Like nowhere else on earth

PHOTOS: Micky Hoyle | PRODUCTION: Mark Serra | WORDS: Paul Duncan

A new house has emerged from the fertile land outside barrydale, yet it appears to have always rested under the protection of the surrounding mountains.

For years the impression many people had of the Karoo was formed by what they could see from a car window as it sped up the N1 from Cape Town to Johannesburg. You simply went in at one end, held your breath, and left as quickly as possible from the other side. A hot, grey blur, in other words – an impression confirmed even by the view from the window of a plane passing overhead.

Five years ago Richard Butt might have agreed: ‘It was the last place on earth I’d ever have wanted to live, let alone build a home’.

Yet not only does this busy former director of Woolworths now live in the Karoo, but he farms there too, and he cannot imagine why it took him so long to see the light. There are lots of us like him but, unlike him, we haven’t yet taken the plunge. Richard bought several hectares in rugged Lemoenshoek outside Barrydale; brought in bulldozers and front-end loaders; hired builders, carpenters, electricians and a plumber; moved rock; dug dams; built walls and, with eight gardeners, relandscaped his veld; removed alien vegetation; planted trees and reintroduced a small herd of springbok.

And a home went up that, strangely enough, looks as if it has always been there. Voëlvlei it’s called, and it is the kind of home you dream about if the Karoo is your idea of heaven.

Built in the Klein Karoo vernacular, it is a U-shaped building with a high parapet along the front concealing the lean-to roof. Many similar houses – some of them quite old – can be seen along the R62 from Montagu, 70km away, to Barrydale.

At the front, massive sash windows face the deeply folded foothills of the Langeberg mountains, while at the rear the house is protected by the pyramid-like cone of a small kaolin mountain and a rocky cliff that looks like the backdrop in a Spaghetti Western. Four bedrooms with four bathrooms and a massive sitting room and kitchen give the building its size. It looks like a farmhouse for a family of eight.

Sustainability begins at home

What’s most extraordinary about Voëlvlei is that it is utterly at one with its location. Everything used in its construction was made here, mostly by hand using local know-how. The bricks were fired locally from Barrydale clay, while the dry-packed stone walls, built of slate from the farm and used to enhance its façade and encircle the vegetable garden, were built using a technique imported to the district by Italian prisoners of war in the 1940s.

Building projects such as this one keep it alive. Elsewhere – and most noticeably on the entrance façade – the plaster is a mixture of mud and lime, resulting in an ochre colour that is one of the most characteristic features of the building.

The slate lintels above doors and windows are reused fencing posts and milestones that once littered the veld or lined country roads in the area. One or two of them, at 2m long, weigh in at 300kg. Roof supports are gum, cut from trees in the river at the bottom of the property, while Spanish cane (Arundo donax) from a nearby vlei has been used for ceilings. Floors are simple, traditional Karoo polished cement, cool in the summer and easily heated by huge log fires in the winter.

Old wooden windows and doors in Oregon pine were rescued from building lots up and down the Karoo and restored by Chris Jansen, whose workshops outside neighbouring Riversdale are one of the region’s best-kept secrets.

Anybody entering this building for the first time will have a tremendous emotional response to it. Built by hand with handmade materials, its scale and proportion are quintessentially humane. Nothing is too big, too high or too wide.

‘My Cape Town friend and architect, Anton de Kock, helped draw up the plans and he saw to that,’ says Richard.

When we admire old Karoo farmsteads and wish we also owned one, this is what lies at the heart of our longing. Buildings such as this rattle our soul. And in a reversal of the progression that farming communities in the Karoo have made from land to city, Richard, with guidance and help from his neighbouring farmer, Andrew Whittingdale, who supervised the building work, got it absolutely right.

Truly a unique setting

But why here, at Lemoenshoek?

There are the mountains and there is the village of Barrydale, nearby. The people are friendly – the Karoo has a reputation for being a hospitable place. But there’s much, much more.

‘Have you ever seen an entirely natural landscape lit by moonlight? The mountain is washed by layers of light and there are the most enormous starlit skies above. What with all the light pollution everywhere else, there’s hardly anything like this anywhere else on earth,’ says Richard.

And that’s just at night. During the day, the full panorama of Klein Karoo veld stretches for miles into the distance between the Langeberg to the left and a low range of hills to the right that climax in the Towerkop peak a few kilometres away, overlooking Ladismith.

And there’s the possibility on this small patch of virgin earth to be utterly organic. Richard has tamed a section of veld and coaxed out of it a vegetable garden filled with strawberries, artichokes, rhubarb and pumpkins.

The whole place is rudely fertile. Best of all, it presents the opportunity to practise what he’s preached for so many years: that the key to the whole issue of sustainability begins at home.