TGIFOOD

KAROO DREAMING

Tales from a far distant stoep

(Image by Mzimasi Ndzombane on Unsplash)

The Karoo is a part of everyone it claims and everyone it claims is a part of the Karoo.

The author supports Isabelo, chef Margot Janse’s charity which feeds school children every day. Please support them here

The Karoo claims some of us. We don’t seem to have any say in it. Not that we’re complaining because, if we are and possibly always were Karoo people, it was always coming. It was only a matter of time. 

It was coming when you were little and playing marbles in the earth on the verge outside your house, or making tracks in it to drive your Corgi cars along to the plastic Mobil petrol station dad gave you for your birthday. It was coming when you got your first job in the city and throughout all the years of working and struggling to pay the bills, bringing up your kids and hoping that you were looking after your ageing parents enough because of all the distractions in life that took up nearly all of your time. It was coming when your father died, and then your mother; when you were retrenched and clawed your way back, and when you were finally able to travel and see exotic places once the children had flown the nest. 

If the Karoo has chosen you, there is no resisting it, unless you’re a fool, but if you were a fool it wouldn’t have claimed you anyway. If you have a relentlessly shoddy sense of self worth, as some of us do, and if the Karoo claims you nevertheless, you can take some solace from it, for it may well mean that there is more to you than you give yourself credit for. And when it does claim you, and once you have spent some time in it, and years have gone by, and you’ve assimilated so deeply into it that it is no longer a place you once moved to but has become a part of you, you may stop yourself in your tracks one day and stand dead still, as still as the graves in the Moederkerk grounds, and look around you, and make an inventory of everything you have learnt, of everything the Karoo has taught you, not just about itself, but about yourself, and about life itself and the living of it. 

There’s the Karoo and the Karoo. Groot or Klein, Hantam or Eastern Cape Midlands, Moordenaars or Karoo-Hoogland. That woman traipsing the roadside in her tatty pink skirt, blue socks, patchwork jersey and a ragged doek on her head; her Karoo. That oom with his arm stuck out of his white bakkie window, passing her by without noticing; his Karoo. The rich landowner’s Karoo, the struggling farmer’s karoo; the itinerant worker’s Karoo, the groovy Royal Hotel bartender’s Karoo. Your Karoo or my Karoo. 

It’s nigh on seven years now since my Karoo claimed me. But looking back now I see that its tentacles were reaching out to me even when I was in my late twenties and working for a big city newspaper’s arts department, and one of my favourite colleagues was Johann Potgieter, Pottie, an oversized softy who could write, boy could he write, and he would write magnificently evocative essays about the Karoo, the veld, the terrain, the people, the mountains, the clouds, the bokkies, the poor people in their horse-drawn carts, the weather-marked God-fearing farmers watching the clouds. And when he wrote what he wrote, he would bring both a smile and a tear to your face, and when you read what he’d written you were transported out of your newsroom or office and into the Karoo he was standing in, in his mind, when he wrote it, and something shifted inside of you, though you didn’t know it yet. 

It would be the older you that would find the Karoo you were always meant to be claimed by, and who would drive into a strange old town one Sunday morning when everyone in the dorp was in church, and crawl around the dust roads past the neglected houses with their scuffed-paint afdakkies and their blue 1962 Ford bakkie with no tyres, and the chickens clucking and the ducks quacking at the scrawny brak trying to nip their tail feathers, and who would pull up outside a little dirty pink 1860s house with a sign on it. For Sale. And an estate agent’s number. 

It would take years before you finally succumbed to the spell the Karoo was casting on you. You needed to untangle yourself from your old life, you had business to finish, as a Mafioso might say. You might even move to another country for a while, to get that niggling part of you out of your system before coming to the inevitable realisation of what and who you are. You’d spent many weekends in your Karoo second home at first, drinking too much brandy and vodka, not necessarily together, with your new friends, all of whom you found interesting and not much like anybody you knew back in the city. You’d play petanque, which somebody best not named would call patonk because she thought it was called that because the boules went patonk, patonk, patonk as they slid down the pitch, which of course they don’t because they’re very heavy and the pitch is hard ground. You’d buy a hat, and be lax about what you wore, and become happily accustomed to the joys of loping around in shorts and T-shirts, and pulling in at a friend’s house unannounced, and being welcomed with freshly brewed coffee or a voddy, because that’s what you do in the Karoo, you kuier. And they’d kuier right back at you, arriving at your door unexpectedly and with a smile, a packet of chops and a bottle or two.

“You guys doing anything?”

“We are now!”

And everyone laughing and pulling in, and off the night goes, and more memories are made. 

You find that your new friends are all sorts. 

People who have been in that dorp all their lives, who have lived nowhere else, and whose lives and experiences feed your mind and your soul, and whose old family recipes intrigue and beguile the cook in you. 

People who dress eccentrically and cruised into town one day from the Garden Route, or from Mpumalanga, or from Birmingham via Cape Town, or who arrive one day in a rickety campervan and live in a mate’s backyard with the cat that will become your own, soon, and whose short feline life has now been lived, and is gone from you. 

Artists who gravitate to this or that Karoo dorpie because they find their soul there. It had always been there; they only had to drive deep into a Karoo night and emerge at dawn with their soul lying resplendent before them in a valley that had always been waiting for them. And they drift into town and they find a dusty house with a lopsided afdakkie and a neglected empty kennel and they think, we’ll sit on that stoep and talk Karoo kak, and we’ll braai under that dak out back and we’ll get a dog and put it in that kennel. We’ll buy some boules from a cool store in Stellies and scrape out a pitch and play petanque while we drink Klippies or Jack at sunset, and we’ll wear paint splattered clothes because we’re artists and that’s how we look, and we don’t care if you have a problem with that. 

Jaded Joburgers who only ever wanted to make money, then made it, and could afford to buy a farm somewhere near Prince Albert or a spread in Nieu-Bethesda that’s falling apart like a leg of lamb that’s been in the oven for six hours, and turn it into a real money spinner, but forget that the whole point of moving to the Karoo is to take everything in and just get by, and die forgotten in a wicker chair on the stoep thirty or forty years after you first got there, with your hat on the table, your walking stick resting against your legs, and your brannewyn half drunk. 

Or highfliers who always had a Karoo soul, who weren’t highfliers because they sought riches but were just damned good at what they did, but who found themselves drawn to the Karoo, to the endless vlaktes, to the ewige gebergtes, to the groan of the beast and the swoop of the eagle. Like the great man whose heart ultimately belonged to a farm somewhere near Graaff-Reinet, and you would befriend him, and life would deal him a terrible blow, and your days, in May 2021, would be dulled by the news that he had died in the early hours of the morning, only the other day, a Karoo Lion, felled. Your mind, since then, has been filled with the few but precious memories you have left of Derek Carstens, the dapper demeanour matched by eyes a-twinkle; the supreme intelligence matched by uncommon decency; the takbok he shot for you six years ago and the fallow deer steak you served in your bistro and how you learnt that Afrikaans name for the deer you had known in England. The springbok he provided for the sosaties you sold at the third Karoo Food Festival; the way he defended hunting from the point of view of one who knows, not one who merely thinks; a man who both respects the animal and hunts it, and ultimately farmed it; and the sun-washed Saturday afternoon lunch at the farm only six months ago, with the salmon and the fancy cheeses, the rustic olive tart and the gentle lull of the conversation of people who know that their friend, sitting there, smiling, chatting quietly, is in pain and that the inevitable will have its way with him.

You determine that soon you must get the gang around, when the Chris Marais-Julienne du Toits are back from their latest ramble throughout the Karoo to collect their delectable stories and tidbits of people’s lives, and have a good old Karoo stoepsit or braai, or both, one leading to the other, and drink toasts to a man we all loved and respected. And drink to ourselves too, the four of us, journalists who’d never met but who fetched up in the same Karoo town, who responded to its lure and found friends waiting for them, just like the Karoo was. And Sandra must be there too, for what is the Karoo without Sandra Antrobus in it, Queen of Cradock’s Market Street, just as the Karoo is a part of everyone it claims and everyone it claims is a part of the Karoo. 

If I had any vestige of a doubt left as to where I live now, and what I am, it is laid waste. I am a Son of the Karoo, and I hope it will not be too soon that they will find me there on that stoep, and cart me off to some or other dusty place in the dirt, for I am far from tired of these burnt orange sunsets and these karoobossie fragrances, these deep and abiding people and all the stories to tell and be told. I tip my faded Karoo hat to them all, but right now especially to that Lion, Derek Carstens, whose beautiful soul I mourn today, and to dear Pottie, whose tale is sad to hear and too personal to relate. But if you are reading this, my dear friend never forgotten despite all the vanished years, I hope this brings you both a smile and a tear. DM/TGIFood 

To enquire about Tony Jackman’s book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau) please email him at [email protected]

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All Comments 7

  • Proper journalism. Descriptive, evocative, and beautiful language. I’m up early every Sat eagerly opening Daily Maverick to get to read Tony. Thank you, my Sat read is joyful, long may you yet sit on your stoop and entertain us Tony.

  • Oh wow what an evocative piece on the Karoo. Thank you Tony. I too have been bewitched by this land of coy abundance and can relate to your descriptions with delight.

  • A beautiful read Tony, heartfelt and true to the space. It is wonderful how vast spaces create such extraordinary intimacy. I have an inkling from time in the Namibian sphere. And many stay-overs in little Karoo towns. Thanks.