Exploring De Zeekoe Guest Farm

Jim Freeman got to discover the ultimate comfort and luxury at the stunning De Zeekoe Guest Farm in Oudtshoorn.

I learned an interesting phrase during my travels through the Karoo this past fortnight: “green drought”.

The condition occurs when there is just enough rain to saturate upper layers of the soil, causing plant species with shallow root systems – such as fynbos – to flourish but without recharging aquifers (underground bodies of rock or sediment holding water) or allowing surface runoff to rivers.

Heading south down the N9 from Graaff-Reinet to Willow more and beyond to De Rust, the countryside appears lush but, despite good rains in July, rivers and streams are dry and dams are generally less than half full.

Picture: Jim Freeman

Here, the green drought has the Karoo firmly in its grip. The Klein (Little) Karoo is only marginally greener than the Groot (Great) Karoo but, say my farming friends, the decade-long drought has definitely been broken.

“We’ve had as much rain in the past three months as we would typically have in a good year,” says Morne Jonker, who farms in the Kammanassie between Oudtshoorn and Uniondale. “The Gamkapoort Dam is full, while the Kammanassie is at 75% and still rising.

Farm dams are all full and the mountain streams are still flowing. This is proving to be an exceptional year in every regard.” How does one differentiate between the Little and Great Karoo? The former is 11 800km² in extent and runs from Montagu in the west to (more or less) Uniondale and Willowmore in the east.

It is bounded south and north by the Outeniqua-Langeberg and Swartberg ranges respectively. The Great Karoo measures 395 000km² and makes up about a third of South Africa’s total surface area.

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Picture: Jim Freeman

Geographical sub-divisions of the Karoo Region

It, too, is sub-divided; the “Lower” (western) and “Upper” (eastern) sections, which are split by the escarpment being the main ones.

There are further sub-divisions – just to make things complicated – and the elevation-challenged Lower Karoo comprises such areas as the Koue Bokkeveld, Hantam, Tankwa and Moordenaars.

This is the ideal time of year to visit the Klein Karoo (I prefer the Afrikaans as it’s the most commonly spoken language throughout the region). It’s cold but liveable and the light has a clarity that is an Instagrammer’s dream.

Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

Accommodation at De Zeekoe Guest Farm

My latest visit had Oudtshoorn as its epicentre and two distinct components… the first, north of the town, was grey and wet, while the second – split by a space of three days – was crisp but sunny.

For the last, my girlfriend and I were based at the ever-popular De Zeekoe Guest Farm* just outside town on the road to Calitzdorp.

Owner Paula Potgieter says De Zeekoe remains a working farm, notwithstanding the expansion of the accommodation facilities over the past two decades. “It started when I converted two rooms in the farmhouse into guest accommodation when the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival started getting popular.

It grew organically from there… we’d take out a loan from the bank, build a few rooms, pay off the loan and start all over again.”

Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

Accommodation options and natural attractions

21 hotel-style rooms that carry a four-star Tourism Grading Council status and three self-catering cottages (each of which sleeps two adults).

The main property lies on the northern bank of the Olifants River and guests are regularly wakened by the call of a resident African fish eagle that perches on a tree stump in the hotel garden. More than 160 bird species have been recorded on the property, says Potgieter.

The area is also home to the “Shy Five” mammals: aardvark, aardwolf, bat-eared fox, porcupine and meerkat. Early morning trips into the veld to watch the antics of the latter have become a popular tourist activity in Oudtshoorn.

Five Shy Meerkats founder JD Glinister has been researching the little mongoose species since 2008 and greets tourists with coffee and rusks about eight kilometres from De Zeekoe, before taking them on a short walk into the veld to one of several dens to await their emergence for the day.

Meerkats, also known as suricates, have darker fur on their bellies to the rest of their bodies and this absorbs the morning’s warmth to provide the get-up-and go for a day spent grubbing for insects. Interestingly, the collective noun for meerkats is a “mob”.

Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

From De Zeekoe to Kruisrivier and Nel’s River Dam

Drive from De Zeekoe towards Calitzdorp and almost immediately you will encounter Grundheim, one of the quirkiest distilleries along the so-called R62 Brandy Route. Apart from some delectable potstill products, Grundheim also produces a delightful golden rum.

Beware, however, of the Brand slang witblits with its infused chillies! Not much further down the road is a roadsign indicating “Kruisrivier”. The Kruis River-Groenfontein gravel road is in fine condition and, in my opinion, one of the prettiest in South Africa.

We drove it in reverse, first having a hearty trinchado lunch at Die Bakhuis (not licensed, so take your own wine) restaurant in Calitzdorp, before taking the road that leads first to Axe Hill winery (one of seven around the town) and then past the Nel’s River Dam.

Completed in 1918, it is the country’s oldest concrete gravity dam and was built entirely by Calitzdorp’s farmers. There’s a gorgeous lookout spot above the dam, which is particularly popular on the blisteringly hot summer weekends.

Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

Haven of quirky characters and artistic treasures

Beyond the dam lies Groenfontein – I guess you could call it a hamlet, despite the fact that it extends over nearly 10km – which has become the hidey-hole of any number of quirky and arty characters. One of these is Peter Coe, a 70-something year old New Zealander who describes himself as an art collector.

I encountered Peter a couple of months ago during a trip to Calitzdorp. I’d stopped to take some pictures when he approached me and invited me into his home-cum-gallery for a cup of coffee. I demurred but said I would return.

I actually took a bag of coffee and, to his glee, left it with him. Peter shares his living room with a gigantic crow sculpture and elderly dogs… his wife having returned to Cape Town because, she said, living in the gramadoelas was too lonely.

Picture: Jim Freeman

Streams, alpacas, and unexpected cuddles

Every turn in the road offers new delights and an afternoon flashes by within what feels like mere moments. Highlights included fording streams over and over again in order to secure pictures for a motoring publication – much to the bemusement of a pair of adorable alpaca. I also stopped to shoot the Oude Postkantoor only to have an exceptionally friendly cat hop into the car for love and cuddles.

Definitely my kind of a Karoo world.

*De Zeekoe Guest Farm is a member of Cape Country Routes, a group of more than 20 privately owned and managed hotels, lodges and guest houses located on scenic and historic routes in the Western and Eastern Cape.

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