The Waterberg – blessed by wonderful people too


Charles Baber - fourth generation Waterberger and our reason for making Windsong Cottages our first visit in Limpopo.

Charles’ daughter, Juliet Calcott, who’s writing a book on the family, asked us “Why is it that everybody just loves Charles?  Why are his farm tours so popular?”   We found the answer in the Horizon Horseback (where son Rupert is a partner) promotional DVD… “The bush way of life has a country warmth about it — the feeling of friends visiting friends.  It’s made up of real people, essentially giving you a part of their life.”

Charles is a natural storyteller — inherited from grandfather Alfred, whom he drove in the latter’s senior years — and only too happy to share his considerable wit, wisdom and insight with all.

I met the Babers at breakfast on a Saturday morning — Charles, Nina and Juliet. They had Irish guests and we were invited to join them. There’s no doubt that the guests will be the latest who’s word-of-mouth will be the best promotion Windsong Cottages can hope for.  They have seen everything they hoped to see on their first visit to Africa.

Juliet tells us how Charles and Nina met:  “Being such a hardworking young farmer, the local telephone operator was worried Charles would never find a wife. (Telephone exchanges were manual until the 1990’s, and the operators knew everybody’s business.)    So knowing of a suitable girl for Charles in Pretoria, the operator decided to play matchmaker and connected the two together.  Neither wanted to end the call, thinking it rude since the other had placed the call.    Seeing that a healthy conversation was developing, the operator routed it though a less busy exchange and let them keep on talking.  Only after an hour did she interrupt with the customary, “Three minutes up.”

Juliet also provided a potted history of the Waterberg.  At the end of the 19th century, Transvaal president Paul Kruger sent all his troublemakers to the Waterberg — the least accessible area in the north — giving them farms there.  The farms were subdivided as the children inherited these farms, and they became subsistence farmers. Virtually all the game was wiped out in the process. After the National Party came to power in 1948, struggling whites were given jobs in institutions like the railways, and the emigration from the Waterberg started.  The farms were bought up by wealthy industrialists for cattle, and tax breaks.  And so the consolidation of farms started, making them viable once again — especially since the shift to game farms.

The Baber’s have left an indelible mark on the Waterberg.  Charles’ great-grandfather, Edward Davidson, arrived in the 1890’s and made a living as a trader using his ox-wagon as a mobile store. The 800ha farm Charles inherited has grown to 6,600 ha.  The Bosmara stud has been at the centre of farming activities, but tobacco was also grown for a while.

His children and their spouses have all contributed to the value and attraction of the Waterberg as an economically-viable, world-class tourist destination.

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Anthony and Tessa Baber have built up the well-known Ant’s Nest and Ant’s Hill portfolio of Luxury Bush Homes.  Rupert and Tanya Baber are farmers and partners in Horizon Horseback Adventures. Tanya also has a craft centre manufacturing bead and leather-work on the farm.  Juliet married Philip Calcott and they run Windsong Cottages on the original Baber homestead.

Charles has played a prominent role in the local community and been keen to do his bit.  He served on various committees up to the SA Agricultural Union at national level.  “I was well-accepted by mede-boere (fellow farmers) although not often supported during meetings. But at teatime I got a pat on the back and a ‘oom Charles, ek stem saam.‘” (Uncle Charles, I agree.)

Writing about the Bushveld without explaining the title oom would be remiss, and Charles has an anecdote about it.

“Many, many years ago, a group of English and Afrikaans politicians attended meetings together.  During a break, one of the English politicians asked about the title “oom” which was used so frequently.   ‘In your country,’ he was told, ‘you have princes, dukes, lords and sir’s.  But an oom is better than all your titles!’”  The truth is that all elders are called oom.

Charles has been farming since 1949 and says “you’ll never die of starvation, but never be wealthy.  You can wake up at night and have a choice of worries.”  With cattle, you’re essentially a grass farmer an improving the grass improves your cattle.

Tourism started after his mother died in 1988.  She had been a keen gardener, something shared by Nina, and maintaining the homestead — and the insurance policy on the thatched rooves — saw the start of self-catering accommodation.  “We battled to get known at first, but we introduced hiking trails and surrounding attractions have grown over time.”

The Waterberg is malaria-free, something frequently overlooked when thinking about SA’s northern provinces.  The plateau is ‘sour bushveld” — deciduous, softwood trees that lose their leaves in winter, with obvious advantages for game-viewing.

What’s most special about the Waterberg?  “This is where I grew up; it’s home,” says Charles.  “I haven’t been anywhere else I would rather live.  It’s never been easy, but I have been successful here.”

He’s seen many changes over the years, not least political and the changing who’s who in the area.  Today’s neighbours are an internationally cosmopolitan crowd owning their “farm in Africa.”  He recalls attending one meeting in Vaalwater many years ago addressed by former prime minister, Strydom.  “Sarge, ek kom sit by jou, ek will ‘n paar vrae vra.”  (To a police sargent: “I’m going to sit next to you, I want to as a few questions.”)  The ladies of Vaalwater responded as though a fox terrier had been dropped into a room of cats!

Responsible Custodianship for a Viable Future

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Charles and Nina frequently refer to the responsibilities of looking after staff — and it must be said that one is aware of the loyalty of their staff — but the magnitude of this is really brought home when Rupert explains that 350 people live on the farm.  That’s a big business!

According to Rupert, most of the 27 villages that surround the Waterberg owe much of their existences to farmworkers who left the farms when land uses and skills requirements changed.

Rupert studied agricultural economics at the University of Natal and then headed to Cambridge for a master’s degree in the economics and politics of development.  That was followed by a Rhodes Scholarship and a doctorate in economics — rural livelihoods in SA, with field work in Sekukuneland and Lebowa.

Jan Smuts had a vision for a national park that would have stretched from the Palala River through to Mogalakwena that would have embraced the Waterberg Plateau along with a wide range of habitats.  That was dropped when the National Party came to power in 1948.  The stimulus for the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve — the first in SA’s northern provinces — was to retain one of the country’s unspoilt gems.

But this is a conservation revolution that aims to benefit the poorer.  Visitors will be guided through the area, spreading and sharing the wealth that increased tourism brings.  Communities are being drawn into tourism.

With the re-introduction of game, visitors can see as much (and more varied) game as they will see in the Kruger National Park, without incessantly bumping into other tour groups.  In fact you can still drive all day in the Waterberg and only see two cars!

But there are many challenges.  Between 100,000 – 150,000 hectares of land is under land restitution claims so ownership is uncertain, but at least current land uses have to be maintained if ownership does change.  Many of the new landowners will be at the very heart of the plateau so working with them becomes a priority.

The Biosphere Reserve also lacks any Environmental Framework Plan, and the implementation of one is hindered by provincial priorities and tendering systems.  The area needs more legal protection as a matter of urgency — surely a foreign donor agency can be found?

Tanya Baber opened a very successful leatherwork and bead shop to creat additional jobs. Those are designer dog collars on the right.

Horizon Horseback Safaris grew out of the need to create new jobs.

The Waterberg is a “feel-good” place to visit because of the people who live there — and there are many we haven’t mentioned — who contribute to the fact that it is a community that cares about its collective future.  Visitors can leave much more than their footprints!

One must mention the Waterberg Welfare Society — started by Tanya Baber and Jane Whitbread in 2000 when the growth in farm deaths as a result of HIV/AIDS-related illnesses became apparent. It now has an impressive facility in Vaalwater that comprises a hospice, an outpatients’ section, a daycare centre, a feeding programme and much more, reaching out to over 1,000 people.

We also heard about farmers’ support for schools on their farms, and the international volunteers who visited annually to teach and work with kids, making a huge difference to their lives.

We will be adding more on the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve and the soon-to-be-launched Waterberg Meander elsewhwere on CapeInfo, and that will provide further insight into a remarkable region.

And there is still one other person we must write about.  Clive Walker’s contribution to the area is indelible and his story will follow soon.


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