Ripe for the picking

Posted on 9 December 2020

Every ‘normal’ year in November Ficksburg sees red, when the Cherry Festival comes to town. Festivities are limited this year, but don’t let that stop you visiting this destination.

Words: Gabrielle Jacobs | photography: supplied, alamy

A roadside cherry stall en route to Ionia Cherry Farm.

Life is just a bowl of cherries,’ sang Judy Garland in the fifties. That could mean it’s sweet, sour or really hard in the centre. Where better to make up my mind than Ficksburg, cherry capital of the world – or so the locals would have you believe. The Cherry Festival, which has been running since 1967, is the oldest agricultural celebration in the country but sadly won’t be happening this year.

It being my first time in the Eastern Free State, I was mesmerised by the golden-hued boulders which greeted me along the Maloti Route to the town where I hoped to pick the brains of the creative locals – and some cherries along the way.

The town, which rests in the shadow of the Imperani Mountain facing Lesotho, was established in 1867 by General Johan Fick. The only town in SA where the border post is located in the town itself, Ficksburg is a gateway to Lesotho, and about three-hour’s drive to the Katse Dam. I met up with Gavin Boy at his cafe, located in one of the oldest houses in town, McBride’s House. Gavin showed me around Café Chocolat, the adjacent second-hand bookshop and McKinley Chocolates, founded by Alaskan-born Ficksburgian, Calen Thomas. The town’s own Willy Wonka, Calen handcrafts Belgian and Swiss chocolate, which he’s taken to exhibitions all over the world. By night, you’ll find these enterprising guys over at the Café Chocolat.

Sample cherry liqueur and a whole lot more at Constantia Cherry Farm.

Theatre or upstairs at the Gin-ger Bar. On paper, Ficksburg has everything it needs to be a thriving tourist stop: natural beauty, small-town charm and on Lesotho’s doorstep, with the Golden Gate National Park not far away. Sadly, the town is rather neglected by its municipality, evident by the state of older buildings and the potholed roads. This doesn’t deter the locals, however. ‘We do our own marketing, campaigning and tourism,’ Gavin said, mentioning that another business had sponsored bins for his weekly town clean-up campaign. ‘It only works if we all work together and support one another.’

Another resilient and creative individual is Sandra Netherlands. Walk through Café Chocolat from the main street (McCabe) and you’ll find Die Blikplek, a miniature shanty town of sorts filled with decorated metal houses. With some welding savvy and a different kind of mettle, Sandra saw a business opportunity in repurposing old pressed ceiling boards, and has been creating furniture and crafts from the upcycled metal. You can also see her craftmanship in the uniquely themed guest rooms at the Green Acorn Guesthouse, which she used to own.

At the Pellissier Art Gallery, I met retired teacher Renette Humphreys, who introduced me to Ficksburg’s rich heritage. Among its sizeable collection of paintings, this gallery is more famous for its eight decorative San rock art-inspired murals painted by landscape artist, Pierneef in 1922.

The town square boasts the region’s indigenous sandstone architecture, as do many other prominent buildings. Ficksburg was a big exporter of the ochre-coloured stone, some quarried in the area were sent to Pretoria to build the Union Buildings.

Constantia Cherry Farm

Just 14 kilometres outside Ficksburg, you’ll find the Sandstone Estate, one of the many curiosities cherry country has to offer. The estate is home to a collection of narrow-gauge trains among other heritage items such as ox wagons, tractors and military vehicles. Incredibly, they’re all in working order, and you can hop on board and do the locomotion across the estate. Parts of the estate border the Caledon River, which forms a natural border between SA and Lesotho when rainfall is adequate.

In recent years though, drought and less-than-average snowfall in Lesotho has plagued the area. Ina van Jaarsveld, my other crafty host at Die Kersiehuis, took me down to the nearby Meulspruit Dam which, during good rains, is a popular spot for locals to picnic, fish and hike up to San rock paintings or the 23-kilometre Imparani Hiking Trail.

The next day, I finally got to the core business of my trip: cherry picking. At about 1 600 metres above sea level, Ficksburg is ideally suited for growing these stone fruit, which require sub-zero temperatures to flourish. I made a pitstop at Ionia Cherry Farm, where I strolled through the orchards and sampled the ripe fruit, while Frieda Kruger, who manages the family cherry farm, identified various cultivars before showing me around the factory where cherries are sorted and graded.

The entrance to Die Blikplek welcomes you to a world of rustic (and rusty) wonder.

At the Ionia Farmstall, I ordered their famous Belgian-style cherry waffle. While I waited for my treat, I browsed the cherry chutneys and liqueurs among the hundreds of cherry products they make. Cherries aren’t the only produce that’s big around here. Ficksburg’s loamy soil is also perfect for growing asparagus – and unique cool-climte wines are produced at nearby Fouriesburg.

Small as it may be, Ficksburg’s rich history, heritage and beautiful surrounds are the perfect base for day tripping in cherryland, with scenic 20-minute drives between curiosities at neighbouring Clocolan and Fouriesburg. The golden grasses of the veld usher you along while the occasional raptor circles high overhead and sandstone boulders grow more majestic as the sun lends a golden, rooibos hue. For me, that’s the cherry on top.

Get your cherries

Ionia Cherry Farm
Is hosting its own cherry festival from 19-22 November; find it on the R26 between Ficksburg and Fouriesburg.
072 585 3684,

Gavin Boy and Calen Thomas mix a mean cocktail at the Gin-ger Bar.

Constantia Cherry Farmstall
Is on the R26 from Ficksburg to Clocolan.
082 304 7043,

Ben Nevis Cherry Cellar and Guest Farm
Is off the R26 towards Clocolan. Try their cherry liqueurs and check out the farm’s walking and hiking trails.
072 205 7328,

Plan a trip

Cherry season begins in early October until late November. While the main festival is off, cherries stand back for no pandemic, so farms and businesses are hosting their own festivities – swing by to enjoy the harvest.

Green Acorn Guest House

Stay Here

Green Acorn Guesthouse
Unique decor with all the modern comforts, and the breakfasts are scrumptious – and legendary. From R350 pp sharing. 051 933 2746,

Eat Here

Café Chocolat
Tuck into tender Eisbein, homemade pastas or tasty pizzas. Grab a drink from the Ginger bar upstairs and meet the bar’s adorable canine namesake. 082 920 5551

Mperani Guest House and Restaurant
Great for takeaway lunches or pop in for supper and cocktails. 051 933 3606

McKinley Chocolates

Hand Made with Love
For coffee, cakes and crafts. 076 977 9477

Other Small-Town Festivals to Try Countrywide

Most festivities had to be cancelled 
this year. But make these quirky events a date for next year – with good-value suggestions on where to stay.

Prince Albert, Klein Karoo

Olive Festival (APR/MAY)

Old-world Karoo charm will be on the cards if you book into Brakdakkie. Each cottage is decorated in beautifully understated Karoo style and the little splash pool in front of every one is the perfect place to have a sundowner or two. Cost From R410 pp |

Stanford Lake Lodge, Haenertsburg

Haenertsburg, Limpopo

Berry Festival (FEB)
The Food & Wine Festival (MAY)
The Spring Festival (SEPT)

Haenertsburg is a great starting point for a host of Limpopo adventures and the village is not shy of a festival or two.
Stanford Lake Lodge is situated in a scenic landscape of the lake and the Wolkberg Mountains.

From R890 pn for two; R2 290 pn for eight people. 079 519 9211 | In the village itself,
the Art Gallery Guest House is a sexy little French-style cottage with plenty of romantic trappings.

From 450pp, B&B | 082 058 7011 |

Anchor’s Rest, Hermanus

Hermanus, Western Cape

Whale Festival (SEPT)

Stay The festival aside, from June to November, Hermanus is the place for whale watching in the Western Cape. But this captivating town has all the requirements for a holiday year-round including hiking, lovley beaches and seafood and other restaurants. Anchor’s Rest is a beautiful B&B where you’ll feel right at home.

Two-sleeper units from R360 pp; four-sleepers from R1 110 per unit 028 312 3303 |

Clarens, Free State

Craft Beer Festival (FEB)

Stay With Lesotho and the Maluti Mountains as its neighbours, Clarens offers pukka Eastern Free State scenery in an arty village. Put your feet up at the end of the day in one of the four self-catering units at Mont Rouge Guest House.

R650-R680 per two-sleeper unit; R500-R1 100 per four-sleeper unit; R1 500-R2 400 per six-sleeper unit. 083 738 3371 | 058 256 1207 |

Sutherland, Western Cape

Vries Jou Gat Af Fees (JUNE/JULY)

Where else but in South Africa’s coldest town in mid-winter? Gotta do it even if just for the festival name. The festival happens at Die Heks se Huis, an early 1900s carriage house and renovated cottages just a stone’s throw from the Planetarium.

R350 pp.

Or go back in time to the 1860s historic stone Skitterland Guest House,

From R480 pp sharing B&B. 023 571 1115 |

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