Did you know?
Floors of most corbelled houses were a polished mixture of smeared earth, fat and oxblood.
As you’re driving through the middle bits of the Northern Cape, you’ll spot the odd beehive-shaped, white-washed hut made entirely of stone. That’s an old-style corbelled house of the Karoo Highlands.
It’s got Mali-style scaffolding, but that, too, is made of stone. It has little windows and look, there’s smoke erupting from its peak. Who could possibly live in such a quaint dwelling?
But it makes sense once you think about it. What do you for shelter when there’s not a decent tree in sight, only rocks, rocks and more rocks?
So when the first colonial settlers arrived in the form of the trekboers (nomadic farmers), they opted to build corbelled houses. The style itself is more than 4000 years old, said to originate from the Mediterranean countryside.
Flat stones were used to build the dwellings, from the walls right up to the roof, with a minimum of a mud-clay bonding substance. The ‘scaffolding’ was there so you could easily climb up and make running repairs to the roof.
The houses provided excellent shelter. The 6m-high ceilings and thick walls were cool in summer, and the rocks held the heat of the sun in winter.
Out here in the flat lands, it was simply a case of the self-reliant trekboers using what whatever was available around them. And if the grazing or water gave out, or the trekgees (the nomadic spirit) grabbed them, they just moved on, leaving the hardy houses to wait for the next occupants to appear on the scene.
Many of the corbelled houses on farms in the Fraserburg, Williston and Carnarvon areas have been renovated and opened for the hospitality trade. You can stay over in a corbelled house that runs on paraffin lamps, firewood and nostalgia.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Karoo Hoogland Tourism
Tel: +27 (0)23 571 1265
Carnarvon Tourism Bureau
Tel: +27 (0)53-382-3012
How to get here
The Carnarvon/Williston/Calvinia road is the R63, which cuts through the Karoo highland area of the Northern Cape.
Best time to visit
The best time to visit this area is in the spring (August-October), when the wild flowers are in full bloom and this semi-desert becomes a colourful wonderland.
Around the area
Sutherland and its amazing observatory hill lie to the south; giant radio telescopes near Carnarvon; an interesting 'tombstone route' starting in Williston.
Tours to do
Flower tours are the major drawcard in the area. Spring flowers bloom in August/September.
You could hire a car in Cape Town and drive up the N7 to Vanrhynsdorp, turn east on the R27 to Calvinia, then west on the R63.
What will it cost
Road-tripping through the Karoo: budget R2 000 a day for two, all-inclusive, though you can make do on an even smaller budget.
Length of stay
In your search for corbelled houses, you will find many other features to detain you. This trip could last a week.
What to pack
Pack for the outdoors, for long walks and chilly evenings, especially in winter (May to August).
Where to stay
There are a number of options: self-catering accommodation, country hotels, lodges and farm stays. Some of the farms have turned their corbelled houses into overnight accommodation.
What to eat
If you like meat, the lamb chops of the Karoo are legendary.
Williston has a winter festival, Calvinia has a meat festival and Carnarvon stages an annual 'fly in'. See the relevant websites for new dates and details.
Pick up jams, paintings and knick-knacks at the 'Williston Shopping Mall'.