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The Karoo: South Africa’s Living Desert

Dook The Karoo: South Africa’s Living Desert

Photo: Dook

And yet, drenched by springwater, the Klein Karoo is filled with fruit farms, and in less than two hours I arrived in Calitzdorp, a dusty valley town of gabled Cape Dutch homes rimmed by vineyards. The Karoo’s Mediterranean-like climate makes for sweeter grapes than the more famous estates of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek; there are no less than five cellars in Calitzdorp producing sublime fortified wines. I joined a carload of German tourists for a tasting at Boplaas, established in 1880, and sampled several ruby and tawny ports as good as any I’ve had from Portugal.

But there was another reason to come to Calitzdorp. In 2002, the South African ceramicist Hylton Nel, whose painted clay plates and dinner sets have been exhibited in London and Toronto, settled here. I met him outside his pretty farm cottage on the western edge of town and toured his mud-barn studio. Nel, known for using his ceramics as canvases, paints iconic, often satirical images filled with literary and political allusions. As a Zimbabwean, I approved of the inscription on one glazed fruit bowl: [Robert] Mugabe is a MAMPARA—South African slang for “fool.”

Later, relaxing in the shade of his latticed veranda, it was easy to see why the Karoo so inspires the ascetic artist. It was late afternoon—the magic hour—and the sandstone cliffs of the distant Swartberg Mountains were a swirling kaleidoscope of red and purple in the fading sun. “I came for the space, the quiet, the beautiful skies,” Nel said. Just then a raucous wailing rang out from the wine-soaked streets of town. “If you can just get past the rather chaotic drunkenness…”

Day 2: Calitzdorp to Oudtshoorn 32 Miles

Calitzdorp is gentrifying fast, but the cultural heart of the Klein Karoo is the sister towns of Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert, in the foothills of the Swartberg at the eastern end of the R62.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Oudtshoorn feather merchants—many of them Lithuanian Jews—got wildly rich exporting plumes from area ostrich farms to the great fashion houses of Europe. They built Victorian mansions, so-called Feather Palaces, on the veld, with spiral staircases and stained-glass windows as grand as Gatsby mansions. Most fell into decline when the feather boom went bust before the Great War, but now, I discovered, they were being restored. Montague House, a handsome 1908 palace with a polished oak interior in the town center, has been transformed into a bistro; and the Feather Palace, a red-roof mansion just off the R62, is part of a stylish working guest ranch owned by a gay couple from Durban.

Yet it is not only inkommers creating the Karoo-chic aesthetic. On my friend Niebuhr’s insistence I booked a night at Boesmanskop, a two-room inn opened in 2006 by a local farmer named Tinie Bekker. A soft-spoken fiftysomething Afrikaner whose ancestors were among the first Boers to settle the Karoo in the early 1750’s, Bekker inherited the family’s grape and dairy farm in 1982. He has since transformed it, planting jungle-thick gardens of agapanthus and iris and furnishing the homestead with Victorian pieces and Cape Dutch antiques—a style he describes as “rustic Cape Country Afrikaner.”

My room, the upstairs room in a refurbished barn, had worn yellowwood floors, a vintage claw-foot bathtub, and stunning vineyard views. In the evening, I dined on Karoo lamb chops and an organic fig pie that Bekker whipped up in his kitchen. Then came the check: a paltry $30 a night—food included. (The prices have since gone up.) Embarrassed, I offered to pay more. “Agh, no,” Bekker protested. “It’s really just a side business. My guests are mostly word-of-mouth, and I want to get it just right before I charge more.”

So much for those dour, conservative Boers of my childhood memory.

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