Cradock: A Colonial Farming Town in South Africa
A road-trip along Route 62, South Africa's old ox-wagon trail.
By Cindy-Lou Dale
Driving through Route 62’s authentic one-horse towns, along barrel-straight roads bordering immense stretches of farmland, is a time for reflection, for visiting a roadside store -- and at some point, becoming a biltong guru.
When I told my petrol pump attendant that I was heading to Cradock, he smiled broadly. “Cradock, she is my home town, madam.”
He then proceeded to explain some of its ancient history and how cunning the Boers were in containing the region’s Xhosa tribe who competed for cattle grazing grounds.
Today Cradock is regarded as the capital of the Karoo Heartland, renowned for its production of some of the best wool and mohair in the country.
"She's not far," he imparts, "it's just around the corner! Take a right, a left, and another left, and you're there." What he failed to mention was the distance between those turns.
Hence, several hours after leaving Graaff-Reinet, I arrive in Cradock and the country’s first frontier hotel, the Victoria Manor Hotel -- a family-run colonial diamond draped in layers of textured character.
The hotel groans with history which seeps through the walls and the grand wooden staircase leading to the rooms on the floor above.
My suitcase is whisked from reception and taken across the road as I’m accommodated in a traditional 1840s terraced ‘Tuishuis’ cottage; one of a string of chalets which line the preserved streetscape, previously home to a large community of artisans who served the ox-wagon trails.
Over the years Sandra Antrobus, owner of the Victoria Manor Hotel, acquired 30-odd of these artisan cottages, painstakingly restoring each one, complete with peach-pip floors, sash windows, bible-and-cross doors, broekie-lace fretwork, shutters, colonial stoep furniture, and artisanal relics left by harness makers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, and carpenters.
A couple of blocks from the hotel is the Olive Schreiner House museum, devoted to the life and work of Olive Schreiner, the author of ‘A story of an African Farm’, which she wrote whilst working as a governess on farms in the district. It’s well worth a visit, as is the rural cemetery where the remains of nuns, frontier-men, and soldiers of the Anglo-Boer War lie, and strangely, Harry Potter.
It’s also the final resting place of an extraordinary pioneer few have heard of - Dr. Reginald Koettlitz. His headstone describes him as: "An explorer and traveler, surgeon and geologist to Expeditions North Polar and Abyssinia, and with Scott to the Antarctic." That’s just wow!
Another must do is a Lingelihle Township tour with Amos Nteta, a larger than life kindly fellow who speaks of the ‘Cradock Five’ in an age when he too was a freedom fighter.
He explains that Cradock, possibly best known for its natural sulfur springs, has seen much of South Africa’s history from the verandas of her tree-lined streets -- the Great Trek started here, as did the ostrich boom in the early 1900s which is only now resurging with the demand for fine leather and low-cholesterol meat.
Tempted by Stylish Stores
I took a walk around town and visited several stylish stores, each evoking a credit card moment and stopped for a drink at Karoo Brew, who solar roast their coffee beans and make groovy psychedelic milkshakes. True Living, housed in a gorgeous Karoo-styled character dwelling, is the place to lunch – each room is quaint and filled with home-made farm goodness and other things I didn't know I needed.
The adjoining Harrods-like farm butcher, De Wilge Biltong & Braai, sells the best cured meats in the platteland, so I bought a supply of dröe wors (dry sausage) for the road (then ate it all as a midnight snack).
Back to where the silver sparkles I had a traditional Karoo tea with the Hotel’s matriarch in the lush red dining room of the Victoria Manor Hotel. Sandra feels strongly about getting to know a region’s food.
“You must go to where the food comes from and eat it amongst the people who create it,” she said, “that way it's seasoned with a sense of place, the landscape, the culture and the traditions.” We soon got talking about my personal favourite -- the central heating to my soul – koeksisters – a traditional plaited pastry that’s deep fried then marinated in syrup.
Sandra imparted just a smidgen of her traditional culinary wisdom: “To keep koeksisters crunchy, they need to be kept ice cold once they’ve been fried and bathed in syrup.” She takes a sip of tea, her little finger saluting the event.
Warming to her subject she continued. “And milk tart must always be of the baked variety – and served warm. For the filling, be sure you stiffly whip your egg whites and add a large dollop of butter.”
I asked after the divinity of the carrot cake before us. “Our chef Maswazi Mabusela has won awards with this cake,” she volunteered hesitantly. She leaned forward, slowly looking to her left then to her right, fearing she’ll be overheard.
“What he does is simply genius,” she whispered. “Once the carrot cake is baked, he removes it from the oven and while it’s still hot, he pierces it all over with a long-pronged fork, then slowly pours over a mixture of heated buttermilk, butter, sugar, and bicarb and lets it seep in. Once it’s cooled to room temperature he ices it with castor sugar and cream cheese.”
Sandra smiled broadly and told of when Maswazi won a coveted national award for his carrot cake. He was the only male entrant and was hand-bagged by the other contestants for having the audacity to enter a baking competition which has historically always been female territory.
One of the most beautiful, but least explored, national parks in South Africa is the Mountain Zebra National Park, just a few kilometers outside Cradock. It’s the natural habitat of the mountain zebra and is jam-packed with game, including lions and cheetahs.
I took a slow 7 am drive through the park and soon encountered a large herd of chocolate-orange muzzled mountain zebra. They all knew how to work the angles, striking a pose this way, then that way, giving me the Kardashian butt, then the over the shoulder almond-eyed glance.
Back at my digs I loaded my car, which was starting to look like it’s lived a good life in the bush, then floored it to my next destination, along the way driving with the windows open filling the cabin with the sweet thorn bush smell of the Karoo.
Find out more about Cradock and other great destinations in South Africa www.southafrica.net
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Cindy-Lou Dale originates from a small farming community in Southern Africa and has a nomadic lifestyle that moves her around the world. Currently she lives in a picture postcard village in south-east England, surrounded by rolling green hills, ancient parish churches and designer sheep farms. Cindy has been featured in international publications around the world, including GoNOMAD, TIME and National Geographic Traveller.