Sunday, April 11, 2010


To recap: We had left the hot and dusty Karoo National Park on the third morning of our road trip from Cape Town to the Eastern Free State and had headed northeast into the interior, planning to overnight on the farm Doornberg, outside the village of Nieu Bethesda.

We were still in the Karoo, but much farther east, and the landscape had changed gradually but miraculously from grey to green. In the picture above, the Vleihuisie, the little house in which we would stay on Doornberg's lands is behind the trees in the middle.

Around 3 in the afternoon we drove onto the plaaswerf - the farm yard - past stock sheds and a herd of sheep corralled behind white walls, and turned off the damp dirt driveway to where two men were busy tinkering at something. I wasn't sure where we should report, and rolled down the window: Middag, I said, Ek is Marie Viljoen. Middag! smiled the tall man straightening up, Ek is Peet van Heerden. And gave me a farmer's handshake. Maybe that's why I'm having problems with my elbow...

Peet told us to go on to the farmhouse where he'd meet up with us, and we drove up to the green-lawned old house with wide stoep and massive, very old oak tree shading the grass. We met his wife, Hanna, and soon were seated in the voorkamer - living room - drinking coffee but foregoing the offered rusks. We were a bit shy.

Peet and Hanna told us about the farm, about visitors they've had (an American journalist who learned Afrikaans in 6 months), about their Nguni cattle ("the only medical attention they require is an ear tag"), the problems of organic certification, and the abundance of spring water on the farm, which has been in the family for five generations. I felt guilty taking up their time in the middle of the work day, but was captivated by the unselfconscious and friendly flow of information.

Although the Van Heerdens have catered accommodation at the farmhouse, the Vleihuisie that we had booked, the stand-alone self-catering guest cottage, was a short drive from the farm house, beside the vlei (dam, pond, body of water) that gives it its name. Peet led us there in his bakkie, driving as farmers in bakkies do: fast. I put my foot down, feeling like a city driver out of her depth in the big bad country.

Peet had explained, though I forget the details, that this cottage had been renovated with the help of a Dutch couple, who in turn get to spend three months of the year there. They only have time to stay about one month now, and the rest of the time the Van Heerdens rent it out. A narrow, rectangular building, we found it impeccably clean and bright, and furnished just about the way one would want it to be. A long dining table dominates the room, a kitchen running along one wall, a living room facing a massive fire place, and a bedroom and large bathroom at the other end. Lawns all around with the mountains behind and the vlei in front, reed-fringed, with the obligatory weeping willow. From the sink in the kitchen you see through the window the lucerne field being mown, patrolled by a large flock of white stalks in the tractor's wake...

Just standing there made us feel as though we were depressurizing.

Peet left after telling us we may see an otter in the evening, that we'd better watch out for the storks as babies tended to arrive nine months later, and explaining where we could walk and drive - everywhere, basically, a generous gesture on a working farm. I didn't think farmers liked people going through their gates. After a doubletime unpacking of the Landcruiser, we headed straight into the lucerne field after the workers had left it. The man on the white horse, who would arrive the next morning too, seemed to be an overseer.

The farmed Karoo, surrounded by mountains, green, lush, clean.

After stalking the storks, who kept just out of camera range, we decided to drive beyond the second dam wall (in the distance, above) to where the veld was left in its natural state for game and grazing. Peet had waxed lyrical about this wide open space, explaining how they had dug a circular sloot in the middle of it, where they would make a fire and sit on the ground with their legs in the ditch, and braai, tell stories and look at the stars.

At every gate I got out, unhitched it, swung it open, and closed it again. Every gate had a slightly different way of hitching and swinging, and something of time immemorial was suggested. Farm gates. Creaking. Texas? Cormac McCarthy? The land. History? Threat, promise?

In the green growth beside the tracks I found the yellow buttons of Pentzia, the famous Karoo bush, and one of the many bossies (little bushes) that is supposed to make the sheep here taste so good. Not sure if it is actually Pentzia incana.

I had only ever really driven through the Karoo, from the middle of the country to the coast, and it always whizzed by in a grey, dusty blur. The little round bushes would be evident but only as a sort of stricken monotony. This is what the monotony does after rain.

After the last gate, I decided to walk, as the car was going very slowly to avoid churning up the water-logged tracks, and because I kept shrieking STOP! every time I saw a new plant.

Outside absolute stillness, thick grass and a rich carpet of botanical variety at my feet.

Vince drove through a stream bed and then we were out on the plain we had come to find.

We found the sloot, with remnants of charcoal in the middle, and could imagine the sparks rising to join the Milky Way overhead.

Every other bush seemed to be this pretty lilac-flowered one. According to Karoo: South African Wild Flower Guide 6, I think it is Walafrida geniculata, or persaarbos, "Very drought-resistant. Very well grazed by all livestock."

The prostrate Karoo violet. I am not sure whether it is Aptosimum procumbens (carpet flower) or A. indivisum (Karoo violet) - but they are gorgeous. Growing quite flat in thick mats, and flowering any time after rain.

Dancing grass heads in the light evening breeze.

Evening drawing near and we had to go back to our Vleihuisie to start the braai fire. We had ribs - the last of the meat we'd brought from Cape Town - marinating in periperi.

Through the last farm gate, closed carefully, and we were home. An evening wind had sprung up and the fire was lit with flames blowing sideways. We ate at the long table, and pretended we lived there.

We were supposed to leave the next day, as we had still not plotted our exact approach or entry to Lesotho. But leaving was the last thing either of us wanted to do. This was no place to overnight. It was a place to stay.

If you'd like to visit previous installments of the trip try here.

Day 1 - Cape Town to the Karoo National Park
Day 1 - Tortoises
Day 2 - Karoo National ParkDay 2 - Traffic Cops in Beaufort West
Day 2 - Coffee and a Rusk
Day 3 - Karoo National Park to Nieu Bethesda


  1. I really love your detailed description of the South African Landscape, and those photographs I feel I am being transported right there. Awesome combination. Thank you

  2. Such an evocative post!
    Yes, I understand the "pull" of some places.For me, it is (always was, always will be)trees. But the tug of the heartstrings must, surely, be the same for everyone?

  3. Beautiful...what great photographs...what a fantastic trip...

    Ham Croquettes: Never again. Ever. What a Loser

    :- (

    Tonight: Gonna go safe and make tostados..soaked black beans last night ans they are simmering away on the stove right now. Hope I don't screw that up.

    Loved my visit today...


  4. Thank you, Marie. Your beautiful descriptions and eloquent words have given shape to your vacation is ways not many have the gift of conveying. I'm fascinated by all the flowers and plants you encountered in Africa and how similar they look to flowers and plants in Oregon. Thank you for the small, very scentic've opened my eyes to a lovely part of the world.


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