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Corbelled House of Stuurmansfontein – A step back in time

The sun slowly crests the low hill and the silent shadows retreat revealing the Karoo valley in all its ochre beauty, the golden light softening the rocky landscape. Steam rises in the crisp air from our condensed milk coffee as we sit on the stoep savouring the extraordinary quiet. 

We are staying at the corbelled house on the Stuurmansfontein farm near Carnavon precipitated initially by the need for dog friendly accommodation and the romantic notion of staying in a house built by ‘trekboers‘.  

We have passed through the Karoo on the N1 far too many times in the December holiday heat and our impression has been of a dry desolate land with seemingly few redeeming features.

The road leaving Carnavon towards Williston promised more of the same. However, as we turned off the tar onto the dirt road, our perceptions changed. Perhaps it was the slow speed or perhaps the terrain was undulating and not quite as flat or perhaps it was August with its crisp air. It was still harsh, but there was a stark beauty that we were beginning to appreciate.

Then after 25 kms, as we sweep round a bend, a literal oasis spread out before us. Emerald fields with irrigation jewels sparkling in the late afternoon sun.  A white Cape Dutch style farmhouse set against the rolling green lawns with a beautiful garden.

Charmaine welcomes us and then sends us off with a fresh loaf of bread baked that morning and her own tomato and ginger jam.

It is a further 5km farm track to Stuurmansfontein itself nestled between some protective outcrops and the dry river bed.

As there could be no wooden trusses to support the roof, they made use of an ancient method of construction known as corbelling. This technique was implemented by placing successive courses of flat stone, each one extending a little further inward than the layer beneath, until the walls almost met at the apex. The remaining hole over the roof could then be closed with a single slab. These thick stone walls were excellent insulators against the extreme heat of summer. The floors of most corbelled houses were made of smeared earth that was coloured a rich red with a mixture of fat and oxblood and then polished with a smooth stone.

Piet and Charmaine have done a superb job renovating and refurbishing the house. They have carefully  balanced the preservation of not only the architecture but the feel of the original inhabitants while adding some creature comforts so that we were not roughing it.

There is no plumbing in the main house, so water needs to be brought in by ewer from the outside tap to the kitchen for washing up and cooking. Hot water is boiled in the kettle. The water drains from the sink into a basin which is then taken outside and carefully poured onto grateful plants. The outside tap is a relatively new addition. Previously, water had to be drawn down at the windmill and carried up to the house. The fridge and cooker use gas, making life much simpler.

Charmaine’s eye for detail runs throughout the house. There are candles in every room with matches at each, so no hunting for an illusive box when you need light. Sprigs of rosemary scent throughout. The furniture and heirlooms recreate the simple ambiance.

There is everything you could wish for including a bodum and delicious filter coffee and home made seed and nut rusks.

We expected to be cold and were grateful that the gas heater was one modern conveniences not available to the original inhabitants, but the thick walls and roof were amazing insulators and we found that we only used it for half an hour to take the edge off and then the thick duvets did the rest.

There are two interconnected corbells – the main bedroom and the lounge. A rectangular pitched roof structure which contains the entrance, dining room, kitchen and second bedroom has been built onto the corbells. We needed to duck going through the corralled sections as the floor has been raised over time as successive layers of earth were added to the floors.

The bathroom has a gas geyser and a running water toilet, but it requires leaving the cosy corbelled portion and walking outside to the attached building. We soon learnt to shower in the afternoon then sit on the stoep, reading and soaking up the last sun rays of the day.

The sense of of isolation is profound and the silence is intense. There are no people or animals for miles and as we look across the dry river bed to the handful of abandoned huts and kraals, we are swept back in time. 

How did they survive and what emotional and mental depths did they have to plumb to overcome a life of hardship in a dangerous and unforgiving land?

Days follow. Relaxing. Adapting our activities to the weather. We feel ourselves slowing down. We start appreciating the Karoo like we have never before.

Our original plan was to use this as a base for exploring the region, but we are reluctant to tear ourselves away.

Available equipment and ingredients necessitate innovative ways to cook. We dry fry Charmaine’s bread in a cast iron pan. Combined with more of our double yolk eggs from Trompsburg, we create unique flavours that we will forever associate with Stuurmansfontein. We create a delicious Carbonara dish that we will add to our repertoire.

We read and lie in sun and start our braai while it is still light and before the temperature drops.

The braai is in the asbosskerm, a circular screen of lye bush fronds created as a wind screen and continuously added to over the years. Paddy and D’arcy lie on their blankets and, like us, are perfectly content.

And when the sun goes down….. we experience the wonder of the clear night skies…….

The dogs were in their element – no fences, no other dogs, no people, no sheep, no discipline – total freedom. Unfortunately, Paddy wasn’t feeling that well and couldn’t take full advantage. D’arcy, on the other hand, found lots of old sheep bones which she insisted on eating and then waking us in the middle of the night to go out to be sick.

We went on the Klipmossiewandelpad a circuitous 8 km walk around the farm, which went past several small corbelled houses and other structures made from the flat stones, such as shepherds’ shelters and store rooms. Many are broken down, hinting at the history of the inhabitants, their dreams, their struggles.

The collapsed buildings provide an idea of how much stone is used to create the corbelled roof.

Also seeing these structures unplastered, we recognised the structures we had seen in the Village des Bories, in Gordes, France, and the shepherds’ huts near Millau, France.

 Went past the homestead to say goodbye and Charmaine sent us off with another gift – homemade marmalade and the recipe for her boerebeskuit. Such gasvryheid in the Karoo.

Charmaine and Piet have managed to create a very special place which we will definitely come back soon. 

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