By Myrtle Ryan
Port Elizabeth - Shadows were lengthening, and I was not sure if I was going to find my destination, nor was I sure they were even expecting me, but it was the kind of challenge I thrive on.
The destination was Van Rooyenskraal Guest Farm, situated between Willowmore and Aberdeen. There had been two options: to travel up the main tar road, turn right, and head straight for the farm. Alternatively, there was a much more scenic round-about route.
So haul out your road maps, if you will, and look for the tar road between Willowmore and Steytlerville. Some distance along this, a dirt-track road heads for a dot on the map, Miller. This takes the traveller through cuttings in the Witteberg Mountains, and over the Groot Rivier which can thunder through here, but was in a well-behaved mood at that time.
Just before entering the portals of this little-used road (which was in good condition), an SMS was sent to the Lötter family, the owners of Van Rooyenskraal, to advise them to expect me.
The helpfulness of the local people would prove crucial. Over the next couple of hours, I had a local lady draw me a complicated route map on the ground; a farmworker warn me I was on the wrong road, and communicated with someone on his two-way radio, asking them to meet me at a specific spot to ensure I was still on the right track.
Clearly, though, distances mean nothing to people in these remote areas. My helpful guide assured me there were only about 2km to go to an area with many derelict houses, where I needed to turn off. In fact, it was 14.
Eventually, the only car on the roads that afternoon approached. In it was a young man, who said he would drive to the nearest point with cellphone reception and notify Louretta Lötter.
“But is my mother expecting you?” he asked. That was a stroke of luck!
Eventually, Van Rooyenskraal was reached, and its setting was dramatic. The predominant feature was Skoorsteen (chimney) mountain, rearing out of the flat veld, which spread for kilometres in every direction. Apparently, on a clear day, Graaff-Reinet can be seen on the distant northern horizon.
It doesn’t come more lonely than this. If your soul hankers for wide vistas and no people, this is the place to be. If wild does not appeal, it could be frightening.
Just as I was picturing what the starry skies would be like at night and savouring the silence, Louretta arrived in a fluster. Would I mind following her. It seems they wanted me to stay in their family home, Doornpoort, at the bottom of the mountain, where I would have company.
This is typical of country folk. Less caring people would have left me to my lonely devices. Not that I would have minded, but it proved so much more fun staying with the Lötters, who welcomed me like a member of the family. This warm approach, I suspect, is exactly how they treat all their visitors.
Van Rooyenskraal, which sleeps 10, is suitable for a large-ish group of people or friends, rather than people travelling alone. Days are occupied with walking, birding, mountain biking, game viewing drives, or just kicking back, doing absolutely nothing but contemplate the wonders of the Karoo.
The farm has been in the family for more than 100 years. Kobus Lötter told that me his grandfather had been a bywoner in Jansenville, until he bought the farm Rietfontein, on which both Doornpoort and Van Rooyenskraal are located, on credit.
“At one time Rietfontein was the biggest angora goat farm in the world,” said Kobus.
In fact, to this day, angora goat farmers from around the world come to visit. The day after I left, a party of Australian farmers were due to check into Van Rooyenskraal.
In those days, the owner lived in Port Elizabeth. There is a family joke that he sent a telegram to the farm, instructing the manager to come to Port Elizabeth.
The manager replied that he could not, because he was busy with the lambing season. “Stop lambing and come,” read the follow-up telegram.
In its heyday, 65 farmers’ children attended school in Miller, while its rugby team regularly beat the Willowmore men. Nowadays you would never realise it had been such a thriving hub.
According to Kobus, at one stage King Rex (he who held royal sway in Knysna) built a house for his one son in this area.
We all piled into the 4x4 one morning to visit the site of this son’s grave. En route, we passed a tiny hamlet of derelict farm houses, where Kobus said his grandmother had lived. The place was electric with the atmosphere of a forgotten era.
Scrambling through the veld, we came across the grave, which is supposed to contain the remains of King Rex’s son.
However, a creepy mystery unfolded. Kobus and his sons were baffled to find that the gravestone now seemed to face the wrong way. There was no inscription on the front, but on the back was engraved the date 1874, with the name Melvill Barkly. The Lötters were adamant that on the front the name Rex had once featured clearly. Several graves dot the veld here.
Louretta dished up delicious farm fare. She is happy to take dinner up to guests staying at Van Rooyenskraal – which is self-catering – but if they want breakfast, she prefers them to come down to Doornpoort.
Walking in the paddocks housing merino sheep, angora goats and Boerbokke (a special breed) was fun. Especially, meeting the goose that thinks it’s a Boerbok, and wanders between their legs, hissing and honking. The sun set dramatically, and as darkness fell, goats were silhouetted against the horizon.
Kobus informed me that a gnarled wild plum tree which stands in the grounds is possibly over 1 000 years old. “It is lucky to have survived, as it is highly favoured by goats and antelope as a tasty treat.”
An early morning walk along the road proved memorable. Blue cranes flew overhead, the Witteberg mountains, just a stone’s throw from the house, were waking to a pale, clear blue sky. The air was fresh and untainted.
Two farm dogs accompanied me. While the one raced ahead sniffing out interesting smells, the other, a whippet, returned regularly to my side. Each time it gazed up with loving, luminous eyes, as though enquiring whether I was coping, before bounding back to join its exuberant companion.
Gosh, even the animals present that special caring touch which I had rapidly come to associate with the Lötters’ little slice of Karoo magic.