South Africa

Book Review: Road tripping through the secrets of the Eastern Cape Karoo

By Tony Jackman 1 March 2018

The wire art formed by young, poor hands in places like Michausdal and Lingelihle is the link between the visitor and the local economy in small Karoo towns like Cradock. And when you move to such a town – and to a new province – you’re extraordinarily lucky if you find there the two people who know small-town South Africa best, the journalists and road trippers, Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. By TONY JACKMAN.

In their book Road Tripper, Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit write of the legend of Oom Das. “While you’re choosing your favourite windmills to take home, ask them about the late Oom Das Mowers. They will tell you Oom Das had the strongest teeth in town. He used them as pliers to bend the wire while he fashioned his exquisite windmills.”

Windmills like the ones in our back yard and decorating our increasingly eclectic Karoo braai spot, which Chris has dubbed our Karoo Cantina, although we’ve adapted that to Cantina Peculiar. The wiry repertoire of these road-side artists has grown to include barques mounted inside bicycle wheels, angels, gemsbokke, outsize lizards and vases of rusty roses. Even our garden gate is garnished with roses fashioned of tin discards.

Photo: The Plains of Camdeboo. Photo: Chris Marais

It was Sandra Antrobus, matriarch of Market Street and her Victorian tuishuise, who brought the Marais-Du Toits to Cradock from Johannesburg and it was she who brought us here from Cape Town. You don’t get to choose your Karoo town. It beckons you. But if you’re thinking of finding the right town that might call you “home”, you could do worse than using these genned-up scribes as a guide. Their Road Tripper – Eastern Cape Karoo is well worth having to hand as you set out on the road.

We soon learnt on arriving in this half-forgotten province that it is a fascinating new world (to us) of some of the most gorgeous countryside in South Africa. The terrain between towns ranges from sparse Karoo to lush, aloe-speckled mountainside, and in every town there is that curious shop where you will ignore common sense and the budget because you just have to have that, and that, and that. Like the braai-side rose gate we bought in Willowmore, where, they say in Road Tripper, “a serious pub crawl of the Eastern Cape Karoo should always involve a stopover at the Willow Bar”.

Photo: Ganora guest farm, Nieu-Bethesda. Photo: Chris Marais

It’s “a Karoo version of a man cave”, they write, replete with old signs, “your Texaco, your RAC, your Gold Dollar, your ‘Please Close the Gate’ warning and, as a masterpiece of local branding, your Cooper’s Dip signage” (the famous original sheep dip). And, according to the illustrative photograph opposite, the “Beware of Falling Drunks” sign, propped up against a jug of Motyer & Clements home-brewed ginger beer.

If there’s been more time at the bar than legal driving would allow, hop aboard the “Willow Limo”. They write, “The best way to view Willowmore is from somewhere between the pointy ears of the donkeys of the Willow Limo service, driven by Jim Makwena. And in October, when everything is swathed in pink to raise money for breast cancer, they have pink scarves draped around their flower-trimmed harnesses.”

We haven’t yet been to Steytlerville, which they keep telling us about, and where we will apparently find the Karroo Theatrical Hotel. They write, “In a former life, the Karroo Hotel on the outskirts of Steytlerville was a bit of a tequila shack. Or, in local parlance, a brandy palace. Then, through the efforts of present owners Jacques Rabie and Mark Hinds, it became the Alhambra of the Karoo – a place of beauty, entertainment and surprise.”

Photo: Dwarsvlei siding, Middelburg. Photo: Chris Marais

This “once-rogue Art Deco outpost presents a weekend burlesque performance that stars Jacques in sequins and Mark on piano”. Jacques being “the hardest-working cross-dressing singer in the Karoo”.

The smouse (travelling salesmen) of the Karoo are long gone, but in Graaff-Reinet one should have “a decent prowl around Die Smous, a cave of collectible wonders that sells everything from Wedgwood and China pieces to a Victorian mourning jacket, embroidered with jet and utterly unwashable”, they write of this beautiful Karoo town, one of the country’s four oldest. Die Smous celebrates these nomadic salesmen whose main customers were the Afrikaner families who also called them bondeldraers (bundle carriers). “In return for their wares they would take horns, hides, ivory and, later, ostrich feathers.”

If you thought Nieu-Bethesda was the Karoo Owl Capital – well, it is, but it is also the Pumpkin Capital, and this remote, eerie village has a Pumpkin Palooza Festival at Easter.

Photo: Willowmore. Photo by Chris Marais

These oddly-named vegetables (such as Big Moose, Turk’s Turban, Blue Doll, Red French and Lesotho Charlie) and their owners compete in categories which include Most Beautiful, Weirdest, Funniest, Smallest, Best-Dressed (yes, pumpkin), and Best Carved.” But the section which “has the judges (diplomatically selected outsiders) scratching their heads most is Sexiest Pumpkin”.

Would that be the gorgeous Hubbard Squash wearing the daring pole-dancer’s thong? Or are we looking for something more discreet, not necessarily shaped like a love nut from the Seychelles?”. Nieu-Bethesda artist Albert Redelinghuys, write Du Toit and Marais, seems to know the answer. “Spend time with the pumpkins, look deeper and you will see most of them have amazingly sensual curves.” Best served hot, presumably.

Photo: Nieu-Bethesda sculptor Frans Boekkooi with Athol Fugard bust. Photo: Chris Marais

But even between these exotic towns, there are curiosities you may whizz past if you hadn’t read this kind of traveller’s guide first. Like the stone memorial on your left on the road from Middelburg to Richmond. After a battle with British forces, Commandant JC Lötter and Lieutenant PJ Wolfaardt were captured and executed on this spot.

The stone bears the etching of a riempies chair, a symbol of two men who were seated here back in October 1901 and executed by firing squad.”

Not long ago we drove along that road, but before we had read this book, so we whizzed by, ignorant. Now we know to look for it, stop, and take in another of the gazillions of secret delights that the Karoo holds in its ancient gaze. DM

Road Tripper – Eastern Cape Karoo, A Traveller’s Companion, by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. MLM Publishers. Available at many shops and farm stalls throughout the Karoo and from their online bookstore.

Disclosure: Marais and Du Toit are also personal friends of the writer.

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