A Taste of Cradock Part IV

Text and Photographs by Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit

Tennis was once the sport of the Karoo. There were clubs all over the region. In the modern era, however, many of them have closed.

But not the Fish River Tennis Club. Generations of old families are still here, bonding over ancient customs.

This is what clans like the Colletts do every Saturday afternoon of the year. They gather from 3pm onwards at the Tennis Club. Every family takes a turn to host. The man organises the tennis roster. The woman makes the snacks and tea.

Even though the sporting dress is informal, Fish River is where amateurs and budding professionals have won and lost hard-fought matches.

It is striking how many young families there are here, as evidenced by the swarms of children. “Perhaps there’s something in the water,” says a Fish River mom, keeping a fond eye on her toddler son.

This precious country outpost constitutes a ready-made support group. There is the constant ebb and flow of babies, dummies, spoegdoekies (bibs) and nappies.

The families have shared experiences of past floods, droughts, crop disasters, fires, storms, and where the best riverside picnic spots are.

The seniors also remember the stories of yesterday, like the time during the Anglo-Boer War when their fathers hid all their rifles standing upright in the quince hedges – which are still growing today.

The Fish River Tennis Club, one of the longest-surviving social sports venues in the Karoo.
Getting married on a Karoo Heartland farm – a cheaper, more authentic alternative to an expensive city wedding.

Hitched in the Heartland

It’s a Saturday afternoon in Cradock, and the church bells are pealing merrily.

On the steps outside the Moederkerk, a bride and groom greet the bright sunshine and well-wishers fling confetti and rose petals.

A vintage car gleams in the road, ready to whisk the couple away to the reception, set in a custom-designed wedding venue outside town.

A Cradock-based wedding photographer is at hand, guiding everyone through the ritual. He’s a professional man behind the camera, but he’s also popular because of his warm, personable Karoo manner.

His wife does the makeup, her sister baked the wedding cake and a hairdresser friend looks after the bride and her posse – it’s a thriving family business.

After the reception, the newlyweds hive off to one of the many farmstays in the district for their honeymoon, while the guests spend the night in a grand Victorian hotel.

A week later they return home, having had the time of their lives – without the Indian Ocean island resort bill. In fact, the whole affair probably cost less than half of a city wedding package.

A Karoo wedding is authentic, affordable and very special. Being in the centre of South Africa, it’s an easy road trip for guests based anywhere in the country.

The Mountain Zebra – one of the icons of Cradock.

The Curious Mountain Zebra 

One of the first things you should do when visiting the Mountain Zebra National Park just outside Cradock is climb out of your vehicle at one of the viewpoints and sniff the clean air.

It smells of the herbed fragrance of Karoo bossies with the occasional mid-note of sweet thorn.

Set among the bulky ironstone massifs of the Bankberg mountains, this park combines the serenity of a semi-desert with horizon-wide views of stacked mountain ranges that fade to mauve.

You’re in big sky country, and the feeling of being able to see forever is a major part of the Mountain Zebra National Park’s appeal.

The main manne here, of course, are the Cape mountain zebras for which the national park was named. They make eye contact with you and often pose heroically on a mountain ridge for that perfect late-afternoon photograph.

Take a careful look and you will immediately see that this black and white equid is quite different from the more common plains zebra.

For a start, the mountain zebra is smaller, more pony-sized than a horse. Its stripes go all the way down to its hoofs and it has a white belly, donkey-sized ears and a remarkable fat-storage wattle on its neck, a bit like an eland’s.

Its nose is the perfect shade of chocolate-orange and it has an easy Latin name: Equus zebra zebra.

A mere sampling of the springbok that once crossed the Karoo plains in their millions.

Cron’s Trekbokke

Cronwright Schreiner, Cradock-based husband to Olive back in Victorian times, loved hunting.

But he was also fascinated by the concept of the trekbokke, those almost-mythical herds of springbok that used to cross the Karoo in vast sweeps, devouring everything in their path.

Most of the other men who ventured across the Karoo settled for simply shooting as many springbok as they could, harvesting their meat for biltong and their skins for all sorts of useful purposes.

They didn’t even question the antelope multitudes before them, believing that their numbers were infinite. They weren’t, and within a few decades their massive numbers had dwindled and the biltong hunters moved on.

Cron Schreiner once witnessed a trekbok migration, and describes it thus:

“Our glance at one sweep took in the expanse of brown country, bounded in the distance by low kopjes, bathed in the wonderful glowing tints of the Karoo, and throughout its whole extent the antelopes grazed peacefully in the warm afternoon winter sunshine.

“We eventually computed the number to be not less than 500 000 – half a million springboks in sight at one moment.”

A sight to remember – and then gone forever.

This is an excerpt from Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. The authors are offering a two-book special of Moving to the Platteland: Life in Small Town South Africa and Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo at only R520, including courier costs in South Africa. For enquiries, contact Julie@karoospace.co.za. DM

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