The heat creeps up on us quietly as the sly February sun raises its head slowly above the Karoo hills. This is in contrast to the almost freezing conditions the previous night in Bloemfontein. But that is Africa for you…
On this fine morning at about 6am we find ourselves on a solitary road driving into the heart of the Karoo - a semi-desert natural region of South Africa. Many a poet, artist, musician and writer have made stabs at attempting to depict the vastness and dry, incredibly beauty of the arid air, cloudless skies, extremes of heat and cold and fossils of hundreds of million years old of the Karoo. Most have failed. And not being one to break with tradition, so will I probably. For it is simply impossible. As someone once said, you may as well try and catch the wind…
In terms of geography, the Karoo is sharply divided into the Great Karoo and the Little Karoo by the Swartberg Mountain Range, which runs east-west, parallel to the southern coastline, but is separated from the sea by another east-west range called the Outeniqua-Langeberg Mountains. The Great Karoo lies to the north of the Swartberg range and it is here we find ourselves on the way to a tiny hamlet called Steytlerville in the Eastern Cape Province – yes the Karoo area spans a few Provinces of South Africa.
The town was founded in 1876 on the farm Doorspoort and named after the Reverend Abraham Isaac Steytler, minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. In terms of farming, Steytlerville forms the centre of the wool and mohair area in this part of the Great Karoo. Everywhere strange and exotic vegetation can be seen including dwarf shrubs, small succulents, umbrella shaped wild plum trees and ancient cycads – all hallmarks of the semi-desert area.
After following the silly GPS voice into what seems the wild beyond only fit for 4x4 vehicles, snakes and turtles, we finally see the sign for Karoo Theatrical Hotel which is situated on a farm just outside of town. We are met at the gate by a menagerie of friendly pets with owners Mark Hinds and Jacques Rabie following on their heels together with my friend and Jacque's sister Althea.
After a hearty welcome we collapse in the comfy couches on the massive veranda and with an ice cold libation in hand all is well with the world. The hotel's interior is a feast for the eye. Stylish art-deco meets classic ambience to a fault, the décor and furniture attest to a glamorous oasis in the desert with antiques and treasures lovingly collected over the years from far-flung exotic places. And then there are the pianos – fourteen of them, all told…
All bedrooms have queen-size or twin beds with percale linen and electric blankets in winter. There is a choice of en-suite bathrooms with either a shower or a bath. They are beautifully decorated and provide a welcome reprieve from the desert heat. Some rooms also have small patios looking out over the garden, swimming pool and the mountains beyond. After a wonderful nap, we go for a walk and breathe in the cleansing air as the last rays of the sun make night descend. The tranquillity is entrancing as is the space and magnificent views of wide open plains and surrounding mountains.
Food glorious food
A million stars appear in the night sky and with no lights from a city to detract from this spectacle, it looks as though they all slowly meander along the Milky Way like a deep, calm tide in the ocean of the Universe above us. Dinner is superb and consists of a starter of chicken liver pate and homemade bread - heaven - and the main course of pork medallions with delicious cinnamon pumpkin is a feast. The rest of the night is spent chatting and laughing on the huge porch.
This ritual becomes the rhythm for the next four or five days then. We mostly sleep in and then enjoy a wonderful English breakfast in one of the amazing spaces, nooks and crannies of the hotel - the choice of inside in the dining room (where we spent very little time considering the weather), the beautiful intimate back garden or the sprawling porch (where we spent most of our time). Afterwards we frolic in the huge, sparkling pool for hours like children, followed by perhaps a drive into town, reading or an afternoon nap before we all converged on the porch, funny that, for a cocktail before more wonderful, homemade fare for dinner, prepared by Althea and Jacques.
On one of the hottest days there, our hosts take us to Steytlerville's "Township" or shanty town for lunch. And here I can honestly say I swooned. Not from the heat but from the food. Lizzy's Kaya is the name of the most humble, tiny little home of, yes you guessed it, Lizzy Snoek. She is a local lady who decided to treat tourists to her brand of food in her own home. Not quite a restaurant set up, but more an experience of how the locals live and eat. Her nurturing and graceful manner with a naughty twinkle in her eyes, is second only to her cooking. Southern fried chicken, heaps of different salads, the best lamb and gravy with rice in the whole wide world and a peppermint tart for dessert and that was me done…. Truly glorious and unforgettable.
Theatre in the bush
Over the course of the days I became truly aware of just how amazing this piece of earth is. I gradually but intensely became aware of the nature around me – the aroma of the "fynbos" on the quiet, warm wind, the intense blue of the big sky, the quiet, the feeling of utter peace…
There is of course a multitude of things to here for the actively inclined. It is the gateway to the Baviaans Kloof and 4x4 tracks and roads for vehicles, mountain bikes and running or hiking. Plain's game include kudu, hartebeest, Black wildebeest, klipspringer, impala, blesbok, springbok and various smaller species. The area is also a bird watcher's paradise with 100 species recorded. Bushwalks will introduce you to the special fauna and flora of the Karoo.
But the Karoo Theatrical Hotel is best known for its hosts and the extraordinary shows they present every weekend. Both originally from Cape Town, Mark and Jacques have combined the art of hospitality with their love of performance – and have become the toast of travelers throughout the Karoo. Mark had a stellar and celebrated career as classical concert pianist and cabaret and burlesque producer in Europe for more than 20 years and Jacques is an outstanding performer.
And so we found ourselves on the Thursday night, just after a stellar three-course dinner watching the lights dim in Grimaldi's Theatre Hall. It is time for The Steytlerville Follies, presented by Freddie Ferrari and Dame Leyla Lamborghini. Mark (as Freddie) is an accomplished concert pianist and Jacques (as Dame Leyla) sings the old show tunes and classics we all love.
We only had a few other fellow guests from the former East Germany in the theatre with us. I was in rapture. The show is a study in suspension of jaded and cynical haughtiness and it transports its audience to emotions not oft experiences. Jacques is absolutely fantastic in the way he interprets the music – with classics from Liza Minelli, Eartha Kit and the like - with his costumes (which he all makes himself), make-up and performance and then of course, Mark's piano playing is sublime.
I often threaten to return to places I have been in the course of my work, but as the words escape my lips I know in my heart it is not to be. Unfortunately Mark, Jacques and Althea and the wonderful staff at the Karoo Theatrical Hotel will just have to get used to my return visits. Brace yourselves darlings!
Telephone: +27 (0) 49 835 0010 or +27 (0) 72 424 7185
There are daily flights between Beijing and Johannesburg. Once in Johannesburg, the closest airport to the Karoo Theatrical Hotel is in Port Elizabeth, which is a 2-hour drive away with a rental car from numerous car rental agencies in Port Elizabeth.