Farmstays are rare in the Eastern Cape. Perhaps it’s because not too long ago most of the folks in the region’s sleepy towns still had cow dung squishing between their own toes and see paying for such novelty as only for the bright-lights townies. Things are changing though, especially as the spaces grow tighter amid townhouse sprawl. On a misty plateau in the Amatola Mountains (somewhere northwest of East London) I recently discovered that Lowestoffe Lodge and the rolling hill-and-dale hectares around it are the epitome of what a farmstay should be.
Word on the ground is that successful farming becomes tougher each season. That said there are always farmers who better understand the complexities of economics, business, human psychology, agricultural science and balancing all of that within Mother Nature’s fickle hand. These farmers outgrow those around them and often branch out onto the neighbouring soil. The trend in the Eastern Cape is that farm-sizes are growing, and the more contiguous land managed by the right people, the better, especially for the land. Lowestoffe is an example of this. The Evens family arrived in 1905 and today, four farms later, a fifth generation revels boisterously in the mountain sunshine between home-schooled lessons that come framed in period, farmhouse carpentry and lit by a view across the veld. I could tell you what warm hosts Neil Evens and his wife Robyn Conroy are, but that’s what you’d be expecting to hear. Better then that I allude to the attitudes of the people who work for them.
I’m a "plaasjapie" myself and didn’t visit Lowestoffe to learn about farming, but where life revolves around making a working farm work, it’s hard not to get a little caught up in it. Nosing about the outbuildings one morning I found Louwrens Boshoff, the farm manager, and his team in the thick of a highly technical analysis of Merino sheep rams for the Lowestoffe stud. He cleared three kraal fences to come over and introduce himself. Then he explained with no small trickle of positive energy and an overflowing smile, all the details of the exercise. I left a half-hour later, my know-it-all self impressed by the science and logic of it.
During our stay, my partner on the trip, Anscha van Zyl, went off horse riding one morning; I chose fishing. Upon Anscha’s return, we settled onto the porch of our “Trout Cottage” for tea, cookies, and story swapping. Anscha told of her well-spoken guide, Eddy, and she described the scenery, the view from a high ridge, how relaxed the black wildebeest they’d seen were, bird species mentally ticked along the way, and how the personality of Stormy, the mare she’d ridden, had ‘fit’ her perfectly. But what Anscha kept coming back to was the questions that Eddy had asked, and that it struck her that intellectually he was not your average highly-rural farm labourer, sheltered and blind to the outside world. What struck me was that this young fellow, who had completed his school education in nearby Queenstown, chose of his own will to return to the farm. That is a 180 degree bucking of the trend. It says a lot, and even though we were visiting under the shroud of the worst drought in forty years, a tangible feeling of general happiness and optimism pervaded the air wherever we mixed with the farm folk, the kind of energy that whispers everything will be all right.
One of the main reasons that I had wanted to visit Lowestoffe was to trace the source of rumours of smallmouth yellowfish that I’d been hearing. Yellowfish species have been on the local-is-lekker, to-catch list ever since A River Runs Through It and the re-birth of flyfishing that movie spawned. ‘Yellows’ are popular mostly just because they’re there but also because they’re challenging and fun to catch. Thing is, they’re indigenous to just about everywhere except the Eastern Cape. However, the Kei River basin was stocked with smallmouth yellowfish decades ago and today they’re distributed throughout its catchment.
The Klipplaat River drains the plateau at Lowestoffe and is a tributary of a tributary of the Kei. The first run that I drifted a fly through produced a fish in less than five casts. The second run showed nothing at first, but still I kept low in the fringing reeds. As I drifted a big nymph across the boulder strewn bottom, four sizeable yellowfish miraculously un-dissolved themselves from the rocks to take a closer look. One of them sucked in the fly. It was that easy. Anscha, for whom it was only her second day waving a fly rod, caught two of her own before the mountains suddenly got angry and sent an ill wind that made us high-tail for our cottage ahead of blackening clouds and gathering mist. But that’s how mountain weather goes; make fun while there’s sun.
After the storm had rumbled on its away I went out onto the trout dam I’d been eyeing through our cottage lounge’s window. The evening rise’s gift was a 50cm rainbow (trout!) and its delicate pink-flesh was being rolled together with rice and nori and dipped in soy and wasabi within the hour; sushi far from the seashore.
The Lowestoffe operations combine 5500 hectares over which to walk or ride, or all manner of farm tracks for mountain biking. The terrain goes from the bottomlands along the Klipplaat River, to gentle hills, to real mountains, rocky gorges and crags, and all presided over by the 2017m Elandsberg peak. A 4x4 track tops out on the summit and though I’ve never stood there, I can’t imagine the view being anything but a wow, seeing-into-the-next-postcode experience.
Montane habitat isn’t always the best terrain for birders with a twitch, but for the hawk-eyed, Lowestoffe doesn’t disappoint. Raptorphiles especially will be kept busy. Strings of Eastern Redfooted Kestrels bobbing on telephone wires might be an easy call, but other juveniles, immatures, and rarer summertime visitors are not. The farm dams attract water birds, while between the riverine thicket and pastures and the mountain slopes with patches of fynbos, rock outcrops, krantzes, and forest thickets, there’s habitat for two of nearly everything. Grassland and wetland LBJs there are aplenty. A personal special was the jet-fighter Alpine Swifts; those speedsters that surf the pressure waves where the wind stacks against high ridges and whose harnessing of their medium enthrals endlessly. For an official special, the Hogsback forests nearby shelter populations of the Cape Parrot.
The Amatolas have an interesting human history. The highlands are part of the frontier where White farmers moving east from the Southern Cape clashed head-on with Xhosa clans moving down the east coast in the 1700s. Of course, before all of that, the land was lived on by the Khoisan and Lowestoffe has impressive murals from their time.
One of the painting sites is a sandstone overhang an easy walk along the Klipplaat River. The theories around Bushman painting are endlessly debatable. For example, in the context of the time that San art spans and the geographical extent and distribution of the people, how is it that the style of thousands of artists is so incredibly consistent?
A dominant element of the Lowestoffe paintings is the depiction of people on horseback. Perhaps this land was always known for its horses, just the way it is today for the farm’s Appaloosa stud; exemplary horses bred for the Olympic disciplines. But staying in the paddock, so much of Bushman art is pure mystery. I believe the root to its understanding is buried in our most basic genetic makeup; our ancestry. Surely, at the deepest, subconscious state (the state on which San artists appear to have relied for some of their imagery), one can reasonably expect genetics to ensure that the mind’s eye of all who are born of the same chain of ancestors to ‘see’ in the same ‘style’?
If we can look within our own deepest chasms we can maybe begin to grasp all of this and understand how all is connected. All had a beginning, to which we are all still connected right now. We are built of the same atoms as the rocks on which we rest and the rivers in which we fish. Atoms that are part of a fluid process that one day will trickle back to the soils and the grass that wafts in the mountain wind.
And maybe the ancient peoples like the San, who once took in the river-view from the shelter of Lowestoffe’s sandstone shade, understood these connections and themselves and the flow of life better than most of us. Maybe we’re only at the edge of a re-understanding. Modern man is looking for something, it’s why more people migrate to the countryside on weekends, and feel so good when they come home. There’s a lot more going on out there than the clichéd escape with its fresh-air walks, birdsong, and fishing.
© 2012 WADE Travel & Fishing Magazine