The sun had set and we were sipping wine and eating farm bread by candlelight at Stuurmansfontein near Carnarvon – a corbelled house in the Karoo, now an unusual guesthouse. It felt as if we’d fallen through a wormhole into the past.
With these stones neatly stacked in a circle of diminishing diameter, and plaster made of wheat chaff, sand and water, the trekboer builders achieved structures that are still standing some 150 years later.
The Stuurmansfontein guesthouse has two corbelled structures next to each other, each with a door and window. One now houses the living room and the other the main bedroom, complete with brass bedstead. In the old days, if your family grew you just plonked down another corbel and carried on. Once you’d really made it financially, you might even build a rectangular gabled structure, like the one that now houses Stuurmansfontein’s voorkamer and kitchen.
I love history and tradition and old buildings, but one modern thing I like is a bathroom. And Stuurmansfontein had one – even if we had to walk outside to get to it.
If you have a picture in your head of a typical farmer’s wife, then Charmaine Botha isn’t it. She was working in the garden of the main house when we arrived. Petite and sylph-like, her face pale and pretty under a big sunhat, she wouldn’t have looked out of place sipping espresso at a pavement café in Paris. Her husband Piet – the third generation of Bothas on the farm – restored the corbelled house in the early 1990s.
‘She came to visit the house a few years ago and told me her mother was known for the best coffee in the area,’ said Charmaine. ‘Her secret ingredient was dried figs mixed in with the coffee beans.’
The Berghs were totally self-sufficient. They had no refrigerator, so they’d rub a sheep’s carcass with coarse salt and flour, cover it with a cloth and store it under the bed. That was the coolest place during the day. At night they’d hang it outside.
Most of the furniture in the house has a story. ‘The desk in the voorhuis belonged to Aunt Stien’s father, and I framed a few of her hartsgoed over there by the front door,’ said Charmaine.
A film crew was due to arrive on the farm a few days after we left, there to shoot an ad for Karoo Lamb of Origin. If you see that ad one day and fall under the spell of Stuurmansfontein, I’ll understand.
I know we did.
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