Switching off in Somerset East

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A few kilometers before reaching the town of Somerset East in the Karoo Heartland a dirt road waved me over. Everything slowed down; the gravel rattled rhythmically, a few cows grazed gracefully with tails sweeping from side to side and old forgotten farm houses stood in ruins – proud and exposed – flaking bygone stories as the wind tickled the leaves.

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The dirt road continued; my phone stopped beeping and the lifeless words “No Service” wriggled its way to the top corner of my lifeline.

A digital detox was not on the menu; I still had to do some work, I still had to upload something here and tweet something there. But there I was, and there “No Service” was as well.

I stood in corners, walked from left to right, up and down and lift my phone to the sky to the gods of signal.

Nothing.

No life.

No Service.

A little voice in the back of my head shouted at me, “You said you wanted to spend less time online this year, didn’t you?”

Yes, but…

That voice again, “you said you wanted to sleep more, didn’t you?”

Yes, however…

One more time, “You said you wanted to enjoy weekends again, live slowly, find more balance and take time for yourself, didn’t you?”

Yes. I did.

I lowered my signal-finding hand, sunk into a rocking chair and decided – even if it was for a short while – that I would switch off in Somerset East.

So I did.

Somerset East Glen Avon Farm Stay

Going back in time in the Karoo Town, Somerset East

Somerset East is a town in the Eastern Cape that’s situated on one the province’s travelling routes, the Blue Crane route, renowned for its diversity of more than 350 bird species, Walter Batiss’ artistic quirk and its fly-fishing hot spots.

But there’s more to Somerset East than birds, *bass and Batiss.

You can go from thrill to still within minutes thanks to the multitude of activities on offer that fill the town with promises of adventure, serenity and fresh air; the perfect off-switch for a weekend getaway just 180 km from Port Elizabeth. 

There are hiking trails (day hikes and a longer trail), 4×4 routes, mountain biking, museums (like the Walter Batiss art museum), horse riding, the annual Biltong festival (usually in June), river tubing at Die KAiA and Lavelilanga Women’s Craft; a community project. 

Walter Batiss Museum Somerset East

And, then of course, there is history. 

During the last five years I’ve realised that I must have lived in the 1800s in a previous life since my love, appreciation and interest for everything old and forgotten has been growing stronger and stronger with every piece of furniture that I have passionately stroked, with every connect-the-dots episode in my head and with every time I’ve asked the question, “when was this built?”.

The town waltzed right into my history-loving-heart.

Somerset East played a pivotal agricultural role during the arrival of the 1820 Settlers as the key food source for military and civilians of the area. Needless to say, the history is sprawled all over town, from the streets with its colonial architecture to museums telling bygone-Frontier-War-tales to ghost stories floating from cellar to ceiling.

Glen Avon farm, a 200-year-old family farm, piqued my interest right from the start when I looked for accommodation in Somerset East.

It was love at first click.

Nature.

Old things.

Stories.

And within budget.

Everything I look for when booking accommodation.

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Glen Avon Farm – The Start of Somerset East

Just opposite the Hart Cottage (built in 1817) the sheep did their dramatic baa-baa-baa in communicative tones. I pushed my phone to the side and paged through a file with the farm’s story… 

*Robert Hart, born in 1777 and widely accepted as the first English-speaking South African, first laid eyes on Boschberg when he was sent to the frontier in 1799 to suppress the Graaff-Reinet uprising. Later, his regiment took him to India, back to England and he returned to the Cape in 1806. He was stationed in Grahamstown in 1811 until he was put in charge of the Somerset Farm in 1817 which supplied wheat and fodder. In 1820 he welcomed the Settlers.

With the move to the Somerset Farm in 1817 he had built himself a wattle and daub hunting lodge – what is known as the Hart Cottage today – on the grounds that would later become Glen Avon.

Glen Avon was officially granted to Robert Hart in 1821 in recognition of his service to the Crown. Somerset Farm was closed in 1825 and the village of Somerset East was founded.

If you fast forward to 200 years and seven generations later, it is as if nothing has changed when you walk around the family farm with its old buildings like the cheese house, the big shed and, of course, the quite famous and well-documented water mill.

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The mill, dating from 1822-1825, arrived in South Africa via a ship from England. It was then transported through the old Zuurberg Pass to Glen Avon before it was assembled and installed where the two grindstones could work up to 2040 kg per day. The water mill was still working up until 1991 and is considered one of the best preserved mills in Southern Africa.IMG_1166

I run my hand along the oregan storage bins that once housed meal and wheat flour. Here, everything has a story, here, everything is a story; it’s in the veins of the generations who lived, the generations to come, it’s in the trickle of streams, in the ring of the farm bell and in the windy whisper of shady leaves. 

Life on Glen Avon Farm in Somerset East

As I snuggled into the silence and history of Glen Avon Family farm my phone quickly became a forgotten item.

I took another nap, went for a short hike, did some birdwatching and spent a lot of time under the shade of a beautiful big old oak tree (that’s begging me to revisit when autumn hits).

On Glen Avon there are also two more hiking trails, birdwatching with the help and insight from a proficient birder, Greg Brown, you can go on a trip to Glen Avon Falls, have the chance to experience life on a working farm and go trout fishing.

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But, like most farm stays, that’s not all.

The Brown family also takes on a few community projects under the caring eye of Alison Brown. The Hart Cottage’s kitchen is filled with produce that’s up for sale – farm fresh and straight from the Farmer Brown source – like jams, fig preserve, pecan nuts and dried herbs, a project run by her granddaughters. And there’s more. There is also a firewood project that allows workers (or a family member) to earn extra money; one farm worker sells vine wreaths, another makes milk jug covers and there is also someone who makes braai utensils.

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My short stay meant that I couldn’t get to everything on offer at Glen Avon Farm but it was the most unexpected but welcoming switch-off with the town of Somerset East – with all its history, museums and a few coffee shops and restaurants – just a short drive away.

The Details

The Hart Cottage on Glen Avon in Somerset East is R700 per night for two guests if you book on Accommo Direct. Staying for two nights (at least) is highly recommended. 

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Accommo Direct has over 20 000 listings across 2000 unique listings and you’ll find that they’re one of the few booking sites with listings in small towns. 

There are also other accommodation options such as the Pecan Cottage and guest bedrooms in the main farmhouse. Cottages are self-catering and breakfast (as well as dinner) is available upon request.

Glen Avon is situated on a well-maintained dirt road and you can find the turn off on your right-hand side on the R63, about 6 km before entering Somerset East (if you’re coming from Port Elizabeth).

For more information about the farm, the history and the accommodation, visit www.glenavonfarm.co.za.

Disclaimer: My stay at Glen Avon Farm was sponsored by Accommo Direct – all opinions expressed (as well as the choice of accommodation) are my own.

*bass – I’m completely aware that it’s trout fishing and not bass fishing, but for the sake  of my lifelong love for alliteration it ended up being, “birds, bass and Batiss”. There’s almost (very almost) a little rhyme there as well.

*Robert Hart – the history of Robert Hart and the Hart Cottage was shortened from information supplied by the Browns in the info-file in the Hart Cottage.