Spirit of the Karoo

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The old Karoo Agava factory outside Graaff-Reinet.
You’ve probably seen the place on your left as you approach Graaff-Reinet from the Jo’burg side.

We’re talking about a vast field of spiky agave plants and a huge white shed, fenced in and looking for all the world like the place where they keep aliens who have landed in the Karoo by mistake.

But it’s not Roswell Outpost #42, even if the entrance gate bears many signs saying Stop! No Guns! No Cellphones! No Alcohol! No Dogs! and such.

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Chopping up the agave plant for the distillery.

Like Camelot, the De Lorean sports coupe and Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose, the Agava factory outside Graaff-Reinet was a bloody good idea at the time.

Mexico didn’t like it one bit at first, because it looked like they were brewing tequila out there in Meerkat Country.

So they couldn’t call it tequila. But once distilling was under way and those great silver kettles began boiling and the bottles rattled off along the production line and you had a gentle swig of the stuff, you knew. Hier kom kak, as they say in Brandvlei.

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The massive Agava distillery, when it was in production.

About ten years ago, we had a tour of the facilities and purchased some bottles of Agava. Took them back home to Jo’burg (we now live in the Karoo) and staged a tequila tasting one Saturday afternoon with a bunch of reprobate friends who love the stuff.

Bad darts and dodgy behaviour followed. At some stage I drank a couple of Larium tablets, because I was heading for an Okavango-Chobe flying safari the next morning and it was January, the height of mosquito season.

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Karoo Agava – now a collector’s item.

Well. All I can say to the lusty young fellows out there is never drink tequila and Larium at the same time.

An SAA flight dropped me off at Bulawayo Airport, where I stumbled down the stairs sweating and swearing. I was paranoid, homicidal, hungover and behaving like the worst kind of Ugly Tourist you ever saw.

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The late great Colin Bristow and his trusty Cessna.

Waiting to meet me with his Cessna tail-dragger was the famous (now, sadly, passed on) bush pilot Colin Bristow, who took a look at me and said:

“Right. Are you ready for a big adventure?”

Now let me tell you about midsummer in the Tropics, up there in the Land of the Four Rivers, where you find the Kwando, the Zambezi, the Chobe and the Okavango. The mornings are three-hour jewels of gentle sunlight, awakening wilderness, river folk crossing the waters in mokoros, bush pilots droning overhead to and from the luxury camps, game walks and drives in thick green mopane and over lush grasslands.

Sounds wonderful, right? But not when you’ve got Karoo Tequila, sorry, Karoo Agava, and Larium running through your system. I was The Grinch, King Joffrey, Malvolio and Napoleon the Plaas Pig all rolled into one. I even tried to murder a British tourist at a pop-up Customs post somewhere near Impalila Island that day.

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Okavango sunset – glorious but not great on tequila and Larium.

Bristow hustled me off to a swanky river lodge and confined me to quarters for more than a day until all the bad stuff left me and I could speak politely to people again.

All these memories came tumbling back recently when I collided at the Karoo Food Fest in Cradock with Roger Jorgensen, who lives in Wellington and sells bespoke hard liquor – even the evil absinthe.

The factory, which has long been closed (it’s complicated and has nothing to do with the excellent product) is a constant point of yearning for both Roger and me.

“We should buy it and start that thing again,” is our common refrain. But the question is: will our wives let us? I think not.

Look out for that Jorgensen fellow – he travels to festivals all over the country and presents his great range of liquors with dash and daring. Find him on www.jd7.co.za

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One product from the exciting Jorgensen stable of bespoke liquors.


3 thoughts on “Spirit of the Karoo

  1. Roxanne Reid says:

    Oh how I laughed. I was hoping to find the agave distillery had reopened, but I got even better for my money – a midday chortle at someone else’s expense. Thanks for sharing!

    • Chris Marais says:

      When I look back on certain aspects of my life, I often laugh at someone else’s expense – mainly my own. Thanks for commenting – see you on the road sometime – Chris

  2. Cx says:

    I forget all that stuff. Tell us the complicated part as to why it went away, also what happened to that excellent psychotropic Rooibos Liqueur?

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