TGIFOOD

KAROO DREAMING

Secrets and lives behind the great doors of the old Garob

Secrets and lives behind the great doors of the old Garob
Portals in Karoo houses. From left: door after door inside the Hantam Huis, Calvinia; the front door of the Boekehuis, Calvinia; the door to the house in Market Street that has been named after a lowly food scribe. April 2024. (Photos and collage: Tony Jackman)

In Calvinia, a wooden door to past worlds and new words. In Loxton, a world beyond a door that a dominee from long ago wouldn’t recognise. And in Cradock, a door representing a path that friends are travelling together. Behind every door, food for the soul.

The giant front doors of the Victorian houses of the old Garob captivate the knowing soul. They are portals to the mysteries that lie within, the lives that have been lived there, out of our sight and the stories that have happened in their wide rooms with their wooden floors on which generations have trodden back and forth, back and forth, from the moment of birth until the day a hearse pulls up at the door to take them away.

In every part of every old Karoo house are the memories of things that happened there, a kind word at a table, a hug in a corridor, a lingering scent of a woman who passed by or a mug of coffee carried to a bedroom by an old man with a whimsical eye. Somebody wept at that table for a child taken young. Somebody danced in her dressing gown in that voorkamer, tipsy on her wine. Somebody sat right there, in that chair in the corner, and looked at her, and smiled.

And you are here now, and you wonder if they see you.

The Boekehuis in Calvinia. April 2024. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

In Calvinia, the massive front door of the Boekehuis at the end of a little street at the edge of town is a portal to a space where writers forget everything once they close it behind them, put their heads down and get lost in worlds remembered or invented.

This time around I was writing something deeply personal, and there is nowhere in the world that I have known that is more conducive to remembering than this creaky old Hantam Karoo house. Things came back to me that I had not thought of in decades, let alone years. Doors creaked open, windows ushered in enough light to see things long buried, like a dormer window casting moonlight on something mysterious in an attic. A strange shift of light as something seems to move. How alone is alone?

I lived on fine Hantam meats and skilpadjie breakfasts, made a beetroot salad with pomegranate picked from the back garden, roasted the only chicken in town, and stewed gnarled quinces until they were soft and pink and perfect with custard. One weekend, family came to visit for my birthday. I shared quince and custard with Gerry, the world’s best brother-in-law, my true brother, while my fingers on the keyboard tried to find the older brother who died before I was three. And made strong tea for Pat, my sister, while Gerry and I patiently repeated, and repeated again, and soon enough again, what we’d said to her only minutes ago, because she is drifting away from us.

I communed with my father in that house, scrutinised my younger self. Come the end of the day I’d light a fire next to the kitchen garden to braai Hantam saddle chops like doorstoppers and put some potatoes in the coals like dad taught me to do. Joni Mitchell joined me for a few whiskies and to gentle my tumbling mind with Coyote and A Strange Boy and You Dream Flat Tyres

My mind drifted to the Anenous Pass between Port Nolloth and Springbok and the sight of rusted cars mouldering below having you catch your breath and clutch the wheel tightly. Then Dad was at the wheel instead of me and the off-white 1964 Cortina GT with the red stripe was veering towards the cliff edge with me clutching the red bucket seat and mom yelling “Cyril!”. 

You wake with a start and realise it’s time for bed and that Joni is on Both Sides Now. Through the lounge with its ’50s upholstered armchairs and giant wood-framed mirror and past the old authors’ eyes that follow you into the spooky bedroom. Latch the door, just in case. You’re never alone in the Boekehuis.

Some days found me in the Hantam Huis, through more doors to the old kitchen at the back of this Karoo house like no other. If you pass through Calvinia without going inside the Hantam Huis you have missed a lifetime experience. Ancient utensils and gadgets of mysterious purpose accompanied me on my journeying into past worlds. My MacBook Air was hopelessly out of place in this room of past wonder.

Two perspectives in the same room: two sides of the old kitchen at the back of the Hantam Huis in Calvinia. Many tourists miss it. Keep walking through the house until you find it. April 2024. (Photos and collage: Tony Jackman)

I was cosseted by the lovely people at the Hantam Huis who were my hosts, and owners Alta and Erwin Coetzee and I chatted like old friends, realising that my family have been visiting the Hantam Huis for more than 30 years. These restored buildings have become as important to us as the white walls of Matjiesfontein and the soft sands of Arniston, entrenched in a family’s collective memory.

Alta even handed me a bottle of MCC as I was leaving. “For your birthday.” A gift, after she had allowed me to stay in the Boekehuis free of charge for three weeks, to write. Because that’s what these people do for writers, their contribution to the South African written word. And then you receive a gift, too. If only everyone was this kind, imagine what a fine world this would be.

***

The dominee might not recognise this reception room at Karos guest house in Loxton. April 2024. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

At the end of a quiet street in Loxton, a long, low house has stood since horse-drawn Cape carts clattered by on the hardworn road that remains untarred even today. The dominee would have stepped down and tapped the knocker, the light through the transom high above would have shifted as the shadow of somebody inside played on the glass, and when the big door creaked open, her stern face would have dissolved into a broad smile on espying the clergyman come to pay his respects.

They would not know the house today, and the frown would swiftly return to the house vrou’s countenance on seeing how lavish everything is now. To their eyes, much of it would be intemperate excess warranting a great deal of knee bending and prostrating of oneself before one’s God, begging to be forgiven for such unpardonable indulgence.

But this would not be the response of the modern traveller, for whom all this lavish excess is provided. Because the interior of Karos House, in Loxton, is worthy of a five-star hotel. The late Liz McGrath came to mind when I strolled around, and her impeccable style. My host for the night (I was the only guest, en route home to Cradock from Calvinia), Mandy Benade, told me that the house was owned by Hannelie Bekker, who owns crèches in Cape Town’s northern suburbs (Kiddo Campus). That must be a line worth going into, because this interior spells money in every part of every room and every wall. I decided that counting the artworks would be crass (though I was tempted). All of which could just as easily be grotesque and off-putting, but for one clear fact. Ms Bekker has an amazing eye, and everything works together to create a whole that explains what I had first thought was a hefty price. I paid R1,600, but for two the room would have been R1,800. Way more than I usually pay, but I do see why.

Though I was the only guest that Wednesday night, Mandy cooked me a three-course dinner, and I accepted it because, well, I have to say something about food in this column.

Earlier, while Mandy warmed up the hob, I trotted down the road and around the corner where I soon faced the Dutch Reformed Church, which in turn faces a pub, Die Windpomp, full of rustic eccentricity of the kind that any devotee of the Karoo will love. A giant of a True Karoo Character called Terblanche Breytenbach stepped up to greet me with a broad yet oddly shy smile. That’s a movie star name, and this man has the kind of persona that a Sam Shepard or a Tennessee Williams might conjure for one of their left-field plays.

Die Windpomp pub in Loxton, Northern Cape and, right, proprietor Terblanche Breytenbach. April 2024. (Photos and collage: Tony Jackman)

I could see that they make fabulous pizzas, because I cheekily photographed one that had been placed before other customers, and it had obviously been made by hand. Thick and blistered and wickedly desirable. But I couldn’t handle one of those and a three-course meal back at Karos, so I settled for a whisky instead. Within a minute I was asked to join his own table outside and introduced to his wife Ronel, who spent years in London.

Terblanche told me he farms garlic (“I’ll give you some”) on Taaiboschfontein farm 20km out of town on the Victoria West road, and that onion seeds have extraordinary investment potential. A 1kg bag can fetch R22k, he said. Farmer friends back home confirmed this: it’s what got a lot of Karoo farmers through the drought.

Terblanche told me that they were about to host their annual Jakhalsdans wildsveiling (game auction) and my eyes popped out at the list of stock. Springbok, white, blue, black, copper, Damara and gewone. Who would want to be a gewone bokkie when you could have all of those colourful coats? Blesbok, white, copper and yellow; golden, black, blue and king (konings) wildebeest; baster gemsbok; even black rooibokke. Maybe one day I can get back to that, but I had to drive home the next morning.

At Karos in Loxton, Mandy Benade made me butternut soup, left, Karoo-style kerrie met vleis, rys en patats, and a perfect malva poedingtjie. Loxton, April 2024. (Photos and collage: Tony Jackman)

Back at Karos, Mandy had set a pristine table. White damask, slimline brass-hued cutlery, Beethoven issuing from a vintage wooden radiogram. I was brought a blue and white bowl of lightly curried butternut soup dressed with crunchy pumpkin seeds. The sambals beyond the soup bowl were to go with the Karoo-style lamb curry Mandy had made. Finely diced cucumber, tomato and onion that made me realise I tend to cut them too big when I make this sambal. Desiccated coconut. Mrs HS Ball’s, natuurlik.

The lamb curry was proper Karoo style. You won’t get roast potatoes, rice, green beans, baby carrots and a pampoenpoffertjie with your curry in Durban. Curried vleis, rys en patats, the way you might have been served your kerrie in small town hotels in the ’60s. Mandy had also cooked baby carrots in olive oil with rosemary and garlic, a contemporary touch on an old standard. I love it when someone with a mind on the old ways gets it just right. Take a bow, Mandy Benade.

Replete with the perfect serving of malva pudding and custard that had ended the meal, I decided to go back to the Windpomp for a nightcap in the crisp Karoo night. I sat down at a wooden table outside and looked at the moonlight church and my mind drifted to starry nights in Oranjemund and dad braaing fillet steak in the back yard and Phillip’s grave only a 10-minute walk into the desert outside our corner of town, gone as if he’d never been there.

Phillip Garry Jackman, 14.8.51–16.3.58, lying there still, even as he is now, and his little brother, now an old man, wondering if the elder brother could somehow smell the aromas of the life his family was living in the braai in the back yard. A cat came to greet me, breaking my reverie, tail hugging my calf. Cats always find me. Ready for bed, the whisky having done its work, I slunk into the night while the cat followed something moving in the shadows, and we were gone as if we’d never been there.

***

What we write about and what happens in our real lives sometimes merge. Like the mirage in the distance dissolving into sun burning into macadam. 

There are many doors in Market Street, and people pass in and out of them all the time. Few will perceive the meaning in the old houses, the heads that have slumbered on pillows, hands that have stirred pots of soup in the kitchens, feet that have trodden up and down for days and weeks and months and years until one day. One day.

Right across from the hotel, in 2010, we stepped through the front door of Lion House, my favourite of Sandra Antrobus’s Tuishuise, at the beginning of a new life that we had no idea was about to unfold. 

A day after getting home to Cradock just the other day, I step through the door of an almost identical house just two doors away, and this one, to my humble astonishment, is now called Jackman’s, Sandra having decided to afford me this honour in old brick and stone and wood and a stoep and an afdakkie to crown it. The elements of an old house that illustrate the very soul of the Karoo that I love.

Whatever the future holds, no one can know. One day this house may be named for someone else, or return to being a number in a street. But, until then, it is a house with my name on it. I don’t think I have ever received a gift with more meaning.

Giving a talk that evening in the living room of that house, I was able finally to thank Sandra, in public, for her generosity and her kind spirit in seeing me and acknowledging me. And she sat in a corner in her red shawl, and she smiled. That corner of that room will forever own that moment, and that smile. DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dave Griffiths says:

    We’ll make sure to book Jackman’s next time we stay in the Tuishuise!

  • Peter Geddes says:

    … and to think that two weeks ago I just drove right through that town without stopping!
    We were on our way to the Gannaga Lodge, gateway to the Tankwa-Karoo.

  • Chris Taylor says:

    Mr Jackman, my compliments. A beautifully crafted piece, what I term a written painting. I will look for more.

    And all this time, I thought you were a cricket commentator!

  • Malcolm Dunkeld says:

    Neither Google or AI will tell me what the Garob is. Can Mr Jackman please enlighten us in his next article.

    • Dietmar Horn says:

      “Old wagon tracks led to strange bredies and inquisitive strangers in the land the ancients called ‘Garob’: dry, uninhabited, unfruitful. But in the Karoo, then and now, there is always life, drama, and mystery.”
      (Tony Jackman, Jan 22)

  • Steve Koch says:

    This is one of Tony’s best (well, in my opinion). “Heart-rendingly” beautiful!!!

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