Karoo Bulletin Part I

de stijl hotel, gariep
View of the Gariep Dam from De Stijl Hotel, one of the fine establishments of the Karoo.

Story and Pix by Chris Marais

In 20 years of wandering the South African rural landscape in search of a good story, we have discovered two narrative streams of life.

The one stream is a sad story. Corruption, local governance that stinks, cronyism, occasional racism, load-shedding, a growing water crisis, masses of unemployable and unskilled citizens, nepotism, petty politics, bad service delivery, closed schools, empty playgrounds and, on occasion, padstal jaffles you wouldn’t feed to your dog.

cradock, eastern cape
Cradock school children in a 2014 parade to celebrate the town’s 200th birthday.

The Shiny Bits

But Karoo Space does not paddle in that pond. We search for the shiny bits in the countryside. Shiny bits and possible solutions we can hold up to the light so you can see them. Be inspired by them. And know all is really not lost in South Africa. Not by a long chalk.

Here’s why.

When I look out of my office window early in the morning, I see the youngsters marching off to Cradock High School in drips and drabs, little rag-tag mixed-race flashes of uniforms and excited teenage chatter. I think of the Apartheid racial silo I was brought up in, and I bless these kids.

hantam school
The Hantam School bus on its way across the Karoo veld early in the morning.

Hantam School

We’ve just come back from the Hantam School (full name: Hantam Community Education Trust) on a farm near Colesberg, in the Northern Cape. Farmworkers’ children (and now from all sorts of backgrounds) have been educated at the Hantam School in their thousands for more than 25 years.

Speak to those teachers. Marvel at their focus. They do not get depressed about the Big Picture of South Africa. They’re too busy fixing the Little Picture. Which, ironically, is bigger than the Big Picture. If you get my drift.

karoo eisteddfod
Dance class at the Karoo Eisteddfod in De Aar.

Karoo Eisteddfod

Drive across to the Karoo Eisteddfod in De Aar, where a farmer’s wife leads a team of dancers, artists, education experts and drummers in bringing some fun, perspective, life skills and pure, untrammelled happiness into the local school children’s after-hours.

And if you know anything about De Aar and the horrific scourge of foetal alcohol syndrome that stalks the area, you’ll fall in love with the people working, dancing, laughing and basically trying to keep it all together in a church hall just near the eastern outskirts of this hard-scrabble town.

In both Colesberg and Graaff-Reinet, there are successful, long-established tourism schools where graduates are filtered out into the ever-growing hospitality grid of the Karoo and beyond.

colesberg tourism school
Students at the Colesberg Tourism School, part of the Hantam setup.

Tourism Schools

That smile at Reception. That extra bit of attention that was paid in making up your hotel room. The rasher of bacon you wanted done just so. Thank those tourism schools, those new centres of excellence.

So we’re on tourism. Have you noticed that the Karoo suddenly has a string of exceptional hotels? Many of these “overnight successes” have been around for yonks before the Rinderpest. Some were established less than ten years ago.

Remember those Karoo hotels of days gone by, where you were served foul fare by grim-faced locals and beds were mostly remembered by their swaybacks and their flea colonies?

lord milner hotel
The Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein – grander than ever.

Great Karoo Hotels

Nowadays, you can easily embark on a Classy Karoo Hotel Route itinerary, beginning at The Lord Milner in Matjiesfontein, going on to The Drostdy in Graaff-Reinet, the Karroo Theatrical Hotel in Steytlerville, The Victoria Manor in Cradock, De Stijl Hotel in Gariep, that funky bookish Royal Hotel in Bethulie, the fiercely marketed Calvinia Hotel and then, swooping back to the south-east, the Swartberg Hotel in Prince Albert.

So next time you wander through the Karoo, ponder on some of these features and spend a bit more time getting to know us. We’re quite cool out here – even in midsummer.

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One thought on “Karoo Bulletin Part I

  1. Tim Southey says:

    Brilliant perspective of the “good news”. So tired and bored with the negative slop dished up as “news”. Keep up the good work. I see your articles frequently in SA Country Life. Most enjoyable. Love the Karoo, grew up in Steynsburg and miss it muchly. Regards Boet, be well.

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