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ZZwelile Hans is a world champion living in the quiet village of Zastron, which lies in the shadow of the Maluti Mountains in eastern Free State. He isn’t a boxer, an Olympian or a Springbok rugby player – his title is much rarer and harder to come by.
Zwelile Hans, quite simply, shears sheep better than most people on Earth. ‘The Man with the Golden Blades’ has been named best individual shearer in the annual World Sheep-Shearing Championships no less than 4 times in one decade.
People like Zwelile are the reason it’s well worth experiencing a farm stay in the Karoo during shearing season. The massive old shed feels like a country cathedral as you step inside. Natural light from special skylights in the roof falls onto the working area, to guide the shearers and wool classers in their efforts.
The sound level inside the shed – a constant bawling of sheep or angora goats – competes with the workers’ voices. Occasionally, an outraged ram will bleat shrilly as he loses his winter coat to the catwalks and high-end fashion stores of Europe. To the untrained ear, he sounds just like a child throwing a tantrum.
A fresh woolly beast is led into the shed every 5 minutes or so. The shearer clamps its body firmly between his legs and begins to work his magic with an old-school traditional set of blades, from the hindquarters to the head.
A firm pat on the rear sends the sheep or goat down the chute to join his shorn companions. The throwing of the fleece – a rather grand gesture involving a skilled flick of the wrist – commences. The wool graders gather around the lanolin-slicked table and pick at the fleece, inspecting the length, strength and fineness of the fibre.
More and more Karoo farms are opening to tourists, and one of the special features of a farm stay in the heartland of South Africa is time spent with the wool workers – and the animals – back in the old shearing shed.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
How to get here
The Karoo has a vast and varied offering of farm stays. Start with the Karoo Heartland area (see website) and work your way out to the more far-flung regions.
Main Karoo towns include Cradock, Middelburg, Nieu Bethesda, Graaff-Reinet, Aberdeen, Steytlerville, Jansenville, Somerset East, Bedford and Hofmeyr, but there are at least another 60 Karoo settlements worth visiting, ranging from quiet hamlets and villages to bustling towns.
Best time to visit
The Karoo is famous for baking summers, and snow in winter can make the nights icy. Most travellers prefer the shoulder seasons – April and May in autumn and August and September in spring – because of their relatively temperate conditions.
Length of stay
Stay for 2 or 3 days – the longer you stay, the more you’ll get out of the experience.
What to pack
Pack for hot days and cold nights, and you'll be safe any time of year – as long as you remember your sunscreen too.
Where to stay
Farms open to visitors who want to watch the sheep-shearing usually have separate cottages available on site.
Mohair products and sheepskin slippers are good value for money here, and the wire windmills from the crafters along the Cradock-Colesberg road make great souvenirs.