If you drive for about 25 miles along the unsealed road from Kakamas towards Kenhardt in South Africa’s north-western Karoo, you come to a farm track on the right which leads to the ruins of a farmhouse and an old eucalypt tree by the dry, sandy bed of the Hartebees River. This arid outback area of South Africa had previously been inhabited by the San people until they had been driven into the Kalahari Desert by expanding white settlement. My dad, John, grew up here as a member of a sheep farming family.
As the eldest son, John should have inherited his dad’s huge sheep farm in accordance with Boer tradition. What brought him unstuck was that he was a softie. Physically he was as tough as any of his younger brothers, but unlike them he found it almost impossible to slit the throats of newborn lambs with a knife, which was required for their Karakul sheep farming practice in those days. The newborn Karakul lambs had a tight, curly pattern of short wool and the pelts were exported overseas, where it was used in the top end fashion industry. They had to be killed before the wool started growing. The little pelts were stretched on frames to dry and their carcasses were boiled in vats and fed to the pigs. It was a murderous business and John wanted no part of it.
He therefore asked his father to send him to university in Cape Town. The other brothers left school early to help on the farm. When their father died as John was finalising his studies, his three brothers formed a pact amongst themselves that the farm would be divided into three sizable parcels, one for each of them. John was told that they would pay him for some of the land, but what he received was a mere fraction of what it was worth. They also made it clear to him that he would get into the way of a stray bullet if he attempted to claim any of the farmland for himself.
John was a devout Christian and did not want to be a farmer, so he accepted the meagre settlement without holding a grudge against his brothers. John never mentioned any of this to me, but many years later his sister, an unmarried teacher, told me of the whole sordid business. She was quite bitter about my dad’s treatment by his three younger brothers.
Every year without fail we went to visit his brothers for three weeks during the June school holidays. The youngest, Celliers, was a quiet man and a World War 2 veteran. His brother Charlie was large and loud. I could hardly ever understand a word that he spoke. Although he never caused me any harm, I was quite nervous of him because he was such a rough character. Take the pig-shooting incident, for instance. He had dispatched his son, my cousin Hendrik, to shoot a particular pig. Hendrik was an agricultural school student at the time. He aimed the rifle at the pig and said: “They’ve taught us at school how to shoot a pig. I think it is about an inch above its left nostril, but I’m not certain. It could be the right nostril.” While he prevaricated, Uncle Charlie had suddenly appeared from nowhere and, grabbing the rifle from Hendrik, killed the pig with a single shot. “That’s how you shoot a pig,” he growled.
The third brother, Christiaan, was my favourite Karoo uncle. He was a laconic man, tough as nails, but with a kindly streak underneath. Despite never showing open affection I knew that he liked me. He had his own way of getting his point across. When I was quite small, for instance, I was bawling about something when Uncle Christiaan said to my dad, within my hearing: “You know, John, I think you made a mistake with this one. You took him out of his nappies too soon. Look how unhappy he is. I think you should put him back in nappies until he is a bit older.” I am pretty sure that was the last time that I had cried in front of my uncle.
When I was a bit older I had a splinter in my hand. I showed it to him and told him that it was hurting me a lot. “Come here, I’ll cut it out for you,” he said, taking his penknife from his pocket. I quickly made my getaway and got his daughter, my cousin Erina, to dig it out with a sewing needle instead, without as much as a whimper that might attract Uncle Christiaan’s attention.
My uncle involved me in various farm tasks, despite the fact that I was a scrawny, physically weak city kid. He took me along to the sheep auctions in town and taught me about buying sheep at auction, fattening them up and breeding them in order to make a profit. He also taught me to shoot and to recognise the various animals, birds and plants on the farm. Now, many decades later, I realise that, spending his life on an isolated farm with only the daily female company of his wife and two daughters, he probably enjoyed some male company, even in the form of a child.
On one occasion the pipes of a windpump had to be pulled up from the borehole and undone, one by one, to replace one near the bottom that had rusted through. A pulley was used for this task. As the connected pipes were pulled up, my uncle would clamp the lower ones and undo the top one. Then we had to pull again. It was an arduous task, for the borehole was 90 metres deep.
Uncle Christiaan asked me to help the two farm workers. I pulled as hard as I could on the pulley with my thin arms, groaning with the effort. After a while he said to me, drily: “I’ll tell you what. How about I’ll do the grunting and the groaning and you can just do the pulling.”
My uncle was driving his bakkie (ute) along a two-track dirt road on the farm one night, when I was still quite young, with Erina and me sitting in the back. We had to take turns to open the gates in the fences between the large paddocks and close them after the bakkie had passed through. Erina said to me: “You have to be careful when you open the gate. Look where you walk, because I’ve heard that the scorpions are attracted by the lights of the bakkie at night.”
I was so terrified of the poisonous scorpions that were common in rocky areas on the farm that I didn’t get down to open the next gate when it was my turn. “Hurry up,” Uncle Christiaan said to me through the driver’s window, “open the gate.”
“I don’t want to get down, Uncle. I’m worried that a scorpion will kill me.”
Uncle Christiaan was quiet for a few seconds. Then he said, matter-of-factly, in his slow country drawl: “No need to worry about a scorpion. I’ve been stung by two scorpions. They’re both dead, but I’m still here. Now get a move on and open the gate. It’s getting late.”
I jumped down from the back of the bakkie and hurriedly opened the gate.
Looking back at where my dad had grown up, I am grateful that he had left the farm to pursue an education in the city. I doubt that I would have been much good as a Karoo farmer as I do not have the heart to kill a spider, far less a farm animal. However, if my dad had not left the farm and I had ended up being a Karoo farmer myself, I would like to think that I would have been the kind of farmer that my uncle Christiaan was: a man of the land, tough enough to be able to farm in that isolated, barren Karoo landscape, but with a kind centre.
My dad John (left, in his university blazer) with his tough farmer brothers Charlie, Celliers and Christiaan