A Karoo farm steeped in history

Posted on 28 June 2022

A Karoo farm with a 250-million-year-old story. Once the sheep are sold or shorn, and the farm trails have been hiked, biked and fully explored, it’s time to dip into the utter Karoo magic of Ganora, beginning with that spiky mountain that seems to loom from every angle.

Words: Julienne du Toit | Photos: Chris Marais

Ganora’s farmstead includes guest accommodation, shearing shed, fossil museum, a dam (swimmers welcome) as well as sheep paddocks.

As the highest peak in the Karoo, the Compassberg is an enormous free-standing jut of ironstone 2 504m high. It effortlessly demolishes all preconceptions that this dry heartland is flat.

Sometimes called the Matterhorn of the Karoo, the Compassberg was the defining navigational landmark back in the days of explorers and frontier folk.

It is also home to a unique butterfly, the Compassberg skolly.

Often placed in the foreground of a typical Compassberg landscape are rows of large blue-green plants, hundreds of them.

During his lonely months hiding from British soldiers on Ganora, young JA Davel etched this figure onto a rock.

Here’s a little ‘Karoo trade secret’ for you: those plants (officially named Agave americana) can be crushed and distilled into a drink that is decidedly Mexican in kick and flavour. But don’t say ‘tequila’ or the World Trademark police will surely come knocking.

Besides his day job as a farmer, Ganora’s JP Steynberg is also mad about palaeontology. He bought this farm in 2000 after discovering a thick band of fossil-rich mudstone beside the clear Wilge River.

A veld walk with JP is one of the top features of a Ganora Guest Farm stay. He will show you where, more than 250 million years ago, a fearsome-looking gorgonopsian died in the mud, its bones now turned to stone.

Cycle or walk along a farm track and stand under a spinning windpump.

The gorgonopsian lived at the time when some cold-blooded reptiles were starting to develop into warm-blooded proto-mammals, about 50 million years before Jurassic dinosaurs roamed the world.

Artists’ impressions of the gorgonopsian reveal an inelegant creature, with an ungainly waddling posture and long eye teeth – a bit like the love-child of a croc and a Staffie. I still find it hard to swallow the fact that these unlovely beasts were some of my ancient ancestors. But the experts are quite firm on this point.

Afterwards, he’ll take you to the exquisite little museum they have created in an old outbuilding. Appropriately enough, the stoep is covered in flagstones with the ripple marks of the Karoo’s ancient rivers still clearly delineated. Inside are San Bushman artefacts, stone tools, potsherds, and hundreds upon hundreds of fossils, including the fearsome skulls, jawbones and leg bones of long-extinct creatures.

Guide Henry Witbooi, who specialises in medicinal Karoo plants, with a family from Jeffreys Bay.

The crown jewel of the collection is a complete, uniquely well-preserved fossil fish with scales and stubby fins, named Kompasia delaharpi and found by JP and Hester Steynberg’s sons Louis and Renier on Ganora. It’s the only complete fossil fish of this kind in the world.

Close to the farmhouse is a little overhang with a double history. Thousands of years ago, it was used by San Bushman shamans, a mystical place with ochre images of an eland with a snake head, a man with a wolfish head, and a faint figure of a lion with people armed with bows and arrows attacking it. There is also the figure of a tortoise, the only known San Bushman painting of such a creature in the country. There are also more recent works by Khoi San groups.

Up above the cave is a poignant relic from the Anglo Boer War. When the British removed the Davel family from the area and sent them off to internment camps at Port Alfred, the young Davel boy, known as ‘JA’ ran away and hid on Ganora Farm.

Many thousands of years ago, San Bushmen painted these mysterious figures in a rocky overhang, explains Ganora guide Henry Witbooi.

It was during the young boy’s long and lonely hours that he etched a figure of a woman praying before a crucifix in the sandstone above the overhang, and the poignant words:
‘Nooit sal ons weer mekaar die liefde kan bewys tot in die hemel want dit te laat wees.’ Roughly translated: Never again can we prove our love for one another until in heaven, when it is too late.

And when you gather for supper in the shearing shed, JP Steynberg will tell you about the aerial photograph of the old farmstead displayed on the wall.

‘The story goes (I love it when Karoo farmers begin this way) that during the 1930s, the Germans flew over South Africa at high altitude and took aerial photos of every square inch of the country.

‘They then offered to sell the farmers of the Karoo framed prints of their own properties, and there were many takers.’

There are a lot of ways to earn a buck on the side in the Karoo, even if you’re a German spy with a camera.

Doornberg Guest Farm

Chris and Julienne are publishers of karoospace.co.za

Stay Here

Ganora Guest Farm Camping & excursions

From R150 pp camping to R560 pp sharing, including breakfast. 082 698 0029
or 049 841 1302

Other Great Stays

Doornberg Guest Farm & Wedding Venue
From R360 pp sharing self catering to R440 pp sharing, including breakfast.
082 308 637

The Ibis Lounge

The Ibis Lounge
From R400 pp sharing self catering to R600 pp sharing, including breakfast.
072 110 6254

Camping, cottages & rooms in Nieu-Bethesda village
From R110 pp camping up to R800 pp sharing.
049 841 1642 or 072 742 7113

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