A traveller’s leisurely guide from Rietbron to Willowmore
The soldierly stance of winter aloes, Saturday night in Rietbron and a donkey ride through Willowmore.
A slow-blooming colour splash brightens every north-facing hillside in the Eastern Cape Karoo each winter, with colonies of ferocious thorn-lined leaves upright and motionless against the icy winds.
In the coldest part of the year, they send up candelabra-like branches with tightly packed cylinders full of sweetness. These inflorescences turn from green to chilli red in a matter of weeks. Then, from the bottom to the top, the flowery minarets ripen, the stamens spill out, and the nectar bar is open.
Bees and sunbirds fuss over them, greedy for their sweet nectar.
Monkeys scamper about, picking the flowers. The reddish pollen sometimes leaves tell-tale lipstick stains on their furtive little faces.
Decades ago, the appearance and disappearance of Aloe flowers indicated the start and end of the Eastern Cape hunting season.
This instantly recognisable plant can be found almost everywhere in the Eastern Cape, and road trips become photographic Aloe safaris. Insider tip: they look particularly splendid on the routes between Cradock, Cookhouse, Makhanda, Graaff-Reinet, Aberdeen, Somerset East, Willowmore, Jansenville and Steytlerville, especially in late June and July.
Everywhere, they occur in small and large colonies, silent sentinels clustered together in companionable groups, or red punctuation marks against snow on ragged peaks. There is a particular magic to standing amidst them, in the company of Aloes, witness to the life they attract in the death of winter. There are dozens of sunbirds and bees by the billion, who come to drink from the energy-giving nectar.
All is quiet in Rietbron
Rietbron lies at the end of a 150-km drive between Beaufort West and Willowmore, taking you across the Amos and Muiskraal Rivers that eventually feed the Sout River which sometimes fills up the rather whimsical-looking flood control dam called Beervlei near Volstruisleegte.
But Rietbron does not specialise in flowing rivers or mountain ridges in the distance. It’s dry and flat, the way the rest of the world regards the whole Karoo.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Rietbron: Splendid isolation in a lovingly restored dusty Karoo village
What Rietbron does well is transport you far from the madding crowds. Its Mother Church has the only springbok steeple in the country. Its roads are dusty. There are donkeys and square Karoo-style houses. And it’s really quiet.
But not, let it be said, without its quirks.
In his book Rietbron: 1913 – 1988, Jaap Snyman records:
“In the time of Dominee Kruger, the church council bought a tape recorder. The Sunday sermons were recorded. Oom Joon van Staden would take the machine around to various aged church members during the week and play it to them so they could also hear the sermon.
“One Sunday afternoon Dominee Kruger was curious to hear how his own voice sounded on tape. So, after lunch he got comfortable and switched on the recorder to listen to himself preaching. He woke up as the congregation was singing the closing hymn…”
Saturday night in Rietbron
One evening, we drag some folding chairs outside our little box cottage, open a bottle of Boplaas Ruby Port from Calitzdorp and toast the very visible policing units as they go swirling round and round the village centre in their bakkies, stirring up dust storms until their headlights shine dimly through the muck.
We break out the Dutch Gouda and Stinging Nettle cheese, sip on more port and sit listening to a surprisingly noisy Karoo night. Donkeys honk and bray from near the graveyard, lapwings ching-chink at the stars and our faithful sixty rand Eveready radio churns out the classics, courtesy of SAfm. Velvet darkness drops over the village and the Southern Cross lifts itself above the church springbokkie.
The black cat from next door (belonging to a very visible policeman) sidles ever closer, intent on a little hunk of cheese. It particularly likes the Stinging Nettle, disappears into the dark and brings a friend over. The two cats then begin to sing for more supper and in a desperate bid to save our cheese, we have to shoo them back into the blackness. Just another Saturday night in Rietbron.
While drinking coffee earlier that day, we meet Tannie Renette Venter, who says the most dramatic thing to happen to her and her family since they arrived in Rietbron years ago took place yesterday, and it had something to do with this new visible policing thing.
“They asked my husband (Oom Wimpie, the diesel mechanic) to produce his driver’s license. He never carries that around with him in town. So they fined him R500, but they reduced it to R100 if he brought it round to the police station. This is the first time anyone around here can remember a police roadblock in Rietbron.”
The best way to view Willowmore is from somewhere between the four pointy ears of the donkeys of the Willo Limo service, driven by Jim Makwena.
And in October when everything is swathed in pink to raise money for breast cancer, they have pink scarves draped around their yellow flower-trimmed harnesses.
The regulars you’ll probably find harnessed and waiting in the main street are Sweetland and Patrys, but sometimes Jim substitutes one of the others, part of a small herd kept on nearby Finchley Farm.
Jim makes sure the donkeys always stand in any available shade in summer, have constant access to clean water and fresh-cut grass that they can eat while waiting for the next customer.
Should you elect to go for a ride around Willowmore with Jim and his donkeys, you’ll see the town at a walking or trotting pace. You can buy modestly-priced tickets from the nearby mohair and wool shop, Bonato Arts and Crafts.
If you’d just like a photograph of yourself with this Karoo trio, you could tip Jim directly. But then you’d be missing out on his 10-minute tour of Willowmore, which is the essence of Slow Travel.
The Angel Factory
The Vondeling Angel Factory lies on a decent gravel road between Willowmore and Klaarstroom.
The trains no longer stop at Vondeling, but one should drive past the disused railway station to a prefab building where the angel-makers gather in a slightly chaotic setting around some work tables.
The place is awash with beads, lengths of wire, ostrich feathers, felt and sequins. The radio is normally playing and, in bad weather, the wind howls outside.
You will find the all-woman group beavering away in the middle of winter with an overhead gas heater to keep their hands warm.
The Vondeling Angel Factory and its crafting counterpart up in Rietbron village create decorative Karoo Christmas figures that are widely distributed at home and abroad. You can find them locally at the Willowmore shopping hub.
The group is mostly self-financed and every Vondeling person working on the project is proud of living without handouts.
There are fewer people here on social grants than ever before, the kids attend school regularly, dress better and have enough to eat.
And that, out in the rain shadow of the Kammanassie Mountains, means more than most things in the world. DM
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].