By Julienne du Toit
Photographs by Chris Marais
The people of Murraysburg have a saying: if you stand still here for long enough, leaves will sprout from your fingers.
That’s because this little Karoo village 80km west of Graaff-Reinet has always been blessed with water. Walk around central Murraysburg and you will see huge plots of fertile land behind most of the houses. There was a time when each residential backyard was a riot of quince hedges, edible vegetables of all kinds and fruit trees for Africa. Here and there today, you come across signs this this era of plenty might just be on its way back.
“This is a plaasdorp in a very real sense of the word: big yards, lots of water, lots of colour, lots of life!” enthuses Murraysburg home-boy Jan-Hendrik Swiegers as we talk on his back stoep, with a majestic view of his orchards and the range of hills beyond. Jan-Hendrik and his young family have moved from the bright lights of a plush Western Cape development to a simpler life in the Karoo.
High mountains always trap clouds and over aeons, the Sneeuberg peaks around Murraysburg have intercepted rainfall – in some areas as much as 800mm a year. This captured moisture trickles down slowly through the mineral-rich dolerite and sandstone formations, eventually reaching the valleys below. Even when the Buffels River dries up in a Karoo drought, the groundwater levels tend to remain steady.
In the first week of every September, we used to drive from our home base of Cradock right across the Karoo to Williston in the Northern Cape, for the annual Winterfees. We would pass through the bare-knuckle Murraysburg and it was always cold, dusty and forlorn. We could not imagine this place ever picking itself up.
But one man could. His name is Chris Barr and he’s a professional futurist who thinks about Murraysburg and its possibilities all the time.
Chris came from Cape Town to live here with his partner Jenny Ballantyne in 2012. He saw that Murraysburg had ‘good bones’.
That gift, to be able to gaze beyond the dystopia of now, the litter, the hunger, the drug abuse, the broken architecture and the general bleakness of a town with its tail between its legs, is the sign of a good rural futurist. Chris knew what Murraysburg once was, and in his mind’s eye he envisioned what it could be again.
“I asked myself the question: what could I do in Murraysburg that would transform the town forever?”
The answer was clear: bring back the water furrows, so that everything could grow once more, so that the town could be revitalised.
The job was difficult. The Buffels River Water System had been supplying Murraysburg since the Victorian era, and the town’s leiwater web had, in turn, resulted in rich gardens. You could easily feed your family from what you grew in your back yard.
The Magic Borehole
However, in 1988, floods damaged the infrastructure, which was not repaired. Chris Barr and local farmer Izak van der Merwe established the Murraysburg Sustainable Development Council and they began wading through a lot of red tape to bring the leiwater back.
One of the major hurdles for the Council was that the water licence had not been renewed. But by doggedly following the records and filling in the paperwork after recruiting help from the farming community and Water Affairs, Chris found an operating borehole right next to the Buffels River. This allowed for a renewal of the water licence.
The Western Cape government came to the party with a R1,5-million grant and by the end of 2017, the project was completed. By November 2021, the furrows of central Murraysburg were gurgling happily, bringing a new spirit to the town – and an exciting community-based garlic growing enterprise was taking shape.
The Rose Lady
We follow the bubbling furrow down to Sophia van Heerden’s massive rose garden where she awaits in the chilly morning, elegantly dressed as if for a summer wedding.
“I wanted an easy plant for a lazy gardener,” says Sophia. “We put in a thousand roses and it barely made an impact on all that space. I realised we needed to plant 5 000 roses. Jaco said fine, but then the roses will have to earn their keep.”
Sophia is from Karoo farming stock, so she took on the challenge and learned more about the rose business. The root stock was bought, planted and by Valentine’s Day the next year, people were phoning her. She suddenly realised she had a market for Karoo fresh cut flowers, and over the years she has scaled up to rose bushes that numbers in the tens of thousands.
Nowadays, after you’ve bought your mouse trap at Kay’s, you can roll on down to Sophia’s Roses and order up beautiful blooms that go by the names of Great Gatsby, Dermalogica Passion, Princess Charlene of Monaco, White O’Hara, Francois Krige, Turning Point, Spiced Coffee, Beauty from Within, St Dunstan’s Centenary, Hyde Park, Mama Afrika, Pride of Jane and Nomzamo. No kidding.
Continuing on the Leivoor Trail, we head off to the Pastorie, just opposite the imposing NG Mother Church, well-known for its glorious old organ. On the broad, wraparound stoep, we savour a Blonde Lager brewed on the premises by online coder Bruce McLachlan and chat to his wife Luane, the newly-minted dominie of Murraysburg. Jules says she’s never met a tattooed dominie before.
“Oh, there are lots of us now,” Luane replies. We laugh, and dive into an entirely palatable English Pale Ale.
The alluring aroma of freshly-baked bread brings us around the corner from Kay’s to The Bakery, owned by David Ward and Jolene Adams, and they’ve just opened up. It’s an exciting project bringing new jobs, and they’re still finding out what Murraysburg’s baking tastes run to: doughnuts, bagels, cupcakes, muffins, scones, or just gewone loaves of bread?
“The most memorable review we’ve had so far,” says David, “is from a local chap who took a big bite out of a slice of bread and declared Dit vreet lekker! It eats well.”
Back on the street, Jan-Hendrik Swiegers calls us over and introduces one Theo Minnie, handyman and carpenter extraordinaire. Minutes later, we are in Theo’s wayward gypsy workshop, listening to his colourful life story as he paints some toy wagon wheels. When we leave, his girlfriend Louise Marshall gives us a large bottle of fig jam.
“Made from a tree right here, in this yard,” she says.
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 or the complete collection of Karoo Roads books, email Julienne du Toit at email@example.com