* In this new regular feature sponsored by Toyota Hilux, we visit some of South Africa’s most interesting towns. In this first installment, Editor Jannie Herbst visits Groot Marico.
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The bushveld town of Groot Marico, deep in the North West Province, is a place where time stood still. The people who live there today have done much to preserve the town’s unique heritage. Jannie Herbst, camera in hand, spent a weekend visiting some of the area’s interesting people.
Groot Marico, described as a hamlet in one website, is a gentle and enjoyable two hours and a bit drive from Johannesburg or Pretoria.
The village and surrounding towns in what is now known as North West Province were immortalised by Herman Charles Bosman via short stories, books and poems that flowed from the pen of a literary genius, whose own short life was tinged with tragedy.
Bosman, through Oom Schalk Lourens and Oupa Bekker, brought to life a constant stream of unforgettable characters such as Chris Wellman, At Naude, Gysbert van Tonder and Mnr Vermaak, the schoolmaster. They whiled away the time drinking coffee and exchanging yarns filled with whimsical humour and satire in the voorkamer of Jurie Steyn’s post office.
Stories like A Bekkersdal Marathon are masterpieces of humorous writing, and Bosman said of what was then the Transvaal platteland that he knew of no better place “that bears the authentic stamp of South Africa.”
Groot Marico and surrounding areas are still populated by a variety of interesting characters – artists, sculptors, musicians and poets. Many of them could have stepped out of a Bosman short story.
Groot Marico is, of course, the mampoer or peach brandy capital of the world, although methods of distilling a drink that has the kick of a mule are now more modern than in Oom Schalk’s days.
Our first port of call in a new Toyota Hilux is to Johan and Sarie Jordaan, who run a hunting business on their farm, but you don’t have to be a hunter to enjoy their hospitality. There are self catering chalets and a bush camp which serve as a base for exploring the area’s other charms.
Johan is known as Die Donkieboer and his pride and joy is a red 1994 Hilux with nearly 200 000km on the clock. The only scars in 20 years are a missing indicator light – hooked out by a sickle bush – and a dent on a bumper inflicted by a kick from an aggressive ostrich.
Johan wants to know if we cleaned our teeth that morning. He then produces a bottle of mampoer from the freezer and pours a couple of shooters.
“Take a sip slowly into your mouth and swish it around,” says Johan with a broad grin. “You’ll feel the plaque pop off your teeth.”
Johan then recites a couple of mampoer poems, and after we have cleaned our teeth a few more times we set off for our next stop – the home of Kalahari Bridges and Jeannie Kermack. We are met at the gate by a pack of excited dogs, Kalahari and a rather large hissing goose.
“Don’t be scared of King George,” says Kalahari. “He follows me everywhere.”
After parking the Hilux under a huge marula tree, we meet Jeannie, who is barefoot and has painted her toenails a vivid blue.
Kalahari and Jeannie, previously from Johannesburg and Nigel, have been living in Groot Marico for 14 years. They revel in a strong spiritual energy.
“It’s a healing place,” they say, “and people come from all over to seek the healing element at retreats in the area.”
Jeannie gives cooking classes and specialises in chilli foods. She also sells interesting mampoer and chilli sauces and other tit bits in her shop, Cool Hog Corner, in the town.
Kalahari is an artist and loves to paint large oils on canvas. He says Groot Marico is thick with atmosphere that inspires creativity, and their home is decorated with examples of his work.
Kalahari also has a love and talent for building aeroplanes from paper and cloth. This makes the models extremely light and they are popular with visitors to Groot Marico.
Kalahari, who is chairman, and Jeannie are also members of a voluntary organisation, Mmutlwa wa Noko (the thorn of the porcupine), that has been working since 2010 to preserve the sensitive Marico environment. The group is dedicated to preserving Groot Marico’s river and catchment area, on which the people depend for their survival.
Artist Johann Moolman lives by himself just outside Groot Marico. We arrive around 5pm and find him feeding a pack of dogs.
“Excuse the mayhem, but this is when the dogs eat and I have a gin and tonic,” says a man who studied art at the Johannesburg School of Art and completed post graduate studies at St Martin’s School of Art in London, where he majored in sculpture. Moolman has also lectured at the University of SA and the University of North West, and has lived in Groot Marico since 1997.
He has held many solo and two-man exhibitions and has done many life size portrait sculptures. Among these are those of Mahatma Ghandi, Solomon T Plaatjies and former South African president CR Swart.
Day two of our Groot Marico sojourn – after we have properly cleaned our teeth – takes us to visit two interesting young people in Grant and Teresa Smith. Grant grew up in Groot Marico before leaving for England where he qualified as a sound therapist and gong master.
He is also a qualified yoga instructor, but his passion is working with sound and the effect it has on consciousness, with the gong being one of his favourite instruments.
Grant spent one month learning from a drum master in Gambia, and 10 days in a retreat learning the ways of the gong from international gong master and teacher Don Contreaux.
For her part, Teresa is a qualified Shiatsu practitioner and yoga instructor. Her interest in working with sound has deepened since she moved to Groot Marico.
With Grant on the gong and Teresa playing an Indian sitar, we are ordered to close our eyes, relax completely and wait for the stress from a hurried life to be soothed away.
Grant and Teresa, along with friends Egbert and Santa van Bart, offer group sessions at a wellness centre 7km out of Groot Marico.
It was time to clean our teeth again, and 10km out of Groot Marico on the Staatsdrif road, in thick bushveld, we find M&M, or Marico Mampoer. It is here that Oom Martiens Nel and his wife, Hetta, legally distil all kinds of fruit into mampoer.
“Come, have a taste,” is our welcome from Oom Martiens. “Don’t worry, we’ll quickly lie you in the shade if you fall down!”
Martiens and Hetta have been distilling mampoer since the early 1990s, but Martiens says it is only a hobby. He is at pains to explain how he battled to keep everything legal, and today he is one of the few licensed distillers in the area.
“Hell, it is really unfair,” laments Oom Martiens. “I have to pay the Zuma government R57 for every bottle I produce.”
Business, however, must be good. We sneak a peek at the M&M visitors’ book and discover the names of people come from all over the world – Argentina, Australia, Holland, the United Kingdom and Japan – and they love his mampoer.
After meeting so many colourful and diverse personalities, it comes as no surprise to learn that Groot Marico has a social conscience. The Madikwe Rural Development Programme (MRDP) is based in the town and a couple of months ago was awarded a contract to assemble Qhubeka charity bicycles.
Colin Cooper is chairman of the MRDP, which has created more than 20 new jobs in an area with 80% unemployment. The project produces 1000 bikes a month on the farm, Quiet Living, 25km from Groot Marico, where Arno Faul and wife Beate Dräger live in a modest house accompanied by a large number of dogs. With his rampant hair and lush beard Arno, who founded the MRDP in 1993, could have stepped out of the pages of a Bosman book.
Outside a large barn, hundreds of yellow bicycles are ready for collection, and inside the barn 18 workers are assembling bikes that arrive in knock-down kit form from China.
Since 1994, the MRDP has worked with a partner organisation, the German South Africa Youth Association, with volunteers from Germany spending a year in SA working on development projects. Apart from locations in North West, the volunteers also work in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape.
Projects are driven by the needs of local communities which, in the early days of the MRDP, were mainly restricted to basic services. In recent years, however, needs have reached a higher level and the organisation, using modern technology, liaises with local and national government to help communities become active members “of a diverse South African society”.
Arno, who built his house, is still chief executive officer of the MRDP with Beate as the treasurer. Beate was one of a batch of German volunteers who came to SA in 1997, and she and Arno were married in 2001.
In August this year, under Colin Cooper and his daughter Bianca plan a “Nine Peak Qhubeka Ride” through all nine provinces. They will cover 3000km in 30 days, with one of the aims being to climb the highest mountain or peak in each province.
Meals will be based on bread and water. The routes, where possible, will be on dirt roads and they will camp in the bush if no campsites are available. No energy drinks or energy bars will be consumed. Also on the banned list are processed foods or those branded and packaged in plastic.
We were happy to note that beer is allowed and, dare we mention it, perhaps they will regularly clean their teeth.
The Qhubeka bikes are made of solid steel with no suspension, one gear and a pedal back brake. The project is aimed at obtaining sponsorship for Qhubeka, and in support of a charity to be chosen by the sponsor.
The thought of a bike ride through SA left us feeling exhausted, and we were happy to allow the Toyota Hilux to take us to a clay brick and thatch home with a lovely African atmosphere where Louis and Jolene Muir hold therapeutic Thabo drum sessions.
“Guests really get going when we sit around a fire in the lapa, drumming away,” says Jolene, who manufactures her own African clothing range that is marketed through her Many Hands outlet.
Drumming groups vary in size, with the largest they have accommodated being a party of 30.
By this time we are ready to clean our teeth again. We had arranged to meet Vernon Deglon, headmaster of the local school – 320 pupils and 18 teachers – at his regular hangout, the Wag-‘n-Biekie sports bar and restaurant. Vernon is a Harley Davidson fan from way back and has an honorary parking spot in the foyer of the pub.
Locals have gathered at the pub to watch the Cheetahs play the Stormers in a Super Rugby clash, and you can hear Vernon and his Harley coming from a long way off. When he arrives he greets us with: “Hi, I’m Vernon, chairman and tea girl and secretary of the Harley club. What do you drink?”
We say we thought he was headmaster of the local school. “Oh, I am,” says Vernon, “but I’m also the station master, firearm licence expert and owner of the mortuary.”
Vernon’s wife, Annemarie, tells us the reference to the mortuary is no joke. When their gardener died, the couple were shocked at the amount the undertaker charged, and Vernon went into business offering a much cheaper service.
Annemarie says Vernon cried more at funerals than family members of the deceased, and decided to quit the undertaking business. There was also a tricky situation at one burial when Vernon suddenly realised the grave had not yet been dug. Vernon can keep you entertained for hours.
The pub is a jolly place owned by Lafras and Suzaan Uys, who has a degree in marketing. Suzaan paid her way through varsity by waitressing in pubs in Hatfield, Pretoria, and the experience has contributed to the success of the only evening drinking hole in Groot Marico.
We also learn a new way to clean our teeth. Suzaan orders a round of Wag-‘n-Biekie Nipples, the pub’s signature drink with first-time visitors getting the first one on the house.
We soon establish that a Wag-‘n-Biekie Nipple is both tasty and explosive, and demand the recipe. Tinned cherries are kept submerged in mampoer (what else?) for a month before the cherries are removed. The remaining mixture is then spiced up with condensed milk and vodka. This is then poured into shooter glasses and decorated with one of the soaked cherries – the nipple – and good luck to you if you over indulge.
A tamer form of entertainment, and one less likely to result in a thick head in the morning, starts when the outdoor oven at the Herman Charles Bosman Museum is fired up in preparation for bread and rusk baking. The museum is an exact replica of the Heimweeburg school, near the Botswana border, where Bosman was a teacher, and was built in 2005 by the HC Bosman Literary Society.
The venue is used for cultural events and every October hosts the annual Bosman weekend, with tourists from all over the world heading for Groot Marico.
Museum curator Hansie Coetsee is a Bosman expert and, with his regular helpers, is passionate about the bread baking exercise. Thirteen large boerbrode can be baked at a time.
The Art Factory, situated in the same house as the Groot Marico Information Centre, is where you can spend time browsing through local handywork and a large selection of books, including Bosman works. Egbert and Santa van Bart have been in charge here for 20 years and, along with a band of volunteers, give visitors a hearty welcome.
The centre operates 24/7 and Santa, who is also chief organiser of the annual Bosman Festival and Marico Mountain Bike Classic, will arrange your accommodation and tours and is a mine of information. You can contact her on 083 272 2958.
If the hectic pace of daily life is starting to get to you, Groot Marico is where you can get your mojo back. Bosman’s bosveld inhabitants, for all their quirkiness, have open hearts and are filled with warmth.
Just as it was in Bosman’s writings, the biggest gem in the Groot Marico crown is its people.