By Julienne du Toit
Photographs by Chris Marais
Just before the state of disaster hard lockdown at the end of March 2020, Branko Brkic and Emily Gambade had a hard decision to make.
They both needed to keep working on the edgy news platform the Daily Maverick, of which Branko is founder and editor in chief and Emily the lifestyle editor. Where would he be able to find good, uninterrupted bandwidth and if at all possible, the peace and quiet they both craved after a hectic year?
Days before the lockdown began in the last days of March 2020, they made a snap decision to lock up their flat in Cape Town and head off to a remote Karoo guestfarm in the vicinity of Graaff-Reinet where they usually spend the December holidays.
Lockdown was extended repeatedly, but Branko was able to carry on running the Daily Maverick from the Great Karoo.
“Three months. We loved it,” Branko remembers wistfully.
They were not the only ones to find sanctuary in the Karoo – a trend that has resulted in dozens of new residents and property sales across the platteland
Jens Friis, who works as a journalist in Johannesburg, is originally from Philippolis in the southern Free State.
“Niel de Leeuw and I came to Philippolis to visit my dad. Then lockdown happened and we were trapped, completely unprepared. We had only come with two small bags of clothes, and ended up staying five months before we could get back to Joburg. Philippolis winter temperatures were far colder than Sandton. We had to go and buy fleecy clothing from Pep and wore them day in and day out.
“I had always had ties with Philippolis because my dad (79) lives here, and has been running the Groenhuis Guesthouse for 20 years now. I’d always wondered what it might be like to come back. Adapting was far easier than I thought it would be. We knew the environment and the people already.”
As a journalist, Jens could easily work anywhere with connectivity and a laptop. So could Niel, a chartered accountant.
They noticed that there were other city people seeking platteland sanctuary in Philippolis, including a radio presenter who now runs his business from the city, and a carpenter who makes amazing kitchen cabinets. They were mostly people who had some tie or other with Philippolis and who had wanted to return, but who found it impossible before.
“Covid actually opened their eyes, and those of their bosses. People can successfully do remote work. The internet makes so much possible. Their future plans were suddenly on fast forward.”
Jens concedes he does miss Woolies, and a good plant nursery, but those are minor inconveniences.
“I had wondered if we would miss the variety of restaurants in Joburg, but that’s not the case at all. The restaurants here serve great food, for much better prices. We’re not bored for a second. We’ve had many guests, we’re busy building and expanding, we’re gardening, setting up a restaurant for guests and we’ve bought a new piece of ground. All this while still working for the newspapers like I always did in Joburg. Sometimes we’re so busy I don’t see Niel until after sunset.”
Lynn Hulley runs a B&B called Rambling Rose in Bedford in the Eastern Cape and is also an estate agent. She says the pandemic has definitely fast-forwarded many urbanites’ plans to semigrate to the platteland.
“In fact there is a super new couple in Bedford who have owned their little house for about eight years. I kept asking when they were going to stay permanently. They came before lockdown, did some alterations now he is working from home, happy with the wifi speed. She’s an artist and renovates furniture. They have both just been back to Joburg for a month to wind up a few things, and can’t wait to get back to Bedford. They’ve both become involved with Animal Welfare, the Morning Market, the Book Club and so on.
“Then there’s another couple from Benoni who bought the Succulent Nursery and are just loving living in Bedford. They now have a dog, which was impossible in their flat in the city, and take her everywhere, even to church.”
Hester Steynberg, who runs Ganora Guestfarm with husband Jan-Peet, is also an estate agent. Some of her recent buyers are those who fled the city before the State of Disaster was announced.
“There’s one buyer who used to travel a lot overseas for lectures and meetings. He locked down here and now he and his family are planning to buy as they saw how easily they could manage things, and that it wasn’t necessary to travel so much.
“Another one was a writer who came here to lock down on the spur of the moment. Other city people with IT-related jobs are planning to shuttle back and forth for two weeks at a time because they can mostly manage their workplaces from here.”
A number of others from the northernmost parts of the country are interested in farms, she adds.
Prince Albert and Western Cape dorps
The same pattern unfolded in other towns. According to Elaine Hurford of Country Estates in Prince Albert:
“After lockdown, there was a sudden surge of property sales – pent-up demand plus new buyers wanting not to spend the next year or two locked down in cities. The day I reopened my office I sold a big property to the nicest people who are now also our nearest neighbours.
In her latest newsletter, she reports on other small town property sales:
“One Riebeek Kasteel agent reports a number of sales for full asking prices just 24 hours after listing. And in Napier a resident described a ‘feeding frenzy’ as agents hunt for housing stock. Properties that have been on the market for years are suddenly selling, and mainly to Capetonians.”
Steytlerville is not nearly as trendy as Prince Albert, Napier and Riebeek Kasteel, so Linda Henderson of Henderson Properties in Steytlerville was astounded by the bounce in house sales in her home town, currently surrounded by drought-stricken veld.
One of the new buyers is Sjarma du Toit, who left a tedious job of commuting between Pretoria and Sandton, to one of making hand-stitched ladies’ shoes in the Karoo. She has employed and trained 12 people in the town, and is setting up her Charming Shoes workshop next to her new home in the Main Road.
She was delighted to form an alliance with another leather-working team on a nearby farm – MC and Matty van Rensburg of Slater & Dutch, who make bags, belts and purses from Dorper sheep and cow leather.
“I’ve got so many more friends here than in Pretoria. The atmosphere is more peaceful, less noise in the ears. We’re braaiing nearly every night.”
Broadband in the Platteland
Running city business from a dorp is the ideal. But to do that, good connectivity is essential.
IT specialist Angelique Scheepers married a Karoo farmer and lives outside Cradock.
“I love country life, but I also know the internet is the future. It’s what connects people.”
She has supplied the bandwidth needs for Cradock’s farming and town community for years now, from dial-up to dongles, through ADSL and wireless.
Angelique’s company recently became part of HeroTel, initiated by Alan Knott-Craig and now linking up the platteland. Her CloudKaroo/Herotel bakkies are a common sight all over town, installing aerial fibre that with up to 100Mbps uncapped.
“So although we are a dorp, our internet speeds are similar to those in cities, at competitive prices.”
Back to the Karoo
Jens Friis, who has written a book about his beloved Philippolis, says the depopulation of the platteland started in the 1940s and affected all rural towns badly.
“If Covid means that people return to the Karoo, so much the better. There is more than enough space, it’s far safer, pollution is lower, property prices are a fraction of those in the city. And it’s where many people’s hearts lie.”