A view of the town of Graaf-Reinet in the Eastern Cape, from across the river. Graaf-Reinet is the fourth-oldest town in South Africa, after Cape Town, Stellenbosch,and Swellendam. Picture:123RF/ MARK DE SCANDE
A view of the town of Graaf-Reinet in the Eastern Cape, from across the river. Graaf-Reinet is the fourth-oldest town in South Africa, after Cape Town, Stellenbosch,and Swellendam. Picture:123RF/ MARK DE SCANDE

Travelling south to Graaff-Reinet on the N9 and just beyond the R61 turnoff to Cradock via the Wapadsberg, a gravel road leads off to the left signposted “Letskraal” and “Koloniesplaas”. At exactly 17kma locked farm gate marks the entrance to Letskraal.

A gentle hoot brings Lydia to open the gate and 500mdown a dirt track, one enters an immaculately swept werf  that surrounds the farmhouse along with the remains of several ox-wagons. It was built around 1800 for Andries Pretorius, after whom Pretoria was named, who lived there from 1818 until 1838 when he trekked north to support his compatriots at the Battle of Blood River.

The homestead, built of mud and straw with its white walls and green shutters so reminiscent of the Cape Dutch style, has been lovingly and authentically restored by Johan and Rina Minnaar, who live 60kmaway in Graaff-Reinet — they  emphasise that we are the curators of Letskraal during our stay.

Although the accommodation is comfortable — there are three double bedrooms and two outside bathrooms as well an ox-wagon for the adventurous — paraffin lamps and candles provide the only source of lighting, there is no cellphone reception and not a single plug point to allow for a telephone or other intrusions of 21st-century living.

Once we have unpacked while taking in our surroundings, Lydia trims the lamps, lights the fire in the dining room and Patrick arrives to stoke the donkey boiler, which produces piping hot water for the duration of our stay, proudly drawing our attention to the creaking windmill which still provides “die huiswater”. 

Savouring our dinner by candlelight along with Lydia’s delicious home-made roosterbrood, we are soon in bed enjoying the Karoo silence while contemplating what life must have been life for the Voortrekkers, Graaff-Reinet being five hours away by horse and carriage through what was then rugged and inhospitable countryside.

With the cares and worries of city life falling away, we awake to a pristine Karoo morning after a brief rain shower during the night. While the temptation to stay and enjoy the peace and quiet of Letskraal is considerable, we set out south towards Graaff-Reinet on the recommendation of Charlie Lewis, whose online Soul of a Railway is compulsory reading for anyone interested in the history of the South African Railways during the heydays of steam.

Passing Letskraal and Glen Harry stations, the road follows the railway line and the Sundays River, twisting and turning along a scenic route and emerging back on to the N9 some 20km outside Graaff-Reinet. Farms are now few and far between and without passing another vehicle, the “peace in the valley” and kloofs was palpable.

After a refreshment stop in Graaff-Reinet, Letskraal was calling us back. We took the Erasmuskloof turnoff 2km out of town and were soon climbing towards the Nardousberg, 2,800m above sea level, with the Agter-Sneeuberg — often snow-covered in the winter months — towering majestically above us.

At the highest point on the road, the views back towards Graaff-Reinet were breathtaking, and again, not a vehicle in sight. Picking up our exit road at Letskraal station, it was time for tea among the decaying buildings — the station was once a bustling little community with a general dealer’s store and post office — while reflecting on the importance of the railways for the farming community in days gone by. 

With a chilly autumnal night ahead, we opted to braai in the kitchen’s spacious fireplace instead of the outside facility next to a giant fallen pepper tree — another of equal size survives, so redolent of Karoo roads and farmhouses. With a last look at the crystal-clear stars, it was time to turn in for our last night.

As I drifted off to sleep, I thought I heard a Class 19B — probably driven by Tollie Nel, who had a regular engine in the days of steam on this section of the line — whistling as it was given the “right away” by the station master at Letskraal, but alas, it was only a dreamy flashback to a more leisured age.

Johan urges visitors — or should I say custodians — to spend at least three nights at Letskraal: take his advice and absorb all that this wonderfully remote and evocative area has to offer; it is indeed a true Karoo heritage experience.

* My thanks to Charlie Lewis for some of the material in this article: visit The Soul of a Railway’ nd specifically The Original Midland Main Line (2) – Part 14: Graaff-Reinet to Rosmead.