Karoo explorers: interview with Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit

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Chris and Julienne have published many Karoo travellers’ companion books, such as Karoo keepsakes and Karoo keepsakes II (available as Afrikaans E-books as Knapsak vol Karoo I en II). Their latest Karoo book is Road tripper – Eastern Cape Karoo, a new-era guidebook to an undiscovered region.

Menán van Heerden chats to these veteran Karoo travellers about the current state of the Karoo, Karoo stories and the people of this region.

The iconic hospitality family of Cradock’s Die Tuishuise: from left: Cherie, Sandra and Lisa Antrobus.

Chris Marais plays the guitar because it keeps him away from his computer for hours.

Julie, literally working in the field after an interesting landing in a hot air balloon near the little Karoo town of Prince Albert.

In a 2014 LitNet interview, you highlighted Karoo storytellers: “In the cities, people tell and retell one another’s stories of crime and consumerism. In the Karoo, people tell one another funny stories, sad stories, poignant stories.” What stories have stood out the most for you?

Chris: In the past ten years that we have lived and worked in the Karoo, we have built up a massive bank of anecdotes.

Life is intense in the Karoo; the comic stands next to the tragic like our clearly defined seasons. The heritage stories of the First People, the trekboere, the Anglo-Boer War and little gelukkies like the Wool Boom of the 1950s, the revival of the Nama Riel, Karoo Skoff (food) – they stand out with the ghost stories, hunting legends, architectural styles, mythical characters and really weird beasts of the Karoo.

Dancing in the Dust – Hope Florence and Jaquin Pauls preparing their Nama Riel steps before the Williston Winter Fees.

The golden quiver trees of Kenhardt, Northern Cape, at sunset.

We are living in a Storyteller’s Paradise that’s not always pretty, but is always fascinating. Stories outlast generations of people.

The Story, we believe, is really all that matters in the end. This is our legacy for the generations to come.

They never pass through Bushmanland without stopping off for a brief pilgrimage at the storied Pella Mission near Pofadder.

Getting in touch with your Inner Owl at the legendary Owl House & Camel Yard in Nieu-Bethesda.

Regarding the current state of the rural Karoo: have the dorpies seen an influx of tourism over the years, and has the economy of the dorpies changed? Also, what is the current state of the Karoo platteland? For example, are more people moving to the cities?

Julie: There has been a surge of tourism to the Karoo over the past decade, but not only to the towns. Agritourism (Karoo Farmstay) has become very popular as families discover there’s nothing like waking up on a Karoo plaas.

Agritourism at its best: Die Vleihuisie cottage at Doornberg Farm, with the Compassberg in the background.

Many Karoo dorpies are in a state of disrepair, but we often find that a couple of concerned residents (usually “inkommers”) forming an Omgee Groepie and taking the bull by the horns has a massive transformative effect. It’s possible for an individual to make a difference, positive or negative, in the platteland.

As far as population flows are concerned, people are streaming from the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape in search of jobs. There’s also a lot of migration from South African cities to small towns, providing a significant flow of middle-class, creative people to the smaller, better managed little towns of the platteland.

What kills a dorp is an inept, corrupt municipality, and residents often feel powerless to change the status quo. But, you can’t underestimate the power of private initiatives, and those are the kinds of stories we hunt down as well.

People can make a visible and positive difference in a dorp, because issues are “human-scale”. For example, Chris Barr, originally from Cape Town, moved to Murraysburg and successfully worked to get the leiwater flowing again. He described his new home as “a town you can get your arms around”.

Have the demographics of the Karoo changed over the years? For example, has the influx of immigrants from China and Bangladesh made an economic and social impact?

Chris: There are two narratives concerning the “New People” of the platteland.

Some believe that the newcomers, be they Chinese or Pakistani, Congolese or Nigerian, are running false-front retail businesses that hide illicit trade in (a) perlemoen, (b) rhino horn, (c) lion bones, and (d) harmful drugs like tik, heroin and cocaine.

Others admire their resourcefulness and their strong sense of entrepreneurship. They believe the “New People” are bringing positive change to the small towns and that they are to be welcomed.

As usual, one suspects that the truth lies somewhere between these two schools of thought. But, yes, the demographics have changed – just walk down any dorp’s main street with a long-time local, and they will point out the differences between then and now.

On your Karoospace website, environmental issues are highlighted (such as the possibility of fracking and uranium mining). What would the Karoo lose if large-scale fracking and mining were to take place? What does activism in this regard look like in the Karoo, specifically?

Julie: In our opinion, large-scale fracking or uranium mining would be disastrous.

Of the 34 sizable towns within or close to the Karoo Basin’s shale gas exploration concessions, 31 depend wholly or partially on groundwater. Fracking puts all those towns and citizens at risk, not to mention farms. (Only Cradock, Cookhouse and Adelaide draw solely from rivers for drinking water.)

If farming fails because of water contamination, then jobs, homes, regional economies and food security are put at risk.

Old photos tell the story – Die Tiekiedam on the outskirts of Aberdeen a hundred years ago.

During their public participation meeting in Cradock in March 2011, Shell representatives assured the people present that they would not drill shale gas wells within five kilometres of any town. But, they were startled when someone from the Department of Water Affairs pointed out that Hofmeyr’s groundwater, for example, is brought in from 20 kilometres away.

Corporates are often disturbingly ignorant about consequences, or they fob off concerns. They know that if contamination problems arise years from now, they will be long gone with their profits.

We in the Karoo would carry all the risk over generations; they would carry off all the money.

What would happen if a town’s drinking water were contaminated? No one can say. Where will the frackers get the water they need for this water-intensive industry? No one can answer that either.

The late Professor Gerrit van Tonder of the Institute for Groundwater Studies at the University of the Free State noted that the Karoo is uniquely vulnerable to groundwater contamination from drilling. This is because geological pressure causes water to rise from great depth to the surface within days (as evidenced by various hot water springs). The Karoo is also riddled with dolerite (ysterklip) faults, which increases the risks.

The fact that there are uranium deposits in the Karoo complicates things, too – vast amounts of wastewater could be radioactive, and would have to be disposed of in toxic waste facilities, currently non-existent.

In terms of uranium mining, the methods being proposed involve opencast mines. Anyone who has lived in the Karoo for any length of time will know how the wind can blow dust for kilometres.

The risks of radioactive dust contaminating farms and livestock are a huge concern for the mohair and wool farmers, as well as red meat producers.

This is what is at risk:

About 100 000 people – many of them unskilled – are employed full-time and part-time on Karoo farms, according to Agri-EC. By contrast, the Strategic Environmental Assessment on Shale Gas Development finalised in early 2017 shows that fracking might generate 900 temporary jobs, at most, in the Karoo.

Many farm workers are also provided with housing and services like water, electricity and sanitation. If they lose their jobs, they also lose these services.

Farming in the Karoo (a region that stretches over 400 000 square kilometres, roughly the size of Germany) contributes massively to South Africa’s food security, supplying over one third of the country’s red meat needs.

A quarter of the wool in the country and 100% of the lucrative mohair business come from the Karoo (not to mention other export products, like tons of ostrich feathers, and venison).

In terms of activism, there is a startling degree of solidarity among Karoo people against uranium mining and shale gas. It takes the form of marches, witty placards, legal battles, and via farming bodies like Agri South Africa, and through environmental organisations that defend animals like the riverine rabbit and blue crane. There is also the sheer, but very necessary, slog of attending public participation meetings, which are frequently an absolute farce. Uranium mining was recently put on hold because local farmers discovered a new miniature succulent.

Tell us about your most recent projects, such as the Karoo print books (and e-books) Road tripper Eastern Cape Karoo and The journey mana South African reporter’s stories (authored by Chris).

Chris: The journey man represents 15 years of my life as a young newspaperman and magazine writer. I worked for the anti-apartheid Rand Daily Mail and then for the more salacious anti-establishment Scope Magazine. The journey man is basically a collection of the kinds of pub stories old journos tell each other at a long lunch.

Our latest book, Road tripper Eastern Cape Karoo, is what you will not find on Google about the people, the lifestyles, the snippets of history and the best hang-outs for travellers in this magical region.

The cover of Chris and Julie’s latest book, Road tripper Eastern Cape Karoo.

Eccentrics make the Karoo what it is – Pieter and Elmarie Naude, founders of the Williston Mall and Williston Winter Fees.

We stepped very carefully and thoughtfully into this project, and have come up with (we like to think) a new-era travel book that works well in print and digital formats. It’s not a coffee table book. It’s designed for the cubby hole (glove compartment) of your touring vehicle or for your tablet – or both.

There are all manner of interesting devices built into Road tripper, like the selected Karoo Space Traveller stamps that must be signed by asset owners or managers, and the unique system of gifting that then follows.

What we’re saying with this book is that the Eastern Cape Karoo is fascinating, undiscovered, affordable and very friendly. What more does a modern day traveller want? A glass of red wine, a chop on the braai, a comfortable bed and a great view to wake up to? You got it!

(We’re working on two more crackerjack book projects, but we believe it’s bad luck to disclose those kinds of details before the publications see the light of day.)

Chris and Julie on a bush break to visit Sylvester the Lion at Kuzuko Lodge in the Eastern Cape Karoo.

Two for the Road: the kissing meerkats that have become Chris and Julie’s unofficial travelling avatars.

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  • We found 1 copy of your book at Williston in October and I want another please. Where can I get it? We are in Johburg.

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