Words and Photos by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.
In the Upper Karoo region of the Northern Cape, early settlers built igloos out of shale, cooked their sheep ribs on dolerite slabs and had their epitaphs engraved on sandstone.
On a spring day in 2008, my wife and partner Julienne and I are nosing about the Williston Museum in the faraway Northern Cape. Country museums, with their musty dioramas, family knick-knacks, innovative pre-electric kitchenware and rows of shackled wagons, are the best. What catches our eye here is the stonework on display: a set of small-scale corbelled houses and an elegantly etched (never mind the odd spelling mistake) gravestone. There’s a portrait of its creator, a sombre man in a tight suit, his huge hands dangling as if he’s waiting to throttle the photographer for taking too long with the shot.
Meet Cornelius de Waal, the Tombstone Artist of the Karoo.
The curator at the time, Elna Marais, bustles over.
“Sometimes he’d be carving a gravestone for six months,” she says. “Then a corner would chip off, and he’d have to start all over again.”
A Day Out with Elsa. We discover that a Williston resident, one Elsa van Schalkwyk, can show us more of these priceless pieces of Karoo folk art. So we find a bed for the night and book Elsa for a day. Early the next morning, as we cross the Sak River into the rising sun, our guide says,“Now we are in the Agterveld.” She’s talking about the old No Man’s Land that was once just beyond the control of whoever was running things down in the Cape, be they Brit or Dutchman. Turning onto the Vanwyksvlei Road, we’re suddenly in a world of fluffy white, pink and beige kapokbossies (wild rosemary), and then we arrive at an abandoned home on Brownslaagte Farm. It’s a corbelled house with a store room and a garage. The doors are faded blue and there are shale struts sticking out from the domed roof. We cautiously push open the front door and walk in.
The Trekbok Hordes. Elsa adds some back-story: “In the early 1800s, when the trekboere finally settled in these parts, everything was made out of wild animal hides: bedding, clothing, shoes, hats, whips and wagon thongs.” Most of those items were probably fashioned from springbok skin, because back then these dainty and delicious little antelope occasionally gathered in their millions and filled the horizon (no mean feat in the Big Sky landscape of the Upper Karoo) in their passing. The hunters would have a field day. There would be biltong for months.
The trekbok migrations carried on for most of the century. In 1896, De Britstowner carried a report on how nearby Vosburg thrived on the springbok trade, so much so that a visitor reportedly called it a Springbuck Town, “with one of the three shops in the village having bought as many as 16 600 springbok skins in a few months and selling as many as 12 000 cartridges every week.”
The Classic Corbelled Farmstead. A Karoo corbelled house was made with rows of flat stones, each layer placed a little more inwards from ceiling height, until a dome-shaped building was achieved. The peak was then topped off by a flat stone, which could be removed to release smoke from the hearth. Where available, clay mud was used between the stones and once complete, the corbelled house was cool in summer and could easily be kept warm in winter.
Inside the house, the builder installed a number of ‘keep-spaces’ for storage and there would be a couple of beams and fixed animal horns for hanging clothes and drying meat. The floor-base was a mix of cow dung and water, then coated with oxblood and fat and often polished into a smooth, gleaming state – what they called a misvloer. These days, travellers want authenticity, and it doesn’t get more real than a couple of nights spent at Stuurmansfontein, the gold standard of corbelled house accommodation not far from Carnarvon.
So, of course, Jules and I have to see for ourselves. At the first gate to Stuurmansfontein, we find a ground squirrel colony preparing for the harsh Karoo winter. There are lots of strands of sheep wool caught on the wire fence, but only above a certain height. The squirrels have been hard at work, lining their underground nests with snuggly little Dorper duvets. Along the way, on tracks outlined with pale amber Bushman grass, a looming windpump creaks its welcome. Down a valley, up a slope and suddenly we’re at the ancient corbelled house that is Stuurmansfontein.
Jules gets into the old kitchen with its two-plate stove, candles and carry-water pots and whips up a little something delicious involving pasta, mushrooms, broccoli and pesto. I take two straight-backed chairs and place them carefully out on the stoep at the front door.
You could not ask for a better, more romantic dinner spot. Our chairs become front row seats to the best light show on Earth. The Original Karoo Planetarium. We eat in absolute silence, occasionally looking up in awe at the Celestial Highway above us.
The Bywoner Berghs. When it gets chilly outside, we finally scamper in and discover more of the magic that is Stuurmansfontein. We light up all the candles we can find and dot them about the place. In the rich light, it’s possible to relive the frontier days when bywoner (tenant farmer) Fanie Bergh and his family occupied this fold in the hills. Oom Fanie and his folk wanted for nothing. They planted fruit trees: grapes, quinces, apples, oranges, figs and pomegranates, using the attic as a store room. A windpump supplied them with plenty of fresh water. And they had roses growing all over the place, those Heritage-type roses with the very strong fragrance.
Tannie Sannie Bergh was well known in the district for her great coffee, and her secret lay in the dried figs she crushed in with the beans. When the family needed a chop or two, Oom Fanie would go out and shoot a sheep, they’d butcher it and store the cuts in the coolest place they could find: under the marital bed. And if it dripped a little blood, well, that was OK. The floors were made of blood and dung anyhow. When the Berghs planted wheat, they would separate the grain from the chaff on the threshing floor about 200 metres down the hill, storing the grain in another special little purpose-built corbelled house. They hardly ever needed to go shopping in town.
Autumn 2021. More than a decade later, we return to Stuurmansfontein, and it’s like greeting an old friend. There’s a new swimming pool outside, a stone dam that catches excess water from the windpump just over the ironstone ridges behind the house.
Owners Piet and Charmaine Botha live on the nearby Bethlehem Farm, in an elegant and well-tended homestead even in this brown time of drought. Charmaine tells us that more than a century ago, this elegant corbelled home was the centre of social life in the area. “When there was a party, neighbours would arrive in their Cape Carts and oxwagons. Others would just walk over the rocky hills. The furniture would be moved outside. They would dance in the big corbelled building, and the light and dust from the misvloere would fly out the windows.”
Jules and I would have been the ones occupying a couch outside, cuddled up and gazing at the Milky Way, which is what you tend to do after-dark in this wondrous place.
A Well-loved Escape. The Stuurmansfontein visitors’ book tells you just how popular this corbelled hideaway is. Another gesture of fondness is the arranged pile of broken glass and porcelain, placed there by guests who went picking through the Bergh Family midden at the back. We add our bits to the collection and thank the stars above that the world still has such interesting hideaways for long-distance travelers.
Stuurmansfontein Corbelled House
Tel: 053 382 6097 or 087 802 0819 or 082 221 7500 or 072 352 8070
Upper Karoo Tombstone Tour:
Elsa van Schalkwyk
Tel: 072 074 0919 or 053 391 3069
MORE FROM THE AUTHOR.
For an insider’s view on life in the Karoo, get the Three-Book Special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Moving to the Platteland – Life in Small Town South Africa by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais for only R720, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at: email@example.com