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TThe Karoo, a sprawling semi-desert in the centre of South Africa that stretches into 3 provinces, is one of the quietest places on the planet. With no crowds to clutter up the solitude, it naturally lends itself to contemplation and spirituality.
Which is why Poplar Grove, a Karoo farm south of Colesberg in Northern Cape, is able to host both Zen Buddhist retreats and peaceful country farm stays. Owners Margie and Antony Osler also host retreats for groups, as well as workshops for children in distress.
The Zen Buddhist retreats are hosted here for up to 15 people, 4 times a year. They are usually led by Antony Osler, a well-known Buddhist teacher and writer.
Retreats are inspired by farm life and by open-hearted attention to daily activities. There are meditation sessions in the stone Zendo – which used to be a sheep-shearing shed.
Participants go on long sunrise and sunset walks and do limited manual labour. There are instruction times and individual interviews.
In some years, artistic retreats are offered by respected painter JP Meyer. Marguerite van der Merwe, author of The Art of Walking, holds annual short workshops on naturally balanced body functioning at Poplar Grove.
Zen master Dae Gak of Furnace Mountain in Kentucky comes over from the United States to lead a Zen retreat every alternate year.
Poplar Grove offers farm-stay accommodation throughout the year, not only during retreats. Most visitors opt for their self-catering cottage with a broad stoep (‘verandah’ in Afrikaans), but there are other rooms and ‘hermitages’ available on the farm. Like the beautiful meditation hall, the hermitages are built of stone. Each one has a stoep or open space that invites contemplation.
The views are of wide-open Karoo landscapes, far horizons, ironstone hills and distant tree thickets breaking up the arid scrub. You’ll see plenty of birdlife, including jackal buzzards, storks, herons, cisticolas, larks, bishops, weavers, starlings, swallows and swifts. The hills are full of rock rabbits and antelope. The sheltered ponds in the riverbed are home to singing frogs.
The Oslers also host abused and traumatised children for play and counselling. Any donations from visitors for these happiness weekends are very welcome.
Poplar Grove also welcomes other groups, by arrangement, who want to use the facilities and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Tel: +27 (0)51 753 1356
Cell: +27 (0)82 816 5903
How to get here
Colesberg is on the N1 highway and is less than 5 hours’ drive from Port Elizabeth, just over 6 hours from Johannesburg and about 8 hours from Cape Town. Just south of Colesberg, on the N9 towards Middelburg and Port Elizabeth, take the turnoff onto the Oorlogspoort road.
Continue on this good gravel road for about 24km before finding the first sign to Poplar Grove. From here, it’s another 3km or so. Call ahead before you leave to find out if there has been heavy rain, which might affect the condition of the roads.
Best time to visit
The shoulder seasons of March/April and September/October are the most temperate times, weather-wise.
Summers (November to March) can be very hot during the day, and in winter (May to August), night temperatures can plummet well below freezing.
In summer, the birdlife is spectacular.
Visitors are welcome throughout the year, and retreats are held in all seasons.
What will it cost?
As of May 2019, formal retreats cost R600 per person per day, all inclusive, with discounts for pensioners, couples, students and preceptees. Staying at the cottage outside of retreats costs R250 per person per night (self-catering).
Length of stay
If coming outside of retreats, stay at least two nights or more to truly appreciate the quiet rhythms of a Karoo farm.
What to pack
Desert nights can be chilly, even in summer. Conversely, winter days can be quite warm, so bring appropriate, comfortable clothing, sun protection and good walking shoes. Add binoculars if you’re interested in birds and stars.
Where to stay
The self-catering cottage and hermitages don’t have electricity, but there are candles, paraffin lamps and hot water. The cottage is equipped with a gas stove and an outside (electric) fridge.
What to eat
During retreats, vegetarian meals are served. If you stay at the self-catering cottage, you’ll find fresh eggs, farm milk, bread and butter in the fridge.
Antony Osler has written two remarkable books, Stoep Zen and Zen Dust. You can buy these at Poplar Grove at a better price than most bookshops.