House of Rock – corbelled igloos in the Karoo
Somewhere on the fabled R63, heading west from the Great North Road into the Hard Man’s Karoo, stands a deserted piece of trekboer history.
Many years ago, that roadside dwelling was our first sighting of the classic Karoo corbelled house. But you had to look very carefully, because its faded white exterior had blended in nearly perfectly with the washed-out tones of the veld.
We never found out who owned it, whether a shepherd still used it or who had built it. To this day, it remains a mystery to us – which is just how we’d like to keep it.
It did, however, spark our intense interest in the corbelled houses of the Upper Karoo Quadrant bound by Williston, Carnarvon, Loxton and Fraserburg. Besides the fascinating design of these stony beehives, what went on inside them? How did their first residents live, out here in the far reaches of the Northern Cape?
The guru of Karoo corbelled houses is James Walton, noted South African vernacular architecture expert, who completed a long and laborious trip around the “Corbel Quadrant” back in 1960, recording the particulars of dozens of these stone igloos.
In a slightly offhand manner the year before, the National Monuments Council had asked Walton to check out this “peculiar type of rondawel” if he ever happened to pass through the Upper Karoo.
Nevertheless, Walton made the trip, fell under the spell of the corbelled buildings, compiled an extensive report and then published a document titled Early Settlement in the Great Karroo five years later. Clearly, Walton had become intrigued not only with the architecture of Karoo corbelled structures, but also the daily minutiae of those who had built them.
Later on, he produced a book called Homesteads and Villages of South Africa, in which his work on corbelled houses also featured.
In the Agterveld
But books can only tell you so much – the road has to take the story further. In the spring of 2008, we are in Williston to spend a day in the company of Elsa van Schalkwyk; we meet her in the early hours before dawn and by the time the sun rises we have crossed the Sak River.
“Now we are in the Agterveld,” says van Schalkwyk, using the old frontier term for finally being in an area out of colonial (Dutch or British) control.
Passing Ongeluksfontein and Benoudfontein (how did these places come by their sad names?), we take the Vanwyksvlei road to an abandoned building on Brownslaagte Farm. And there, apart from that familiar R63 roadside attraction, we meet our first Karoo corbelled house. It stood out like an architectural alien landing.
A Karoo corbelled house was made with rows of flat stones, each layer placed a little more inwards from ceiling height, until a dome-shaped building was achieved. The peak was then topped off by a flat stone, which could be removed to release smoke from the hearth.
Around Williston, people still speak of “Tiensjielings” (Ten Shillings) and “Gedaanwerk” (Done with Work), two men who built superb corbelled houses on the farms Schuinshoogte and Arbeidersfontein.
Williston has adopted the corbelled house as its icon. Aubrey Klaaste is a Williston stonemason, and to add another little income stream to the family coffers, he makes miniature corbelled houses for tourists.
The classic corbelled farmstead
These days, travellers want authenticity, and it doesn’t get more real than a couple of nights spent at Stuurmansfontein, the gold standard of corbelled house accommodation not far from Carnarvon.
Even James Walton was gobsmacked when he saw this place more than 60 years ago:
“I have studied the corbelled huts of Italy, France and Britain and I fully expected the Karee Berge buildings to be similar to the less-imposing examples from these parts of Europe.
“I was both delighted and amazed, therefore, with my first distant glimpse of Stuurmansfontein as we passed through the nek overlooking the farmstead. Against these burnt semi-desert surroundings, which had seen practically no rain for four years, the tiny whitewashed homestead stood out clearly in the brilliant sunshine. Even at this distance the giant stone beehives were a strange and fascinating sight: one which I had never expected in South Africa…”
After passing Carnarvon on the R63, we take the Stuurmansfontein turn-off, pass the elegant main farmstead and drive on tracks outlined with pale amber Bushman grass, as a looming roadside windpump creaks its welcome. Down a valley, up a slope and suddenly we’re at the ancient corbelled house that is Stuurmansfontein.
The old kitchen has a two-plate stove, candles and carry-water pots and we prepare pasta, mushrooms, broccoli and pesto, then place two straight-backed chairs carefully out on the stoep at the front door. You could not ask for a better, more romantic dinner spot. Our chairs become front-row seats to the best light show on Earth: the Original Karoo Planetarium. We eat in absolute silence, occasionally looking up in awe at the Celestial Highway above us.
When it gets chilly outside, we finally scamper in and discover more of the magic that is Stuurmansfontein. We light all the candles we can find and dot them about the place. In the rich light, it’s possible to relive the frontier days when bywoner (tenant farmer) Fanie Bergh and his family occupied this fold in the hills.
According to local legend, the Botha family (who still own the farm) let Oom Fanie and his folk live here for free. And they wanted for nothing. They planted fruit trees: grapes, quinces, apples, oranges, figs and pomegranates, using the attic as a storeroom. A windpump supplied them with plenty of fresh water. And they had roses growing all over the place, those Heritage-type roses with a very strong fragrance.
Tannie Bergh was well known in the district for her great coffee, and her secret lay in the dried figs she crushed in with the beans. When the family needed a chop or two, Oom Fanie would go out and shoot a sheep, they’d butcher it and store the cuts in the coolest place they could find: under the marital bed. And if it dripped a little blood, well, that was fine. The floors were made of blood and dung anyhow.
When the Berghs planted wheat, they would separate the grain from the chaff on the threshing floor about 200m down the hill, storing the grain in another special little purpose-built corbelled house. They hardly ever needed to go shopping in town.
The Beehive house route
Our next visit to a corbelled Karoo house is at Osfontein, also in the Carnarvon district. There, we find a magnificent old hearth in the oldest part of the building. The domed roof of this section is darkened by old smoke. It looks and feels like an ancient Tuscan kitchen that has been converted into an intimate restaurant, complete with fireside frontage. In the bedroom section, we lie back on the hand-quilted throws and look up at the massive, mesmerising stone dome above.
In the late winter of 2018, just before the legendary snow blizzard that freezes up most of the Karoo for a very long weekend, we are tooling around the veld with Fraserburg farmer Pieter le Roux.
We arrive at a far distant and tiny stone corbelled house, which Le Roux is trying, somewhat in vain, to keep together, but it is falling apart ever so slowly, like a cracked egg.
Apparently a little more than a century ago, this area was farmed by Oom Sarel Marais and his wife Tant Johanna. He was very short, she was large. “This little corbel was the farm school,” says Le Roux. “A teacher was imported to educate 12 local children. She was known to be a health and fitness fanatic.”
One day, Oom Sarel came in to check if she was all right and was greeted with the sight of his new teacher testing the beams, suspended upside-down like a bat.
“Every night she would do pull-ups and hang from the beams, probably in her undies,” says Le Roux. “The children loved spying on her.”
All of which leads one simply to conclude that, in many ways, life in a corbelled Karoo house rocks. DM/ML
Stuurmansfontein Corbelled House
Tel: 053 382 6097 or 087 802 0819 or 082 221 7500 or 072 352 8070
Email: [email protected]
Osfontein Guest Farm, Carnarvon
Tel: 072 310 7979 or 082 662 4092
Email: [email protected]
Upper Karoo Tombstone Tour: Elsa van Schalkwyk
Tel: 072 074 0919 or 053 391 3069
Email: [email protected]
This is an extract from Karoo Roads II – More Tales from the Heartland, by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.
For an insider’s view on life in the Dry Country, get the three-book special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III (illustrated in black in white) for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at [email protected]