There is a memorable advertising line for Levi’s that reads: “When the world zigs, zag”. The supporting visual is of hundreds of sheep pointing in one direction and one lone, maverick sheep pointing in the opposite direction. It’s an endorsement to do the opposite of what the masses are doing: the masses being the many South Africans who flock to KwaZulu-Natal’s shores over the festive season, clogging our roads and beaches.
So, when my wife suggested we head to the Eastern Free State for this new year’s holiday, I jumped at the chance.
Historically, it has to be said, our new year’s holidays have usually been nothing short of disastrous and yours truly has been the chief organiser.
With such a flawed track record I was more than happy to relinquish my organiser holiday duties. My wife duly stepped up and we climbed in the car like stuffed walruses on Boxing Day and headed in the general direction of the Vrystaat.
The last time I had visited the Free State was when I was single and travelled to the now defunct Rustler’s Valley for three days of hallucinogenic debauchery. So my memories of the area are, naturally, largely a blur.
At Sterkfontein Dam, we experienced the first of many delays for roadworks. The Free State’s roads, it has to be said, are in a right mess. It’s pothole paradise. It’s so treacherous that one will soon need a 4 X 4 just to travel from Bloem to Bethlehem.
The first major landmark we passed was Golden Gate, which is spectacular, but with all the fallen boulders of varying sizes lying at the base of the sandstone mountains, it looked as if the world had ended and we were driving through some barren wasteland.
That was until we saw a group of tourists snapping merrily away on the latest Nikons. Our son was so in awe of the spectacular landscape, he nodded off and rather than stop, we pressed on to Clarens.
I’m not too sure what to make of Clarens really. I’m caught somewhere between cute and pretentious. I’m sure there are some excellent artists in Clarens but their magic is being lost because the majority of other art in the area is overpriced schlock.
But I guess that’s what happens when lawyers from Joburg arrive on new Harley-Davidson’s desperate to take an artwork home for the guest bathroom.
Clarens was nice, but it seemed that most tourists were there to be seen and since we weren’t there for that, we pushed on to Ficksburg.
On the road to Fouriesburg, the landscape became more interesting, as did the people. We stopped for a bite in Fouriesburg and my jaw nearly hit the floor when I saw a teenager pull up on a horse to visit his waitress girlfriend. I felt a long way from Durban.
The landscape in the Eastern Free State is not gentle. In fact, it’s in your face. If the Natal Midlands are like listening to Chopin, then the Eastern Free State is a bit like having an English football manager shout at you from about a metre away.
I was reminded by several local farmers that rainfall in the area is totally unpredictable. It can chuck it down on one farm, while a few hundred metres away the soil is being bathed in glorious sunshine. Coming from a subtropical climate, this isn’t something I’m used to because when it rains in Durbs, it stays raining.
Our first stop was Walkabout Estate. The estate is about 7km from Ficksburg, which was set up by General Johan Fick who won the territory in the Basotho Wars. It is primarily known for two things: cherries and asparagus. The Cherry Festival is in November and, with horse rides, camel rides, helicopter flips and steam train rides, it’s well worth a visit. Who knows, you may even pick up some half decent art from nearby Clarens while you’re there.
Walkabout Estate is run by the charming Fisher family who took ownership of the farm about a year ago. I don’t normally make a point of discussing people, but what struck me quickly about the Eastern Free State are the people.
They are happy to welcome you into their homes and engage with you openly and warmly. They have been untainted by city life and are unguarded and gesellig.
On our first night, the Fishers kindly offered to braai for us. At 7.15pm sharp, a deep tray of meat arrived – perfectly cooked, but enough to feed a small- to medium-sized army. Two large skewers of a combination of fillet and rump. Four pieces of chicken. Two large pieces of porterhouse steak. And to top it all off, ice cream with a homemade chocolate sauce. I know of the Atkins Diet, but this takes protein to an entirely new level.
The meat in the Eastern Free State is a bit like, well, it’s a bit like America. It’s bigger and it’s better.
We had a busy, yet relaxing time on the farm, swimming in the reservoir, strolling up to amazing viewpoints, catching crabs in the dam, feeding the chickens, talking to the ostriches. You know, basically all the stuff a three-year-old can’t do in a city. He had an absolute ball. So did my wife and I – although we did have a few city-slicker moments. There was so many of them we started to refer to them as city slicker moment No. 54 etc.
The first one took place when hundreds of bats were flying around the farmhouse. I had been given some fresh onions from the garden (about the only vegetable we ate during our week-long stay) and as I turned, I brushed my wife’s arm with the stem of the onions.
She let out a B-grade horror movie scream believing that a bat had flown into her arm. I thought she’d seen a puffadder and proceeded to throw the onions about a hundred metres into the distance. We turned to the farmer’s wife who was rolling on the floor in hysterics.
The second city slicker moment took place when we were discussing black mambas over a fiery Durban curry we’d cooked for the Fisher family. At a critical point in my story about the aggressive black mamba, I felt a sharp jab in my shoulder. I swatted what turned out to be the Fisher’s baby kitten a few metres into the air. A good thing there wasn’t a fire nearby.
On a jog in the area, I was amazed to find myself completely alone. No cars. Only the sound of birds and insects and the sight of empty farmland as far as the eye could see. Music for the soul. There are beautiful short walks one can take on Walkabout Estate (hence the name). You can relax in the reservoir. You can jog and cycle in the area or, if you just want to relax near the dam, it’s completely up to you.
After four delightful days at Walkabout Estate, we moved to Leeukop Guest Farm, a well-known hunting lodge about 5km closer to Rosendal. Rosendal, by the way, is well worth a visit. Its trendy, revamped hotel is the stuff of Conde Naste.
We spent hours in a shop in Rosendal called Turksvy, which sold rare signs, antiques and art.
Back at Leeukop, we were greeted by a rather rough looking woman named Tannie Esme. But we quickly took a liking to her. She’s a real character. The type of person you just don’t find in a city. She doesn’t like the city much either. She believes, through her faith, that God put her on Leeukop, and she hopes to see out the remainder of her days there.
We weren’t there in hunting season, which is in the winter months. A good thing too, because, apart from not particularly enjoying hunting, temperatures can apparently plummet to minus 15 in the winter.
If you do enjoy hunting, you can hunt anything from a golden springbok to a reindeer (yes, a pukka, real reindeer – just don’t tell the kids). So be sure to pack the North Face jacket. And if that’s not warm enough for you, there’s always Tannie Esme. She’s got more than enough warmth to go around.
We invited Tannie Esme for old year’s eve dinner. On our return we discovered a woman totally transformed. Talk about a makeover. She had on her finest jewellery, she’d blow-dried her hair for hours into the perfect style and she brought out the family silver cutlery for our dinner. Over yet more delicious Free State braai meat we told her about our amazing holiday with day trips into an Anglican Church in a cave, the trip to Rosendal, Ladybrand and so much more.
After spending a few days on the farm, a visit to Ladybrand is a bit like visiting Mexico City after spending time on a desert island. Intimidating. They’ve got four tarred roads and they’ve even got a Mr Price. Yikes.
As it approached midnight, Tannie Esme whipped out the cherry liqueur and the conversation turned to deeper topics of love, life and religion, and I realised what a rare privilege it was to spend a new year with a complete stranger who felt immediately like she was part of our family.
Tannie Esme is mad about horses and her joke of the night was that one day a prince will ride down the driveway on a white horse. The only trouble is she would have no hesitation choosing the white horse over the prince.
After a quick coffee, we left the next morning. We drove past numerous windmills, huge fields of bright yellow sunflowers and I found myself thinking about a few things.
I thought about what extraordinary value you can enjoy on a holiday to the Eastern Free State. A massive piece of rump steak costs just R72 at the local Spar. My wife enjoyed “the pedicure of a lifetime” for only R120. Living there would be a challenge though and any thoughts of opening a Vida e franchise in Ficksburg any time soon should be quickly extinguished.
But there was one overwhelming thought that pre-occupied my thinking and that was “what a way to see in 2012”.
Perhaps you should consider doing the same for 2013. - Sunday Tribune