Could this be your family’s country cottage?

Posted by Marion Whitehead on 2 February 2012

Those with rural roots may be in for a surprise in the hospitable village of Nieuwoudtville, a sleepy little dorp on the Bokkeveld Plateau in the Northern Cape. It is home to the stone ruins of some of the country’s oldest farmhouses, unclaimed by generations long lost to urbanisation.

The cool rays of the early morning sun picked up a dazzle of yellow blooms cascading from an old stone oven in the veld. The stone shelf beside it was empty and the warm smell of freshly baked farm bread had blown away on a breeze decades ago. Behind it, the home of the women who had kneaded the dough was roofless, windowless and doorless, but it’s stark gables stood defiantly silhouetted against a startlingly blue Bokkeveld sky.

‘It belongs to people who have no idea they have a share in it,’ shrugged Hendrik van Zijl, a Nieuwoudtville resident who has a passion for restoring old buildings. He’d brought me to Ouplaas, a tiny settlement on the edge of the Bokkeveld Mountains, to show me the meaning of true craftsmanship: walls that stand solid and straight after centuries of weathering; heavy stones that still fit neatly together without the benefit of mortar.

These are some of the oldest farm buildings in South Africa. The area around Nieuwoudtville was settled in the 1730s by stock farmers and these homes built of local sandstone have survived time in better nick than earlier wattle and daub buildings closer to Cape Town.

‘Each family owned a small plot here. But the parents died and the kids had gone to the cities to seek a better life and weren’t interested in returning here,’ explained Hendrik. Not all the houses are in such bad shape. Some still have their roofs and the doors are locked, as if the inhabitants have simply gone away on an extended holiday. At Groenrivier, the original farm on which Nieuwoudtville was laid out in 1897, there are more crumbling homes and a once-grand garage with a wide arch under which fancy horse-drawn buggies could pass with ease.

Life on the high plateau above the arid Knersvlakte was so tough, especially in the heat of high summer, that the old Afrikaans expression, ‘Hy’s Bokkeveld toe,’ meant that a person was dead. However, in spring Nieuwoudtville becomes a bustling centre of biodiversity when carpets of flowers suddenly transform the dusty veld into a kaleidoscope of bright colours. Farmers who open their properties to visitors include the Van Wyks, a family which has lived on Matjiesfontein for seven generations. A circular drive through their fields begins and ends at what was once the area’s first school. This well-preserved stone building becomes a rustic restaurant which breathes character, from the egte boerekos served on enamel plates to the lilting rhythm of a waltz spinning on an old turntable.

You can try living the simple farm life in their stone cottages, or at nearby Papkuilsfontein Guest Farm. In the village, go for one of Hendrik’s elegant restored houses and let the silence of the Bokkeveld’s starry nights grow on you while the embers of your braai fire die down. ‘What if someone wanted to claim one of the ruins and fix it up?’ I asked Hendrik, a former Cape Town attorney. ‘Ownership is in undivided shares that go back three or four generations,’ he replied. ‘It would require a huge investigation. This is a common situation in many country dorps.’ Today, more people are interested in tracking down their roots. Imagine discovering that you own a share in a neglected country cottage with a drop-dead gorgeous view of the platteland, such as those in Nieuwoudtville. You might just need to dig out your ouma’s farm bread recipe.

Where to stay

Van Zijl’s Guest Houses is a collection of five lovingly restored, traditional sandstone cottages scattered around Nieuwoudtville. Piet se Huis is the smallest with one bedroom, while Bokveld is the biggest (sleeps eight). Moreson is the last thatched pioneer house in the village.

Self-catering costs from R240 a person a night sharing and the B&B costs from R290. There is also a comfortable caravan and campsite with six stands and a communal stone-walled lapa. The cost is R170 a stand which includes a power point, lights and water.

Tel 027-218-1535, email [email protected],

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