Christmas Countdown


It’s that time of year when things have to get more hectic before the slow wind down to Christmas can begin. I’ve been back and forth to Joburg twice in the past week and in between there has been much socializing, cooking, baking, gardening, etcetera! When I drove home on Thursday my mother came back to the farm with me for a few days of well-deserved relaxation. She had not been to Vastrap since February and hadn’t seen the end result of our renovation. Happily she brought some rain with her! Not enough to break the drought, but at this stage we are grateful for every drop.

With my mom at cooking club.

My mom came along to our cooking club meeting on Saturday. For our year-end meeting we decided to bake biscuits and package them in boxes as gifts for the Ladybrand old-age home. I am not a big baker, but I tried really hard to get it right this time. With a little more practice hopefully there will be full cookie tins around the house for Christmas!

We had a great assortment of biscuits, unfortunately not all of them home made because time is in such short supply at this time of year. I made scrumptious Lemon Ginger cookies from the Hot Polka Dot blog. There are some really delicious cookie recipes on that site and she makes it seem so simple. I also made Marachino Cherry Chocolate biscuits using the Marachino cherries I bought at the cherry festival. They were real death by chocolate! We packaged 50 boxes of biscuits, which were happily received at the home this morning.

An assortment of biscuits.

Hard at work boxing biscuits.

Heidi and Adri.

Ready to go.

Heidi’s meringue roulade – our reward for hard work!

While we were busy over-indulging in lunch, Heidi’s husband Charles stopped by on his long Saturday ride around the district. This didn’t make us feel guilty about our lunch at all. Neither did the fact that we could not walk it off later because of the rain!

Charles and Heidi.

Too soon it was time to pack up and drive my mom back to Joburg. After the rain on Saturday I woke up early on Sunday for a thorough garden inspection. Getting into the Christmas spirit I could not resist picking some flowers and gathering some herbs, lemons and zucchini to bring back as gifts to the city. The hydrangeas are in full bloom now, a sure sign that December is near. In Afrikaans they are known as “Krismisrose” or “Christmas Roses” and they always make me think of summer holidays at the coast in Natures’ Valley. I also picked my very first Dahlia flowers. I can’t wait to see how they turn out this year, because I planted another whole patch of Dahlia’s in different colours, which are starting to come up. There should be no shortage of flowers for the house by Christmas. A very happy thought indeed!


The first Dahlia bush to flower.

Dahlia’s for my sister – the more you pick them the more they flower!

Gifts from the Vastrap garden.

Cherries and The Roof signal summer!


November is a very busy time in the Eastern Free State with two signature events heralding the start of summer and the countdown to the festive season – the Fickburg Cherry Festival and the Roof of Africa off-road motor cycle event in Lesotho. When you live in a small town it is always exciting to have something different going on that brings people to the area. It often rains heavily over the Cherry Festival weekend creating lots of challenges for the organisers, but this year it was very hot and humid. There were big thunderstorms swirling around on Friday afternoon, but it was clear for the weekend’s various sporting events (running, cycling, golf, horse riding, bowls) and live entertainment at the Ficksburg Showgrounds.

I went out on Saturday morning to see what was happening and ended up scrumming with other shoppers to buy cherries at the Constantia farm stall and The Cabin near Clocolan. There was also a little market and I bought some gorgeous ceramics from Mud Studio, one of our local success stories, and some dried oyster mushrooms and oyster mushroom pate from the Umpukani stall. All very delicious!

The Mud Studio stall at The Cabin market.

I came home wanting to bake a hazelnut cherry tart using a recipe that I have been saving for the occasion. To my disappointment, one of the phases on our electricity line was knocked out by lightning on Friday afternoon so our oven didn’t work until late on Sunday. The tart idea was abandoned and the cherries were enjoyed as is, which was definitely much healthier! It is a pity that the cherry season is so short, but it is great to live in an area where one can get them fresh off the farm.

The Roof of Africa has been held in Lesotho for the past 45 years. It is one of the most gruelling races of its kind in Southern Africa as riders are challenged by high altitude (up to 3000 meters above sea level) and technical riding on rocky terrain. It requires a feat of physical effort and skill to complete the three day ride and many do not finish, hence the tag line “I survived the Roof of Africa”. This year had the youngest winner ever, 16 year old Wade Young.

Roof of Africa – I survived 2012

We were invited by our friends Andre and Ziona to see the start of the race in Maseru. The first stage is called “Round the Houses” because the race starts in the middle of town and the route winds through the suburbs mainly to encourage some local spirit and to get the guys going on easy terrain. There were almost 500 riders in this year’s field in three different categories: professional, expert and intermediate. Ashley’s step-dad, Alex, was doing the race for the 20th consecutive time and we met up with them briefly at the start. It was a great morning of socialising in another country watching a sport that I had never seen before. The bikes are very loud and the guys look very hot in all their gear, but it is always nice to see people getting excited about their sport. Next year we will have to go and watch the real action up in the mountains to appreciate the physical effort required to finish The Roof.

Shiny clean bikes at the start.

Ashley posing with her mom, Andrea and her step-dad, Alex.

Quentin with Ashley and his (temporary) designer moustache!

Waiting for the start.

The Lesotho flag.

Alex (#40) at the start – must be boiling in all that gear!

Away they go!

Wheelies by the brilliant crowd entertainer.

Maseru locals lining the streets in support.

Before and after: The courtyard transformation


It has been almost two years since I moved from the city to Vastrap. Looking at photos of the house and garden back then I am amazed at the transformation that has taken place. When I first arrived I was frequently overwhelmed by the task of making Vastrap a home that both Quentin and I would feel comfortable in. This was the home he grew up in. Who was I to come in and demand changes? What did I know about farm life?

On good advice, we took our time and considered all the possible options, frequently changing our minds about what needed to be done. I’m glad we didn’t rush. It gave me time to understand what is important for a farm house as opposed to a slick city pad, especially through the changing seasons. In the end we opted for a pretty radical change, but it was the right decision. What we have now completely suits our lifestyle and will be adaptable to changing circumstances in years to come. There is still much work to be done and a lot of learning for this city girl, but happily I have come to a point where I can truly call Vastrap home. 

There are many places I could start in the Vastrap retrospective, but one of my favourite changes has been the outside courtyard which runs between the main house and the outside guests bedrooms. A previously dull and dead area has been transformed into a tranquil and useful space, which creates a link between the main house and the outside guest rooms. I had a clear idea of what I wanted, but I called in our local landscape designer and horticulturalist, Jill Stephens, to help with the design and execution. She interpreted the brief perfectly: I wanted low maintenance paving instead of grass; I wanted raised beds with herbs and ornamental fruit and vegetables; all my old pots needed to be reused; there had to be a fountain and a pergola for outside entertaining; and it had to look pretty from all the rooms inside!

Below is a photo essay of how the process unfolded. An improvement, don’t you think?

View of unexciting grass passage between the main house and outbuildings.

Ugly view of the back of the house from the guests rooms.

Half way through the building project with new sliding door from the main house onto the courtyard.

Construction of the beds and planting in late summer.

Jill discussing the paving with her team.

Covered in snow in August!

Stunning wisteria blossoms in Spring.

Thriving as summer sets in with table set for Sunday lunch.

Pergola waiting for creepers to get growing.

View from new TV room to the outside guest room.

Star jasmine.

An old African stone pot and pedestal used as a fountain.

Kumquart tree with yellow pansies.

Red rose and violas highlighted against green virginia creeper.

Abundant parsley, sage and thyme.

Mint, pansies and scabiosa.

Tarragon, fennel and pansies.

Very old red geranium that survived quite neglected in the old courtyard.

A farmer’s work is never done

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I’ve been trying to write this post since early yesterday morning, but our internet connection was down and somehow I never finished it. I haven’t posted about the farm in ages because we’ve been away so much. It has been raining heavily in most parts of the country except here with us. Every time rain is forecast it is scaled right back down on the day and we end up with nothing. The veld is greener than it was, but there is still very little food for the cattle and the wheat crop has suffered a lot. We had a few light showers over the weekend and yesterday so fortunately Quentin has started planting maize, but it will need to rain again soon for the crops to germinate properly.

Not very lush veld and wheat fields.

Here is a story to show you that a farmer’s work is never done, even on a Sunday. Start out thinking it’s going to be a relaxing day and before you know it a whole lot of work is happening!

We set off on Sunday morning to forage for wild plants that I want to use in a neglected area of the garden. Every time I go for a walk I notice new wild flowers that I would like in the garden, but I never have a spade or a bag handy. My beloved agreed to come along to dig in the hard dry soil.

Dainty white vygie thriving in the hard clay soil.

Pink vygies.

Some type of aloe.

Tired dogs.

A cow skull for our collection.

Shortly after leaving home we noticed that the sheep were grazing in the wheat, which is not a good thing. It would be worse if it was cows, but sheep can do damage too and they were not supposed to be in that field! We raced around trying to herd them back to where they were supposed to be, knowing that there was a gate open somewhere that shouldn’t have been.

Naughty sheep grazing in the wheat.

My beloved chasing sheep on a Sunday.

Back where they should be.

Making sure the gate is firmly closed.

Whilst herding the sheep we drove past a herd of our Boran cattle and stopped to check if everything was okay. They looked happy and content except for this little baby who was obviously standing in the wrong place at the wrong time and got shat on by his mother!

Wrong place at the wrong time!

Phew! Something stinks around here!

Then we were starting to get tired and the dogs were hot, so they went for a swim in the not-so-deep dam.

Refreshed Coco.

Then we noticed that the sheep had escaped again and the bulls were in the wrong place too! So we drove all the way round the valley to find the open gate and chase the bulls back to where they were supposed to be, which is far away from the cows!

Act confident and pretend to know what you’re doing Marisa!

Chasing the bulls back through the open gate.

Then, just because we were already in work mode, we went to check on one of our heifer cows who was close to giving birth. When young cows calve for the first time they can experience problems so it is important to monitor them closely when the time is near. As it turned out she hadn’t calved yet, but there were a whole lot of other cute babies around. Visiting the Boran never feels like work and Quentin’s face lights up and relaxes the moment he sees his Boran beauties  – unlike when he sees sheep grazing in the wheat!

Rose (MHB-06-05) with her new calf sired by Griffen (MHB 06-27).

A winning team!

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I am not a golfer. Quentin would like me to be one, but so far I’ve had no interest and not enough time to try it as a sport or hobby. You can imagine my scepticism when we were recruited to play in a couples golf day for charity at the Ladybrand golf club. The day was specifically organised to accommodate non-golfers so after a bit of arm-twisting I decided to give it a try. How bad could it be? As long as Quentin played well we would be okay. As long as I could hit the ball my dignity would be in tact…. oops, that certainly wasn’t guaranteed!

As it turned out, we had a fantastic day and I might have to reconsider my previously held views on golf. Yes, it takes a lot of time, but it was a nice day out. Skilfully guided by my husband, I managed to swing the club and hit the ball (most times!). The American scramble format made it much more enjoyable for a non-golfer, because in a team of two you get to play from the best shot after each shot. Quentin played brilliantly on the day shooting an Eagle on the 3rd hole! It also helped that we purchased a few “Mulligan’s” for charity, which gave us opportunities to take some shots over to improve our score. I even made a few puts! In the end we were the best golfer/non-golfer team! I can’t say I am completely sold as   I would be hopeless without Quentin to guide me, but who knows, maybe one day I’ll make his day and go for a lesson or two. In the meantime, I look forward to next year’s event.

Retrieving Quentin’s ball from the rough on the 8th hole.

In a tricky spot aiming for the green.

What a shot!

Norman putting on the 8th hole.

Marina taking aim.

My turn!

Quentin’s practice drive off the 9th tee.

A passing thunderstorm interrupts play.

Love birds taking shelter.