The Koue Bokkeveld is a farming region on the far side of Ceres, named for good reason. It’s cold there. Some even call it desolate. But, if you know your way around, or get directions to Rietfontein farm like we did, you will discover unexpected warmth. In both the place and its people.
Willie van Zyl and his wife, Engela, often drove past their farm’s original yet derelict Wolfgewel house. On these occasions, as they were on their way to the modern home they lived in then, the couple imagined the day it was going to be restored.
When their dream became reality, the first thing Willie did was to erect a new thatch roof to protect the original wire-clay and stone walls from further damage. Once the basic dirty work had been done, they needed some magic and called on the expertise of their friend and seasoned decorator, Margaret de Villiers. She was there in a flash and quickly decided that, on top of general refurbishing, she wanted to create a separate and special room for each Willie and Engela.
Many months later and the now clean, stripped facade of the house suggests a sense of dignified stillness: a quiet composure. Its history tangible, but the house’s previous state of disrepair and abandon, unimaginable. The wide sandstone patio stretches straight ahead, into the lawn, where three large oak trees are evenly spaced in front of the house. The intermittent rustle of their leaves is audible in the warm breeze.
It is unusual weather for this time of year say Willie and Engela. The Koue Bokkeveld, where Rietfontein is situated, is usually a couple of degrees colder than the surrounding lower-lying areas. But this is just the way they like it and a climate best suited to their onion and fruit crops. «That’s why I needed an extra-large fireplace in my room» explains Willie as we walk towards the back door. «It gets very, very cold here.» He instinctively lowers his large frame while walking through the small door opening, typical of such historic homes.
Inside, the thick original stone walls, surrounding the open-plan mahogany kitchen and plush lounge, emanate warmth.
«This is Willie’s room,» says Margaret, arms extended to either side. «He is a man who enjoys the finer things in life: cooking, entertaining, having a glass of wine!»
«The engraved wooden bar stools the open beams, the sandstone tiles and his beloved fireplace are all an embodiment of Willie and his life story that inspired Margaret before she started pulling all the threads together. He told her of his family’s winter travels when they took their sheep to warmer areas of the Karoo, and of the Karretjie people who travelled from farm to farm, shearing sheep. Margaret was charmed, especially by the names of the stopovers: Pramberg, Kliphuis, Katbakkies, Skitterykloof, Bassonsgat. » I just had to do something with this bit of history,» she says. «So, I decided that Willie’s room should have its very own Bokveld toile.»
Dianne Christian from African Sketchbook was called in and together they worked on a special hand-painted design incorporating all the elements of this bit of Koue Sokkeveld history. Willie’s heavy, corduroy-backed curtains, as well as a Roman blind, now tell this story in a unique way. These personal touches allow those things closest to Willie’s heart, expression.
«The two are so romantic,» says Margaret about her clients as we walk past a Roman blind hiding a large window on the landing. Printed on it is a poem by the couple’s favourite poet, Boerneef, also a design by Dianne Christian.
The dining room is clearly the oldest part of the house. Here, the original wooden beamed ceiling was left intact and a Flemish chandelier dangles prettily from its centre. Twelve green leather chairs, backed with imported hound’s-tooth upholstery, flank an extra-long, custom-made mahogany table.
A luxurious tapestry print, imported from England, livens up an original antique settee and two matching chairs, a trademark of Margaret’s work ethic; beauty is as important as functionality.
French-polished antique buffets and display cabinets, all pieces from the couple’s original home, reach up close to the ceiling, comfortably inhabiting this space, which others may have thought too small.
Thick wall-to-wall carpets warm the floors, their neutral shade flowing seamlessly into those of the walls. Luxurious Persian rugs brighten steps underfoot, all the way into Engela’s music room. Here, it is immediately clear: the best was left for last. Engela used to be an opera singer and this is undoubtedly her space.
Through the large window the washed out silhouette of the Skurweberg mountains simmers in the distance. The grand piano’s form is etched black against the white light; flashes of autumn leaves intermittently brighten its bulk.
As Engela slips onto the chain and opens the piano, she becomes part of the sketch. Surrounded by much-loved objects and furniture, silk curtains printed with her favourite arias, the house’s transformation seems complete.