SA farm’s star turn
By Myrtle Ryan
East London - Christopher Torr, who wrote the script for the movie Stuur Groete aan Mannetjies Roux, was looking for a specific kind of farm on which to set the film. For this is not a movie aimed just at rugger-buggers looking to relive the legendary try which Roux scored in Bloemfontein in 1962.
It has a dark side, which plays out on an isolated farm, amid the dust and vast expanses of the Karoo. It required a windmill, heart-wrenching vistas, and there should be no garden to soften the harshness of the landscape.
Torr – who is married to singer Laurika Rauch – grew up in the area, so knew of a couple of farms that might meet his stringent requirements. However, they had trees and green gardens. Then he recalled lonely Northmead, on Hillston Farm. He had found exactly what he was looking for.
Do not, for one moment, think that Hillston is a dustbowl. The main house where owners Jonathan and Riana Southey and their family live, as well as a nearby self-catering cottage, are surrounded by lawns and tall trees, all overlooked by Hillston koppie, from which the farm draws its name.
Only the setting of distant, self-catering Northmead fits the category of “bleak”, but even it has a rugged beauty of its own, and the house is the epitome of character and comfort.
Even as a child, the Southeys’ daughter, Adrienne, used to sketch the historic place – once the farm manager’s cottage. After completing her studies, she took the money she had saved, and set out to transform it. Now oil lamps hang at interesting angles from heavy wooden rafters in the kitchen, as do many cooking utensils. An Aga stove adds warmth.
The bedrooms and large lounge have been dollied up, with innovation and little money… she sewed the cushion covers and quilts, and painted the walls; all with an eye to detail.
And here is a culinary anomaly. Adrienne trained as a cordon bleu chef at the well-known Silwood School of Cookery in Cape Town. Now that is a rarity on a lonely farm.
The cast and crew of the movie, among them Ian Roberts and Anna-Mart van der Merwe, scored big-time when it came to meals – Adrienne prepared them all during the film shoot.
On a drive around Hillston, Riana pointed out the unusual irrigation system. Contour walls follow the lie of the land. When the Great Brak River – which runs through the farm – floods, they open the sluice gates, and a series of shallow dams rapidly fill up. “The change is dramatic. The best time to visit us is in March and April, after the rains,” said Riana, who also took me to see Lystrosaurus fossils in the rocks of the riverbed.
An unusual sight was of alpacas, normally more at home in the South American Andes, guarding the sheep. The large Hillston shearing shed was a former military barracks for British troops on Grootfontein, near Middelburg, during the Anglo-Boer War. The previous owners bought it, transported and reassembled it on the farm.
The self-catering stone cottage near the main house has an unusual feature. In its garden stands a blockhouse, dating back to the war, which is used as a braai area. The tiny openings, which were once used to fire shots through, now allow fresh air in, while keeping any icy winds at bay.
As a boy, Jonathan attended school in one of the stone cottage’s rooms. “Our governess was a Miss Masson, who had taught in a mission school.” he recalled.
As to the giant Beefwood trees, which stand watch over the main house and stone cottage, Riana said a visiting guest (now in his nineties) remembered them being the same height when he was a small boy. Every so often, the Southeys bring in a tree specialist to lop off the tops.
Over drinks, Jonathan told me something of the fascinating family history. His great-great grandfather, Sir Richard Southey, was a well-known figure during the Kimberley diamond mining boom. His son, William Robert, took up farming in the Queenstown district, but due to stock theft, bought Manor Holme farm near Schoombee railway station.
This became the family farm of this branch of the Southey family. Noting the irrigation potential on this farm, William Robert became the first man to build a weir in a river in South Africa, with the purpose of diverting flood water for the irrigation of lands and the flooding of vleis.
“He is said to be the father of flood water irrigation in South Africa,” said Jonathan.
William’s youngest son, John Oscar, was taught by a tutor, because he suffered from eye trouble. Once a week he rode his horse to Schoombee, then took a train to nearby Steynsburg, where a doctor put drops in his eye, before undertaking the return journey.
On one such trip, when crossing the river in flood, his horse was washed away. He managed to swim to the side, but was devastated by the loss of his favourite mount, which he saw disappearing over the weir. The next morning, however, this horse was found grazing contentedly in the veld, its saddle and bridle still in place.
John Oscar took over the farming of Manor Holme, and excelled as a stud master, breeding top-quality Merino sheep and North Devon cattle. His elder son, Robert (Bob) Oscar Southey, Jonathan’s father, took up flying after leaving school in 1932. Hillston was purchased during World War II, and immediately thereafter Robert (Bob) Oscar Southey, Jonathan’s father came to this farm. Bob’s eldest son, Julian, now farms Manor Holme, while Jonathan, Bob’s second son, and Riana farm Hillston.
Dinner was a superb affair: Moroccan lamb tangine, delicately flavoured rice, cauliflower, sweet potato and broccoli and a decadent chocolate meringue desert topped with whipped cream and peach slices.
Hillston is the recipient of several AA Awards. A sunrise walk to see the landmark koppies of Koffiebus and Teebus is popular with visitors.
Cycling and motorbike enthusiasts have plenty to choose from. A visit to the nearby Orange-Fish River Tunnel, involving a half-kilometre drive into the heart of the mountain, is fascinating (you have to get permission). For me, the best part was seeing the outlet point, before filtering into the Teebus River, and thence into the Fish River.
Finally, it is not just Adrienne following her dream. Riana has one of her own. She is working hard to promote the area and wants to turn the R56 (between KZN and Middelburg Eastern Cape), which runs past Hillston, into a road almost as well-known as America’s Route 66.
l Call 049 842 1627/082 322 4403. firstname.lastname@example.org www.hillstonfarm.co.za - Sunday Tribune