Having worked for a number of years in game reserves inhabited by all manner of wonderful but potentially dangerous animals, I've developed a healthy respect for the personal space concept.

As with human beings, animals have a zone or "personal" space, the infringement of which usually results in some kind of reaction, be it flight or self-defence.

While wild animals have a large personal-space zone, it's somewhat reduced in farm animals such as cows, but is still there nevertheless. Most cows will usually move on once you get within a metre or two, but that big bull in the corner of the field may decide not to, depending on his state of mind at the time.

And even if cows don't object too much to your presence, just the fact that they are big and heavy means it's easy for the unwary to get hurt while walking among them - at least for the city folk among us.

After farm manager Paul Fallone encouraged me with shouts of "get in close among them - they're as tame as sheep", I was initially wary of walking among the 600-700kg beasts, especially as Paul was giving the commands from his bakkie parked some distance away, where he was having a Saturday afternoon beer and chatting to the girls.

But as a man who clearly knew his stock I trusted his judgment and the only thing that kept me back a bit was the lens I had on the end of my camera, rather than fear of the 24 big Nguni bulls and oxen I was sharing a field with. Paul was right about them too, for they ignored me, allowing close approach from all angles while they nonchalantly chewed away on the cud.

And what a majestic collection of animals they were, having been hand-picked by farm owner Grenville Wilson for inclusion in the Nguni Stud project they're developing in conjunction with the Nguni Breeders' Association on the farm Wilsonia in the Badfontein Valley near Lydenberg, Mpumalanga.

Grenville and his wife Zaskia bought the farm in 1998 as a weekend bolt-hole from the human feedlots of Gauteng; as a place where they can have a free-range existence and where their children can enjoy fuller holidays than the barren malls of the big city offer.

Curiously, it was Zaskia who first became interested in Ngunis after buying the book The Abundant Herds, with the art work by Leigh Voigt, a family friend, helping to ignite a passion for these "walking paintings".

With this interest seeded and growing, Grenville decided to surprise Zaskia and her next birthday present was one that just couldn't be wrapped in paper - a small commercial herd of top-class Nguni cattle.

Grenville bought the herd on auction with the help of Liz Reilly of Swaziland fame, whose expertise in Nguni lore includes the accolade of having assembled a special herd for the King of Swaziland, and who is referred to by Zaskia as "the queen of Ngunis".

Each individual bull and ox in the herd is, on its own, a sight to behold, and as a collection they make for a truly spectacular sight, a form of living art as pleasing to the eye as a shoal of fine Japanese koi swimming in a crystal-clear pond.

Speaking of koi, Grenville is a fan of fancy fish as well and has a breeding operation on Wilsonia as an answer to Zaskia's cattle project.

As with koi, Nguni cattle have become something of a collectable item in South Africa among some people, valued for colour and|patterning, shape and form over and above their traditional agricultural production values.

I guess that if I had to live life as a cow I would rather be an Nguni on some collector's farm than just another brown face of an abattoir-destined Bonsmara.

Among the Nguni peoples these animals are more than just "eye-candy" and are part of the history of the Zulu, Xhosa and other nations, traditionally valued as reservoirs of wealth, much like the financial|investments of the modern city dweller like you and me, and closely entwined in their overall cultural existence.

The Nguni, as with other indigenous breeds such as the Afrikaner, is an ecotype of the Sanga, which owes its origin mainly to the Bos taurus lineage of cattle, which was domesticated somewhere in Africa, either ancient Egypt or the Niger-Cameroon region, according to the two main schools of thought.

There is also the influence of the Bos indicus lineage originating in the Near East, which is characterised by short horns and a large hump behind the shoulders, as is typically manifested in the Brahman breed.

With the southward spread of Bantu-speaking people through Africa, domesticated cattle arrived in our southern lands around 2 000 years ago, according to Marguerite Poland and the late Professor David Hammond-Tooke in The Abundant Herds, one of the finest and most comprehensive books available on the Nguni.

Over time the conditions peculiar to north-east South Africa resulted in an animal well adapted to survive here, with a high tolerance for heat and drought, resistance to endemic diseases and a productiveness that surpasses the more recently introduced breeds of European origin.

Their physical characteristics include a large hump behind the shoulders in males, relatively small size (only 500-800kg in bulls) but a well-developed muscle frame, well-pigmented hide with a short, fine coat and, of course, the wonderful array of colours and patterns that make them so unique.

A close association with people over millennia, with cattle and their keepers literally living together in traditional homesteads, has also|resulted in a generally easy-going temperament.

Paul states unequivocally that any individual who looks set to be a troublemaker has no place on the farm, which I was thankful for as I sidled up to photograph a truly impressive white bull with dark eye rings and black speckling, the best bull in the herd according to my novice eye, which observed me impassively without even breaking the rhythm of his steady chewing.

Soon, however, a noticeable restlessness became evident in the animals and a flock of cattle egrets, the ever-present companions of cattle on the veld, played leapfrog with the herd as they suddenly seemed to tire of the clicking of my shutter and moved off for the late afternoon's grazing, with the birds and beasts contained within the vast landscape imprinted in my mind as an almost timeless African scene.

With feeding and watering on our minds as well, and the sun settling low to the west behind the Steenkampsberg, Paul took us back to The Cowshed, where we were spending the night.

The Cowshed is a converted milking shed that can accommodate up to eight people in four double rooms, with a spacious, airy farm kitchen for preparing meals, a central entertainment area with fireplace, a boma for outdoor meals and a wide, red-floored porch on three sides of the house where it's easy to while away a day with a good book, following the sun or the shade according to the weather.

The décor is unique; modern and essentially South African yet retaining that farmhouse feel, with an old Firestone Tyre advert or a pair of wooden shoe moulds becoming objets d'art; an old milk pail and the end of an industrial cable drum becoming a functional table.

The innovative decor is all Zaskia's doing, which is not surprising considering her family ties to the arts, with her late father Zacharias (Zakkie) Eloff one of South Africa's best wildlife painters and her mother Rene Eloff an equally acclaimed artist.

Apart from The Cowshed, there are two other accommodation venues on Wilsonia: The Farmhouse and the Dormitory, both as charming and original as The Cowshed. The farm can accommodate around 30 people and Wilsonia is a perfect place for small, stylish country weddings where rustic ambience and upmarket chic converge to create something truly unique. There's a converted shed complete with resident pair of barn owls for the reception and the bridal couple's photographs can be taken with the herd of Nguni bulls to add something different to the package.

If I hadn't already booked my wedding venue by the time we visited the farm I would have been very tempted with the offerings, though with such things it's normally the bride who holds the most sway?

  • Contact details: The Cowshed.Tel: 013 235 3536/ 072 243 2429. E-mail [email protected] Web: www.thecowshed.co.za

  • Directions: Follow the N4/N12 east from Gauteng, and approximately 2km after passing through the Machado Toll Plaza turn left on the R36 Lydenberg/N4 Schoemanskloof Road. Turn left at the Bambi Hotel on the R36 to Lydenberg (Mashishing). Drive for 23km and turn left at the second Rustenburg turn-off onto a dirt road. Follow the dirt road for 4km and you will see the Wilsonia Farm gate on the left. Do not turn in here but go 750m past the gate and you will see the entrance to The Cowshed on your right. Download a map from the website.