Klein Karoo slow fare and tales at the bar

Klein Karoo slow fare and tales at the bar
A tapestry of truth stranger than fiction emerged at the bar in the Karoo Art Hotel. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Life’s stories unfold in these small towns, where you can learn how to cook venison in a potjie, hike in velvet green, and throw caution to the winds, just a little.

Everyone knows that stories and gossip are the lifeblood of small towns, and Barrydale is no exception. Where better for these tales to coalesce and grow tails than at the town’s nerve centre? At the Karoo Art Hotel’s dusky, wood panelled bar, between sips of locally-distilled tipple (Heerlik Brandy and Joseph Barry Muscat) a tapestry of truth stranger than fiction emerged.

There’s the brotherly rivalry of two male residents with oddly similar haircuts, think Cain and Abel of the Bible. To add fuel to fire, both men lay claim to playing the guitar – and all this came to a head when they shared a house during lockdown.

Other conversational touchstones were a local businessman said to have smuggled cocaine in from Worcester, a pet monkey aged 31, and skinny-dipping in mountain pools alongside the nearby Tradouw Pass, a geological wonderland of exposed, layered rock. Tradouw means “way of the women”, derived from the Khoi “tra” for women and “dau” for way through.

Behind the hotel bar, a former bodyguard to Patricia de Lille, Helen Zille and Michael Jackson related anecdotes, while a manager gestured to the in-house musician to pipe down as an upstairs room had complained. The musician continued singing covers, saying his instruction had been to create “a vibe”.

I lifted a log into the corner fireplace, pausing to pat a dog. At the next table, a couple deep into a bottle of red said they were from Cape St Francis, on their way to Cape Town. This is where they met years back – in Sea Point – where she worked in the pharmacy off Glengariff. They’d been married for 40 years, they said, their tones implying neither celebration nor lament. At night-end, he gently pushed her out of the room in a wheelchair. 

I lifted a log into the corner fireplace, pausing to pat a dog. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Oscar Wilde said moderation is a fatal thing – nothing succeeds like excess. On this trip to Barrydale, we decided to give moderation a wide berth, instead meeting excess with excess. An astute friend once remarked: “More is more.” (Not to be confused with the Afrikaans, “môre is môre”.) The goal for the weekend was to savour improbable amounts of slow-cooked fare, offset by brisk footsteps in winter-cloaked nature. You know: calorie neutral.

Kindly, a hotel employee offered to show us the way to a tucked away waterfall, a 10 kilometre hike towards the Langeberge. “There’s not much to see out there, you know,” he cautioned. “Just mountains.”

I assured him mountains would suffice just fine as we parked our car outside Barrydale’s township of Smitsville, strolling past roaming pigs and donkeys and citrus orchards, deeper into the Klein Karoo. This is a different kind of nature, unlike the postcard-pretty scenes in children’s books. This beauty is wild and barren and quite impossible to capture on film; lunar landscape reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s line: “Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.”

South Africa’s arid Klein Karoo is home to succulents, proteas and wispy fynbos. (Photo: Biénne Huisman)

Along the pathway were aloes and various proteas: pale, red, sleek and fluffy. Our guide pointed out moon flowers (the hallucinogenic) but my favourite were pink paperlike flowers, boldly bristling shin-high. Down a steep ravine, the waterfall crashed into a Coca-Cola hued pool. White rocks leaned close; beyond that, the escarpment like crumpled green velvet.

Chef Derek Lowe offers guests venison potjie cooking lessons at the Karoo Art Hotel in Barrydale. (Photo: Biénne Huisman)

Back at the hotel, chef Derek Lowe greeted us in the dining room for a venison potjie cooking lesson. Now, while the Karoo Art Hotel recently changed owners – with a subsequent facelift and general sense of flux – Derek has been around for seven years. With a slightly complicated gait and a broad smile, he commands space with quiet authority, not unlike the room’s huge wall-appointed AGA stove.

On a table in front of the stove, Derek laid out ingredients: bay leaves and rosemary, fresh-chopped garlic, stock. A metal bowl contained cubed venison, sourced from neighbouring game reserve Leopard’s Rock, which once belonged to Wilbur Smith. At the game farm, in a two-bedroom cottage under trees – now available for short term rent – Wilbur wrote his 2001 Egyptian slave trade novel, Warlock.

The AGA stove in the hotel dining room in its striking checkerboard floor setting. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

On a chopping board, Derek sliced leeks, carrots and onions; fingers dancing nimble around the sharp steel blade. The meat and vegetables were layered in a sizzling black pot, swathed in red wine, and left to stew for three hours. The secret to his venison potjie? “Quality meat,” said Derek. “Matured in a cold room for at least two weeks.” I would trust him to know. He has captained kitchens around the world, notably for dignitaries on St Helena Island and King Mswati III in Swaziland.

That night we paired venison stew with Joubert Tradauw Syrah 2016; spicy cherry notes between tender, succulent mouthfuls. However, the dish that stole my heart was the starter. A chilled soup of that most humble of vegetables: the cucumber, laced with mint. The surprise ingredient? A swirl of harissa flavoured yoghurt, cultured in the hotel’s own kitchen.

Chatting to Derek during dinner, inevitably the conversation turned to the weather. “This is not cold, this is nothing,” he exclaimed. “Wait until there’s snow on the mountains!” I have learned that on the platteland, people take great pride in the rigours of their weather.

There’s mention of Ronnie Price, of Ronnie’s Sex Shop (the dinky Route 62 bar some 20 kilometres away), who is dealing with a family health crisis. Some Barrydale folk are helping gather money for treatment.

Everyone has a story, and reasons for that story too. Nowhere is this more apparent than at a small town hotel; talking to its people, and those passing through. The Karoo Art Hotel’s pediment reads 1937 – a solid tradition, yet transient with footsteps, quirks and dreams.

Hiking to the waterfall outside Barrydale, jewel green Langeberg escarpment to the south. (Photo: Biénne Huisman)

Just outside town, a different story takes shape. Against a pallet of burnt clay, greys, and tumbled green, the horizon begins. Rolling moonscape like a Pink Floyd intro – looped, never to reach climax. A breathlessness for something that never quite comes. Which is perfect, because that breathlessness becomes the main event.

On the Klein Karoo’s fringes, close your eyes and a different truth unfolds. A story bigger than time and voices. No reasons required. DM/TGIFood

Read Tony Jackman’s column on Karoo hotels, including the Karoo Art.

Biénne Huisman was a guest of Cape Country Routes and Karoo Art Hotel |


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