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Steytlerville — a kind community, a kick-ass cabaret and a car bar of classic roadsters

Steytlerville — a kind community, a kick-ass cabaret and a car bar of classic roadsters
The cheery main street of Steytlerville, where family crests of many in the community stand proud. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Steytlerville doesn’t have the Cango Caves, the Swartberg Pass or a Disney Castle to call its own. Dark legend, however, claims it once had a shape-shifter that could change from a man to a monkey to a fruit bat to a pig – but that’s another story.

What Steytlerville, the charming little village in the shadow of the Baviaanskloof, does have is a main street like no other in South Africa. Maybe the world.

The family crests of most of the locals of all backgrounds are hoisted up on telephone poles. And thereby hangs a tale.

When the Steytlerville tourism group began at the turn of the century, farmer-journalist Linda Henderson and her friends came up with the idea of celebrating the residents as the main attraction of the town.

“But not every family had its own crest,” she says. “So we had to design many of them, firstly by collecting the family histories. And then we took suggestions as to what symbols to use in the heralds.”

That’s why, if you look carefully, you’ll see shopping trolleys, angora goats, bunches of grapes and rugby posts alongside the regular rampant antelope, shields and fleur-de-lis on the various family crests of this laid-back dorpie in the Karoo.

Steytlerville

Jacques Rabie and Mark Hinds bring a special sparkle of fun and Saturday night follies to the Karoo. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Karroo Theatrical Hotel  

In a former life, the Karroo Hotel on the outskirts of Steytlerville was a bit of a tequila shack. Or, in local parlance, a brandy palace.

Then, through the efforts of present owners Jacques Rabie and Mark Hinds, it became the Alhambra of the Karoo – a place of beauty, entertainment and surprise.

In its new guise as the Karroo Theatrical Hotel, the once-rogue Art Deco outpost presents a weekend burlesque performance that stars Jacques in sequins and Mark on piano.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Steytlerville – the Karoo village where everybody knows your name

Jacques is the hardest-working cross-dressing singer in the Karoo. By day, you can find him marching about the estate, fixing the gate motor out at the entrance, or in the kitchen, arranging the dinner menu.

Come sundown on a Saturday, Jacques is backstage at Grimaldi’s Theatre in the hotel, swiftly becoming Dame Leyla Lamborghini. In the course of the evening, Dame Leyla will have squeezed in and out of at least six cocktail dresses, which come complete with feather boas and high heels. 

Mark, with a stage name of Freddie Ferrari, is the frontman for the hotel and a concert pianist to boot. He was also once a famous international white-face clown, but he loves his new Karoo life more than the world stage.

Together Dame Leyla and Freddie, Jacques and Mark, all give one helluva show. And it’s Reservations Only.

Steytlerville

Magnificent cars on display at the Pegasus Early Motoring Museum. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The car bar  

The sign to the Pegasus Early Motoring Museum spins in the wind on the main street of Steytlerville.

To make it even more inviting, there is a charmingly turned-out verandah with the promise of fine coffee. Park here for a spell and ask co-owner Michelle Prinsloo about her muffins, which come in cheese, carrot, apple and dark chocolate flavours. They all rock.

After stoep snacks, take a stroll across the courtyard to the museum, and please, heed the warning at the entrance that promises free amputations to anyone fiddling with the timeless displays inside.

This is a typical Karoo traveller’s treat for petrol heads: a Willys Jeep, a Fairlane, an Opel Manta, an Anglia, a dinkum racing car that once rushed about the Scribante track down in Port Elizabeth and a venerable 1937 Model C Ford.

Michelle’s husband Jurie will tell you:

“Now that we’ve moved to the Karoo, I often find old cars in farmers’ barns. But I’m stopping now because, as you can see, there’s just no more space.”

Pop in next door at the Aladdin’s Cave Collectables Shop and check out Jurie’s restored treasures. You might discover that timeworn magazine you were hunting for last year – or that ancient piece of enamelware you suddenly cannot live without.

Steytlerville

Lizzy Snoek, the popular restaurant owner in Steytlerville. (Photo: Chris Marais)

A child of the dust 

Lizzy Snoek, who used to work as a housekeeper in Port Elizabeth, discovered Steytlerville while on a holiday trip through the Karoo in 1997. She decided to move here. There were those who wondered if Lizzy would survive the Karoo.

She answered, in her confident way:

“I will surely survive. I am a child of the dust.” After all, Lizzy Snoek had grown up at nearby Mount Stewart, which consists of a railway siding, some trackside dwellings, a trading store and a church on the hill.

Lizzy came to Steytlerville, found a house and established a spaza shop in it. From there she built her restaurant and, subsequently, a respected catering business. Her most epic day of catering to date was when she fed 600 visiting health professionals on World Aids Day. 

“We lit the cooking fires at 4am that day and made them real boerekos – rice, pumpkin and red meat. For that job, I had to hire more pots and employ a team of cooks. But we did it.”

The foreigners who make it down to this part of the world love the vibe of Lizzy’s Khaya. A certain tour operator brings in a busload of Japanese visitors every year. 

Lizzy has also had her fair share of international media coverage, even featuring once in The Beijing Review travel section.

Johan Trollip

Johan Trollip, resident artist and hotelier of Steytlerville. (Photo: Chris Marais)

From the bank to the brush

Here’s a high-flying one-time banker who has decided to play at last.

Johan Trollip once had a safe and secure life in Switzerland. He gave it up and eventually chose to spend his retirement years as a painter in Steytlerville, which he has declared to be his favourite South African town.

Although he paints a great portrait, Trollip says he is fascinated by Karoo landscapes.

“I’m still trying to master elements like depth of field and colour changes out here.”

It would surprise most people to know that Steytlerville has a collective group of more than seven artists who like to collaborate. They’re a mix of amateurs and professionals who share ideas and solve problems together. It’s a good example of the creative class at work in a rural setting.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Enticement and freedom come from living creatively in the platteland

Johan might be living the low-tech life of a painter in a small Karoo town, but he is busy learning the intricacies of social media to spread the word about his work. 

You can find him on Facebook and Instagram – and he even sports a glowing review in TripAdvisor.

“A word of advice to anyone moving to the countryside: market your services well on the internet, so you can sell to the world outside.”

George Craven

George Craven of Noorspoort Guest Farm. His 1980s vision of bringing life back to the platteland was before its time. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Save the platteland  

Back in the early 1980s, George Craven had a vision. At the time, he was a new farmer at Noorspoort, a beautiful piece of land outside Steytlerville.  

This son of rugby legend Danie Craven loved the Karoo. But South Africa was all about urbanisation at that stage, and the boondocks were rapidly emptying. So George launched a campaign to entice city dwellers to the dorps of the country. It was called ROEP – Red Ons Eie Platteland (Restore Our Endangered Platteland).

In those days, you could pick up a country house for R5,000. But sadly, George’s efforts were about 15 years ahead of the curve. 

However, with the internet access we enjoy today, moving to the Platteland makes all kinds of sense. You can bring your business with you and stay as connected as you wish. Consider the quiet streets of Steytlerville and the stark mountains around it and suddenly living in a concrete canyon loses most of its appeal.

Noorspoort is where you walk in the veld, learn how to farm with geese or simply park off and listen to the crazy parrot on the stoep. 

And, if you’re in the market for some wise words, seek out the sage company of one George Craven. DM

‘Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo’ by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.

‘Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo’ by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.

‘Moving to the Platteland: Life in Small Town South Africa’ by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.

‘Moving to the Platteland: Life in Small Town South Africa’ by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.

This is an excerpt from Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. The authors are offering a two-book special of Moving to the Platteland: Life in Small Town South Africa and Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo (both illustrated in black and white) at only R520, including courier costs in South Africa. For enquiries, contact [email protected].

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