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Jo'Burg Days: Meerkat Manor

...I have privately christened one of these farms Meerkat Manor, after the TV program of that name, as there are scores of these engaging animals in a field to the right of the sand road to the farm. Here, signs ask visitors to drive slowly and take care not to run over the small suricates...

Barbara Durlacher tells of the Free State, a hidden South African “gem’’ waiting to be discovered by more tourists.

To read more of Barbara’s stories and articles please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/joburg_days/

The Free State in South Africa, formerly the Orange Free State, is a serene farming area with a wide variety of scenery ranging from wide cultivated plains filled with maize and sunflowers to beautiful sandstone mountains, clear trout streams and attractive sandstone villages. The name of this large province previously commemorated the Prince of Orange of the Netherlands who was hailed as a hero at Waterloo by Napoleon for his stand at the battle of Ligny in 1815.

I gleaned this piece of arcane information from Wikipedia where there are glowing accounts of the Prince’s courage in battle, quoting from a letter from Napoleon to one of his generals. He praises the Prince, saying that were it not for his support of Wellington, the opposing forces would have won the day. As most historical accounts laud Wellington as the hero of Waterloo, it is this unexpected view of a long-forgotten hero that explains the choice of his name for the first Afrikaans province claimed by the South African ‘Boers’ as their sovereign territory during their Great Trek* northwards.

Apart from these historical associations, changed and faded with time, the Free State is a hidden gem populated by independent farming people, who today are turning their farms into centres of possibilities, not the least of which are charming bed and breakfast accommodation and small enterprises developed to help and empower the rural people, many of whom live in conditions of great poverty.

I have privately christened one of these farms Meerkat Manor, after the TV program of that name, as there are scores of these engaging animals in a field to the right of the sand road to the farm. Here, signs ask visitors to drive slowly and take care not to run over the small suricates, as “We Live Here Too” – an original approach to animal conservation and an indication of the high levels of environmental concern practiced by many locals.

On reaching the farm, visitors are welcomed by the hostess and conducted to the converted barn where thirty or so women, clad in attractive deep blue ‘German Print’ dresses and doeks, sit spinning, knitting and weaving the Angora wool for which the farm is well-known.

The hand rearing of Angora Rabbits and hand-crafting warm durable garments from their wool has become a profitable enterprise. In an area where seasonal vegetable growing made it necessary to find alternative employment for the many families housed on the farm, the wool from angora rabbits has been turned into a profitable operation. Teaching women to spin and weave this material into attractive and saleable garments has proved a popular alternative, resulting in a growing export business and a steady income for people who were formerly laid off during the unproductive winter season.

Inside the converted barn the dung-plastered walls are decorated with attractive blue andwhite designs hand painted by the women, using dampened cakes of washing blue and starch paste, pictures which show a grasp of design and colour testifying to their innate creativeness.

Excellent asparagus is grown in the area, much of it exported to Germany where it is very popular, and the cooler slopes of the mountains are famous for the large orchards of beautiful cherry trees. The fruit is marketed locally and overseas as well as being converted to delicious fruit wines. A growing attraction has been the stocking of many of the local streams with trout for leisure fishing. This pastime has become so popular that scores of bed and breakfast establishments have been set up to supply the demand for accommodation. A sideline to the fishing has been developed with trout rods and flies being made in Clocolan and Clarens using imported bamboo rods and locally made accessories and flies. The hand-tying of flies is a skill readily adopted by the local women whose nimble fingers have for centuries utilised local materials to make durable and beautiful grass mats and the conical hats so favoured by the tribes of the area.

On this Makoadi farm, bed and breakfast accommodation is provided in the older part of the main house, and the unique furnishings are enough to entice visitors to spend a night or two. Two of the bedrooms have been furnished in the style of the early farms, and carefully recreate the period using materials available at the time. Carefully washed cotton flour bags, still showing the makers name and brand are used for curtains, a large iron bedstead with feather-filled pillows and mattress is covered in a skilfully worked patchwork quilt, and as is to be expected, there’s a “gazunder” under the bed - although a modern lavatory and washbasin are also only a few feet away, screened by floor-length flour bag curtains.

Wooden paraffin cases for bedside and dressing tables complete this authentic decor, while candles and matches, hand crocheted doilies and mats decorate the surfaces. Lacy newspaper cut-outs edge shelves fixed to the white-washed walls and filled with pictures of Victorian beauties, while old enamel-ware and long-forgotten china ornaments brighten the room.

Before leaving, take note of the floor. Although it is only covered by a two small hand-knotted rag rugs, you won’t feel the cold of a Free State winter, as the dung floor, decorated with the traditional hand-printed swirls created by the diligent woman who worked the material, is warm to the touch. With a faint smell of the outdoors and perfumed grass which over time has been absorbed by the furnishings, it was, together with peach pips, the traditional flooring for all but the formal “sit-kamer’ in country homes of the period.

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