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Karoo Oddities (Part Two) – welcome to the Street of Dreams, where there’s power in the sausage   

Karoo Oddities (Part Two) – welcome to the Street of Dreams, where there’s power in the sausage   
The Street of Dreams in the Karoo town of Uniondale, Western Cape. (Photo: Chris Marais)

In the Karoo, there is always something quaint and quirky around the next corner – from Uniondale where there is power in the wors to Matjiesfontein where Johnny Theunissen was a one-man welcome committee.

Take a gentle stroll down Hollywood Boulevard, the cultural icon of Los Angeles, and you can batter your credit card in many different ways on all sorts of tourist nonsense.

Look down and see the inlaid names of the movie stars on the pavement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Now look up at the glorious palm trees that line the boulevard. Don’t they remind you of somewhere back home … a place like Uniondale, Western Cape?

That’s right. We have our very own Karoo Street of Dreams. 

A walk down Uniondale’s palm tree-lined Voortrekker Road is bound to send Hollywood shivers down your spine. But this is not where you will find a Hard Rock Café, statues of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse, the El Capitan Theatre or the Hollywood Wax Museum.

Here you will pass the Ou Werf Guest House, Uniondale Petrol & Diesel, JP’s Slaghuis (“’n Mooo-se Welkom Aan Al Ons Kastemers — Krag Le in ons Wors”, which translates to “A Helluva Welcome to all our Customers Power Lies in our Sausage”), a liquor store that implores you to “stay calm and drink wine” and a restaurant called The Hungry Ghost.

There’s also a shop that claims to be “Open most days @ about 10 closing @ about 4 some days or afternoons when I am not here at all. Lately I’ve been here just about all the time except when I’m someplace else. Charlene.”

The circus lover

Escape Karoo oddities

Aberdeen, Eastern Cape — where circus animals once lived. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Young people lucky enough to grow up in the Karoo have always kept an astonishing variety of household pets, including meerkats, snakes, hedgehogs, parrots and pigeons. Most outgrow this love of “animal familiars” as adulthood arrives.

Not Frank Wilke Jnr of Aberdeen in the Eastern Cape, however. Young Frank started up a tortoise zoo in the village and soon moved on to baboons, jackals, monkeys, porcupines and all manner of suricates. As the years passed, he expanded his menagerie into an export business and moved the zoo to the outskirts of Aberdeen for added space. At one stage, he could boast a collection of more than three dozen lions.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Here be dragons… but that’s just one of the surprising things in Aberdeen, a remarkable Karoo town

Wilke had a special love for the circus, and performing lions in particular. To that end, he purchased the lions Tikkie and Tokkie from Boswell’s Circus and they soon became local darlings.

His coup d’état was buying up all the Pagel Circus beasts in 1950 for £4,000. The strongman of the South African circus world was Wilhem Pagel, whom Wilke idolised. He named his Aberdeen mansion Pagel House in honour of the big fellow.

About 70 years ago, small-town Karoo folk could pose for photographs right next to a brace of Wilke’s lions. They were quite safe because he cunningly inserted a thick pane of plate glass between the person and the predator.

A ball with masks

Escape Karoo oddities

One of the La Carla masks on display at the Karroo Theatrical Hotel, Steytlerville, Eastern Cape. (Photo: Chris Marais)

There’s always something new at the delightfully whacky Karroo Theatrical Hotel outside Steytlerville in the Eastern Cape.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The fantastic Karroo Theatrical Hotel… oh, the Follies!

The dinner theatre, called Grimaldi’s, has been festooned with scores of Venetian festival masks, made by the La Carla Atelier in the forests outside Plettenberg Bay.

The masks are displayed on the tables, in the chandeliers and on the mannequins which line the walls of the theatre where the owners offer a lively burlesque-type Follies performance every Saturday night.

We’re not talking about a nightclub on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans, here. We’re talking about a once-forlorn country hotel deep in the Karoo Heartland of South Africa. And that is what makes this exquisite collection of masks so exotic.

Run by the Engelbrecht trio of mother, father and daughter, La Carla must surely rate as one of this country’s most remarkable rurally based little enterprises. When Karroo Theatrical Hotel co-owner Mark Hinds first drove down the winding wooded road leading to the studio, he was astounded.

“I felt as if I’d fallen through the looking glass, and that I’d landed in Wonderland. I realised we had to have these masks. We needed to transform Grimaldi’s.”

So Carla Engelbrecht and her daughter Charnelle visited the hotel and placed the masks, giving each one its own personality and backstory and breathing magic into the mannequins in the process.

An essential home companion

Escape Karoo oddities

Making boerseep in Murraysburg, Western Cape. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The making of boerseep (farmer’s soap) in a Karoo kitchen is a weird but simple alchemy in which fat is turned into a substance that removes fat.

We’re watching Adri Smit and Linda van der Berg of Murraysburg working a batch of boerseep, just in time for that magical moment when the lye and the beef tallow are mixed to form soap.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Karoo oddities – tales from the quirky, magical heartland of South Africa

Boerseep is a rather critical item in a Karoo family. It’s a time-honoured laundry soap which can remove all kinds of organic stains like red wine, fat, tomato, gravy, grass, mud and then some more red wine.

The rendered fat is harvested from a dinkum grass-eating cow and is therefore yellowish, not like feedlot fat, which is white. Measures of caustic soda and rainwater are slowly poured into the mix. Smit and Van der Berg take turns carefully stirring as the magic begins. The caustic soda changes the molecular structure of the fat, from being clear yellow into a creamy consistency, a bit like Maizena, then like condensed milk and then like fudge.

At last, it’s ready.

After a solid hour of stirring, the cleansing concoction is poured into a drawer carefully lined with plastic and left for a week to dry out. Then it can be cut into blocks, delivered to a padstal and sold to delighted travellers, who have now secured a useful chunk of Karoo household heritage.

A Tribute to Johnny T

Escape Karoo oddities

Johnny Theunissen, legendary host at the Lord Milner Hotel, Matjiesfontein, Western Cape. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Johnny was not the owner, the manager or the chef over at the Lord Milner. But he was the special sauce, the dollop of hot spice, that this grand old establishment relied on to make sure the visitors were entertained and happy.

You met the rounded, jovial Johnny shortly after checking in at the Victorian-era heritage hotel in the middle of a typical Karoo nowhere next to the railway tracks of what was supposed to be the Great Cape to Cairo line.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Johnny Theunissen, gem of the Karoo, laird of our hearts

You would definitely have pressed the flesh with him when you embarked on your ten minute London Red Bus tour of the village. Johnny would blow his bugle and announce loudly:

“It’s Showtime!”

And then, when the tour was on and the guide microphone was in his hands, he would say things like:

“Now we are passing the first tennis court. It’s also the last tennis court.”

When an overseas visitor chats to him, Johnny’s reply would invariably be:

“I love it when you speak Forrin!”

You disembarked outside the famous Laird’s Arms pub, where Johnny Theunissen would entertain you with corny old jokes and songs at the bar piano. He might have even enquired, in fine musical baritone:

“Are you lonesome tonight?” DM

Johnny Theunissen died on 3 March, 2024.

Three-Book Special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais.

For an insider’s view on life in the Karoo, get the three-book special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at [email protected]

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