Papkuilsfontein: place beyond time

PHOTOS: Jac de Villiers | PRODUCTION: Laureen Rossouw | WORDS: Lin Sampson

Experience the seductive sorcery of the ancient Namaquland landscape at Papkuilsfontein, a guest farm just beyond Nieuwoudtville on the Bokkeveld Plateau.

We drive along a sandy track, which still has the markings of a wagon road, through a landscape with a shy, flirtatious beauty that hides its true heart — it springs upon you with a sudden show of flowers, a glimpse of tortoise, a dark-shadowed eagle like a black hat in the sky.

Papkuilsfontein is one of the earliest farms in the Onder-Bokkeveld, granted in 1742. The current owners are Mariëtte and Willem van Wyk, who have turned it into a place that is both a working farm and a retreat for guests.

“Apart from Karoo lamb, Papkuilsfontein has turned out to be perfect for growing the much-sought-after rooibos tea,” says Willem. The farm also recently produced its first olive oil, which has a nutty, slightly peppery flavour.

“Keeping up this property costs money and we must make everything work,” says Mariëtte as she pours tea in the voorkamer of Matjiesfontein House, which has wide architraves, cedarwood doors with hinges made by the local blacksmith and ceilings in honeysuckle shades.

The family’s history is as intricate as marquetry, wrought asunder by partition, death and disease, older sons vying with younger sons, and, as is often the case in these tales of Boer lore, it includes many wealthy widows who were highly prized and often wooed by unsuitable men looking for an easy life.

By 1924 the total shares of Papkuilsfontein were in the hands of the Van Wyk family, where they have remained ever since. There are places in the world that make you dizzy with delight: Papkuilsfontein is one of them.

A piece of the past

It is forged by climate and nature, untouched by foreign invasion. Little has changed here in 200 years. The farm – an easy four-hour drive from Cape Town – is situated on the Bokkeveld Plateau, an ancient landscape of rocks folded like napkins. It is a camouflage of fugitive colours sharpened by the blaze of quartzites, red sandstones and shales, a semi-desert where the original Van Wyks used to trek in wagons.

The Oorlogskloof River (a name derived from the clashes between the Bushmen and Boers), which forms the western boundary of the farm, surges down a deep canyon, a sheath of white water. Under the rocky overhangs there are still the faded fragments of Bushmen paintings. It is a countryside where the large, sometimes careless-looking brush strokes of the scenery are, on closer inspection, made up of minutiae – an iridescent armadillo and brilliantly coloured humming birds probing the throats of flowers.

We visit in October, just after the flower season, a good time because the tourists have gone and the place is still green from the winter rains. “One of the best times to come is April/May, when the heat has died down,” says Mariëtte.

The farm consists of a series of small cottages, each with its own character. De Hoop, for example, made from thatch and sandstone, forms part of the original homestead complex.

All the other original buildings on the werf now lie in ruins. The interiors are perfectly appointed, with large white towels and crisp sheets. The Victorian baths can be filled to the brim and huge fires are lit on cold nights.

You can either cater yourself or, as we did, order a farm-cooked meal: skaapskenkels with mahogany-coloured gravy followed by malva pudding.

Birdlife is prolific and books and guides are available to guests. On an evening drive (tours and hikes can be arranged but we preferred to do our own lazy thing), a large spoonbill swept by with flannelly wings. It is good to walk because the veld yields up hidden treasures such as the wild gladioli (Gladiolus orchidifl orus), as complicated as origami, or crazy birds that look like flying trapeze artists.

This is also klipspringer country and, on the way to the great canyon, we saw a porcupine waddling along like an armoured tank. In the mountains there are still the dappled silhouettes of leopards.

Old virtues still prosper

There is a sense that old virtues have not declined here; a feeling of decency engendered by the Van Wyks, whose values of hard work and propriety add to the historical context of a place which lies beyond time – it has kept up with the times but never at the expense of history.“We have thought of putting in electricity,” says Mariëtte, “but people say they will simply not come back if we do.”

“A farmer’s wife must be a special type of person,” she says. When it comes to organisation she is that special person, producing an ice-cold thermos of fresh lemon drink, a picnic lunch of homemade bread, cheese and apricot jam, anticipating every whim.

Nothing in the city compares to the multitude of pleasures in this deserted bit of land, where the sepulchral silence after nightfall brings an almost biblical peace.

• Papkuilsfontein Guest Farm: 027 218 1246,