Kay’s Kafee in Murraysburg

Text and Photographs by Chris Marais

Here’s a fine idea. Take a shiny day in the late summer. Find a farm, say, Grootdriefontein, just outside Murraysburg in the Western Cape Karoo. One with a dense poplar grove, providing just the right amount of cooling shade.

Build a wooden stage in the middle of it. Install a sound system that penetrates the grove. Turn the volume down. Invite musicians to come and play their original songs.

Ask vendors of local food and drink to set up stalls all about. You’ll be wanting some craft beer, a wine table, piles of protein in the form of biltong, droewors, sosaties and, if possible, some delicious skaapstertjies – lamb tails. For specialty treats, there’s a Murraysburg lady who, when she’s not cooking up a batch of boerseep in her kitchen, prepares a vast range of ice creams. Try her butterscotch flavour.

Performance time at Die Stilfees, one of the most successful small Karoo festivals around.

Create a special website about the event. Set up a booking system with a limited amount of tickets available, so your poplar grove doesn’t end up looking like Sandton City on payday.

Finally, time your party for the night of the full moon, if possible. Now, begin your marketing. When you invite the people, tell them to bring blankets and hammocks, and not to bother with picnic hampers – they can feast at the little food stalls. Call it Die Stilfees – The Quiet Festival. Now sit back and enjoy the magic.

So that’s where we first meet Paul Avenant and his sons Paul Jnr, Naude and Willem: on a log at Die Stilfees. When they’re not busy selling prickly pear syrup, one of them is jamming up on stage. Now cross to Kay’s Kafee.

The Avenant Gang: Father Paul snr (far right) and his sons, Paul Jnr, Naude and Willem.

The Furniture Truck Falls Over

This venerable establishment was born in 1952, and named after one Kay Pienaar, who ran it a lot like Pop Tate’s Chock’lit Shoppe in the Archie comics. You went there for your fix of Brown Cows (Coke and ice cream floats), monster Dagwood sarmies and a sneaky peak at the magazine stand.

Enter the Naude family in 1966, fresh from an unsuccessful farming enterprise at Modder Rivier, outside Kimberley.

Jeanette’s been a Café Kid since the age of five.

“I was four years old,” says Jeanette Avenant, Paul’s wife, who is the soul of Kay’s Kafee. “We were dirt-poor back then. My mother had seen an ad for the café in the Landbouweekblad. She persuaded my father to sell the farm and come south to Murraysburg.

“A truck left with the furniture and the family followed in our old Datsun bakkie. My parents sat in front. My two sisters and I were at the back, each of us snugged into a cardboard box. When we finally arrived in our new home town, we popped out like three little jack-in-the-boxes.

“Meanwhile, the lorry carrying all our furniture fell over somewhere near Strydenburg, so we came here with nothing but broken planks.”

Baba Takes the Till – Fire Takes the Shop

During the nine years that followed, the Naudes also sold clothes, shoes, kitchenware and fresh vegetables from the café. Little Jeanette earned her Café Colours from the age of five, when she regularly stood on a Coke crate and operated the till. The customers all called her Baba.

“This place is in my blood,” she says. “My father taught me the tough secret of small town retail: keep your margins small. I developed an insight into what the people of Murraysburg needed. If a certain tannie called and asked for ‘the usual’, I would know exactly what that meant.”

Hendrina Williamse serving sweets the old-fashioned Karoo way – in a twist of paper.

The family ran Kay’s Kafee with gusto and a degree of profitability until it burnt down on a Friday night in October, 1975.

“We were already fully stocked for Christmas,” says Jeanette. “I was 13 years old. There was an electrical fault, the shop went up in flames and by 4am that Saturday, it was a smouldering ruin.

“Old Mr Shapiro the clothing trader stopped outside. He had come to drop off stock, Rex Trueform suits, I think. The oom said to my father, don’t worry, you don’t have to pay me any time soon – only when you are able.  Then all the traders contacted Dad one by one, and said the same thing: take our stock and don’t worry about it for now. We trust you.”

That trust enabled Jeanette’s father to carry on. The family operated from a building next door until Kay’s was rebuilt. Within months, they paid back all the kind Jewish traders. But no one ever forgot the gesture.

Much of Murraysburg’s old Karoo architecture still stands.

Murraysburg Rush Hour

Paul and Jeanette met in Wellington when they were both studying to be social workers. Years later they married and had babies, but soon realised that two social worker salaries would not support the family.

“We bought Kay’s Kafee from my parents in 1992,” says Jeanette. “It was a seller’s market: the town was thriving. We paid top dollar.”

Two years later, Murraysburg slipped into a financial a tailspin and the aisles of Kay’s Kafee fell quiet. But the Avenants are tough and they know their customers well.

If you lived in Murraysburg, would you actually drive all the way to Graaff-Reinet for a mouse trap? A set of cocktail forks? A bottle of Karroo Food Powder? A Grand-Pa Headache Powders stone doorstop? A bompie bag for ice lollies? A Turkish Hookah Pipe? Maybe some pantyhose? Fowl food, Okapi knives, mops, calculators, glacé cherries or Balti Butter Chicken Spices? No, you get all that stuff at Kay’s.

Paul shoots the breeze with a young local farmer.

Eight o’clock on a Thursday morning is Murraysburg’s only rush hour, and it happens at Kay’s Kafee. Fresh veggies pack the fridges, local women dash in, empty the shelves and for the rest of the week they rely on the less perishable goodies like sweet potatoes and pumpkin. The Kay’s Kafee WhatsApp group also alerts shoppers to specials.

The Avenants also developed some add-on income streams, like guest rooms with a great kuierplek (hang-out area), and a range of jams, syrups, pickles and herbs under the brand of Bokspring. Paul even wrote a cracker of a thriller called Koedoe, based in the Sneeuberg mountains.

While we wander about this amazing shop, with RSG (Radio Sonder Grense) constantly in background, a farmer comes in for some frozen potato chips and a quick photo shoot. Paul hustles him to a makeshift studio at the back, checks lighting and camera settings, and takes a snap. Yup, they even do ID mug shots at Kay’s.

Jeanette Heals a Journo

Someone whispers to us that Jeanette has inherited healing powers. Chris has a slow-mending wound on his arm from an unpleasant fall, so he beetles off to Jeanette for treatment.

“No problem,” she says, passing him a stick of Kowie Medicines Bluestone. “Put this on today and then apply some castor oil tomorrow.”

Fresh pies out of a Karoo Aga – what could be finer?

She tells us that her mother used to be a herbalist, and when she fell sick with swollen glands, she would be given garlic and sweet oil.

“I used to wander around the town as a kid, cadging roosterkoek from the tannies,” says Jeanette. “Out on the streets one time, I fell and broke my arm so badly that the bone stuck out. When I got home, my mother first gave me a hiding for roaming around, then treated my arm with vinegar and splinted it with planks from a tomato box. And when I got a tick in my ear, she got rid of it with a paste made from mustard, salt, pepper and vinegar. She even made me gargle with the stuff.”

The medicinal shelf of Kay’s Kafee carries an impressive range of the old Lennon Medicines: Red Lavender, Blue Gum Oil, Chest Drops, Clove Oil, a special essence to fight constipation, excessive drinking and over-eating and Cape Aloe for a laxative.

Before vaccines were available, several Murraysburgers were said to use to take a home-grown Covid-19 medication that included cannabis oil, Sutherlandia (cancer bush) and, of course, a dash of Ivermectin…

This is an extract from Karoo Roads III – The Adventure Continues, by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. For author-signed, first-edition copies of Karoo Roads III, email Julienne du Toit at julie@karoospace.co.za


2 thoughts on “Kay’s Kafee in Murraysburg

  1. Suki V says:

    What a lovely read. I can feel myself almost in there. Great that they survive the ravages of time. Another stop added to my wishlist.

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