One night in Brandvlei – Karoo koeksisters at the front door to the Big Nothing
A tribute to the late Jaci Farrell, an extraordinary woman who made koeksisters in faraway places.
Brandvlei. If you like the bright lights, if you like to boogie (as the old disco song goes), then pass on by. Brandvlei is the front door to the Big Nothing, the frontier lands between the Karoo and Bushmanland, where the Kalahari begins.
If you ever staged Survivor Brandvlei, your best contestants would be a Gobi desert yak driver, an Apache hunter from the dry wastes of New Mexico, an Aborigine tracker from the Australian Outback, a Tuareg warrior from the Sahara and Leon Schuster, because you need one helluva sense of humour to survive out here.
Ou Brand’s town
Brandvlei was named after Ou Brand, one of the leading trekboers of this area between Calvinia and Kenhardt, near the Orange river. And even Ou Brand didn’t stay for long around here. He would hunt a bit, graze his flocks for a short while and, keeping an eye cocked on the weather patterns, would move off to greener pastures like Loeriesfontein in the west.
Brandvlei is also where the Sak river comes to die. It rises 450km away in the Nuweveld Mountains near Beaufort West, meanders its way up here and simply expires into the Groot Vloer (Big Floor). Which is a bit like a dried-up mini-version of the Okavango Delta.
Brandvlei and environs were once the hunting grounds of the San Bushmen. Their numbers were wiped out in the ongoing wars with trekboers and other pastoralists, but they’re still here in practically every face you see in town.
In 1929, Sir Malcolm Campbell passed this place on his way to Verneukpan to try to break the world land speed record in his Blue Bird.
Paragliders occasionally hang out here because the air is pretty thermic. Birders come here to seek out the endemic red lark. And then there are the usual suspects: backroads travel journos like us, tourists who have lost their way and people like Jaci Farrell, who always had the urge to live in places so remote that carrier pigeons, sniffer dogs and US Army drones would have to work really hard to track her down.
We met the reclusive Jaci Farrell back in September 2009, on our first visit to Brandvlei. Jaci would have fitted in perfectly with the characters of the infamous Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca. She was a free-spirited woman of mystery who had been living in remote spots around the country for much of her adult life.
Hollywood in Brandvlei
Sometime in the mid-2000s, she relocated to Brandvlei from the West Coast, bought a little house and turned it into an art deco shrine to some of Hollywood’s long-dead movie stars. Jaci ran a coffee shop out of the house and slept in a back room – in splendid isolation. We saw her again in the spring of 2013, when we returned to her town – which some of the more witty locals call “Brand Fly”.
Jaci’s house was now the Casablanca B&B and Camping Site. She came out to greet us and I was thrilled to see Jaci still retained the aura of an international woman of mystery. She wore dark glasses and a peaked hat that half-covered her face. And she still had itchy feet.
“I’ve just come back from Luderitz,” she said, with a certain degree of longing.
Jaci’s ultimate dream is to own a fully equipped Unimog all-terrain truck she can live in.
“I would drive around the country and make jams from all the wild fruits in the veld.”
The koeksister queen
On her travels through the years, from dorp to dorp, Jaci Farrell used her koeksister-baking skills to pay her way. People still talk about her amazing koeksisters, which she has smoused from Hartbeespoort Dam to Hofmeyr, Paternoster to Brandvlei, which is not that far from Putsonderwater.
Jaci was the queen of the “koeksister surprise”: she dipped some in Schnapps syrup, others in white chocolate.
“And then I make a koeksister dipped in brandy – I call it a dronksister,” she said.
We dropped the gear off in our room in Casablanca. The walls were festooned with Elvis Presley and James Dean posters, old Coke signs and, even more remarkably, a selection of church and party dresses from the 1960s.
Ghost town in the dry country
The next morning, well before a velvet grey dawn, we drove out to find the ghost village of Onderste Dorings (Bottom Thorns) which lies on the instep of the Groot Pan (Big Pan). This is how you get there. You drive about 30km north and then turn right on the Swartvlei road and drive on for two klicks until you see the windpump on your right – and a gate on your left. Then scan the horizon for a ruin.
You could see this was once a fairly substantial settlement. Although thick walls still stood firm here and there, thorn bushes and birds had taken over the interiors and the roofs had been stripped long ago; and even though a tiny windpump dam showed signs of groundwater, the landscape was one season away from desert.
This made it hard to believe that, nearly 150 years ago, Bishop Simon of Pella and his assistant, Brother Leon, trekked down here with a Khoikhoi retinue in the midst of a monumental flooding that left their wagon “on a little island surrounded by water as far as the eye could see”.
“The inhabitants of the district have learnt to take advantage of the river floods. They have ploughed these lands and planted them to wheat, oats, and rye. In good years, they reap thousands of bags of grain.” But that was all a long, long time ago.
Back to the Kitchen
We had to rush back to Casablanca for my wife’s first koeksister masterclass with Jaci Farrell. I was an interested behind-the-camera observer and tasting volunteer. In the kitchen, Jaci had already prepared some of her legendary pastries; we were astonished to find that one did not plait the dough together. She took two lengths, about as long as your hand, pinched them together at one end, twirled them and tossed them with the deftness that spoke of long practice. Then the twisted dough was dropped into the waiting hot oil. When it was golden, it went into the cold sugar syrup and then into a colander to drain.
The koeksisters had a lingering taste of cinnamon or nutmeg. Delicious. My wife asked for the recipe and it was as if she’d requested the guide to inhaling and exhaling:
“Just some flour and water and salt and so on.” Nothing could have been easier to Jaci, it seems.
What fascinated us was the economic set-up of a koeksister enterprise. For 30c of ingredients, you can generate a rand of turnover. Koeksisters have the additional virtue of freezing well, so they are easy to store. And who doesn’t love a koeksister, that juicy and secret budget stretcher of women all over South Africa? Certainly not the patrons of Casablanca Overnight Accommodation & Camping up in Brand Fly. There by the pans where the Karoo and Kalahari meet. DM/ML