Story and Photographs by Chris Marais
Midsummer, 2019: I don’t mind telling you that this is my kind of story.
It’s got craggy mountains, deep valleys, hidden Karoo farms, salty old cowboys, saucy young cowgirls, melt-in-the-mouth brownies, full moons, sure-footed steeds, bakkies that skrik vir niks and a sense of mission to match. Willie Nelson songs come to mind.
So it’s no hardship ahead as we turn left off the N9 (with the Nieu-Bethesda road to our right) and head on past our friend Julian Murray’s ostrich feather palace on Bloemhof Farm, through Glen Harry Game Reserve which, I recall, once belonged to the McNaughton family.
The Winding Glen Harry Line
In his hilarious clan book, It’s Better to Laugh, James McNaughton tells the story of when he inherited the hilly farm and moved in with his new bride, Gill.
“Glen Harry had one asset which many farmers envied and that was the railway siding on the farm. Supplies could be obtained from Graaff-Reinet on the Post Train and all the farm produce was sent by rail. It was a huge advantage to get your mail and I could be reading the EP Herald by lunchtime every day.”
He tells of runaway railway trucks and collisions along the Glen Harry line, which we now cross en route to Elandskloof, home of Karoo Ranching.
The squeaking elves in the back of the old Karoo Space bakkie are in full throat as we ford the dry mountain stream and park up in the homestead. There are horses everywhere, some of them even doing duty as rather charming lawnmowers. Baboons greet harshly from distant mountain slopes.
A Legendary Karoo Family
Members of the Truter family emerge from the old 1890s Karoo house to meet us, and they’re all easy on eye: patriarch Jimmy, his wife Dickie and daughters Julie and Lindy.
Dickie brings a jug of her homemade pomegranate juice out onto the stoep and Jimmy gives us the lowdown on Elandskloof Farm.
“We live on Verdun, a farm I inherited from my dad at Kommadagga, south of Daggaboer,” he says. My eyebrows would have lifted in earlier times, but I’ve been in these parts for a while now and I know they don’t farm cannabis down there at present. And anyhow, it’s mostly legal these days.
“Elandskloof originally came from Dickie’s family (McNaughton is her maiden name), and we used to stock sheep here. But then came the boom in game farming, and the jakkalse and rooikatte began running riot. Eventually, we turned Elandskloof into a cattle farm, running a genetic mix of black Angus and Nguni. They’re tough, they love the mountains and the jackals don’t worry them.”
There’s an Afrikaans saying for the way the Truters farm:
“’n Mens moet wydsbeen boer.” Be adaptable and diverse.
From Marketing to Mountain Riding
The long-limbed Julie, who must have felt she was hugging hobbits when she bent down to greet us, has taken that belief and given it all kinds of new meaning. After many years of overseas adventures and a climb through the corporate world, Julie decided to come to Elandskloof and re-imagine the whole concept of farming in the Karoo.
When you glance at their marketing material, you may be as stunned as I was to see fabulous people in trendy winter cowboy gear on fabulous horses in fabulous landscapes. You may even think it a tad out-of-Karoo and super-styled because normally stockmen are clad in BKB blue overalls and the farmers in two-tone shirts.
Well yes and no, as it turns out. Since becoming Karoo residents 13 years ago, my wife Jules and I have unearthed all manner of ‘outlandish’ assets here in South Africa’s dry spaces: raunchy burlesque on a Saturday night in Steytlerville, a Bavarian castle outside Loxton, a book hotel in Bethulie, contemporary art in Richmond, dancing cement statues on a farm in the middle of nowhere, an alien research centre (alas, now closed) in Smithfield, tuk-tuk tours in Uniondale, a Willy Warmer knitter in a Williston old age home – and we’re not even in first gear yet. Finding these stories is like hunting for diamonds in the dust. Telling some of them to you right here in Karoo Roads is the first prize.
Romance of Karoo Ranching
So welcome to Karoo Ranching where, in the autumn and winter months, you get to dress up as a cowboy and ride off into the distance. Elandskloof becomes a film set, a photographic backdrop, a wedding venue and a great hideaway for corporate workshops. They even hold cattle drives occasionally, but there’s no chance of being a City Slicker and pitching up in your loud t-shirt and baseball cap. Your hosts will gently urge you to pack those items away and if you didn’t bring the right gear, head for the farm shop, where standard stockman shirts are available for a song.
Helping to sell the new narrative of Karoo farming is Lindy Naude, a wedding photographer from Jeffreys Bay. It is her job to bring visual romance to Karoo Ranching, and a different way of looking at farm life.
“The images you see in agricultural magazines are mostly flat, middle-of-the-day photographs,” she says. “Farming always comes across as a hard, hard world. But there’s another way of making those pictures that inspire, that speaks to the heart.”
She’s all about the soft, golden hours that book-end most days.
“A dark world needs the light.” Damn straight, I say.
Overseeing general operations on Elandskloof is Pieter Salman Bantom, who lives on-site with his fiancée Valerie.
All-Rounder Ranch Hand
It seems to me that Pieter is whoever you want him to be, on Elandskloof Farm. When the Truters and their guests are away, he’s the guy who looks after the cattle and horses, keeps the fences in order, and tends the farmstead. Before events, he prepares the farm and makes sure the horses are groomed, watered, saddled, and ready for action. And sometimes Pieter features in one of the Karoo Ranching shoots – a fact which still amazes him. I think Pieter Salman Bantom is the real cowboy in this script.
A couple of hours and a whole lot of pomegranate juice later, Julie and Pieter are mounted on a pale Arab called Champagne and a feisty bay that goes by the name of Stalin. We’re all going on a small shoot in the mountains.
We drive up a hill with Dickie at the wheel, my Jules in front with her while Jimmy and I share the back of the farm bakkie and plenty of old army stories. Turns out we are of similar vintage, and once served our time at the same infantry boot camp.
The vehicle stops at a point. Out comes the juice and some of the crumbliest, most delicious brownies you ever feasted on. Full of sugar, I follow Jimmy up into the mountain. In the true tradition of old-time troopies, there is no end of light mocking as we huff and puff our way up through the rocky terrain. Eventually, I have to stop, to “blow the horses” as they say.
“Too many Texan Plains back in the day,” is my excuse. Jimmy laughs and says we don’t have far to go before meeting up with Pieter and Julie on their horses.
How Jimmy Met Dickie
Dickie and Jules end up following us, and their conversation is a little deeper.
“We spoke about hard times and good times, and how one should cultivate an attitude of gratitude,” my wife recounts.
Dickie grew up on Elandskloof, and told Jules about the railway line that ran through their farm. She remembered four trains passing their home every day. In fact, the school governess who taught at Elandskloof used to catch the train to the farm in the mornings and ride it back home later in the afternoons.
Her father, Haig Beattie McNaughton, turned the fortunes of Elandskloof Farm around after being handed bankruptcy papers by the bailiff as he climbed off the train after WWII. When they started farming in 1945, things were very difficult.
“For years they practically lived on dried bread and black coffee,” Dickie told Jules. “There was nothing else. He woke at eerste hoenderkraai (first cock’s crow) and got up at the second. Most of his work he did in summer while it was cool.”
Thanks to the Wool Boom of 1950, their farming enterprise thrived. In later years, the infamous Jackal Boom put paid to any further ambitions of sheep farming.
“I met Jimmy after a rugby club match and that was that,” she confided. In addition to Julie and Lindy, the couple also has a son called Andrew, who farms with his dad at Kommadagga.
A Veld Masterclass
Meanwhile, Jimmy and I find the riders but the rain has begun falling. Not the vicious Karoo thunderstorm one often gets, just a gentle drifting downpour that softens the landscape yet still threatens to soak into my camera bag. The skies are dark and my photo prospects are bleak.
Then it all changes. The rain stops, the clouds shift a bit and some sunlight begins to dance on my horsey models. I, too, manage a few happy little Nama Riel steps out there on the veld.
When we finally connect with Jules and Dickie, Jimmy treats us to some veld philosophy. He has the utmost respect for the simplest and most common of Karoo bossies – Pentzia incana, or Anker Karoo.
“In the Anker Karoo, you see true character and strength. It has its own beauty and a subtle herbed smell that endures. Through the hard times, it is there, waiting for the rain. When it falls, it turns green and spreads. It trusts that the rain will come, and it is patient.
“When it becomes old and woody and moribund, it is still useful, sheltering other seeds and plants. Even in death, it holds the soil together. It is a blessing that endures.” Maybe in my next go-round, I could be reborn as a piece of Anker Karoo.
Jimmy and Dickie say their salaams well after sunset and, armed with many warnings about roadside kudus on the Pearston – Somerset East road, head off to their Kommadagga spot. It’s just us, the Truter girls, the moonlight and a well-chomped lawn.
Something happens in the near-dark, creating a kind of confessional mood. Dreams, fears, and stories flow out of all present. But what is said on the lawn, stays on the lawn.
Suffice to say they’re farming beauty out at Elandskloof in the Karoo. It’s a daunting yet elegant mission and someone has to do it, right?
This is an extract from Karoo Roads I – Tales from South Africa’s Heartland, by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. Karoo Ranching can be contacted at www.karooranching.co.za
For an insider’s view on life in the Dry Country, get the three-book special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at firstname.lastname@example.org