* 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.
Read more about our Toyota Hilux #Where2next? competition.
Like many small towns throughout SA, Kakamas in the Northern Cape owes its existence to pioneers who made the grade through ingenuity and hard work.
Only one of the three regular customers in the local watering hole knew where Kakamas was, and it turned out he was cheating. He was born in the small Northern Cape town on the banks of the Orange River in what is known as the “Green Kalahari.”
For staffers who earn their daily bread at Leisure Wheels and travel extensively in southern Namaqualand and Namibia, an overnight halt at the Vergelegen Guesthouse is always a highlight of a visit to Kakamas. Owned by Niel and Anelma Steenekamp, the guesthouse nestles in a splendid farm setting just 3km from the town centre.
Finding a hostelry like Vergelegen in a small Northern Cape town was something of a surprise, but a string of international and local awards from the AA and other travel organisations are testimony to delicious food, friendly service and clean and comfortable rooms with superior bedding. Anelma’s larger than life personality and dry sense of humour add a touch of warmth that reminds one of home.
A quote from TripAdvisor earlier this year sums up Vergelegen: “This wonderful guesthouse epitomises owners who do what they love, and this permeates through all the staff. This is one place where we will most certainly return.”
With our comfort and welfare taken care of for the next few days, we were ready to explore a small town with an out of the ordinary background. As with many other small towns that dot the South African landscape, Kakamas has a rich history where hard work and ingenuity have overcome hardship.
The town was first started in 1898 by the Dutch Reformed Church as a “colony” for farmers who had lost everything during the great drought from 1895 to 1897. The farmers that settled in Kakamas were a determined bunch and set about constructing, by hand, water canals that are still in use today.
These tunnels provide water to Kakamas and surrounding areas for irrigation. Under the leadership of one Japie Lutz, the farmers turned a blind eye to criticism of their methods from qualified engineers, and costs were cut by dry piling instead of excavating through rock.
One of the early Kakamas settlers was a certain Piet Burger and his prototype of a water wheel as a pumping device was to have interesting repercussions. Burger instructed the blacksmith, T Craill, to build a waterwheel to certain specifications. The wheel never worked properly and when Craill left Kakamas around 1922, he patented the wheel under the name, Craill and Sons. There was immediate consternation among farmers, who would have to pay a levy for waterwheels on their property.
The levy was suspended but it is not known whether the patent was cancelled. In any event, Burger made a few changes to the wheel, which then worked perfectly, and a few of the original 26 waterwheels can still be seen in Kakamas.
It is, of course, irrigation from the Orange (Gariep) River that has played the major role in the town’s development and prosperity. Today, farmers in the Kakamas region are major exporters of table grapes to Europe and the UK. Other exports include peaches, oranges, dates, dried fruit and raisins.
Crossing the river on the way to Kakamas, one is greeted by rolling vineyards and well cultivated fields. One farm blends into the next and the overall impression is of pastoral peace.
As is always the case in the dorpies scattered throughout SA, there is no shortage of characters or someone with a tale to tell. With nine out of 10 pick-ups in the town being Toyotas, our Hilux was in friendly territory and we were quickly introduced to the biggest Toyota fan in Kakamas.
Willie Marais owns the abattoir and butchery, and over the years he’s had five Hiluxes. The current one, resplendent in pale yellow livery, already has more than 300 000km on the clock. The Hilux is in use every weekend during the hunting season and the bakkie works hard.
With a touch of pride, Willie tells of the time the Hilux transported 90 springbok to the abattoir. “But that is not the record,” says Willie. “The biggest load was four very large cows weighing 2,8 tons.”
Willie supplies meat to customers as far afield as Upington, Keimoes and even Cape Town. At R29,50/kg for springbok, it is no surprise that Willie does a roaring trade.
While we are having coffee at the butchery, Willie introduces us to Jaco van Niewenhuizen, who has popped in to buy some biltong. Willie urges us not miss a visit to Jaco’s Rock Shop, so we pile into the Hilux and head for a most impressive house on the outskirts on town.
Jaco and his wife, Tania, catch us by surprise when they open the door to the Alladin’s Cave. The sight of beautifully created art pieces, jewellery, stoneware, gems and crystals stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling is breathtaking.
What started as a hobby for Jaco and Tania is now a thriving international business. The items on the shelves are sourced from around the world and then sculpted to perfection by master craftsmen.
“There are a great many crystals and special stones around here that locals bring to us,” says Jaco. “We then either work them into art pieces at our factory on the premises, or we send them to experts who work their magic and then return the finished article to us.”
Most of the pieces are exported to collectors outside SA. And business is good, thank you very much.
It is almost impossible to miss the Pink Padstal. The name explains why our first port of call on day two of our Kakamas experience stands out like sore thumb.
Inside the Pink Padstal you can spend hours browsing through a vast array of amusing signs or quirky quotations. Owner Magriet Papenfuss is an artist in her own right, with a great many of her paintings, along with work from other local artists, on sale.
A sojourn in Kakamas would not be complete without a visit to a working farm. Through vineyards and up a slight hill we find Die Mas Boerdery and Resort, with ducks and chickens feeding in the winter sun and familiar farm sounds in the background.
The farm produces sparkling wines, potstil brandy, table grapes and raisins and jams, cheese and butter. Coetzer Hanekom is our host and he is keen to show us his tasting chamber, cellar and still pot.
In the cellar, Coetzer removes the cork from a brandy vat and, with the help of a glass instrument, siphons off some of the golden liquid that has been maturing for three years. Coetzer pours the liquid into a tasting glass and swirls it around under my nose.
Just when I think the taste buds are in for a treat, Coetzer pours the brandy back into the cask. I guess he thinks it’s too early in the day for a dop!
Die Mas was bought in 1970 by Coetzer’s parents, Vlok and Welna, both schoolteachers, and had a slow start with only one hectare of vineyards, a few hectares used for cotton, maize and lentils and two donkeys and a wooden wagon. The farm is still family owned but now covers 1500ha of which 100ha is under vines.
The vineyards produce both wine and table grapes and raisins, and Die Mas has its own cellar and brandy distillery. There is also the usual farmyard livestock and domestic animals, with the farm also producing lucerne and maize stock feed.
Apart from being a working farm, there is a more social side to Die Mas. In the early ’80s a 2ha campsite was opened on the banks of the Orange River, and chalets soon followed.
The free standing and self catering chalets include full kitchen facilities, a braai area, air conditioning and sleep three to four people. A huge thatched lapa, restaurant and bush pub can cater for up to 400 people. It’s an ideal venue for weddings, functions or just chilling out on the banks of a great river.
Die Mas also has other attractions. You can take part in the farming activities or help feed the animals, and if you want to do your own thing there are hiking trails, bird watching, fishing, quad biking, donkey cart trios, canoeing and swimming.
For us, the ultimate farmyard experience was a three-hour tour on a wagon pulled by a tractor. Apart from an insight into farming activity and some special scenery, you also get to taste all the wines from the various vineyard blocks.
Our final stop was at a farm run by Janneman and Henriette Theron. Henriette used to teach at the local school and the couple have been living in Kakamas since 1973.
We are met at the door by strange mechanical hissing and crunching sounds. Outside the entrance hall to the house we observe a very old and dilapidated contraption that is hissing and crunching away.
“That,” says Janneman, “is an antiquated water pump. Everyone who sees it for the first time wants to buy it from us.”
The history of Kakamas is inextricably intertwined with the water tunnels on which the town was founded. Henriette Theron is in her element when mention is made of the tunnels, and she is both witty and informative as she traces the history of engineering feats that saw barren ground turned into a thriving town and agricultural community.
Kakamas is only 80km from Upington. Tourist attractions include the Augrabies Falls National Park, the Riemvasmaak Hot Springs, German graves dating back to the Anglo-Boer War and wine cellars and tasting tours. And, of course, the Vergelegen Guesthouse is a must, even if you only stop over for a snack and a drink.