By Julienne du Toit
Photographs by Chris Marais
In 1957, a father put his 6-year-old boy on a train in Johannesburg, bound for Merriman Station between De Aar and Three Sisters.
It was July, shearing season on a farm belonging to family friends, the Cilliers. There this little city boy fell headlong in love with Karoo life. He rolled around in freshly sheared wool. He learnt to hunt dassies and springbok. The foreman taught him to ride a horse. He cajoled roosterkoek buns from the farmworkers and sat enthralled by their ghost stories.
Derek Carstens never missed a year, going back to Excelsior every July until he was 20 years old and the farm was sold.
“That kind of thing stays with you.”
A Marketing Man
Derek went on to become a big time player in advertising, rising to the position of group MD of Ogilvy & Mather in South Africa until heading up their operations in Sydney and later, Chicago.
After that he joined FirstRand, becoming their marketing director some years before being seconded to head the marketing and commercial side of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Local Organising Committee.
By 2009 Derek had begun to hunger for the Karoo again. Decades before, he and his friend Peter Flack had talked about finding a piece of land in the Karoo that could be turned into a private reserve. In the 1980s, while he was in Sydney, Peter called him and said he had located their dreamland, called Agter-Sneeuberg, between Cradock and Graaff-Reinet. Derek didn’t hesitate to buy in, becoming one of the founders of this 26 000 hectare reserve in 1990.
In 2009, when Peter decided to sell his section of it, the beautiful Bankfontein, Derek bought it too.
Bound for Bankfontein
“It coincided with a thought at the back of my head that I might want to eventually move my centre of gravity here, back to the Karoo. And I’ve always loved Bankfontein. It’s a beautiful piece of land, so rich in game that it was originally called Springbokfontein.”
From Bankfontein, Derek and his children Tyghe and Emma started a whole new business. Called Taste of the Karoo, it delivers the region’s best venison, lamb cuts and slow food produce to some of the top restaurants and delicatessens in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
The trigger came when he was travelling in the US and learnt about media mogul Ted Turner’s commitment to saving the American bison, and reviving a taste for bison meat in the US.
Taste of the Karoo
“I’ve always loved venison, and I started wondering why, with all these wild animals around, South Africans so seldom ate it.”
Part of the problem, concluded Derek, lay in the way antelope were often hunted. In grassland areas they would be herded on horseback and chased in the direction of the hunters.
“By the time they are shot, their bodies are full of adrenalin and lactic acid from the stress. That kind of meat is tough and has a very strong gamey taste. But if an animal is stalked and clean-shot, the meat is beautiful.
“To me, venison is the perfect protein. There is no stress to the animal. No feedlots, no antibiotics, no hormones or steroids, no cattle trucks and abattoirs. It’s naturally the most organic, leanest meat there is. It’s homegrown and it’s healthy and if done right, it’s sustainable. There’s no trade-off.
“In the past, venison was only occasionally available in restaurants because chefs couldn’t get hold of a consistently high-quality supply source. And that’s where Taste of the Karoo came in.”
Alfie Borens & Co
He rated springbok, blesbok and black wildebeest as some of the best red meat in the country – with excellent flavour and a fine grain. Derek and Tyghe set off around the Eastern Karoo, sourcing the best mutton and lamb from Karoo farmers who grazed their sheep on the fragrant veld, hunting around for the best preserves. They found the best jam-makers by word of mouth, literally tasting the Karoo.
The staff at Bankfontein were taught new skills and made part of Taste of the Karoo. Foreman Alfie Borens learnt to drive and deliver stock to Johannesburg and Cape Town. His wife Bernadine became production manager, daughter Lilian was the stock controller and Klasie, their son, became a driver.
Derek’s life also changed completely. Then in his early 60s, he created a business from the ground up with Tyghe, hunting the game, preparing the venison, marketing it and taking orders, and setting off with deliveries in his boxy little refrigerated truck.
Derek and Tyghe
All this with the singular challenge of absolutely no internet connection in 2009. There was less than a square metre in the kitchen next to a window where could get cell phone signal. He and Tyghe immediately dubbed it ‘the window of opportunity’.
In 2012, he told us: “I’m learning to understand a different lifestyle dimension, one that is completely practical and down to earth. When something goes wrong – and it will – you can’t get upset. How would it help? Your plans will be changed by floods, snakes, punctures. There’s no one to complain to, and no one to fix it for you. So you have to work things out yourself.
“I’ve learnt that the most satisfying thing is to be close to what you are creating. I’ve learnt a huge respect for the self-sufficiency and innovation of farmers. I’ve learnt that you’d better get on with your neighbours, because you all need one another. I’ve met the most incredible people who work with their hands – a woman who fixes Aga stoves, a man who makes saddles, Christo who creates anything out of wrought iron, Bernard who can fix any windpump.
“I depend on people like our foreman Alfie Borens. He was the one who rescued me when the bakkie got stuck in the river, with the floodwaters rising. He taught me to see when early summer rains are coming because the leguaans and tortoises are out.”
The downside of this post-corporate career, he said, was the realisation that despite all the big talk, Government had prioritised tax collection over job creation.
“Small business and entrepreneurs are punted as the way forward for job creation. But they give you nothing. There are no incentives, no tax breaks, even when you’re just starting out. There are just more and more levies and administrative hurdles. You’re treated as if you’re a big profitable corporation from the word go. That was pretty disheartening.”
Renee Silverstone – Love of his Life
Still, he was the first to admit that it was a great life – immensely enriched by falling in love with and marrying Renee Silverstone, co-founder and former CEO of advertising agency The Jupiter Drawing Room. When she quit the corporate life permanently in 2011 to join Derek, she told us:
“Well, I really know I’m in the countryside now – Derek gave me a tractor-lawnmower for my birthday. I’m loving being in nature, I love the dog walks, I love the quiet. I used to define myself through my business and now I wonder why. I feel more whole here than I’ve ever done before.”
They travelled around the world but relished Karoo life. They would awake to see antelope grazing in the veld in front of the house. In summer they would swim in a dam of glass-clear water. The Aga warmed the house in winter.
On 9 May 2021, Derek died after a brave battle with lung cancer, surrounded by his family.