The Karoo and the Corona

By Julienne du Toit

Pictures by Chris Marais

The week of 15 March 2020 was one of the worst in Lisa Ker’s entire life.

President Ramaphosa had just declared a state of disaster because of the coronavirus pandemic. The next day we received 300 cancellations.”

Lisa’s mother, Sandra Antrobus, started Die Tuishuise in the 1980s. Over the years it became an iconic family-run destination with a unique streetscape of preserved cottages, later anchored by a renovated heritage hotel, the Victoria Manor. With a staff complement nearly 50 strong, it is one of Cradock’s larger employers.

Die Tuishuise is one of Cradock’s iconic tourism destinations.

The annual Marlow Under 13 Rugby Week was days away and practically every guesthouse in Cradock was booked for it. Many visitors had also signed up for the Karoo Food Festival at the end of April and the Schreiner Karoo Writers Festival in June.

Overnight, everything came crashing down. Lisa and her team had to refund hundreds of visitors who had planned to visit over the next few months.

From that moment, a major part of Lisa’s daily life has consisted of filling in one UIF form after another, applying for Tourism SMME funding, watching webinar after webinar for ideas, keeping up a dialogue with the staff, sending food parcels to them, and planning for an unknowable future.

The Eastern Cape Karoo, or Karoo Heartland, retains an old-fashioned charm.

Die Tuishuise is part of a marketing association called the Karoo Heartland, all the members operating guesthouses, farmstays, game lodges and country hotels in the Eastern Cape Karoo.

They had a Zoom meeting shortly after lockdown started at the end of March. Lisa broke down in tears. She was not the only one. The quarantine has been a disaster for anyone involved in tourism. Everywhere in the world.

But in the quiet weeks that followed, hosting only a few permitted travellers, she and many others began to plan for when tourists return – rethinking everything from new priorities and ways of serving food to cleaning and reception protocols.

Dohne merino sheep on Ganora farm near Nieu-Bethesda.

Call of the Karoo

One big advantage is that the Karoo does seem like the perfect escape once people are allowed to travel again. On 17 May, Weekend Post journalist Guy Rogers wrote an article pointing out that the Karoo may be more fortunate than most destinations in coming months and years.

In the article, titled Post-Covid Karoo a Powerhouse in the Making, Rogers quotes Dr Stefan Cramer, a German scientist who spent years in Graaff-Reinet helping locals fight the threats of shale gas fracking and opencast uranium mining.

Cramer predicts: “The coronavirus could herald a new wave of eco-tourism creating the potential for the Karoo to be marketed as a ‘low-viral’ destination, capitalising on its wide open spaces and isolated establishments.”

He mentions the attraction of Karoo farmstay tourism in particular.

Karoo farms could be one of the first to attract travellers after Coronavirus lockdowns.

Many Karoo farms have already discovered agritourism as a valuable sideline business and this activity can be marketed much more efficiently.”

Hester and Jan-Peet “JP” Steynberg are well known as a hosts and owners of Ganora, one of the region’s premier farmstays, just outside Nieu-Bethesda. She has, like so many others, been trying to figure out a way forward, and is doing online courses to help shape their future.

She agrees with Cramer on the fact that farmstays will be particularly attractive for families wanting to get away from the crush of the metropolitan areas in the future.

A very special fish fossil in Ganora’s farm museum.

Karoo farms that have had decent rains this year are in a better position to sustain income and support agritourism jobs.

Adrienne Southey of Hillston Farmstay near Middelburg in the Eastern Cape and her mother Riana have closed up their guestfarm accommodation for now. With the family focus back on agriculture – mainly sheep and angora goats – Adrienne has been upskilling herself with as many online courses as she can afford.

Rural life has also re-inspired Lani Lombard, who runs a restaurant and gift shop called True Living in the heart of Cradock. With that closed, she decided to keep staff jobs going by delivering a Farmbox full of vegetables and fresh produce to local ‘subscribers’ every Friday, and doing meals throughout the week, advertised on WhatsApp.

Lani Lombard (right) and her sister Talita, delivering fresh produce via her Farmbox enterprise.

It has been such a success that she now includes foods from other local farms – everything from cream, eggs, free range chicken, butter and homemade yoghurt.

Now she, daughter Louzel and son-in-law Louis Steyn have started thinking bigger, with their new Karoo Farm Boxes containing locally made quality items like sheepskin slippers, mohair blankets and scarves, books, leather belts and bags.

Sophie’s Choice

Being forced to quarantine on a farm has transformed Sophia van der Merwe’s thinking about the future. She runs a very successful restaurant and antique shop in Willowmore called Sophie’s Choice.

Her husband Pepi, meanwhile ran the farmstay operation at their home property of Keurfontein, about 16km south of Willowmore, on the road to Uniondale and De Rust.

But she barely had time to enjoy it. She’d usually be up before dawn and heading off to town at first light, most days a week.

Pepi and Sophia van der Merwe of Willowmore.

I used to spend most of my days indoors. Now I’ve been walking in the veld and it’s just glorious! So green, and so much water at the moment. I weed, I mow the lawn and my animals are all around me – dogs, cats, chickens, geese. This is a different way of life.

The lockdown has given me time to think and plan. I’m quite excited because I’ve decided to move the whole of Sophie’s Choice to the farm.”

Restaurants and specialist shops like hers have been particularly hard hit by the lockdown. But Sophia has her chin up.

Keurfontein Farmstay, just south of Willowmore.

You must stay positive. There’s no money at the moment, but it will come back.”

Before lockdown the first thing Sophia did was to find someone who could fathom the UIF procedures and who helped her staff get funding to see them through the next three months.

I feel it’s time for a change. I don’t know if it will work, but I always think that if you’re going to do something new, do it properly.”

The Follies of Steytlerville

Mark Hinds and Jacques Rabie, owners of the Karroo Theatrical Hotel just outside Steytlerville, made it back just in time from a holiday in Buenos Aires before lockdown.

They were ready to restart their memorable weekend musical performances at their eccentric hotel just outside town.

Back home, weekends were full, bookings fantastic with upfront payments even from an overseas group – then halt…stop…bang. The reassuring part is that most guests wanted to put their bookings on hold rather than cancel altogether.”

Jacques Rabie and Mark Hinds chatting to author Julienne du Toit, pre-lockdown.

Since lockdown started at the end of March, they have kept themselves busy.

Jacques has made seven magnificent outfits for himself, plus three smoking jackets for me, trousers, cummerbunds, shoe makeovers, wigs, the whole toot,” says Mark.

I spend between four and six hours a day at the piano with technical work and new repertoire. Jacques also puts hours every day working on new numbers. I built new furniture for the breakfast room; Jacques upholstered it all. Between all of that we cook, bake bread, take the dogs for walks in the veld and rest.”

Everyone in tourism around the world is experiencing times of blinding despair. To Mark and Jacques though, there is only one way to navigate ahead:

Staying positive and excited about the future is our way of coping right now. It is challenging whenever we are exposed to the news. But we are determined to hang in there. Our guests are predominantly local and we trust that when restrictions are lifted eventually they will be back to see whatever changes we have made, see the show and spend quality time in isolated tranquillity.”

Hobson’s Choice

Annabelle and Alan Hobson of the Angler & Antelope Guesthouse in Somerset East are determined to carry on when tourism picks up again.

We have to reinvent ourselves, but carry on as normal, because we can’t really change what we have to offer – accommodation, fly-fishing guiding and tours.”

Alan Hobson and a trout he fished out of an Eastern Karoo river.

Alan says they’ve been working hard on organising the venue to fit the new standard hygiene requirements. Their days have been full.

Having no staff means we have had to do all the maintenance and day to day chores to maintain the standard of the property and service the few essential services guests we have managed to accommodate.”

But they see real promise in continuing with the fly-fishing side of their business.

The essence of fly-fishing is all about isolation, so it should be a sport that people will want to continue doing, and we see that an opportunity to grow market share.”

Downsize to a Dorp

Dr Stefan Cramer points out that interest in the Karoo need not stop at a visit. Coronavirus might ultimately boost semigration away from the crowded metropoles.

Hester Steynberg is also an estate agent in Nieu-Bethesda, and like many in the Karoo, has noticed an uptick in property interest from people in cities.

I have had a few interested parties that want to come and look at places once they’re allowed to move after lockdown.”

The semigration potential has not escaped Marlize Coetzee of Amali Guesthouses in Cradock. She and her husband Braam are marketing their self-cater cottages as semi-permanent dwellings for senior citizens who don’t want to go to a retirement village but who want to downsize to a small town with the comfort of serviced rooms, a nurse on call, laundry, wi-fi and above all, safety.

The Karoo is calling.

Graeme Wedgwood of Springfontein House in the Northern Cape town of the same name has been contemplating something along those lines too.

I’m getting to the stage where I don’t know if I want to carry on with visitors coming in and out, even when tourism restarts. I’ve been thinking about a kind of commune of like-minded people. We can share costs and live well.”

Dr Cramer foresees far more city people being able live and work in the rural areas.

With improved access to broadband services, small Karoo towns could also become attractive hubs for digital work. The region needs to position itself for this change.”

7 thoughts on “The Karoo and the Corona

  1. Dirk van Rensburg says:

    As soon as the lock-down is over and my wife and I have a chance to visit the Karoo again we will do so. “Slow down you are now in the Karoo.” that is the motto. Tranquility that is all I want.

  2. Elana Bregin says:

    Thank you so much for theses lovely insights into Karoo life challenges under lockdown. I am one of those yearning for Karoo spaces when we are allowed to travel again. I hope to pack my dogs into my 1.2 and meander down from KZN for a month of Karoo space, skies and freedom to walk out safely into the landscapes…. if such a thing exists. Will be looking out for a dogfriendly base!

    • Julienne du Toit says:

      There are many lovely places where you can walk freely in the veld and along quiet tracks. With your dog! We’ll put together a story on some pet-friendly Karoo destinations soon.

  3. Alain Willaume says:

    Dear Julienne,
    Thank you to keep informing us about Karoo and thank you for this article full of perspectives. It reminds me of my beautiful stay at Die Tuihuise that you so kindly recommended me in 2012 (already 8 years!!) while I made my memorable photo trip in Karoo about shale gas fracking. You helped me so much… This trip and region still haunt me and I keep dreaming of going back there one day with my wife.
    This dark period will for sure stop one day and Karoo is THE place to heal from this.
    Give my love from France to all of you there.

  4. Michael Abdinor says:

    Cannot remember how many times we stopped over at Sophies Choice on our way to East London (hometown) over the last 16 years. We are so pleased it will continue at the farm after lockdown

  5. Donavon Christians says:

    I loved reading this article on The Karoo and the Corona. I have been very fortunate to have been off work for the first three week of lockdown. Most of the time was spent baking, cooking, gardening and writing. That time of being locked down made me realise the importance of slowing down and changing my priorities. Life is too short to spend chasing rainbows. So thank you Chris and Julienne!

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