Around about the time that we we’d just moved to Cradock from Joburg, I was debriefed on the art of shopping in a small Karoo town by our friend Elaine Hurford.
She lives in Prince Albert, which has scores of restaurants and guesthouses but limited retail. The first thing I learnt was not to underestimate Pep Stores. As most country folk will tell you, this is the Woolworths of the platteland.
It is the purveyor of ever-changing bargain clothes and magical oddments – leopard print fluffy blankets, nifty little sewing kits, coloured glasses, baby cocoons, teenage hoodie tops and obscure foreign plug adaptors. Even hair extensions.
Also (I was told by Elaine), they sometimes have end of range Zara garments “at a snip” and occasionally stock red satin pyjamas. I have yet to find these at our local branch.
Unfortunately Pep periodically stock the worst floppy hats and my husband Chris will not be parted from a duo of repulsive specimens I keep trying to hide from him.
The other notable thing about shopping in the platteland is that objects are not always where you’d expect them. In Cradock for example, the hairdresser sometimes sells olives, the undertaker sometimes sells pumpkins and potatoes, the jeweller is also a gun merchant, and the local doctor has a sideline in biltong and droewors.
For a few dizzying months, we could get fabulously fresh fish from a second hand car dealer. Don’t even ask.
Generally speaking, though, it’s worth looking around one-of-a-kind shops, not franchises.
I spent a happy hour combing through Joanie’s Shop in Fraserburg.
In fact, I wrote down a list, to the collective amazement of owner Joanie Hansen and assistant Shirley Esau.
Apart from an eclectic range of clothes, I found staplers, torches, slip joint pliers, buckets, long hair extensions, foot powder, Beverley dolls, sock wool, gripe water, bibs, dummies, envelopes, hot water bottles, Primus stove parts, flashlight bulbs, guitar strings, scarves, thermos flasks, enamelware, plastic tablecloths, pin cushions, peelers, measuring jugs, children’s books, fancy candles, lanterns, hip flasks, incense, headlamps, irons and kettles.
But agricultural co-ops are my absolute best. Don’t let the XXL two-tone farmer’s shirts or scary-looking calf weaning rings put you off.
Inside you’ll find some fantastic stuff like pink udder cream (otherwise known as speensalf, wonderful for chapped hands and chilblains in winter), perdesalf (horse liniment I think, great for bumps, sprains and bruises) and waterproof milking boots. In fact the co-ops sell the best boots by far, plus sublime mohair socks.
They also double up as hardware stores and supply industrial-sized bags of dog kibbles.
The human food is a whole other story. Of course I knew there’d be no Woolies food, which was mildly distressing. But since we were moving to an agricultural town, I did expect fresh veggies, since we’d be surrounded by farms.
Unfortunately, not these particular farms, except for occasional exceptions. It turns out growing vegetables is an absolute mission. Lucerne is much easier.
Any fresh produce that arrives in Cradock has usually done the rounds from Joburg Veg Market to Port Elizabeth to here and sometimes looks the worse for wear. So you don’t arrive with a veggie shopping list. You just see what’s freshest on the day.
Similarly, since there are no Woolies veggie sauces, I make do with other ranges. My husband Chris jokes that I’m very in touch with my Ina Paarman.
The other thing that took me completely by surprise was the fact that many shops close for lunch. People head home, eat and then come back at 2pm.
Also fine. You just work around it. But I did collapse laughing when my neighbour Melina told me she’d gone to the local fast food chicken outlet and was indignant to find that they too were closed for lunch.
Pictures by Chris Marais