Saturday, 2 November 2013
Cradock and the Karoo: Setting for The Housemaid's Daughter
The small town of Cradock lies in the Karoo region of South Africa, a huge swathe of semi-desert that stretches across the centre of the country, one of the largest plateaux of its kind in the world. The name Karoo comes from the Khoisan word meaning "land of thirst", and it certainly is dry. But also prone to flash floods! In The Housemaid's Daughter, Ada says it is the "hard place you have to cross before you reach Johannesburg..."
But that doesn't half begin to describe the dramatic flat-topped koppies and yellow plains that make up this unforgettable part of the world. For years people have been trying to define the combination of huge vistas, air so clear you can literally see for hundreds of miles, and quaint towns that seem dwarfed by the scale of what surrounds them. It's not easy, because the Karoo means different things to each of us. For some, it's the outdoor grandeur, the unique succulent plants, the animals, the vivid sunsets and the crisp air. For others it's the products of the land like Karoo lamb (dished up in last week's blog!) or the paintings and words of artists who have been inspired by the setting.
My grandparents migrated from Ireland to South Africa over 100 years ago, and settled in the Karoo. It must have been a daunting prospect to make a new life in a place so very different from the soft green hills of Ireland. And in those days, there was no option to change your mind if you didn't like your new life! It was a matter of knuckling down and making it work. And this my forebears did, and, many years later, passed their memories on to me. Memories which became the inspiration for my novel.
Next year, Cradock celebrates 200 years since its founding as a tiny military fort along the upper reaches of the Great Fish River in the Karoo. It will also, by the way, be 146 years since the completion of the imposing Dutch Reformed Church in the centre of town - a church built as an exact replica of St Martins-in-the-Fields in London.
How about that? A copy of an iconic London landmark set down in a town of only a few thousand souls at the time, and surrounded by the stark, uncompromising beauty of Africa.