Snow Day in the Karoo
In the middle of a killer drought comes a wicked blizzard one weekend in the Karoo, turning a road trip home into a beautiful snow patrol with patches of pure nightmare.
We hear the insistent knocking outside from deep, deep in the snuggy folds of a down duvet way before dawn in our hideaway at the Richmond Café & Rooms, and the urgent voice that follows:
“Chris! Hey Chris! You guys have to come and see this!”
Must we, I wonder? What fresh hell awaits? Has a tree fallen over and crushed the beloved Karoo Space bakkie outside? My wife and I scramble out of bed, shuffle into some woollen slippers, open the door and walk right into a blue-white wonderland. Our friend and host Nicol Grobler is pointing with amazement at a Karoo courtyard gone utterly Christmas-crazy.
Let’s rewind here.
It’s early September 2018, what we call “technical springtime” but still really winter in the Karoo. We’ve been on a three-day gig in the little Northern Cape town of Fraserburg, are packed up and heading out when I see a snowflake drift onto my wife’s head. Like an ever-so-gentle alien landing.
A sinister sense of snow
You never know precisely when or where snow will fall, but when it does, things always start in a predictable sequence of events. Firstly, Snow Report’s Facebook page gleefully announces the possibility of snow and where it is likeliest with festive little blue stars on a map of South Africa. Then come the more measured but serious warnings from the SA Weather Service, specifically for small livestock farmers (mostly sheep and the more sensitive Angora goats). They talk about “disruptive snowfalls on high ground”.
If the additional words “strong cut-off lows” are mentioned, then you know it is going to be hectic – a long, cold spell that will take a Game of Thrones grip on the land. But first, the ice is preceded by hot Berg winds that bring high fire danger, bending grasses, bushes, trees and spirits, leaving the land, animals and people irritable, parched and panting. As the barometer plummets past a certain point, the weather abruptly switches. The winds change direction and drop in temperature to ice cream headache levels. Grey, wet-looking clouds sweep low over the mountains, gathering and gathering until the peaks are completely hidden.
Snowfalls in the Karoo
One of the Karoo’s little-known superpowers is the ability to occasionally do snow-globe imitations at odd times. Anyone in Nieu-Bethesda, for example, can tell you that the Compassberg has had snow on its jagged ironstone peak every month of the year except February.
Sutherland, of course, is regularly blanketed with great drifts of the white stuff, as is the eastern side of the Karoo, where the Sneeuberg, Winterberg and Grootwinterhoekberge loom over the landscape. Here the high passes – Wapadsberg, Lootsberg and Swaershoek – are often closed.
So we’re driving eastwards and chattering about all of the above. But we just can’t make any sense out of that snowflake back there in Fraserburg. No one we meet along the way in dorpies like Loxton and Victoria West puts any store by that snowflake, because they’ve been looking to the skies for rain these many months with no relief. They have to live with decimated livestock herds, barren veld and dwindling savings. Soon there will be hard words with bank managers. This drought has brought the Karoo to its collective knees.
The Christmas courtyard
By the time we pitch up at our last stop, Richmond, that first snow sighting is forgotten. What follows is a Friday-night feast with friends at the café, complete with red wine and songs from the Sixties. A kind of huiskonsert, with some bemused strangers at distant tables wondering if this is how we plattelanders usually behave. Just gryp ‘n kitaar en laat waai.
So back to the pre-dawn, the suddenly-Christmas courtyard, Nicol in the middle of it all and us scooting inside to throw on warm clobber and grab cameras for a frantic photo session on the streets of Richmond village.
We begin our white-walking, as one does, with a bracing cappuccino on the stoep of the café. Below and to the south down the main drag, Richmond seems to have turned the page from a stark, grey late-winter hamlet not lacking in ramshackle features into something you expect to see on the lid of a large box of Swiss chocolates.
I don’t know whether to shoot away at just about everything I see, gulp down another mug of fancy coffee or break into a Yuletide yodel with the utter gemütlichkeit of it all.
A swarm of snow bees
Every tattered broekielace balcony, every gaunt old tree, every pitched roof and every barbed wire fence has been transformed into exquisite filigree. Lights left on overnight all around Richmond become Christmas decorations as the snow keeps falling gently to the ground.
“It’s like a swarm of snow bees,” says my wife as she sticks out her tongue for a taste of snowflake after snowflake.
Apart from our excited babblings, the town is shrouded in silence. Even the crunch of our boots is muffled, accompanied by the frenzied click of camera shutters and the occasional plop of heavy snow from an overloaded tree. Not one bird sings – yet.
On the walk up a side street to a little hill called Vegkop, the normally blue-green agaves have become graceful monochrome. Tall pines nearby carry snow tinsel on every branch. Clumps of prickly pears are rendered magical. Still, you feel like you’ve been suddenly transported to midwinter Transylvania deep in the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe, possibly about to meet a brace of craggy Vlads over some hot cabbage rolls and a glass of home-made plum liquor.
Good morning, Richmond
And then three donkeys, bless their souls, stick their inquisitive ears out from behind the garingbome and you just know you’re right back in the Karoo.
By the time we reach the classic Richmond postcard setting of the old Excelsior Motors tow-truck parked in front of its art deco home base, the local kids and their brakke are awake and in the streets. There are whoops of delights from many doorways as children canter out still in their jammies and begin to snow-fight with gusto. Birds awaken and begin to sing in the trees. Life has, just for now, become one of those old classic animated Disney movies.
Pictures done, we return and pack the bakkie. Our hosts implore us to stay an extra night but we have a dog waiting with the neighbours at home. We hit the N1 to the north and suddenly the gentle snowfall has become a blizzard.
Shelter from the storm
Less than 20km up the road, we pull in for breakfast at the newly-opened Karoo Padstal. The guest house next to the farm stall has just been painted bright red, and it stands out in the snow like a beacon. My wife goes on a minor shopping spree, loading up with Langbaken cheese, springbok salamis, a fresh loaf of sourdough bread and a bag of those devilish chocolate-nutty brittle things your dentist loves you to buy in bulk.
“Just in case we break down along the way,” she says.
For breakfast, I’m eyeing the just-baked biltong, blue cheese and green fig quiches.
In drifts a posse of weather-beaten fellows who are on a Karoo road trip. They dive into the coffee and peanut clusters and sit chatting on lounge furniture, not keen to take on the blizzard outside.
Ghost bird, ghost road
We have to head back on the highway. At Hanover, we leave the N1 and join the N10 to Middelburg, stopping briefly on the flyover for a photograph and nearly getting flattened by a hulking, honking truck that appears from somewhere in the white soup to the east.
Everything beyond our windscreen is utterly lovely, and the photographer in us just wants to jump out of the bakkie and frame up image after image: ghost trees, ghost fences, a fly-past of ghost birds, a confused herd of ghost sheep and now, alas, a ghost of a way home.
Who stole the road? And do the trucks not see us? They slice through the storm at speed, veering away from us at the last millisecond. We just keep driving, both of us peering out on the hunt for those precious yellow lines.
The worst of the weather lies up there, at the crest of the Winterhoek Pass.
“All I want is my little family around me, you and me and the dog in front the fire,” is my nervous snow-drive mantra. “Maybe something on the telly.”
And so it comes to pass. After Middelburg and all the way to our hometown of Cradock, snow becomes sleet. By the early afternoon, we are parked on sofas under Pep Stores fluffy blankets in front of a roaring doringhout fire, watching other folks’ dramas on Netflix. With a happy old dog stretched out on his mat nearby, steaming gently.
Home at last, and out of storm’s way. DM/ML