside Somerset East.

Olivewoods Farm

We head back to Graaff-Reinet and take the R63 to Somerset East. Stopping off to pay homage to the late Walter Battiss, King of Fook Island, we continue on the Cookhouse road and turn off at the sign to Olivewoods Farm.

Now we’re in the deeply-wooded Boschberg Mountains, and there in the distance is a white double-gabled house nestled in evergreen yellowwoods.

Normally we’d stay in Olivewoods Cottage, but tonight we’re in the Big House with owners Brett and Wendy Wienand.

When you think Brett Wienand, you should think of ClemGold naartjies, which are firm and lovely and late in fruiting.

When you think Wendy Wienand, you should think of a pioneer in the farmstay business. She actually published a little book more than 20 years ago entitled Stay on a Farm.

Wendy was ahead of the curve with her book, because Karoo farmstays are now, finally, becoming all the rage with road-tripping families. And why not? They’re inexpensive, cheery, good for everyone and relatively safe.

We dine on a delicious leg of lamb, prepared by the hands of women who have been cooking mutton and lamb on Aga stoves for generations. And here’s a thing to remember: farmers always eat the finest meat.

The next day, Brett takes us on a heritage treat to the village of Bedford, in the form of the monthly stockfair.

This is real Old School livestock trading, something fresh out of a Thomas Hardy novel – with an Eastern Cape twist.

Olivewoods stockmen and sheepdog on duty at the pens.

We have no idea who gives what bidding signal, because all the gathered farmers in the stands seem to be sitting still. But business was definitely being conducted, because the auctioneer piped up in a loud voice:

“Going, going, gone to Uncle Aubrey! Ten thousand Ront (sic) for a lekker Nguni cow!”

  • Other interesting farmstays include:

Groenvlei Farm between Graaff-Reinet and Murraysburg

Stuurmansfontein near Carnarvon

Gelyksfontein near Gariep.


10 thoughts on “A Story Behind Every Karoo Farm

  1. Suki says:

    Hello – it is articles like this that delve deep into the area with stories and pictures – that blows the lid on comments like “the Karoo…oh that is just dry and desert”. It is not – it is far more. Many stories to be told, traditions stretching back, pockets of green, outstanding beauty and coming through strongly to me – people who are living life at a slower pace than the frantic life so many of us “hamsters on the wheel” are caught up on.

    The parts I have visited merely scratching the surface and i need a lottery win to investigate every inch!! My transplanted out of Africa body still beats to the African drum.

    I wish each and every person associated with the page and living in these beautiful areas – a blessed season, good health, happiness and things that makes each heart sing.

    • Chris Marais says:

      Hi Suki – Thank you for such positive feedback! Bless you wherever you are and remember: visiting a Karoo farm is probably the most economical way of seeing the best that SA has to offer. Enjoy the holidays – Chris and Jules.

  2. Sakkie Pretorius says:

    Ek verlustig my in die pragtige fotos wat geplaas word en die stories daar agter. Het groot geword in Victoria Wes se wereld en nou in my ou dag besef ek dat dit die beste deel van my lewe uitmaak. Dankie vir die goeie werk wat julle tentoonstel. Elke woord en foto is kosbaar.

  3. Graham Parkhurst says:

    I am reading The Plains of Camdeboo for the third time and still hang onto every word. A true inspiration of life. Thank you for this website which has inspired me to plan a special holiday and spend some time exploring these wonderful places. I am retired and even though I live in the beautiful Cape, the Karoo has a unique beauty of its own, unspoilt by the crowds of populist tourism and commercialism. Can you recommend any other books on this area or the Karoo in general. Wishing you all a wonderful 2016.

    • Chris Marais says:

      Hi Graham – Thanks for this. Why not try one of our books? Just go to the bookstore (print and ebooks) section off the home page of Karoo Space. Regards, Chris

  4. Eddie Blignaut says:

    A popular book about the Karoo area surrounding Graaff-Reinet and Jansenville is the self-published “Karoo Chuckles” by Eddie Blignaut. This is a love story between Eddie as a little boy growing up in the midst of the wonderfully amusing farming families both on the family farm and at the local high school circa 1950 – 63, published in 2015. Chris and Julienne themselves can supply info on content. A handful of copies are available from Ed at eddieblignaut@gmail.com

  5. Ismail says:

    Hi Chris , please give us a passionate and touching experience of Steytlerville also. Seems like you know just how to choose your words to get the reader loosing himself / herself pack up and move to a karoo town. I personally have Steytlerville in my mind as MY retirement town. I’m currently working and staying in Gauteng.
    Thanks !

    Keep up the good and interesting work.

  6. Marlene Ashwell (nee Howard) says:

    Would love to know if you have any information about a farm “Wilderbeespoortjie” in the Aberdeen district.. My grandparents J.J. And Maria (nee Weideman ) Slabbert owned this farm their youngest daughter Maria was my mother would love to know whether this farm still exists ? My great uncle Japie Weideman and his wife owned a house in Aberdeen remember holidays there as a young girl. Any information would be great

  7. Pingback: Wellwood Farm | Drifting In and Out Of Steel

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