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Kalahari Sushi & Other Secrets
Text and pictures: Ron Swilling. Article from the April 2014 issue of Country Life Magazine.
A pocket of the arid Northern Cape opens into a generous smile along the Orange River, where more than a hundred islands are covered in vineyards and the riverbank bursts with real farm produce. Welcome to the Kokerboom Food and Wine Route.
Dust devils danced across the road and sweat trickled down my back as I approached the farm road where Tannie Skuinskoek waited in her white bakkie. She stepped out of the air-conditioned interior into the 40°C heat all smiles, ready to lead me to her farm for an education in boerekos (farm food). It’s not every day that you meet a contender for the Kokkedoor 2013 cooking competition title. And it was a suitable ending to my journey to the Northern Cape. After all, it all began – and ended – with her story. But so much had happened in between.
A regular traveller on the N7 from the Cape to Namibia, I had veered off on a different route this trip, to enter the Kgalagadi via the R27. After negotiating a gauntlet of road works, I arrived exhausted in the small town of Keimoes on the banks of the Orange River. Unexpectedly, Keimoes and Maxi Compion, who runs the Keimoes Information Centre, caught my attention. So did something Maxi played a huge role in establishing. The Kokerboom Food and Wine Route.
In this fruitful pocket of the arid Kalahari, the mighty Orange River gives the area a tinge of green. This is grape country and vineyards line the river, with wine making and tasting on offer, plus padstalle and real farm food.
Interspersed with this green Kalahari oasis are stands of one of the most distinctive – and delightful – trees, the kokerboom or quiver tree. Along this route there are apparently 30 to 40 000 specimens of this protected tree aloe, which thrives where most else struggles to survive. It’s a lot like the fanners of the area who, I discovered, have to vasbyt through temperatures that can soar into the upper 40/low 50°C in summer and dip to -7°C in winter, and have to survive bouts of black frost, drought and the occasional flood.
I visited the Keimoes Information Centre, where Maxi filled me in. I was already awestruck. The area has more than a hundred islands. “Islands?” I enquired incredulously. “River islands?” A series of bridges connects islands with names like Graseiland, Bokeiland and Brakboseiland, where grapes (for raisins and wine) and lucerne are grown.
Keimoes lies at the centre of the Kokerboom Food and Wine Route, which runs from Upington to Augrabies and includes Riemvasmaak in the north and Kenhardt in the south. “Keimoes is the heartbeat of the route,” Maxi informed me.
And so, I soon realised, is she. Four years ago, Maxi, Marina Bothma and Dirk Malan realised the marketing potential for this interesting strip of Green Kalahari and linked up with Open Africa and Northern Cape Tourism. It has since become an appealing route to fit into itineraries, in an area redolent of David Kramer songs and that harbours juicy secrets waiting to be discovered.
You can’t help noticing the friendliness of the people. Here, in the small towns, everyone knows everything about everyone – and extra bits they piece together – and people quickly become ‘oom’ and ‘tannie’ and welcome you into the family. It’s the kind of place where, if you stop at a farm, you’ll be lucky to leave the same day.
The first time I learnt this I was accepting the hospitality of Dick Venter, owner of the Kalahari Gateway hotel in Kakamas. The hotel boasts the only sushi bar in the Northern Cape (although there is talk of one opening further north). “Sushi in the Kalahari?” I was once again incredulous. Dick laughed good-naturedly over a plate of colourful sushi as he explained how townsfolk travel from Upington, 80km away, for his fish speciality. He incorporates his own springbok carpaccio into the menu of fresh Norwegian salmon for a touch of Kalahari flavour.
Maxi put everything aside and became my gracious guide on the Kokerboom Route. We drove into the lush Bezalel Wine & Brandy Estate, a popular venue for weddings, where Martiens Bezuidenhout related the history of the family-run business. His father was one of the first to introduce boutique wines to an area previously known for its bulk quantities. He also began to make their now award-winning Alembic (potstill) Brandy.
The family experimented with various cultivars, finding those that flourished in the environment. And I had to pull myself away from the lure of wine tasting and spending the day lounging on the lawn, Bacchus style. I’m convinced the old wine god was lurking behind one of those sweet-smelling rose bushes.
We drove along the gravel R359 between Kakamas and Keimoes, an area generously sprinkled with kokerbome, and caught glimpses of bright river. The route passes the Koms Kokerboom nursery near Keimoes where Marina Bothma propagates and sells the tree aloe, as well as a range of desert beauties. It is the quiver trees that fill the small nursery, however, and Marina is their passionate and green-fingered custodian.
When Maxi dropped me off at my campsite for the night, she asked “Is Keimoes talking to you, Ron?” I didn’t need to answer.
I had another day of exploring the route, this time without my intrepid guide, and visited farm stalls and the crystal shop to see what gems grace the banks of the Orange River. I purchased wine from Die Mas’s selection of fine Jerepigos and muscadels and, before I reached Augrabies Falls, had met a fanner who doubled as a caterer, and also made cheese.
I was just in time to pay homage to the thundering water before nightfall. The route required more time. There were still walks and wonders to behold at Augrabies and the hot spring to loll in at Riemvasmaak. It wouldn’t be the last time I would be visiting this Kokerboom corner.
But I need to get back to boerekos and Tannie Skuinskoek (aka Theresa de Vries) and the beginning of the story. When I had first arrived at Maxi’s Info spot in Keimoes, I heard how Theresa supplied the shop with skuinskoek (sweet, sticky cookies sliced on the diagonal), pasteie (pies) and thick slabs of nougat, hence she and I planned to meet her on my return. The time had finally come, but before heading south I enjoyed Maxi’s moerkoffie (mighty strong coffee – “the best in the Northern Cape,” as Maxi says) and roosterkoek (breadrolls traditionally made on the fire) thickly spread with korrelkonfyt (sultana jam).
There was just one last stop at the Kalahari Vleishuis to pick up my gift of a quiver tree in its heart bag, which was added to my jams, wines and Jerepigos – and even a well-made riempie stool – bought along the route.
At Kenhardt, I made use of the patchy cellphone reception to let Tannie Skuinskoek know I was on my way. In her cool kitchen we ate lunch, drank home-made lemonade and discussed skuinskoek. Theresa’s skuinskoek recipe is so impressive it secured her a place in Kokkedoor 2013, the reality TV cooking competition for amateur South African chefs that took place in the Karoo’s Prince Albert. And this was out of about 6 000 entries. It took another month of cooking boerekos, paired with a chef, before the team was awarded second place. She and a friend have also just written a book called Boesmanland se Hunkerkos, with traditional and recipes from the area.
I added her delicious nougat to my Kokerboom-route fare and readily accepted a bottle of iced water for the road. She escorted me to the tar and waved goodbye, saying, “We wouldn’t have met if it wasn’t for Kokkedoor.” I corrected her with a laugh. “No, we wouldn’t have met if it wasn’t for skuinskoek.”
The Best Padstalle
- Die Pienk Padstal in Kakamas has a wacky collection of pink paraphernalia and wise sayings, plus dried fruit, olives and jams. 054 431 1457
- Akkerboom (between Keimoes and Kakamas) is so quaint, and has an outdoor seating area. 054 463 0066
- Keimoes Information Centre and Padstal offers great moerkoffie and traditional food, and plenty of info on the area. 054 461 0004, 082 743 1736
- These small ‘cakes’ are a cross between a doughnut and a mosbolletjie(a small bread made with fermenting grape juice). The name skuinskoek comes from their diamond shape and they are usually flavoured with aniseed. In Namaqualand, using the Khoisan practice of bierwortel(beer root) as a rising agent was traditional, here in Boesmanland, bee larvae is used to make the skuinskoek starter.
- Store-bought yeast is commonly used these days, but Tannie Skuinskoek’s secret is to keep her starter going in a similar manner to a yoghurt culture, and to use her own sheep lard from the farm to give her skuinskoek their special flavour. Theresa de Vries 083 443 3886
Vine of the Desert
- The area around the Orange River is an excellent grape-growing region that has similarities to the Nile Valley in Egypt.
- The Orange River carries soil from as far away as the Drakensberg and graciously deposits it on the floodplains of the Northern Cape, providing excellent nutrients for grapes.
- As the vine is a desert plant, originating in the Near East (and spread across the globe by the Persians, Greeks and Romans), the dry climate of the Kalahari is ideal.
Where to Play
- See droves of quiver trees on the R359 from Kakamas to Keimoes. Turn onto the gravel road to Loeriesfontein/Kenhardt and follow the road to the left after the vineyards, towards Neilersdrif. Keimoes Info Centre 054 461 0004,082 743 1736
- At Koms Kokerboom Nursery, 13km from Keimoes on the R359, Marina Bothma is propagating this protected plant. Look out for the signs and colourful flags marking the entrance. 054 464 0195,072 374 9432, email.
- Visit Augrabies Falls National Park and hike, explore, and watch the thundering falls. 054 452 9200.
- Riemvasmaak Ecotourism Project offers 4×4 adventures, bird watching and hiking. Meet the Riemvasmakers, soak in the hot spring, and overnight in the chalets. 073 383 8812, email, website, Maxi Compion 054 461 0004,082 743 1736
- Pack a picnic for lunch away from it all on Blocuso Trust farmland. Blocuso is community-run project, just north of Keimoes on the N14. Contact Maxi Compion for the gate key. 054461 0004, 082 743 1736
- Enjoy brandy and wine tastings and a light meal in an idyllic farm setting at Bezalel Wine & Brandy Estate. 054 491 1325
- Vrouenspan cheeses offers cheese tasting (including goat and sheep) by appointment, cheese-platters delivered to Augrabies Falls and a seven-course, tapas-style meal with traditional treats in the Visser home. Tiaan Visser says, “There’s nothing like watching the sunset from Moon Rock with a cheese platter and bottle of local wine.” 082 825 2704
- Die Mas Wine Cellar and Brandy Distillery for wine tours and tasting. 082 931 5902
- Orange River Cellars offers wine tasting at Keimoes, Kakamas and Upington. 054 461 1006, website.
- Crystal Spring Minerals for a selection of crystals and minerals. Look out for the turn-off at the Hartebees Kontant Winkel just before the junction to Augrabies. 054 441 0060
- Paddle the Orange River with Kalahari Outventures. 082 476 8213,083 600 2360
- Soar above the rugged landscape and the Orange River with Augrabies Hot Air Ballooning. 079 888 9502
Where to Stay
- The Falls Guest House (Augrabies) is a small, family-oriented, upmarket guest house with a beauty salon and coffee shop. 054 451 7021, website.
- Oranje Rus Resort (Kanoneiland, Keimoes) offers camping and chalets for a river stay with the family. 082 772 5896 email, website.
- Ikaia (Keimoes) has a superb river setting with camping and self-catering rooms. 082 337 7575, website
- Ou Skool Guesthouse (Keimoes) has a courtyard setting in the middle of vineyards, with friendly staff and a relaxed atmosphere. 054 4640125, website.
- Vergelegen Guesthouse on the outskirts of Kakamas offers an elegant atmosphere, and a restaurant and cocktail lounge. 054 431 0976 website.
Where to Eat
- Oranje Rus, Keimoes, for a relaxed meal on the banks of the Orange River. 054 491 1010
- Kalahari Sushi in the Kalahari Gateway Hotel, Kakamas. 054 431 0838
- Vergelegen (Kakamas), an attractive venue for a Kalahari schnitzel. 054 431 0976
- Die Werf (Keimoes) for lunch with a view of their springbuck and ducks. 054 461 1635
- Yanuck Restaurant, Kakamas, for a pleasant setting and a light meal, toastie or breakfast. 054 431 0788
- Keimoes Information Centre 054 461 0004,082 743 1736 email.
|Info on the town of Kakamas||Info on the Green Kalahari area|
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