The mercury was heading into the uncomfortable zone when we opened the farm gate to Jan Klaasleegde and crawled along the deeply rutted track on the way to a corbelled house in the Williston area. In the distance, the little stone house stood like a beacon in the middle of a vast Karoo plain.

We were in Lone Ranger country, where the vast plains and sky become one. Two hundred years ago the trekboers arrived in the area to graze their animals and, for shelter, built these flat stone houses.

While we walked around the corbelled house, which is now a historical monument that has been modernised with a wooden door, it was easy to reflect on the life these intrepid people must have lived.

They must have been a really tough bunch to venture into such an inhospitable land. Here, on the blistering hot plains, a family had arrived and set up a home with its only a water hole offering enough life-giving sustenance to keep the stock and the family alive.

The silence is overpowering and the heat oppressive but once inside the tiny dome-shaped house the temperature is at least 10 degrees cooler than in the sun. Corbelled shelters are said to date back about 4 000 years in Europe and it is thought that, along with the trekboers, was a Portuguese national who would have had experience in corbelled shelter construction.

The most corbelled shelters remain, to this day, in a triangular area bounded by the towns of Williston, Fraserburg and Carnarvon.

The style of building suited the area as there are no trees large enough to offer wood for construction. The shelters are built from flat stones stacked one upon the other in a circular pattern and at standing height flat stones were placed and used as scaffolding as the domed roof was constructed.

At the peak of the building a flat stone can be moved to allow an opening so that a fire can be built inside the shelter. The shelters only have two openings, a small doorway, which is closed off to the elements with skins and, directly opposite, a small wedge-shaped opening that obscures a direct line of sight, partly to avoid San arrows.

The breeze flowing through the shelter acts as an effective air-conditioner. Inside, the builders would leave small recesses for stacking necessities, with the main one housing the family bible. Close by, a well-built kraal for housing the animals at night illustrates the fine stonework the nomadic trekboers were capable of.

The family would reside with their herd and precious wagon, hunting the teeming herds on the plains for fresh meat while fending off San.

Teased by the information we could glean about the area, we set off from Cape Town, headed up the N7, turned onto the R27 at Vanrhynsdorp and passed through Nieuwoudtville and Calvinia before cruising quietly into Williston late on Easter Saturday morning.

This journey was about 560km, on roads that are generally quiet and carry little traffic in comparison to the rest of the country. Expecting the town to be practically devoid of all life and all dogs to be fast asleep, we were surprised to see a sign and plenty of vehicles directing us to the Mall and the “Vleende Piering” (flying saucer).

Before travelling to Williston, my information was that the town only filled up in flower season when the plains in the Karoo burst into vibrant colour. On arrival, Pieter Naude a relatively new pioneer to the town, welcomed us with open arms and announced that there were to be two weddings that afternoon, as well as a large family gathering, and the town was bursting at its seams.

The Mall and Pieter's restaurant, as well as the guest house - looked after by Elmarie - appears to be the centre of town activity and is fast becoming the information hub of the small town. Meanwhile, the municipal information bureau was locked and bolted for the weekend.

Fearing we would find no accommodation, Pieter immediately sprang into action and we secured a room at Hawthorn House, a genuine Karoo house owned by Shirley Muzerie, a mine of information and a devoted corbelled house lover.

Thanks to Shirley, who is also a fairly new pioneer to the town, we quickly learned about the area's history.

Shirley, with Heather Sterling, offers tours to the corbelled houses, as most of them are situated on private farms and parties have to be accompanied. They both have heaps of interesting information about the houses, as well as the history and legends in the Karoo.

In July 1768, Johan Abraham Nel of Stellenbosch rested near a fountain close to the Sak River during the birth of his son. He planted an almond tree, which grew enormous in the treeless area of the Karee mountains.

In 1845, Johann Heinrich Lutz of Switzerland established a Rhenish mission station at the same spot and named it Amandelboom. In 1883, the name was changed to Williston, in honour of the British Cape colonel secretary, Colonel Hampden Willis.

The town became an official district in 1926 and has always concentrated on sheep farming. Since 1913, farmers were forced by law to fence their boundaries and, in 1929 all the fences were replaced by jackal-proof fencing.

The town is situated on the beds of the Zak River, a seasonal river where unique riverbed irrigation is practised, similar to that on the Nile River in Egypt. Two large hills stand sentry over the town.

They are called the Singing Hills because way back, in the days of the mission station, choirs would gather on the hills at Christmas and perform choral concerts. Also, if you climb to the top of the hills and the Karoo breeze is blowing, the hills whistle and sing.

A really sad sight in the town is the abandoned the railway station, which was at the end of the line. The last train to puff its way into the town was in the early 90s. I met several people who were employed on the line and have remained in the town.

They all have interesting stories about the train, especially as it would huff and puff into the station. It is sad to see a rail network that could easily be a huge tourist boost to the entire region disbanded.

However, it is rumoured that several American businessmen are enquiring about buying or leasing the line.

Thanks to the two weddings that took place while we were in Williston, we had a chance to hear the fine organ music coming from the beautiful sandstone church in the centre of the town.

Although only built in 1913, it was declared a national monument as it is one of about 17 sandstone churches in the country.

A short distance outside the town, with an unrestricted view over the Zak River and the vast plains, is a stone blockhouse built at the end of the Anglo-Boer war. The final attraction in the area is its tombstone route. Although bizarre-sounding, the route is unique in the country.

James Wright, a trained stonecutter from Stirling in Scotland, settled in the district. He passed on this exceptional form of art to the locals, such as De Waal and Kruger.

The tombstones were chiselled out of local sandstone, resulting in a legacy of outstanding folk art. There are a few examples in the cemetery in Williston but I believe some of the best examples are to be found on the surrounding farms.

It is also rumoured that oil has been discovered in the area, but the test well was capped. In 1995, Dr Bruce Rubridge of Witwatersrand University discovered a fossil on the farm Kruitfontein of a mammal-like reptile, which lived in the area about 260-million years ago on the banks of an inland sea.

If you go...

Adviser Distance: Cape Town to Williston is 560km.

Williston Tourism: For information, call 053 391 3003 or visit the website at www.karoohoogland.co.za.

Die Ark and Mall: Call Pieter and Elmarie Naude on 053 391 3659.

Corbelled house tours and information: Call Shirley Muzerie or Heather Sterling on 082 3223656 or 082 342 4144, respectively, or email [email protected]

Tombstone route information: Call Elsa van Schalkwyk on 072 074 0919.