Karoo Farmhouse


In the winter of 2010, ceramicist Clementina van der Walt and her partner, entrepreneur Albie Bailey, decided to go on a road trip. On the street outside their Green Point apartment, World Cup fever was at a pitch.

Their journey would be slow, with the possibility of scouting for a place in the country and an itinerary that included Calitzdorp, Oudtshoorn and Barkly East – all the way to Grahamstown. But before they were due to set foot in the “City of Saints”, they fell in love with a rambling Victorian school in the Groenfontein Valley. 

Eleven kilometres outside Calitzdorp, en route to their weekend stay at Klipkraal, they passed the ramshackle dwelling set amid rustling blue gum trees. When they were told the farm was for sale, they suspected there’d be no turning back from the title deed for the 35 hectares of land, which also included some outbuildings, three koppies and a graveyard. 

What the farm lacked was infrastructure, but Kraaldoring has the good fortune of the convergence of two rivers. They invested in a wheelbarrow, a water pump and some pipes – and embarked on another journey, fuelled by the process of inventive renovation. Albie’s hands-on tenacity was going to be tested and Clementina’s sense and sensibility would stand them in good stead during the months ahead. They sold their BMW and bought a bakkie. 

Only once, at the beginning of an endless to-do list, and without the amenities of the city, did they experience a tremor of regret. After that, it was business as usual, as the dark mildewed interior and narrow passages were flattened out and opened up, light flinting history’s lessons with a sense of deliverance.

The craftsmanship of another century revealed Oregon-pine floorboards, yellow-wood lintels, handcrafted shutters and architraves; every architectural detail that was recovered would be considered. This was to be the first renovation of the structure, which made it easier in the sense that they did not have to remedy previous insertions. 

Albie and Clementina asked local artisan builder Attie Januarie to handle their project. Attie’s focus was the slow integration of the valley vernacular through his traditional approach of “repair and reuse”, which has contributed to the valley’s revitalisation over the past decade. 

Almost everything was either recycled or sourced locally. Reeds for the brandsolder (“a fire ceiling”, which is a layer to prevent fire from spreading) were harvested from the riverbed; old roof sheets were stripped of rust; where rotten floorboards had to be replaced, a bookshelf materialised from salvaged wood. Secondhand doors and windows were sourced between Lutge Gallery in Cape Town and Boshoff Boumateriale in Oudtshoorn. Wherever possible, they made use of the stone available on the farm. 

Now, four years later, Clementina and Albie alternate their time between a slick city apartment in the Bo-Kaap and prolonged stays at Kraaldoring. On the farm they slow down, even though there is always so much to do, and being far from the hub compels people to find alternative solutions to everyday situations. They make jam and bake bread and, when friends visit during December or Easter, the conversations reach deep into the night – luminous with stars and an eagle owl’s call. 

The semi-arid landscape is a magic web of animals, ranging from small buck to porcupines and tortoises. Swallows fly through the house and sometimes you wake up to the sound of leiwater rushing past your bedroom.

The city, with its gritty texture, is a contrast to the rural openness of the Little Karoo. On the farm they use gas, paraffin and candles; in the city they flick a switch to light up their hi-tech fishbowl. In town, they’re aware of security and there is one main entrance to their apartment; on the farm there are so many doors, each one leading to the land. 

In the city, their view is Table Mountain; on the farm they see Dam se Kop nodding under a full moon. In the city, there is always a hum: the air con, sirens and mosque. On the farm, the sun’s energy links them to the internet and continuity with the workflow in town.

It’s a good synergy, one that has already started influencing Clementina’s increasingly tempered palette. She has also embarked on an exploration of the symbolism of rock paintings in the area, with the enigmatic results visible in her work. 

Albie’s focus has shifted to the photographic documentation of the people in the valley, people whose lives have never been recorded – such as the 90-year-old labourer whose existence was shrouded in obscurity. Until now.