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Answering the Call of the Karoo - Letskraal Farm Accommodation

Chris Harvie absorbs the peace of the Karoo at Letskraal, a restored historical farmhouse, once the home of Andries Pretorius.

The sun goes down behind the crags and the real world falls silently away into the dusk. Seemingly moments later an apricot moon rises full and vast over the black evening hills, the absolute still pierced only by the fitful bark of a distant jackal. Behind me, the walls of the house glow in the moonlight and the braai burns gold.

Occasionally dusty but always bright, Letskraal is an assault of Karoo colours – yellows and mauves, browns and reds. I open a fine Cabernet Sauvignon to match it and settle into a peaceful reverie.

The farm once belonged to Andries Pretorius, the Boer leader. Indeed it has been suggested, possibly rather fancifully, that his plans for Blood River were drawn up here on the banks of that watercourse’s diminutive distant cousin the Sundays, where it winds through the rolling hills of the Great Karoo.

Never has there been a more lovingly restored home than this; it is a privilege to stay here. Infused with the smell of wax polish, leather armchairs and old wood, there is no intrusion of electricity – no hum of a fridge or howl of a television. No jarring modernity and yet no discomfort. Cooking and chilling are with gas and the water is heated (to a very high temperature) by a donkey boiler. In the evening, the house is filled with paraffin lamps and candles.

The farm Letskraal straddles the defunct railway line on the old wagon road from Graaff-Reinet to Cradock. Many decades ago this would have been a thoroughfare threaded with weary wayfarers between the coast and the interior but nowadays the rare vehicles on the road are the unassuming bakkies of the farmers eking out a living on these parched landscapes and the footprints those of their workers, the steadfast denizens of this isolated expanse of thornveld.

I am up at dawn to rock-hop across the stream and head for the hilltops, scrabbling up the stony path past the long-abandoned blacksmiths’ huts and scrunching through the aromatic Karoo scrub, occasional tiny purple and yellow flowers – and puzzling lichen on the rocks – breaking the first-glance barrenness of the land. A reedbuck starts nearby and a couple of black eagles soar overhead. Baboons bark at the foot of the ridge.

Later, in the heat of the day, I lie in the shade of the cypresses, soaking up the solitude while the chirping of the birds and insects reassures me that this place is far from dead. A lesser double-collared sunbird watches me from the wavering branch of a flowering peach tree.

In the afternoon, I head down the road on my bicycle. Kudu crash away from me along the riverbed as I pull up to watch a pair of leguaans coupling languorously in the middle of the track, watched only by me and an equally fascinated voyeur vervet monkey cached in a nearby pepper tree.

Back at the farmhouse and refreshed by the fragrances of the veld, another relaxing evening stretches ahead of me – chops on the fire, a canopy of a million stars, maybe a book by candlelight or a game of backgammon …

I try to imagine what inconceivable crisis could ever cause me to abandon this place and I wonder how Andries Pretorius must have felt when he left it. But then I suppose it was, for him, an issue of national importance that dragged him northwards, away from this splendid scene, to avenge the death of Piet Retief on the faraway banks of the Ncome stream that would run red with blood on that fateful day in our history.

For me, glass in hand, with the added burden of these historical ponderings, it has been a long day, but not long enough. Luckily there is tomorrow. And the next day. Because, at Letskraal, all the days are Sundays on the river by that name.

If you go:

Where it is: On the backroads between Middelburg and Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape, only three hours from Port Elizabeth and four from Bloemfontein.
Why go there: For tranquillity, rare uninterrupted conversations and proximity to the veld and the forefathers
What it has: Immaculate but simple taste; fine crockery and cutlery; comfortable beds; fluffy towels; a reservoir for swimming; backgammon and boules; drinkable (and hot) water
What to take: All your food and drink; torches; friends; walking shoes and mountain bikes. Pets welcome, but no quad bikes or off-road motorbikes.
What it's like: Simplicity is the order of the day. The house is built of mud and straw but with one or two concessions to modernity – a flushing loo, for example – but no electricity, no telephone, no cellphone coverage.
Rates: R250 per person per night self-catering for 2 people. R200 per person per night self-catering for 3 people or more.
Getting there: Directions will be provided on booking. Day visitors are not allowed. Reservations must be for a minimum of 3 nights.
What there is to see in the area: The historical town of Graaff-Reinet is 60km away and offers numerous historical buildings and eight museums covering such diversities as settler living, fossils, Pierneef’s paintings and Robert Sobukwe. Nieu Bethesda, home to the Owl House and rabble of restaurants, is an easy day trip. The Mountain Zebra and Camdeboo National Parks are also nearby.
Contact: Letskraal Farm Accommodation, Johan and Rina Minnaar, on telephone 083 642 7774. Fax 049 892 5496. Email letskraal@eastcape.net. Website www.letskraal.co.za

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