The Karoo might look like a moon landscape in parts, but scratch just below the surface of these three farm stays and you are bound to find real magic. We did.
For many people, the Great Karoo is just that large hot, dry and inconvenient stretch you have to get through when you travel between many of SA's big cities. Pepper trees, wind pumps, aloes, bossies, barbed wire fences, sheep, a few koppies, and a road that disappears over the horizon. But you really are missing out if you zoom through this in the dark.
Next time, make it part of your holiday – and stay for at least two nights.
There's something about the open spaces and the silence that rejuvenates on some very deep level – much more so than the usual stress-relieving mechanisms. I am not sure how it works, but if I did, I would bottle it and make a fortune. (Not really, but you get the idea).
Maybe I am biased – my family roots lie in this arid region – and if you spend a day or three here, you will most probably feel that yours do too.
Here's more about three of the very special places we visited during an October visit to the Little and Great Karoo. And yes, a weekend on one of these farms can make you feel as if you have had a 10-day holiday.
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Although situated in the Klein Karoo, the Hoeko Valley, where these two cottages are situated, is lush and green. The relatively simple exterior of Hemelrand, in which we spent two nights, did nothing to prepare us for the absolutely gorgeous interior of this hilltop cottage.
Think authentic and rustic charm, antique copper beds, cotton linen, a Victorian bath, a veranda, a fire pit and a plunge pool – making it worthy of being featured in any décor magazine. In fact, I would happily move in tomorrow without changing as much as a curtain rail or a door knob.
The cottages (of which Gelukstroom really is only reachable using a 4X4) are on a working fruit farm about 14km outside of the town of Ladismith. Although you may be tempted to just stay put, make a fire, have a glass of wine and later stare at the millions of stars, do make time to visit the incredible nearby Seweweekspoort with its astonishing rock formations. I kept on feeling that it would not be at all out of place for a pterodactyl to hove into view around a corner.
There's solar power, and a place to charge a cellphone, but the rest is gas. So no TV (Hallelujah) and plenty of time for fireside chats, both indoors and outside, and a good book. Best of all was the price – for the two of us it was just R700 per night.
READ MORE: Cheese, bougainvillea and slow living in the Great Karoo
Ganora Guest Farm – Nieu-Bethesda
Whenever I have visited Nieu-Bethesda in the past, I have always stayed in cottages in town, but next time I might very well consider Ganora Guest Farm, which lies about 7 km outside this strangely magical little town.
Ganora is no less fascinating. It is a working sheep farm, which is also steeped in history – both relatively recent (Anglo-Boer War and the San) and impossibly long ago (the fascinating fossils on display are about 250 million years old). Its setting, like much of the Karoo, is both peaceful and dramatic. The tag line on their site is apt: Give us one day, and we will give you 250 million years.
On our morning visit, we were met by owner Hester Steynberg, who showed us around the lovely guest rooms, many of which are in renovated old farm buildings. There is also a cottage on offer that sleeps six guests. Visitors lack no comforts and have access to a pool, a lounge, a bar and the most beautiful dining room I have seen in a long time.
What sets Ganora Guest Farm apart is the wide range of activities: a walk to the Bushman paintings, the Anglo-Boer War engravings, fossil walks in the veld, a medicinal plant walk with a local guide, birding, biking and hiking. Sometimes there are even art and cooking classes. Do yourself a favour and visit the incredible fossil museum on the farm. We also had difficulty tearing ourselves away from the cute bottle-fed lambs lying peacefully in the shade.
The farm was a hive of activity as a tour group was expected. It comes as no surprise that Ganora is popular: it is beautiful and fascinating and peaceful and the rates reasonable: between R550 and R700 per night per person sharing. The best deal is the Khoisan Cottage, which sleeps six people at a unit price of R1 650.
READ MORE: SA Road Trips Mapped: Highlights of the Karoo Highlands Route
Mountain View Country Guest House – Cradock
It was while trying to find accommodation in Cradock that I stumbled across The Mountain View Country Guest House – and realised with a shock that this was the old family farm on which my great-grandfather, grandfather and father had been born. (Mountain View/Montem Video – get it?) My gran sold it in 1962, but we had visited it since and I recognised the houses, also from old family photos taken in the 1930s and 40s.
The Fish River Canoe Marathon meant it was booked out, but I contacted the owners anyway and organised a visit, taking with me a sheaf of old family photos and a framed aerial shot of the farm taken in the 1940s.
The Jordaan family, with affable farmer Wilhelm Jordaan at the helm, runs a slick and hospitable operation here and he found two hours to chat to us and show us around. No expense has been spared, the interiors are truly lovely, and they have preserved the historical aspects of the farm sensitively (including my great-grandfather's ox wagon). A wide range of guest services are available, the rooms are beautifully appointed and luxurious, and there is also a self-catering cottage on offer. (I last sat on that stoep as a 12-year-old, sulkily picking endless burrs from my socks after climbing the Spekboomberg on the farm with my family).
Activities on the farm include bird watching, horse riding, mountain biking, fishing, cycling and swimming. This working farm also provides meals to guests and the chef gets rave reviews. The prices are very reasonable for the level of luxury on offer and work out to about R400 – R600 per night per person sharing depending on which accommodation you choose.
An overnight stop here would be better than not stopping at all, but I recommend a longer stay to truly unwind. I truly felt as if I had come home – and I suspect you might too.
By the way, the aerial photo of the farm stayed behind. It has now also gone home.
General tips for choosing farm accommodation:
- Check that it is not located more than half an hour's drive from the nearest town, unless you are specifically looking for some rural seclusion.
- Make sure it is at least 1 km away from the national road – sound travels at night in the Karoo.
- Make sure your car is up to possible gravel roads.
- Check the internet for reviews from other guests and for pics of the interiors.
- Converted outbuildings that have not been properly insulated could be freezing or very hot.
- If you want silence, a working farm may not be the thing for you – but kids generally love the animals and the farm activity.
- Check whether it is pet-friendly.
- Provided meals are usually delicious and good value for money. (Alert the hosts of you have special dietary requirements).
- Take a torch, matches, an extra blanket and charge your phone before you get there. Also there may be no or intermittent reception.
- Check in advance whether there is electricity, solar power or gas – or a combination.
- Some of these farm stays are incredibly luxurious, and others can be surprisingly basic, such as in backpackers basic. Find out what to expect in advance, and pack accordingly.
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