How a Karoo 'workcation' rescued this couple's horrible Covid year
When life gave them lockdown - and the ability to work from anywhere - Melissa Sutherland and her husband seized the chance to realise their dream of living in a dorp
Covid-19 has spawned a lexicon of new words, among them workcation (a combination of work and vacation), daycation and staycation. To redeem this past crazy year, my husband, Ian, and I decided late last year to take a month-long "workcation" in the Karoo. Covid has ensured that nowadays anyone can work from anywhere.
Ian had long harboured a dream to live in a dorp in the Karoo for a month so we set off from Cape Town in mid-October to base ourselves in Cradock, where we would write, paint, work and discover the area's tourism attractions.
As the founder of a boutique, inbound tour operator with mostly international clients, I'd found the preceding months challenging. Ian is a novelist with a day job as a financial director and consultant. After a few months of hard lockdown, during which we'd all got to know each other extremely well, we happily waved our university-age children and the dogs goodbye and drove towards the wide-open skies of the Karoo.
We had an amazing time, discovering a lesser-known part of SA with its friendly, inspiring people, beautiful scenery and fantastic places.
As a result of Covid, instead of organising a real-life Fam - or familiarisation trip, on which tourism providers invite tour operators to experience their offerings as a way to help promote them - the Southern Africa Tourism Association Services (Satsa), of which we are members, organised a virtual Fam of the Eastern Cape in an attempt to stimulate local tourism.
Online, I met the bubbly Lisa Antrobus Ker, owner of the historic Victoria Manor Hotel and Die Tuishuise in Cradock. For a month, we "lived the dream" in a beautiful cottage at a very reasonable rate. The cottage happened to be named after Afrikaans writer and Cradock resident Etienne van Heerden, who had been Ian's supervisor for his master's in creative writing at the University of Cape Town. Serendipity.
Every morning we sat drinking coffee and eating rusks on our stoep across from the Guy Butler (who started the Grahamstown Festival) and Olive Schreiner cottages.
Lisa's mother, Sandra Antrobus, employs more than 40 people in a town with awful unemployment rates. A former pecan farmer's wife and antiques dealer, Sandra has an eye for local treasures and heritage roses. In fact, Cecil John Rhodes's bed can be found in one of the cottages with their delightful, rose-filled, pet-friendly gardens.
Cradock - once the home of Schreiner, who wrote The Story of an African Farm- is gritty and grimy with potholed roads, but it also has pockets of gentility such as the Victoria Manor Hotel, in operation since 1848. Leading up to our stay, it was lovely to get messages from Lisa saying: "Only seven more sleeps, we are so excited to welcome you." This was a foretaste of the legendary Karoo hospitality we were soon to enjoy.
On arrival, we were welcomed with open arms and invited to a shindig on a nearby farm with delicious homemade pizzas and a Stellenbosch band, Bottomless Coffee, performing. Unexpected, but that is the Karoo: it looks unassuming - dare I say somewhat boring? - but scratch beneath the surface and there is a plethora of stories.
I have never stayed in such a truly South African hotel. Upstairs were the local Covid patients, their isolating here sponsored by the government in a mutually beneficial arrangement with the hotel. Downstairs in the formal, red dining room were the regular clientele, including riot police - staying due to service-delivery protests in Middelburg, about an hour away.
Next door, in one of the elegant function rooms, the local high school was having their pared-down Covid-style matric dance. It was a microcosm of SA in this strange season, with all its jaw-dropping contradictions. As I always tell my writer husband, "Life is stranger than fiction". You seriously could not have scripted this scenario.
We had breakfast one morning with Cradock residents Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit, founders of the website Karoo Space, whose new book, Karoo Roads, has just been released. Their pictorial guidebooks to the Karoo are wonderfully handy.
On one of the weekends we attended a socially distanced Sunday service in the old Dutch Reformed Church where President Paul Kruger was christened.
As we walked around the cypress graveyard of the local Anglican church, time stood still. Reading the gravestones, I realised that a newborn and 20-year-old mother shared the same death date. Covid has made us all more conscious of our mortality. None of us is promised tomorrow.
We met Amos Nteta, who has worked with Sandra for the past 25 years. In addition to being her right-hand man and an excellent maitre d', he is the local tour guide. We took a township tour of Lingelihle with him and visited the graves of the Cradock Four. As a young man, he knew the anti-apartheid activists. To discover that they had been abducted and murdered by the police on the eve of my 15th birthday, June 18 1985, was very sobering.
We worked from our cute, wooden-floor cottage during the week, and one weekend we set off for neighbouring Graaff-Reinet to stay in the renovated Drostdy Hotel. We swam in the pool with big plops of rain coming down and visited a fascinating Covid-inspired art exhibition in the Imibali Gallery attached to the hotel.
We drove up to get the dramatic view over the Valley of Desolation, where only a few days earlier the ashes of an old family friend, who'd hailed from the Karoo, had been scattered. We revelled in the vast silence.
We discovered well-kept national parks, such as Camdeboo and Mountain Zebra, which offer great value. The latter also boasts the bluest and best-maintained pool in Africa. We did not spot any lions, but the scenery was quite gorgeous and we had lovely sightings of herds of zebras and kudus.
With international travel being so restricted, locals who might usually travel abroad are realising that there is much to discover on their doorstep. The heat, the small towns dominated by churches, and the siesta culture of the Karoo in many ways reminded me of Italy.
Being in the Karoo, we certainly ate a lot of meat, mostly lamb. I would drive all the way back to Cradock in a heartbeat just for the lamb chops at The Albert Restaurant at The Victoria Manor Hotel. As coffee addicts, we were delighted quite early on in our workcation to discover solar-roasted coffee at Karoo Brew (find them on Facebook). We also bought farm-churned butter from farmer's wife Lani Lombard at True Living.
Time certainly slowed down for the month we were away. I even managed to knit a baby's blanket for a new family member and recalibrated the meaning of what is truly important.
In many ways, soaking up the Karoo lifestyle, where life goes at a slower pace and people and home crafts are valued, salvaged our 2020 Covid year.
FIVE THINGS TO DO IN AND AROUND CRADOCK
1. SCHREINER HOUSE
This national monument on Cross Street is the former home of Story of an African Farm author and activist Olive Schreiner (1855-1920). In it you'll find antique furnishings; an exhibition on her life and work; and books from Schreiner and her husband Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner's personal libraries. There's a shop where you can purchase her works and other stories written about her and her life.
If you're reasonably fit, you could also visit the site where she was buried with Cronwright, their daughter (who died at birth in 1895) and her dog on top of Buffelskop hill on the farm Buffelshoek, 24km south of Cradock on the Mortimer road.
2. THE MOEDERKERK
The Dutch Reformed Mother Church was built in 1868 on the same site as the first Dutch Reformed Church, the first church community in the town, established in 1824. The design was loosely based on St Martins in the Field Church in London, supposedly a gesture of love from the dominee at the time for his English wife, who was pining for her home country.
Statesman Paul Kruger was christened here in 1826 and, during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), occupying British soldiers used the roof as a lookout point.
3. GREAT FISH RIVER MUSEUM
Housed in the second Dutch Reformed Church Parsonage, built in 1849 and declared a national monument in 1971, the museum is a testament to the tough lives led by pioneer settlers in the area between 1840 and 1900. Exhibits include furniture, ceramics and photographs as well as a coach house, ox wagon and hearse. There is also a fine example of a parsonage garden. For details of opening times, call 048-801-5000.
4. MOUNTAIN ZEBRA NATIONAL PARK
Twelve kilometres from Cradock on the road towards Graaff-Reinet, the park offers beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife, as well as activities including cheetah tracking, 4x4 trails and hiking trails. There are braai facilities and a swimming pool for day visitors at the Fonteinkloof picnic site. See sanparks.co.za
A trip to the jaw-dropping Valley of Desolation in the Camdeboo National Park, just past Graaff-Reinet, is well worth the 150km drive.
5. EGG ROCK
Take the N10 south out of Cradock and turn left almost immediately onto the R61 (the gravel road to Tarkastad). Just 8km further on, you'll find this geological wonder, a gigantic piece of dolerite rock shaped distinctly like a cracked egg.
Seeming to balance precariously on the flat earth, it stands 10m tall and weighs about 488 tons. The crack - a missing piece in its middle - is reportedly thanks to a lightning strike in 1937. A great spot for a selfie and getting that big-sky, middle-of-nowhere feeling that the Karoo serves up like nowhere else.
KAROO FOOD FESTIVAL
The Karoo Food Festival is taking place in Cradock from April 23-25. Expect a fun farmers' market and activities for the whole family, including a breakfast picnic on Egg Rock, a trail run, and lessons in all sorts of things from food photography to foraging. See their Facebook page for details and tickets. Alternatively, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.