A hearty dorp of more than just dops: Oom Schalk Lourens made it famous, but Vuyi Qubeka finds more than mampoer and tall tales in Groot Marico. Photography by Teagan Cunniffe.
Please note: we’ve included the prices, as a guideline – but although they were correct at time of travel, they’re liable to change at the owner’s discretion. Please confirm with individual establishments before booking.
Groot Marico – that’s where I was headed. ‘In the North West. You know, near Zeerust and Swartruggens. Bosman country’ said my editor. I imagined stout Afrikaans ooms in shades of beige, tannies with Laurika Rauch hare, and small-town folk driving phlegmy Cressidas.
‘Tjo,’ I thought to myself. ‘Me. In a small Afrikaans dorp.’ I had heard about the great South African writer Herman Charles Bosman but never knew the extent of his infamy nor how many groupies he has. Born in Cape Town in 1905, the witty bohemian who was fond of watering weeds (apparently, he didn’t like flowers) spent only six months in the Groot Marico area working as a school-teacher. However, the town made such an impression on him that it inspired his best-known short stories, the Oom Schalk Lourens series.
In 1926, Bosman was sentenced to 10 years’ hard labour for his involvement in the killing of his stepbrother. He was released after serving just four years and the stint in jail formed the basis of his well-known book Cold Stone Jug. He then worked in England for nine years and returned to South Africa, where he worked as a journalist. He died of a heart attack aged 46.
‘Hi there, hoe gaan dit?’ (That was me trying to sharpen my taal before my visit to the dorp.)
‘Ag man, I’m alright.’
‘You know, I lost my tooth yesterday so, ja. It’s the thing about getting old.’
‘Hey, what happened to your tooth, Jacques?’
‘Well, there was a carrot involved. But anyway … it’s gone now.’ And, just like that like old friends Jacques and I chuckled.
‘What can I do for you, my sweetheart?’
I was on the phone with Jacques du Plessis, owner of Riverstill Guest farm, trying to find accommodation. The undertaking felt like … pulling teeth. The dates for my visit coincided with Bosman Weekend which was serendipitous but made finding last-minute lodgings difficult. I was determined, though, and after my short interaction with Jacques, I was curious to understand the significance of Groot Marico, Bosman and what the rest of the people would be like.
It was a long stretch of tarmac. The sun beat down as photographer Teagan Cunniffe and I pushed west along the N4. We were sticking to our seats. Bursts of shrubs, cows and jacarandas diverted my attention. Some three hours later, we turned left into Paul Kruger Straat. The town appeared solemn and morose.
A lone bank, butcher shop, liquor and grocery store slouched on a sandy pavement. Silence was everywhere. Time-worn buildings punctuated the rest of the strip. My curiosity prodded me into one of them.
‘This place is very healing and takes you on a journey into yourself.’
We were sitting opposite Egbert van Bart in the information centre, its high stone walls built by Italian prisoners of war. We sipped strong, foamy moer koffie. ‘You’ve got to listen with your heart.’ With his long off-white beard and shoulder-length hair, Egbert looked like a wizard in hippie garb.
A philosopher with a gentle spirit, he has led a colourful life, having lived in Cape Town before the Golden Acre was built, and when the city was ‘filled with only tobacconists and antiques shops, and hippies smoked pot and scoured stompies off the floor’ and hung out with the legendary explorer and wanderer Ben Dekker. But it is in Groot Marico, where he has lived for 30 years, where Egbert has found himself.
Here, intimate stories are shared warmly, in true Oom Schalk Lourens style. ‘The backbone of the community is that we get involved in one another’s lives,’ said Egbert’s wife Santa, one of the organisers of the Bosman Weekend. ‘The school was built by all of us, brick by brick. The festival is by the people. Love is what drives creation – there is nothing else. Creation is another word for generosity. Love is not interested in power.’
This sense of reverence extends to the land here, which resident, etymologist and author Elf Alfred describes as ‘God’s own’. The area is known for its biodiversity – more than 200 trees and several aquatic species are endemic to the region, and the area has the second most bird species in the country.
‘If youngsters get interested in nature, things fall into place,’ said 71-year-old Koos Olivier, who started a camp for disadvantaged church groups in 1985. ‘I want to share this place with people. You can’t just close your gate and lock it.’
Oom Palm owns one side of the Marico Oog, the clear pool where the Marico River starts. At 83 years old, he is energetic and full of stories – how mampoer originated and the etymology of the ‘van’ in Afrikaans surnames. He remembers the first time he saw a black person. ‘We were working in the fields with my mother and he came up. He put his hat out, my mother filled it with fruit and they sat under a tree and discussed the bible.’ Oom Palm takes visitors to the Oog and knows every nook and cranny. ‘You know, you learn a lot from cows. You have to earn their trust and they remember your voice. Nature is cleverer than Einstein.’ Nature, Bosman and mampoer … I heard these words a lot. But beyond the myths about the region’s famous resident and the mirth around the potent tipple, Groot Marico is an authentic town populated by authentic people.
On my last night, I looked around and saw no beige. I joined Santa, Egbert, Jacques and other folk in a drumming session to close the festival. Drums, shakers and other instruments were distributed and we jammed. Out there, where the skies are vast, I took in the scene and thought joyfully, ‘People here are good. They look you in the eye. They are honest and satisfied.’ And I beat that drum with Bosman fervour.
Getting to Groot Marico
Groot Marico is an easy two-and-a-half to three-hour drive from Johannesburg or Pretoria, west on the N4.
Things to do in Groot Marico
1. Take a dip in the Marico Oog
This 17-metre-deep pool is where the Marico River starts. It’s a popular freshwater diving spot due to the clarity of the water.
2. Learn to play the drums
Thabo Drumming offers lessons at R150, including facilitator and drum hire. Try the Sound Journey, designed to shift tension and encourage a state of relaxation. marico.co.za/thabodrumming
3. A mampoer tasting
This is an obvious must in these parts. Dare to take the full-day Mampoer Tour, which starts at the information centre at 10am with a nip of honey mampoer and then takes in all things Groot Marico. This includes a guided nature walk along the river, a farm lunch accompanied by a Bosman story, a whip-making demonstration, afternoon milk tart and ginger beer and a visit to one or two mampoer farms. R250 per person, including drinks and meals. marico.co.za
Where to eat in Groot Marico
1. Wag ‘n Biekie Sports Pub and Family Restaurant
The menu is amusing, with descriptions such as ‘where M4 road kill is cooked to perfection’ and the food is hearty and fresh. The cheeseburger is real and the chips are slap just the way they should be.
Contact: Tel 071 583 1257, www.wagnbiekie.co.za
2. Marico Moon Café
Inspired by the words of Bosman ‘the Marico Moon does strange things to your mind,’ the food at this beautifully decorated café is all organic, plucked from the earth right next door. The eatery is open from Wednesday to Sunday, and offers a set menu dinner. A new addition is a peaceful new tea garden. Owner and chef Geraldine Bennett has put her decorator’s skills to good use: African masks, ornate mirrors, picture frames and life-size art on the wall give the space a gallery-like look.
Contact: Tel 014 503 0926
3. The Groot Marico Hotel
This is the place to meet locals, get fed and throw back a drink or four. Who knows, you may run into a Bosman character or two. A new menu and manager has refreshed the historic establishment.
Contact: Tel 083 272 2958
Where to stay in Groot Marico
1. The Riverstill Guest House
This spot lies deep within a valley. Get up early and head to the river to experience the peace. There’s also a labyrinth for private meditation and tree walks can be arranged. Besides being knowledgeable about almost everything, owner Jacques du Plessis is also quite the cook and prepares healthy, wholesome meals. There are four rustic cottages spread out on the farm. From R275 per adult per night and R130 per child under 12 per night. There’s a midweek special (Monday to Thursday) of R200 per person per night for a minimum of two nights.
2. Botshabelo Guest House and Farmyard
This is a good choice for adventure junkies and outdoorsy types who also like their comfort. You can go bird-watching, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, swimming and water-skiing at the nearby Marico Bushveld Dam. Each suite has its own entrance, veranda or wooden deck and fully equipped kitchen. From R280 per person per night sharing.
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