A Holme away from home
This idyllic guest house is more than just a stopover, it's the perfect start (or end) to a holiday.
Pictures: Brendan Seery and supplied
Pictures: Brendan Seery and supplied
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As the deepening hues of blue descend earth-wards to crush the faint glow on the Karoo horizon that is the only remnant of the day, a flock of blue cranes drifts through the twilight, heading to their nightly roost somewhere in the reed-bedecked wetlands of the Seekoei River.
Elswhere in the mirror-like waters of the river, its namesake, a hippo bull, is not, clearly, going to make an appearance for those of us enjoying sundowners on a wooden jetty. He should, because he is an historic animal, last survivor of a group reintroduced to this area of the northern Cape (between Colesberg and Hanover) in 2006.
The man behind that reintroduction, PC Ferreira, says more hippo will be brought back. The first group was decimated when the dominant hippo male killed young males when they reached maturity. When that group of animals was brought back, it was the first time since 1778, when the last hippos were exterminated by a hunting party including Cape Governor Baron Joachim van Plettenberg, that the creatures have inhabited the river.
Hippos also feature in the bloody colonial history of the area. Three years before the Governor’s expedition to the Seekoei river, veldwachtmeester Adriaan van Jaarsveld and his commando shot a number of hippo and then left them on the bank of the river, supposedly as a gesture of generosity to the local San people. The San came down and feasted on the hippo and were still there the following morning when the Commando returned and massacred 122 of them. Just five people escaped and one was taken prisoner…
PC – he is named after Boer War General Piet Cronje – talks frankly about the dispossession of both the San and the Khoi people in the area. One of his dreams is to set up a non-profit organisation to provide safe houses for victims of gender-based violence in the area, as well as preserve the culture of the people. “It’s been a devastating story,” he remarks, even as he is aware that he and his family – who have farmed cattle and sheep and done business in the area for generations – are beneficiaries of what went before.
“I feel I have a moral duty to try to do something to help these people…”
The New Holme Nature Lodge, where we are staying, is part of the KhoiSan Karoo Conservancy, which includes the Karoo Gariep Nature Reserve and the Hanover Aardvark Nature Reserve. New Holme is the main lodge at Karoo Gariep while Mieliefontein Guest Farm is the main lodge at the Hanover Aardvark Nature Reserve .
And what a surprise New Holme is. Holme, they say, comes from the Danish word for pasture – although the harsh Karoo landscape is lightyears away from the green soggy lands of northern Europe. But, it is the open space, the clean light and the fresh air of the Karoo which encapsulates its appeal. You can walk, mountain bike (PC hosts an annual race around the reserve which is normally fully subscribed, even though it is marketed mainly by word-of-mouth), go to see San rock art sites, visit the hippo or go for a game drive.
PC also regularly takes guests to the top of a local highpoint, where sundowners are enjoyed as the night closes in. There is little to beat a Karoo sunset – but in case you need a bit more, PC will put on a quick braai fire and serve up some tasty tidbits, including lamb tails and kidneys, roosterkoek buns and delicious salads prepared in the boere kombuis (farmer’s kitchen) by PC’s wife, Marisca.
And those sundowners and snacks are only the appetisers – supper is served, buffet-style, in the large main dining room later. The night of our sundowners, there is a sharp wind blowing (the tail end of the last of the cold front this year) which means everyone is dressed up warmly and the half a dozen bakkies and SUVs present have all been drawn up, bumper to bumper to make a windbreak … it looks like a laager and fits in perfectly with the scenery.
As the sun disappears beyond the horizon, we see the first of a number of squadrons of blue cranes flying home to their wetlands to roost after a day out feeding (often from New Holme’s irrigated lucerne fields).
It’s peaceful, it’s graceful – and it underlines why the Karoo is such a relaxing place: all your city worries seem so far away and irrelevant here where life is simpler.
You can book a night drive with PC as guide … it leaves after dinner and promises something different to what you may have experienced previously in the bushveld. Although the Karoo looks semi-desert and wholly deserted, it is anything but, and it is the creatures of the night which promise some unusual sightings.
You might see the “shy five” as PC calls them – Aardwolf, Cape fox, Bat-eared fox, African wild-cat, Aardvark – but there are also possibilities of seeing porcupine, Striped polecat, African striped Weasel, Small and Large spotted Genet. If you are really lucky, PC says, you may even see tiny rare Black footed cat.
Alas, on our night drive, the cold wind has driven most of these creatures into their burrows – as they often do, because they can go a few days without food – so we see a few spring hares and three porcupines. The last two seem to be a mom and a baby, so that makes up for the disappointment of the shy five living up to their name…
Staying at New Holme is quite unlike any other guest house or farm I’ve been to. When they say you’re like part of the family – they mean it. PC and Marisca are always ready for a chat – and it frequently starts with praise for Marisca’s cooking. The food is, simply, superb, whether it be dinner or breakfast, or even what Marisca calls a hastily whipped-together pasta and salad lunch for the hungry mountain bikers. People congregate round a massive fireplace to chat about the days activities, or plan the next, sipping drinks from PC’s “honour bar”, where you take what you want and write it down in the book, settling up later. The same applies to his wine cellar, where you can choose what you want (all prices are marked on the bottle labels).
Apart from the cyclists, there are “regulars” who come back time and gain to New Holme as a stopover between Gauteng and Cape Town or the Cape coast. Repeat business, even in the Covid-disrupted 2020, saw New Holme have its best year since it was established in 1997. PC attributes that to the welcoming atmosphere and that fact that people can combine a stopover with the sense that they’ve had a real break. But you really need to spend a few days to appreciate the Karoo, he adds.
Accommodation ranges from en-suite rooms for two – which feature comfy beds, large bathrooms and aircon (for the hot summer days and nights) – to rooms in the main house, as well as some tents. While there is a TV in the main dining room, this is not a DStv type place. So take books – and chill. If you can’t bear to be parted from the hustle and bustle, the rooms all have Wi-Fi.
As we head back to the N1 high-way, about 8km from New Holme, my wife and I have our traditional discussion – interrupted by stops to open and close the farm gates – about what we have just experienced. To sum it up: Wow! Didn’t expect that at all. And then: Will we be back? Given that we travel often to see family in Knysna and like to split the 1 200km journey, the answer would have to be yes.
New Holme is more than a stop-over; it is the perfect start (or end) to a holiday… New Holme is a member of
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