As you drive along one of the traveler’s routes through the Karoo region of South Africa, you’ll often see vast swathes of nothing but stone and hard ground.
Occasionally, just to break the rocky landscape, there might be an outcrop of trees. Beefwoods, pepper trees, olives, eucalypts, salt bushes, and conifers are all visible from time to time. However, they were brought in by settlers over the centuries.
When the first white trekboere (migrant stock farmers) established their seasonal outposts in the Northern Cape Karoo in the early 1800s, they needed to build dwellings and granaries to protect their families and stores from the harsh climes.
Apart from the odd riverside Acacia karroo tree and millions of knee-high fragrant bushes, there was little wood to be found. There was, however, no shortage of dolerite and sandstone and so the corbelled house became the architectural style of the day.
Cozy and Safe
The houses provided excellent shelter. The six-metre-high ceilings and thick walls were cool in summer, and the rocks held the heat of the sun in winter.
Plus, you could make a fire inside. All you needed for a chimney was to climb up the rock-scaffolding and remove the topmost flat stone.
Window openings were small, specifically to restrict the effects of Bushman arrows during attacks on the settlers, which were quite frequent at the beginning of the 19th century.
You still see them out there in what is known as the Upper Karoo: raw stone or white-washed igloos built from perfectly balanced flat stones. Some have been abandoned, others have been lovingly restored and do duty as self-cater guest houses on family farms.
Once you’re in the Carnarvon-Williston district, the horizons are so wide, the road is so never-endingly straight that you feel you’re in the Faraway Country.
You’re miles from nowhere, as the song goes, and you’re staying over in a 200-year-old corbelled house with paraffin lamps and an outdoors shower kept warm by a wood-burning ‘donkey’ stove.
Relive the Frontier Days
On Stuurmansfontein Farm outside Carnarvon, you light the candles and relive the frontier days when bywoner (tenant farmer) Fanie Bergh and his clan thrived here.
By all accounts, the Berghs (who worked for the farm owners, the Bothas) wanted for very little. They planted a wide variety of fruit trees, a windpump supplied the water and heritage roses surrounded the homestead.
They laid out fruit to dry, protected by a low stone wall to keep hungry tortoises out.
The Bergh family was locally famous for their great coffee, and the secret lay in the dried figs that were crushed into the beans before roasting.
Fresh mutton cuts were stored in the coolest spot in the house: under the marital bed. The floors were made of mud and dung.
When the Berghs planted wheat, they would separate the grain from the chaff on the threshing floor about 200 yards down the hill, storing the grain in another special little purpose-built corbelled house.
Their recorded lifestyle offers up one major lesson to the modern visitor. It’s possible to live healthily and happily off the grid, but you need to know a lot of stuff—like how to build a corbelled house.
Corbelled House Mystery
No one really knows how this ancient Mediterranean style of architecture arrived here in South Africa’s version of the Outback.
Some say it must have been a trader or a sailor from Malta or Portugal who built the first Karoo corbelled house.
They speculate that this skill was then passed on to the indigenous Khoi-Khoi. Their clientele would have been the families of trekboers constantly swirling about the region.
Around Williston, people still speak of ‘Tiensjielings’ (Ten Shillings) and ‘Gedaanwerk’ (Done With Work), two men of Khoi-Khoi origin who built superb corbelled houses on the farms Schuinshoogte and Arbeidersfontein.
Others say the trekboers came up with the corbelled house concept by themselves. The records are unclear.
Out here in the flat lands, it was simply a case of the self-reliant boers using what whatever was available around them.
They’d stash their tobacco and medicine in recessed ‘keep holes’, and when times were good, they built adjoining kitchens, or more rooms.
And they were blessed with the finest TV you could ever watch: Channel One, featuring the all-round night stars of the Upper Karoo.