An unforgettable time with A.J. Robb on Thornkloof Farm:
One of the best moments of our journey was an unexpected one. Attempting to cycle from East London, to the town of Stutterheim, we ended up getting caught just short due to the rolling hills and heavy winds. After being turned down three times for camping, we pulled up next to a man named A.J. in a white truck, and asked if there were any camping spots in Kei Road (a small town just off the main road we were on). A.J. said, “My farm is not far from here, why don’t you come stay with me.”
Thornkloof Farm (Kloof = Valley in Afrikaans)
We followed A.J. back to his farm. It was about a two mile bicycle ride and we see him parked at the entrance. He points to the dirt road leading to a series of structures on the horizon and says what any man would say about this beautiful place, “that is my home, this is my farm”. Amazed, we followed him down the road and met him at his residence. He said, “I am going out to East London this evening but I set out two steaks, vegetables, chips (fries), and soda for you guys to cook and enjoy. Please, please make yourselves at home. If you would like to watch television or take a bath, help yourselves.”
A.J. left for the evening, we ate like kings, took a nice hot bath, and took little Joey (A.J.’s Dachshund) to our cottage to keep him company. That evening we reflected on the evenings fortune of A.J.‘s generosity and trust, as we had expected to hop a fence and pitch our tent in the dark. We took an immediate liking to A.J., his demeanor seemed very sincere and we had hopes of learning more about him and his life on the farm in South Africa. Unfortunately, we had plans on leaving the next morning.
A.J. sets out some food and leaves for the evening!
What was supposed to be one night turned into one month, and it ended up being one of the highlights of our African journey! During our stay we experienced sheep and cattle auctions, sheep shearing, cattle dipping, met community members and fellow farmers, and experienced what life was like in rural South Africa. We had great fireside chats, went on a safari, went to a snake park, and had the wonderful opportunity of working with A.J.’s staff on his farm.
Our little cottage!!
A.J.’s Farm Home
A.J. Robb: Man of the Year:
A.J. has to be the most generous and warm person on the planet! After many fireside chats we have found that he is very passionate about his family, his farm animals, his friends, and his staff!
A.J. and family, giving thanks for the food they have!
I have yet to find someone that is as generous than him! During our stay, he would not allow us to pay for a thing, and we did so much! This is one person of whom I can say, the love of money is not the goal, loving people is, and the community members of Stutterheim would all agree! “Out of all the people of Stutterheim to run into, you ran into the best person!,” a fellow citizen of Stutterheim noted confidently!
Giving and helping out of love without expecting anything in return is one of A.J.’s chief trademarks! I for one, learned more from his actions than many preacher’s best sermons! I do not have many people that I admire, but he is near the top of my list! He is sorely missed!
A.J. and Candice at Morgan Bay, Eastern Cape.
Gladys the Great has been part of A.J.’s household for the past 27 years!
There is a staff of about 20 people that work on A.J.’s farm. They live on his ~ 2,000 acre farmstead and do the variable tasks that keep the farm up and running, this is some backbreaking work!! A.J. provides them with free housing, food, and they are paid bi-weekly. But among them is a lady that is extra special to A. J., her name is Gladys. I call her ‘Galdys The Great’.
Gladys is of Xhosa origin and has been part of AJ‘s household for the past 27 years, and has been deeply involved with his family ever since. With children of her own, she assisted in raising his two children until they moved away for college. When AJ moved from the province of KwaZulu Natal, to the Eastern Cape (town of Stutterheim), in 1999, Gladys relocated with him.
Without Gladys, AJ would most likely hobble about looking for his glasses and forget to take his prescription medicine! I have found the same would happen to us. She seemed to know what we wanted and needed before asking for it! An easy way to become reliant on such a great woman!
Galdys & Candice
Her native language is Xhosa (very similar to Zulu) and she is one hard worker! We always had coffee in bed and the best lunches and dinners have been prepped by her! Each day was something different and amazingly, it ended up better than the day before!
Gladys is married to a gentleman by the name of Stone. He is a leader in a local Christian church and his demeanor is wonderful. Stone runs the staff that runs the farm! He can do everything, from shearing sheep, cleaning a fresh kill on the farm, and much much more. In fact, Stone gave me the liver from an Impala he had cleaned on the farm! Truly a man’s man! He made me feel like a city boy!
A piece of Impala Liver given to me from Stone!
Gladys and her husband Stone
Stone and his friend.
Little Joey is A.J.’s constant farm and fireside companion! We met Joey upon arrival and instantly fell in love with him! You can pick him up and hold him in your arms, bend him into a pretzel, be comfy putting him next to a child, and yet he will never come to you when you call him by name! He is very odd, but that is what is so unique about Joey! If I could have one dog, it would most definitely be him!
As cuddly as Joey can be, he does not share the bed, he sleeps wherever he wants! With his cold nose, he tried nudging his way down our sleeping bags for warmth until we wrapped him up like a little burrito in the center of the bed, where he stayed until the morning! He loves sheep but finds more fun nipping at their ankles as he chases them into the endless rolling fields!
Joey’s favorite activity, chasing sheep!!
Joey also enjoys a hug or two!
The sheep give him a warning by stamping their front hooves on the ground, but does that stop Joey? Not a chance!! One of our favorite things to do at the end of a hard days work on the farm was taking turns cuddling with Joey next to the fire while chatting with his owner! We never in our wildest dreams thought we would miss a dog as much as him!
“Your as cuddly as a cactus, your as charming as an eel, Mr. Jo…..ey!!” Ole Joe rests on High class freshly fleeced Dohne (pronounced: du-nee) Merino Sheep Wool!
Spoiled Joe in his moffy suit, getting all the attention!
Stay or Go?
The following morning came, as we began to get ready to hit the road, we get a knock on our door. A.J. had a tray with three coffees in hand and asked if we would like to stay for a longer period of time. If we did he would take us around his farm and take us to the Thomas River Historic Village about a half an hour down the road. After finding that being there was not a burden to him at all, we very gladly obliged. We sipped our coffees while laughing at the day before and how tired we looked when asking about a camping spot! “Ha! Erek, you looked like you were going to keel over, Candice, you had a scared look on your face!” It was true, the sun was about to set, leaving us on the side of the road in the dark!
Later that day we went for that ride on his farm! We saw his beautiful cows (Brahman, Angus and others), Dohne Merino sheep, a wild boer (bigger and faster than I imagined), and a Blesbok! The views of his farm were spectacular and we are glad that it is him that has been blessed with such property! A.J. then asked if we ever saw cows get dipped! We said, “No”. An amazing sight as we see the cows go ca-plunk in water over their heads! It was like watching someone do a cannonball but six times the size!
Just before the caplunk!
Cows swimming to the other side. There are various treatments in this water. The veterinarian told us that it helps keep ticks off and also keeps them from getting infections from scrapes and cuts.
In the drink!
This veterinarian is taking a hair sample fro the front side of the cow. She is checking for tick larvae and possibly for other types of parasites.
A step back.
This is where we weighed cattle for an upcoming auction. Planks of wood are set in back and in front of a cow that is supposed to be standing on a ground scale (the wood keeps them in place). Sometimes a cow gets frisky and decides to go between the wooden planks!
A mother cow infuriated with the weighing process. In order to weigh the cows, they all have to be rounded up and set in single file, then weighed and let through. I almost bit the dust when I attempted to get some bulls in their pens, until one bull turned and ran towards me. It was then that a little Xhosa boy, half my size, stepped in front of me, and with a whip, smacked that bull to the moon! It is because of this little guy’s heroic act, I am writing this blog today!
AJ’s new prized Brahman Bull! This guy is about 2,000 pounds and although he looks cuddly, he is not one to be tampered with! This is a $6,000 investment. He will then breed this hunk with the other ladies on his farm.
The Thomas River Historic Village was amazing. It was neat to see the practices of the Bushman, the masters of tracking and living in inhospitable areas! There is much to be learned from these people. The documentary ‘Beautiful People’ has them in mind and is worth the time to learn about their many skills.
The San people!
Learning about life on a farm in South Africa has been a wonderful experience that isn’t taught in schools!
We got back that evening, sat by the fire and talked about our plans for the next day or so. The upcoming week in the year is very important for AJ. His sheep work very hard growing their wool all year long so they can get sheared of their wool! These little sheep jerseys will then be sold for profit usually….. to China.
These guys gave away their award winning jerseys for our comfort!! They were very frisky after they were sheered!
For the shearing week, AJ hired about seven shearers, some of which live on his farm, and some more to pick through the wool and separate it into different classifications. Class one is considered great wool, class two, a good but lesser wool, and class three, not very good, but can still be used.
Then there is a separate compartment for the backs (or top) of the sheep, a finer material that is also sold (the back of the sheep doesn’t touch the ground, as they lay on their tummy when sleeping, and brush their sides against bushes when walking.). And the bits that are a bit stiff or dirty are picked through by about four or five women at their own table.
About 1,000 sheep were sheered, first the older sheep, then the hummels (castrated males), then the lambs. The rams are sheared at a different time of year. It is almost winter here at the time of shearing, but the reason for sheering is the lack of rain. When it rains the sheep’s wool get moldy if cut and stored for a length of time. So it is easier to shear and store the wool when the weather is dry.
This is a busy process indeed and we didn’t want to get in AJ’s way. AJ assured us that we would be no burden and again, we were more than glad to stay and help AJ with the shearing process which started on Monday and ended on Friday! What an absolute joy! Not only did we get to spend time with AJ, we would get an inside look at how a South African farm operates and how people worked together through this wonderful process!
Monday through Friday is sheep shearing time on Thornkloof Farm!
Hands down, sheep are one of my favorite animals, not only are they beautiful animals, they are tranquil and fun to work with. And it is no surprise to recall the many Biblical references as we spent a week with these critters!
Candice makes a new friend!
Monday morning came quick when we awoke to a knock early in the morning. “Up, up, life is busy, I have coffee, life is busy!!” yells Gladys! She had a tray with coffees on it. We sipped our coffees as we looked at the orange sky right through the window. What a spectacular sight! South Africa has the best sunrises and sunsets we have seen to date!
We scurry to get dressed and head over to the sheep shearing barn and we find all the workers already starting their back breaking task of shearing 1,000 sheep, about 143 sheep per person, and the other workers sorting the wool.
Workers, sorting through the wool.
Daughter of Gladys.
At first we were timid. We didn’t know any of the workers but as the day progressed we quickly got acquainted when they realized we were looking for ways of assisting them. I dragged the sheep from the pen and brought them to the shearers (which saved them some lower back pain)! The shearers would the place the sheep in a sitting position and they would eventually calm down, with the odd kick here and there. Then there was the process of picking the sheared fleece up from the ground and throwing it across a table (Candice’s job) so it can be classified and sorted!
Here is an assortment of photos taken while the sheering process took place:
A Wooly Ram!
Some wisdom for the day, from Aesop’s Fables:
“A ‘Ram’, drinking from a crystal spring, saw himself mirrored in the clear water. He greatly admired the graceful curl of his ‘horns’, but he was very much ashamed of his spindling legs.
“How can it be,” he sighed, “that I should be cursed with such legs when I have so magnificent a crown.”
At that moment he scented a ‘mountain lion’ and in an instant was bounding away through the forest. But as he ran his wide-spreading ‘horns’ caught in the branches of the trees, and soon the ‘mountain lion’ overtook him. Then the Ram perceived that the legs of which he was so ashamed would have saved him had it not been for the useless ornaments on his head. ~ The Stag at The Pool ~
Moral: We often make much of the ornamental and despise the useful.”
About to be sheered, Before…..
Workers sharpening their sheers. These are manual sheers, as opposed to the mechanical ones. The mechanical sheers are much easier but they don’t get as much wool from the sheep. The sheers are a bit more dangerous though. The sheep get a cut from time to time.
Hand sheering in action. There are sheep sheering competitions all over the world. Some of the biggest contenders are New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Argentina.
Here are seven workers sheering sheep. What you can’t see: To the right is where the sheep are placed until they get fleeced. When they are fleeced, they are then sent outside in pens, through the wooden doors on the left side of the photo. As time goes on, AJ counts the sheered sheep and credits each worker.
Candice is with some first class Merino Wool!!
Candice quickly adapts to farm life and learns the artful technique of throwing fleeces!
As mentioned earlier: When the fleece is spread out on the table, it is classed (1, 2, or 3; with one being the best) and picked through for useable sections.
Assessing the fleece.
A prospective addition to the Cyr clan! It would have been nice to have a sheep alongside our cycling journey!
All of us together!
All of the workers spoke Xhosa and very little English, so we made an attempt to learn a few greetings, much to their amusement, as we couldn’t make the clicking sound that the words required.
A touching moment for me is when one of the workers (gentleman in the back row, second in from the right: group picture above), pulled us aside and commended us on how hard we worked all week. “You worked hard this week, you should consider getting your own farm. I see how you love the animals and treat them with care, you will be a great and successful farmer if you ever decided to do so!”
From Lamb to Chop
On the last day of shearing, Friday, we had the opportunity to see the lambs in action!! These guys loved to run and kick when we go to grab them for shearing. One of the lambs was so frisky that one of the older shearers pierced its abdomen. With the intestines showing, the lamb was in serious trouble.
We didn’t learn until later that the older shearer (78 years old) felt as bad as he did when he accidentally pierced the lamb. Had we known of his internal strife would would have consoled him immediately. This man was a joy to work with and we hope he is proud of the hard work he has done this whole week! We are very glad AJ didn’t take any pay from him.
Trying to save a lamb.
When we first met AJ we told him about all the items we had taken on with us. Among them was our medical kit that contained a suture kit. He asked if we were willing to try and sew the lamb up. I ran back to our cottage to get our things while Candice attempted to push the lamb’s intestines back in the abdominal cavity.
Candice holding the lamb’s intestines inside the lamb, awaiting me to try and suture the abdominal wall, but to no avail, this lovable lamb is now a chop.
I get back and try myself and slightly succeeded with a small amount of force but quickly realized how fragile the intestines were inside a living animal! After pushing the intestines back into the abdominal cavity I attempt to suture the abdominal muscular layer but to no avail. Candice commented that the sheep would need sedation in order to relax the surrounding muscles, the intestines kept popping out. It was very emotional for us because the life of this lamb was in our hands, we were its last chance and we failed. There is something about such a submissive animal that makes one feel very protective.
Plan B was to slaughter the lamb. I prayed over him and asked God to ease his suffering. To get a vet would have been very costly, so it was understandable that this measure was not taken. It is amazing to see how special life is when one is lost. Being this close to farm life really puts things in perspective, life is valuable and very special!
Friday is here in the blink of an eye!
Coming to Africa, we wanted to know about the different cultures and the people. Up until now it has been fairly difficult due to the speed of our journey and the slight tension between the two races. The apartheid era is over but an aftershock can still be felt. On this farm we were able to work along side each other without any problems! We have found that the Xhosa people are very nice and considerate of each other. For instance, the shearers were paid for each sheep they sheared. So when the older workers got tired, the younger workers all stopped working so they could catch up. Sometimes the younger shearers would give the credit of a sheared sheep to an older shearer! Respect for the older generations is shown by example here.
A very touching moment occurred when the older shearer found that he wasn’t docked for accidentally piercing the lamb with the shearers. After finding he wasn’t docked for the sheep’s death, he later publicly apologized and said that he was very very sorry for his tragic mistake and that he was happy that AJ treated him as a white man / his equal. AJ, not thinking twice, applauded him for a job well done and encouraged him to return for next years shearing!
The sheering for the week had ended and to end our stay in Stutterheim we went on a safari and to a nearby snake park:
Mpongo Game Reserve:
Hippo at feeding time!
What a beast!! I love these guys, although I still prefer to see them from a distance, except for the cubs!
A sad picture for me. Areas for lions, and other animals, are getting smaller and smaller by the year. Though they appear to be treated well here.
Not to pleased to see us! It was nice to be on the same level as these girls, but thankfully, the electrical fence kept us at ease!
Close up of a Cranky girl!
Love the yawning shots! They do this often!
Of course one of my favorites, a Dwarf Goat!! Tiny but plump!
Rare shot of a Nyala.
Python Snake Park near East London, South Africa!!
Desert Horned Viper, this critter looks mean!!
This is one expensive critter, considered the ferrari of snakes, the Pied Ball Python! The colors are beautiful and solid!
Candice manhandles an Albino Python
Leopard Tortoises. These guys are protected by law, because they are considered delicacies by the local citizens!!
Our final moments:
This whole week we dreaded Sunday, but we knew we would have to leave at some point! Sunday was the day that AJ would take us and drop us off in the town of Aliwal North, nearly 200 miles north, so we can get into Lesotho before our South African visa expired.
Saturday night, AJ gave us a book entiltled: “More Than Life Itself”, by Solly Ozrovech. This book was given to him by his mother and since he had learned a great deal from it, he wanted to pass it on to us (he ordered another copy for himself). He wrote on the inside cover:
To my dearest Erek & Candice,
It only could have been God’s “PLAN” we met. Thank-you for sharing my farm and animals with me. I will never forget you both. God’s care and Jesus’ abundant love to you both.
Good Luck, Take Care
He said that since he was not good at goodbyes this was it, and while handing over the book he wiped the tears from his eyes. He gave us both a sincere hug and then went to bed.
Saturday night would prove to be hard. Head on the pillow, left to our own thoughts, I am sure we were all thinking the same thing. How do we say goodbye? Why is life like this? I know that I have personally met many great people only to find that they move elsewhere, now it is us that are constantly doing the moving. How does one make it easy to leave a people that both love you and enjoy your company, and vice versa? I can’t help but think of the final episode of the television series M.A.S.H. here!
A fellow traveler of ours in Chile, wondered the same thing as us three eventually parted ways (him north, us south), then he made an interesting comment, “on our mode of travel, this is part of the journey, what can we do but reflect upon the lessons it teaches us!”
Sunday morning was here and we finished packing. We say our goodbyes to Gladys and Joey and head out on the road. We have about a three hour drive and it was fairly quiet. Short questions, even shorter answers. We reach the town of Aliwal North and unload our belongings. AJ teary eyed and visibly shaking, tells us he loves us and gets into his truck to leave. He wipes the tears from his eyes as he backs up and then heads back home. A sincere goodbye. This man loved us and we loved him!
As I saw this I cried too, my dark lensed okley’s somewhat concealed my emotions. It is absolutely gut wrenching to leave someone you have come to love deeply, especially in such a short time period!
We were supposed to call the contact that we had gathered earlier but we would have been terrible guests. Any talk about the trip or AJ would have been a disaster, so we opted to stay at a Bed & Breakfast near the Orange River instead. We got in, finding that holding back the tears ended up making us even more exhausted. What a terrible day, but what an amazing experience!
There is one shred of light to this situation that is very satisfying for me. As Christian brothers and sisters we will most certainly see each other again! This brings hope and a certain calmness for us. Like the poem, “Foot Prints in the Sand” there are times when one set of footprints are showing, and much to our surprise, it is not our prints that we are looking at!