Cabaret in the Karoo

Story and Pix by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit

There are certain places and moments in the Karoo when it feels like you’re driving smack-dab into a desert movie set.

Chugging along a dirt road up to the gates of the Karroo Theatrical Hotel outside Steytlerville in the Eastern Cape makes you wish you were at the wheel of a 1930s gangster getaway car instead of a dusty old bakkie. Even the intercom ritual at the gate smacks of a scene from The Great Gatsby:

“Hi, this is Mark.”

“Jules and Chris from Karoo Space.”

The golden cherubs on the gateposts look down with enigmatic smiles. They will not reveal the passwords. You wait. The creaking gate begins to slide open. You have been granted access to another world: the Bubble of Mark and Jacques.

Rabie and Hinds telling their story to co-author Julienne du Toit.

They Arrived in Style

Most of us, when we semigrate to somewhere in the Karoo, come quietly. We don’t exactly skulk around like guilty Jo’burg jollers, but we do try to fit in with the locals. It takes ever so long to crack a smile at the kerkbasaar.

And forget about the Inner Circle. You’re always going to be in the Incomer Class. So you learn to embrace it. Besides, country living is really worth it.

But not Mark Hinds and Jacques Rabie. Oh no, they sailed into Steytlerville with fire, fury and a flash of style. They broke whatever unspoken rules the platteland had to offer, took over a tired old Art Deco hotel just outside the dorp limits, and much more than a decade later they’re still adding shiny bits to their bubble.

Or is it their crazy cage, their La Cage aux Folles?

You hear about chaps who run away from home to join the circus and you think it’s just a fable. Mark Hinds is one of those fables in the flesh.

Here’s an accomplished concert pianist who knows his instrument like a mother knows her children. He had been a valued member of the SABC National Youth Orchestra and an employee at a German piano firm.

“I learned all about the technical aspects of pianos,” he says. “I can tune, restore and re-build a piano and that has stood me in very good stead.”

As an homage to Mark’s early career, this model of a clown stands at Reception.

Mark the Professional Clown

So he falls in love with an Auguste clown called Conc. He then joins Conc as Cinc and they travel the world as a duo of magical, musical clowns. They take on cruise contracts all over the globe and return to Cape Town to start up their own “Dream Circus”.

Push comes to shove and Conc and Cinc split up, professionally and personally. One night, Hinds is holding a merry soiree at his luxury apartment in De Waterkant district and it’s time to play one of his specialties: My Way.

As he tinkles out the classic number, he hears a voice from the kitchen, where a large man is washing dishes and singing along. Hinds is furious and about to throw the impudent person out.

“Then I realised that his voice was pitch-perfect,” he says. “Although he had had no training, he was a born natural.”

Long story short: love affair ensues. They move in together and build up a cabaret act.

Jacques Rabie and Mark Hinds – making a go of it in the back of beyond.

Hotel with a Past

So let’s return to that hotel.

Steytlerville village was built in a heavenly setting between the Groot Winterhoek mountains, the Baviaanskloof mountains and the Noorsveld, where the mohair-laden Angora goat is the star of a world-class natural fibre industry.

It was established by the Dutch Reformed Church and named after a popular Uitenhage dominee.

Once upon time, the valley was renowned for the brandy smouse from the Boland who used to haul their wagons up into these mountains with their barrels of Cape Smoke, flog lots of firewater to the rondtrekkers (nomadic herdsmen) and party up with them in a rather ferocious manner.

But when the town was established in 1876, the burghers pretty soon put a stop to all that and liquor was a local no-no for at least half a century.

In 1943 the Karroo Hotel was built just outside town limits, and the party was on again. The hotel changed hands many times, picked up a bit of a dodgy rep and was, basically, lying in wait for the likes of Hinds and Rabie They’d moved from Cape Town to the little Western Cape town of Tulbagh, but somehow they could not find their ‘mojo’ here.

The main road of Steytlerville, with its world-famous family crests lined up.

Where’s Steytlerville?

One day, Mark spotted an item in the Junkmail, advertising a hotel for sale at auction in the Eastern Cape, Steytlerville to be precise.

“But where’s Steytlerville?” asked Jacques.

“Does it matter? Let’s call the agent,” replied Mark. He already had a feeling that most of their destiny would lie in the Deep Karoo.

The agent told them the hotel in question was “American Deco, a little bit of Arizona, a little bit of Mexico”. It sounded like just the ticket.

“Just more than a week before the auction, we drove up on the Willowmore road,” says Jacques. “Suddenly, on the horizon, we saw the Steytlerville church steeple and then, to the left, what looked like a hacienda.”

However, the old Karroo Hotel had not served a drink for many years. Everything of value had either been ripped out or vandalised.

“Squatters had moved in,” says Mark. “The filth was knee-high. The only bit of usable furnishing left was the foot-rail at the bar.”

Every year, Mark and Jacques breathe new life into the décor of their hotel.

The Big Fix

But the derelict shell consisted of 13 rooms, three bars, sumptuous dining space, a dancehall and a squash court. The two men looked into the future and visualised what could be. Where others might have seen irredeemable ruins, they saw the makings of a ‘theatrical hotel’, a place of weekend murder mysteries followed by plush Viennese balls. Out here, in SA’s version of New Mexico: the vast, dry, Khaki Karoo.

“I’d been having this recurring dream that I was on the verge of acquiring a large, dilapidated property with many doors,” says Mark.

“We fell madly in love with the place,” adds Jacques.

As they were traipsing through the filth, dreaming through the knee-high trash, a bus pitched up and out streamed a clamour of tourists. They, too, seemed very keen on the place.

So Mark and Jacques moved fast. They called the auctioneer, made a cash offer and the deal was done. They trekked in from where they had been living in Tulbagh (“where we just ended up drinking wine and counting cows,” says Hinds) and went on a shopping expedition in Steytlerville.

“We bought one double bed. For two men to share. That, apparently, was bigger local news than the fact that the hotel had new owners,” says Rabie.

At an ‘early days’ festival, Jacques discovers the perils of outdoor performance in the Karoo.

Incidents and Accidents

The years passed. There were incidents and accidents along the way, but eventually everyone in and around Steytlerville came to relative peaceful terms with one another. The new guys in town were actually good guys. And the locals were not quite the ogres that fill the nightmares of city folk with preconceptions.

Steytlerville is, after all, a magical village. With its very wide streets and shady stoeps, it has become popular with a select group of passing travellers returning from their Baviaans adventures and, perhaps, heading off on a Karoo heartland road trip.

But how on earth were those fellows on the hill going to survive? They were just pouring their savings into the place and would the people come? It’s not always beer, skittles and a Field of Dreams happy-ever-after story out here in the Karoo, where travelling feet through the door are relatively scarce.

The hotel interior is bedecked with masks in all shapes and forms.
Mark Hinds: concert pianist, professional clown, consummate country hotelier and world traveller.
Jacques Rabie: singer, dancer, Mr Fix-It and hotel cook.

Showtime, folks.

Whoever Jacques Rabie was before he stepped onto the grounds of the newly named Karroo Theatrical Hotel has been eclipsed by his new, multi-layered self. Rabie has been on a personal journey most of us can only gawk at.

One morning some time back, we’re just finishing breakfast before embarking on an outdoor full costume shoot on a patch of Karoo veld just outside the hotel. Hinds is having coffee with us, already dressed in his suave, gold-trimmed smoking jacket.

We hear a strange click-clack sound approaching. Who or what can that be?

“It’s a heavy-set dame in high heels, I think,” says Hinds.

And there she is, Dame Leyla Lamborghini, stilettos and silver dress, plucking discontentedly at her bust.

“Look how loose it is. I’ll have to take this in again,” says Rabie in his new guise. Part of the New Jacques Rabie has been a massive loss of weight. He now slides easily into a size 34 pair of trousers.

What were you before?

“My dear, there was no size for me. Only blankets.”

Mark and Jacques of the Karroo Theatrical Hotel, with Steytlerville in the distance.
Arriving at the Karroo Theatrical Hotel is a bit like finding a buzzing Mexican cantina in the middle of the desert.

The Can-Do Cross-Dresser

Rabie, by day, is the maintenance manager at the Karroo Theatrical Hotel. He is, we often quip, the hardest-working Karoo cross-dresser we know. Fat has become muscle.

There isn’t a roof leak he can’t fix, nor a toilet he cannot unplug. The man is worth his weight in gold out here in splendid Karoo isolation, where sparkies and plumbers don’t exactly fall out of trees.

After the sun begins to droop over the mountains, Rabie is the hotel chef. He runs the dinner menu, while Hinds is the front man and host.

And when the curtain goes up at the Grimaldi Theatre, Rabie takes on his third role as The Dame in the High Heels. But not before spending a bit of time in a little backstage dressing room, putting on the Ritz and the war paint in the company of two hivesworth of bees.

“I’ve only been stung once,” says The Dame. “But it caused real makeup issues.” The bees have since been relocated.

Together, Hinds at the grand piano (as Freddie Ferrari) and Rabie in full costume as Dame Leyla, they give a helluva Saturday night show.

It comes complete with song, dance, a musical bottles display by Hinds and a duet by Rabie and a puppet called Charlie.

“Yes my dear, I’m a ventriloquist as well,” sighs Rabie, as he totters off on his high heels to fix the pesky gate motor.

This is an extract from Karoo Roads I – Tales from South Africa’s Heartland by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais. For first-edition, author-signed copies of the book, please contact Julienne at julie@karoospace.co.za

One thought on “Cabaret in the Karoo

  1. Johan Vermaak says:

    I lived in Steytlerville as a small boy and can remember walking behind the bar ask for a bottle of lemonade. Bring back memories. Well done chaps. I am now 74.

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