Rhodes Stoepsitfees set to become a hardy annual

The idea of a "stoepsitfees", when it was first proposed to the residents of Rhodes in the north eastern Cape on the Maloti Drakensberg Route, by the village’s patriarch, Dave Walker, seemed so off-the-wall and wacky that some gave it no chances of success.

Walker, the owner of a local hostelry, pioneered the stoepsitfees initiative; the idea quickly gained traction and was carried by several national newspapers including on the front page of the Die Burger in Cape Town.

But would the event attract visitors?

Local residents were encouraged when the applications started streaming in by telephone and email from international visitors to Africa who hailed from Germany and, locally, from places as widely separated as Howick in the Natal Midlands to Nieu Bethesda.

So, while the Rhodes stoep-owners polished their stoeps and their cooking techniques, Walkerbouts Country Inn bustled as “goodie bags” were prepared for an expected influx of visitors which, eventually, totalled 75.

As Dave explained: “Stoep-gossip and story-telling are as South African as biltong, braai and the Bokke. However, if you Google ‘Festivals in South Africa’ you will get more than 35 million responses and descriptions of festivals that celebrate everything from prickly pears to Witblits – but nothing that eulogises a centuries-old tradition!

“The general idea is that visiting participants will come to Rhodes, having made their own arrangements for accommodation in the village that would suit their pockets, register, settle in and from sunrise to sunset the following day, get into the “stoepsit” mode i.e. stroll or travel from veranda to veranda where they can buy a cup of tea, coffee or something stronger, a koeksister, scones, homemade rusks or whatever is on offer."

“It is a gentle way to discover what makes village life tick, why people choose Rhodes as the preferred refuge from the hurly-burly of city life, to reminisce and to swop stories and to experience rural hospitality at its best. It also exposes visitors to the fact that while villages like Rhodes may be isolated, they are also home to a vibrant artistic community”

Dudley Carstens became the village’s “customs officer”. Suitably attired in a bandolier filled not with bullets but Underberg, an alcohol-based herbal palliative meant to provide both relief and comfort to those who have overindulged, he manned the Customs Post outside Rhodes at Earlstown farm. From there, he directed participants to the Customs office, the cottage belonging to Bernard and Bernadette Reynecke which overlooks the Bell River They were welcomed with “Bakoond Brood”, and home-made jams and cheeses.

Duly registered and with stamped passports in hand, Stoepsitfeesters made their way to their accommodation venues, there to study the “stoepmaps” so that they could plan the route to their chosen stops the following day.

Preparations made, the event got underway on Friday the 14th of February and the village and visitors “het voortgestoep”. By mid-morning, Violetta Abroue’s painted cloth “goodies” such as hand-made skirts had sold like hotcakes. She promptly set about producing more mementoes while the Clay Café potter, Irene Walker, got her sawdust-firing kiln up to the right temperature and it smoked like a Garret steam engine on a steep incline.

And so the participants meandered from stoep to stoep, finding on offer not only tall tales but tea, coffee, ginger and other beer to slake their thirsts and “snacks” such as koek en konfyt, koeksisters and even cheese platters at the Earlstown cheesery. By nightfall, sated with the fine array of delicacies, most retired for an early evening while others found solace in a wide array of alcoholic beverages at the Thankshjalot Pub at Walkerbouts Inn, an ideal prelude to a fine dinner.

Saturday saw an influx of local visitors who added to the throng of visitors from further afield. Stoepsitters who had travelled the furthest were overlanders from Germany who had heard of the event while in Mozambique and continued the trip from there all the way to Rhodes. They were particularly fascinated by the Rhodes Public School stoep that included traditional dancing. The rest of Europe, not to be outdone, yielded a couple from Holland who had stayed at Kinmel Guestfarm last year. They had enjoyed their stay so much that this year’s visit, with immaculate timing, coincided with the inaugural Rhodes Stoepsitfees!

South African visitors came from far and wide – Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban, East London and Bloemfontein. The Natal midlands and Nieu Bethesda also provided Stoepsitfeesters so all in all, representation from the entire country and abroad totalling 75 people who thoroughly enjoyed the inaugural Stoepsitfees situated on the Maloti Drakensberg Route.

And, interspersed between tea and tequila, was a goodly amount of knitting, a distinct stoepsitting pastime! This Goodie Bag brain-child came courtesy of Caroline Reeders who provided the wool, knitting needles, pattern “recipe” and rulers.

It was an idea inspired by charity and the stoesitfeesters, including some of the men, knitted away to produce squares that will be combined to make one, if not two blankets to be given to a needy local person.

By Saturday afternoon, both Stoepsitfeesters and Stoepowners were “all-stoeped-out” – moeg gebry, gepeusel en gepraat but all absolutely delighted at having been part of “something completely different”, a veritable milestone in the history of this tiny village and its diversity of inhabitants.

Participants have also provided valuable feedback such as “dit moet langer wees want ‘n mens kannie lekker Stoepsit op al die stoepe oor slegs twee dae nie”. The upshot is that the 2014 event will be from 12 to 15 February allowing participants three days during which they can meander to their hearts content.

And so they departed, wishing their stay could have been prolonged, having made new friends and vowing to be back.

What Dave has subsequently discovered, courtesy of Google, is that in the USA they have a Porch Sitters Union, which celebrates many of the experiences so enjoyed by the visitors to Rhodes. “The Stoepsitfees is clearly an idea whose time has come,” says Dave, “and, if there is enough interest we can set up a local Stoepsitfees Association and an affiliation with our American counterparts."

“This is an event that should, in fact, be a national if not international event endorsed by medical practitioners and stress relief experts throughout the world for its wonderfully therapeutic and soul-restoring properties,” he says.

The festivities concluded on Saturday with bring and braai at Walkerbouts Inn where stoepsitters took the opportunity of having their Exit Visas stamped in their passports.

By Ed Herbst

For more information and details about the next year’s festival contact Dave Walker on (045) 974-9290 or e-mail: dave(at)walkerbouts.co.za.