A Karoo town where everyone is a champion.
If you were following the Eastern Cape headlines over the past few years, you would have figured the little town of Steytlerville to be on the brink of collapse.
Never mind the devastating effects of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. A deadly had drought gripped the region for more than seven years. Farmers were worn right down to the nub in this land of the merino sheep and the angora goat. Church groups and aid organisations were trucking in fodder for the farmers and food for the towns folk.
And yet, the Karoo grapevine (the one you tap into at the co-op, the Saturday morning market, after church on Sunday or on somebody’s stoep at sundown) was humming with talk of new blood arriving in Steytlerville. And old blood rising once more. Your first impression of the town would be of the ultra-wide main street, surely one of the most beautiful in South Africa.
The little Karoo-style houses along the main street have mostly had a fresh lick of paint, the air is crystal-clear, and the mountains loom to the south, ruled by the distinctive Cockscomb peak. Steytlerville is also notably lacking in litter. Look up and you’ll see a world-first phenomenon that’s been around for years: the family crests of the Steytlerville clans, all demographics included, displayed on an array of masts lining the street. Set in amongst the plumed helmets, lions rampant, swords, fleurs de lis, shields and Latin mottoes of the European-origin family crests are many others with a more Mzansi-Karoo flavour to them.
Here’s a laughing Angora goat, there’s a Xhosa spear, here’s a donkey and there’s a rugby ball. Not to mention sheep shears, many depictions of the Bitter Aloe, war axes, a favourite milk cow, cooking pots, kudu horns and, oh yes, the classic Karoo windmill. A few of the home-grown crests depict white, black and brown-hued hands clasped in friendship.
These unusual heraldic devices running along the middle island of the main road are the brainchild of Linda Henderson, a long-time local entrepreneur. Interspersed between the crest poles are the exuberantly coloured box-cut bougainvilleas, which were eventually brought to the brink of death after the municipality stopped watering them. Local farmer Rikus Bezuidenhout was shocked to see them drooping, and the soil “dry as a cork”. Rikus decided to take personal responsibility for keeping them alive. He collected grey water from the sewage plant in a tank on the back of his bakkie, and thus began a personal (and ongoing) mission to save them. Of the 250 plants, only 15 have been lost.
Every platteland town seems to have at least one champion. Steytlerville is blessed with several. One of them is Helein van Tonder, a teacher at a local farm school. Originally from Steytlerville, she returned here five years ago after teaching in Taiwan. Helein started up an informal group called Community Action Steytlerville, an ‘omgee groep’ that is helping to keep the town and the surrounding picnic spots clean – a responsibility that should also be undertaken by the local municipality. One new arrival is that of a young family from Pretoria who recently translocated their handmade shoe business to Steytlerville, employing 12 locals.
Frustrated with her corporate administrative job and longing to escape city life, Sjarma du Toit decided to take up the craft of shoe-making. She found out where to source the best materials and then, once the product was made, how to market it. Sjarma knew Steytlerville because of family ties here, so she and her husband decided to ‘semigrate’ and set up a bespoke shoe business in town, called Charming Shoes. Sjarma is transforming part of her house into a factory, and another part into a shop.
Other newbies to Steytlerville include the NG church dominie Nico van der Westhuizen and his wife Riana. In the true tradition of gypsy preacher-families, they have lived and worked on the rural fringes of South Africa for many years. Their last posting was Loeriesfontein, in the heart of Namaqualand. Riana is a handy cook and a good teacher. She and Linda Henderson put their heads together and came up with Soul Food Kitchen, specialising in culinary courses to small groups. And each course they advertise is fully subscribed. Just outside town is the Karroo Theatrical Hotel, which offers Saturday night cabaret shows that are fully booked months in advance. Owners Jacques Rabie and Mark Hinds are your hosts, entertainers and cooks for an unforgettable weekend.
The local and foreign tourists who make it down to this part of the world love the vibe and the lunchtime treats of Lizzy’s Khaya in the nearby township. Travel writers who pass through the region are entirely charmed by Lizzy and her meals. She has become a respected tourism entrepreneur in town. The Steytlerville survivor spirit extends to the farming community around the village. Take the case of MC van Rensburg and his wife, Matty. Realising he and Matty needed other income streams besides farming, he went to Cape Town and took a course in leatherwork while she became a skilled wedding photographer.
MC, under the brand name of Slater & Dutch, now makes everything from handbags and tote bags to belts, wallets, purses and covers for electronic tablets. Linda Henderson’s husband Blair takes us out to Brighton, the family farm run by their son Ross, who is grateful for his father’s mentoring but is also very pleased he did a BCom in Agricultural Economics at Stellenbosch.
You need a mentor, especially in times like this. It’s the first real excessive drought I’ve experienced, and I hope I never see anything like it again. On the positive side, drought teaches you how to farm efficiently.
Both newspaper-bred (she: The Star, Johannesburg and he: The Rand Daily Mail, Johannesburg), Julie and Chris combined both their personal and professional lives back in 2008 and embarked on a freelance career together. During the past 15 years, however, they have been living and working exclusively in the Karoo, South Africa’s intoxicating semi-desert heartland.
Criss-crossing an enormous chunk of the country, they have told the story of the Karoo in many local and foreign magazines and a six-pack of travel, lifestyle, heritage and how-to-semigrate books.
First they produced a coffee table series (Karoo Keepsakes I & II), followed by a ‘cubby hole guide’ called Road Tripper – Eastern Cape Karoo, then Moving to the Platteland – Life in Small Town South Africa and now, a classic series called Karoo Roads I & II.
Legendary travel writer and environmental author James Clarke has this to say about their latest work:
Karoo Roads is a great piece of Africana. It’s not only literature, it is also historically important. It encapsulates the Karoo, its towns and people as they stand today and as they were yesterday.