When I was at high-school... (and I can’t quite find the words to express how much I loathed high-school)… one of my most hated subjects was History.  Our teacher, Mr. Oosthuizen, seemed about as disinterested in the stories of the past as the indifferent, uniformed teenagers that filed dutifully into his classroom four times a week.   History Class usually involved the aforementioned teacher (a lanky ginger sporting a neat mustache) reading aloud from the prescribed curricula, cherry-picked by the powers-that-be as the information we were supposed to compliantly imbibe.

But I had long ago mastered the art of tuning out the droning monotone of dull teachers and their dull lists of regurgitated factoids.   Instead, I’d disappear inside my head, visit my own imagination and I’d ponder upon other things.

History tests and exams required us to regurgitate lists… and  to remember dates.  The dates of the World Wars.  The dates of various treaties.  The dates when South Africa gained independence from the British Empire.  I found it excruciatingly dull.  I found Mr. Oosthuizen excruciatingly dull.  I found school excruciatingly dull.

I sometimes wonder what my ex-teacher would think if he knew that (after being freed from my school-cage)… I discovered – to my surprise – that I love history!  And… the older I get… the more I realise how deeply interested I am in our collective past.   I love beautiful old buildings… churches… castles… cities.   I love historical documentaries (the kind of stuff the History Channel used to make before it became all about Reality-TV bullshittery).   I love ancient graveyards – bearing the faded tributes to those who came and went long before my time.

And – I guess… this love of stories… and of places that still bare the marks and scars of those stories… is why I fell in love with the Victoria Manor (with it’s attached “tuishuise”) in Cradock.

The Cradock Literary festival opened at Victoria Manor.  It’s where we had our morning sessions – listening to various authors share their stories (while consuming lots of freshly brewed coffee).  I walked through that door… into the hotel reception area with it’s high ceilings, antique furniture and the enormous wooden staircase… and was instantly in Happy-Hat-Land.

The conference room (where the festival talks were taking place)… had a “secret stair” (to echo the words of Gollum)… a narrow, creaky staircase which led down into the dark of what I could only assume must have been a cellar or storeroom of some sort.   And, while everyone else was doing the polite meet-and-greet in the conference area – I descended into the dark to discover what was hidden underground.  I can NOT (ever!) resist a secret staircase or a hidden trapdoor.… (too many treasure-hunt stories as a kid).  It was dark down there – and I wasn’t sure where to find the light switch… but I was immediately captivated by the smell… and a sense of… I dunno… depth.  I wondered what those cellar walls had seen.  What had they witnessed over the long history of this, one of South Africa’s oldest hotels??

Later that morning, there was a tea break.  And while everyone else mingled and chatted… I was again summoned by another creaking staircase… this one, the grand staircase of what used to be the main entrance of the hotel.  I snuck upstairs and explored the Manor rooms.   As it happens, someone was polishing floors and many of the rooms were unlocked with their doors left ajar.  I roamed around and snapped some photos on my dodgy i-Pad.  Here they are:

Later that day, we explored more of Cradock’s streets.  The hotel staff provided an illustrated map of the town’s most historical and noteworthy sites.  Unfortunately – given my commitment to the book festival – we didn’t have the free time to fully explore everything…  but, we did pay a visit to the Schreiner House Museum… and I took some photos of the very-impressive Moederkerk… and we scratched among the treasures of More4Less and stopped for a delicious lunch at True Living

Here’s some photos of our Cradock experience:

Anyhoo…

So, after the Cradock Book Festival had finished… and after we’d said our goodbyes to the folk at Dirosie… Nick and I were invited back to Victoria Manor for a chat with Lisa (her mom, Sandra, owns the hotel… and the whole family is involved in running things).  I immediately liked Lisa.  She’s one of those “let’s-make-this-happen!” people with an infectious, positive attitude and she’s constantly churning up all kinds of new and wonderful ideas.  And if you like stories, Lisa and Sandra have the low-down on every interesting tale from past and present about Cradock, it’s people and it’s history.

Lisa arranged for us to spend a night in one of the historic cottages which line the street behind Victoria Manor.   They’re called the Tuishuise… which, when translated from Afrikaans, kinda means  home-houses.  Each cottage has been beautifully restored and each is meticulously decorated to a different theme.  We stayed in Mays Cottage – which was a delight!  It offered us, as a family of four,  the space that we soooo appreciate when we’re on the road.  Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a very spacious lounge / dining room… a nicely equipped little kitchen… and a private, plant-filled back garden.

Here’s some photos of Mays Cottage:

We left Cradock the next day.  Film production meetings summoned us back to Joburg.  We drove home with heads  filled with stories and ideas… and hearts filled with gratitude for the people we’d met, the new experiences… the lessons-learned… and the privilege of enjoying these adventures together – as a family.   This isn’t the last that Cradock will see of the Costaras-clan!

Anyhoo… here’s some links and stuff (for those passing through that part of the world)…

  • If you’re ever in Cradock… I strongly recommend a stay at one of the Tuishuise at Victoria Manor.  And I’m not just saying this ’cause I like the people who own the hotel.  I’m saying it because the cottages really are a delightful experience while road-tripping the Karoo!
  • True Living is a fabulous stop for lunch… or a browse.  It doesn’t look like much from the street (and it’s easy to drive right past it)… but once you’re inside, you’ll discover a spacious, shady courtyard where you can sink into a comfy couch and munch on a lovely selection of delicious’ness.
  • If you’re interested in literary history or Olive Schreiner… the Schreiner House Museum is well worth a visit.  And remember my previous post about the trip up the mountain to see Olive’s grave?  If you’re interested in that… Dirosie is only a couple of kilometres from the centre of Cradock.
  • Mountain Zebra National Park is just down the road from Cradock for those interested in wildlife.
  • The (newly renovated) monument to the Cradock Four sits atop a hill overlooking the city.  Not sure about the Cradock Four story?  Hunt down a copy of “Permanent Removal” by Christopher Nicholson (the human rights judge I met at the Midlands Literary Festival).  What a fascinating read.
  • And finally… we were gifted (thanks, Lisa!)… with two amazing little books by Cradock locals,  Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.  The first is called Karoo Keepsakes and it’s a beautiful little book, filled with photos and stories about the people, landscapes and experiences of the vast Karoo.  The second is a roadtrip book- focused exclusively on the Eastern Cape section of the Karoo.  I have read them both from cover to cover and I’ll be buying Karoo Keepsakes #2 when we’re next in the region… (which, as it turns out… will be in just a few days – for the Boekbedonnered Festival in Richmond).   If you want to find out more about the Karoo (and the Karoo Keepsakes books)… click here!

Lovely books! I’ve read them from cover to cover. They have a website too: www.karoospace.co.za