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Williston, a Karoo Hoogland farming town – almonds, hard rocks and the Nama Riel

Williston, a Karoo Hoogland farming town  – almonds, hard rocks and the Nama Riel
The magic of the Nama Riel. Image: Chris Marais

The rural culture of Williston is all about stonecraft and traditional dance.

On 10 July 1768, Johan Abraham Nel from Stellenbosch stopped at a fountain near the Sak River to await the birth of his son. To commemorate his arrival, Nel planted an almond tree. Over the years, it grew into a massive shady oasis for passing man and animal alike. 

Nearly a century later, two Rhenish missionaries camped under the almond tree and decided to establish a station at this spot, calling it Amandelboom (almond tree).

williston - Williston – at the heart of Route 63 in the Northern Cape.

Williston – at the heart of Route 63 in the Northern Cape. Image: Chris Marais

In 1883, the town of Williston was proclaimed here, named after a Cape Government official called Hampden Willis. But the local township is still called Amandelboom.

Modern-day Williston is a farming town with enormous character. One of the most interesting features of the area is the stone craftsmanship, evident in a number of old settler corbelled houses and, unique to this region, very creative tombstone engravings. Most of these are the work of a legendary gravestone cutter called Cornelius de Waal, who would often be commissioned by farmers in the outlying areas to cut a family member’s gravestone.

The stately sandstone NG Church in Williston. Williston

The stately sandstone NG Church in Williston. Image: Chris Marais

williston Legendary gravestone cutter Cornelius de Waal.

Legendary gravestone cutter Cornelius de Waal. Image: Chris Marais

“De Waal” gravestones, with their signature flowery flourishes and quaintly spelt wording, have gained a certain cult status. You find them here and there in the district, being gradually munched up by sandstone-eating lichen.

Williston is also one of the cultural centres of the Nama Riel, the dance of farmworkers and sheep shearers and said to be connected to the nightly fireside rituals of the San people. 

The Nama Riel has been performed like this for nearly a century in the tiny hamlets and on the isolated farmsteads of the Karoo. It tells lovers’ tales, it mimics everyday animals, it dramatises the hunt, it is danced in buckskins or formal outfits, and it moves to a magical rhythm.

Cross-country travellers are also drawn to the quirky Williston Mall, an innovative set of courtyard shops which also offers meals and accommodation. Booking for a stay at the Williston Mall is essential.

williston The quirky Williston Mall – a true Karoo oasis.

The quirky Williston Mall – a true Karoo oasis. Image: Chris Marais

williston One of the many corbelled houses in the Williston area.

One of the many corbelled houses in the Williston area. Image: Chris Marais

williston - Langbaken Cheese – from the middle of the Karoo.

Langbaken Cheese – from the middle of the Karoo. Image: Chris Marais

Another feature of interest in the Williston area is a cheese-making business on Langbaken farm near the town. The farm straddles the Sak River, which rises in the Nuweveld Mountains near Beaufort West and flows northwest through Williston. The Sak is the Karoo’s answer to the Okavango – an ephemeral river delta that sinks underground long before reaching the sea. Only in times of sustained high rainfall is there running water, ending in a shallow lake that spreads and slowly soaks away into the sands north of Brandvlei.

All the Langbaken cheeses are named after their tough terroir: Karoo Crumble, Karoo Blue, Karoo Swiss, Karoobossie, Karoo Sunset and Williston. Visitors are welcome to visit the farm and sample their cheeses.

Where to stay

Die Ark Guesthouse (Williston Mall): 072 0187 288; 053 391 3659 or [email protected]

Williston Bed & Breakfast: 053 391 3069 or 053 391 3690, or [email protected]

Where to eat

Manna Restaurant: 053 391 3000

What to do

Langbaken Farm: 053 391 4161 or [email protected]

Explore the area with a guide: Renowned local historian Elsa van Schalkwyk and Cora Steenkamp of Williston offer fascinating tours into the stony land and corbelled houses around the town. Here you can see Cornelius de Waal’s extraordinary gravestones in the veld, and learn about the lifestyles and food in this region centuries ago. Rates average R200 per person per day, but are negotiable depending on the number of people. Contact Elsa van Schalkwyk on 072 074 0912 or Cora Steenkamp on 082 463 3927. DM/ML

“Karoo Roads”, “Karoo Roads II” and “Moving to the Platteland” by By Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit book covers.

‘Karoo Roads’, ‘Karoo Roads II’ and ‘Moving to the Platteland’ by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit book covers.

For an insider’s view on life in the Karoo, get the three-book special of Karoo Roads, Karoo Roads II and Moving to the Platteland – Life in Small Town South Africa by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais for only R720, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at [email protected]

In case you missed it, also read Legends of a grand old railway station in the Karoo – Putsonderwater Ghost Station

Legends of a grand old railway station in the Karoo – Putsonderwater Ghost Station


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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jill Richards says:

    A ‘shady oasis for man and animal alike’? What about women?

    • Malcolm Royal says:

      Women don’t dance ‘The Nama Riel’.

      So, just maybe, they aren’t allowed in Williston unless they are accompanied by either Tanie van Schalkwyk or Tanie Steenkamp on a Guided Tour.

      Remember to book accommodation before you set off.

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