Instead of driving South Africa’s coastal Garden Route, try the alternative Route 62, which takes you through immense stretches of Karoo farmland interspersed by delightful country towns and roadside stores. Here, as Cindy-Lou Dale finds on a stopover in Cradock, you will get a feel for the pulse of the country’s rural heart.
When I tell my petrol pump attendant that I am heading to Cradock, he smiles broadly. “Cradock, she is my home town, madam.” He then proceeds to explain some of its ancient history and how cunning the Boers were in containing the region’s Xhosa tribe who competed for cattle grazing grounds. Today Cradock is regarded as the capital of the Karoo heartland, renowned for its production of some of the best wool and mohair in the country.
“She’s not far”, he imparts. “It’s just around the corner! Take a right, a left, and another left, and you’re there.” What he fails to mention is the distance between those turns. Hence, several hours after leaving Graaff-Reinet, I arrive in Cradock at the country’s first frontier hotel, the Victoria Manor Hotel, a family-run colonial-era diamond draped in layers of textured character.
The hotel groans with history which seeps through the walls and the grand wooden staircase. My suitcase is whisked from reception and taken across the road as I’m accommodated in a traditional 1840s terraced ‘Tuishuis’ cottage; one of a string of chalets which line the preserved streetscape, previously home to a large community of artisans who served the ox-wagon trails.
Over the years Sandra Antrobus, owner of the Victoria Manor Hotel, has acquired 30-or so of these artisan cottages, painstakingly restoring each one, complete with peach-pip floors, sash windows, bible-and-cross doors, broekie-lace fretwork, shutters, stoep furniture, and artisanal relics left by harness makers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths and carpenters.
A couple of blocks from the hotel is the Olive Schreiner House museum, devoted to the life and work of its namesake, the author of A story of an African Farm, which she wrote whilst working as a governess on farms in the district.
It’s well worth a visit, as is the rural cemetery where the remains of nuns, frontier-men and soldiers of the Anglo-Boer War lie, and, strangely, Harry Potter. It’s also the final resting place of an extraordinary pioneer few have heard of — Dr Reginald Koettlitz. His headstone describes him as ‘An explorer and traveller, surgeon and geologist to Expeditions North Polar and Abyssinia, and with Scott to the Antarctic.’ That’s just wow!
Another must-do is a Lingelihle Township tour with Amos Nteta, a larger than life kindly fellow who speaks of the ‘Cradock Five’ in an age when he too was a freedom fighter. He explains that Cradock, possibly best known for its natural sulphur springs, has seen much of South Africa’s history from the verandahs of her tree lined streets — the Great Trek started here, as did the ostrich boom in the early 1900s, which is only now resurging with the demand for fine leather and low-cholesterol meat.
I take a walk around town and visit several stylish stores, each evoking a credit card moment, and stop for a drink at Karoo Brew, who solar roast their coffee beans and make groovy psychedelic milkshakes.
True Living, housed in a gorgeous Karoo-styled character dwelling, is the place to lunch – each room is quaint and filled with home-made farm goodness and other things I didn’t know I needed. The adjoining farm butcher, De Wilge Biltong & Braai, sells the best cured meats in the platteland, so I buy a supply of dröe wors for the road (then eat it all as a midnight snack).
Back to where the silver sparkles I’m having a traditional Karoo tea with the Hotel’s matriarch in the lush red dining room of the Victoria Manor Hotel. Sandra feels strongly about getting to know a region’s food. “You must go to where the food comes from and eat it amongst the people who create it,” she says. “That way it’s seasoned with a sense of place, the landscape, the culture and the traditions.”
We soon get talking about my personal favourite: koeksisters, a traditional plaited pastry that’s deep fried then marinated in syrup.
Sandra imparts just a smidgen of her traditional culinary wisdom: “To keep koeksisters crunchy, they need to be kept ice cold once they’ve been fried and bathed in syrup.” She takes a sip of tea, her little finger saluting the event. Warming to her subject she continues. “And milk tart must always be of the baked variety – and served warm. For the filling, be sure you stiffly whip your egg whites and add a large dollop of butter.”
I ask after the divinity of the carrot cake before us. “Our chef Maswazi Mabusela has won awards with this cake,” she volunteers hesitantly. She leans forward, slowly looking to her left then to her right, fearing she’ll be overheard. “What he does is simply genius,” she whispers. “Once the carrot cake is baked, he removes it from the oven and whilst it’s still hot, he pierces it all over with a long-pronged fork, then slowly pours over a mixture of heated buttermilk, butter, sugar and bicarb and lets it seep in. Once it’s cooled to room temperature he ices it with castor sugar and cream cheese.”
Sandra smiles broadly and tells of when Maswazi won a converted national award for his carrot cake. He was the only male entrant and was hand-bagged by the other contestants for having the audacity to enter a baking competition which has historically always been female territory.
One of the most beautiful, but least explored, national parks in South Africa is the Mountain Zebra National Park, just a few kilometres outside Cradock. It’s the natural habitat of the mountain zebra and is jam packed with game, including lions and cheetahs. I’m taking a slow 7am drive through the park and soon encounter a large herd of chocolate-orange muzzled mountain zebra. They all know how to work the angles, striking a pose this way, then that way, giving me the Kardashian butt, then the over the shoulder almond-eyed glance.
Back at my digs I load my car, which is starting to look like it’s lived a good life in the bush, then floor it to my next destination, along the way driving with the windows open filling the cabin with the sweet thorn bush smell of the Karoo.