Fortress Farm, Frankfort, Free State, SOUTH AFRICA
At the T junction of two dirt roads stands the sign for Fortress Farm, underneath a metal duck. All riders have been instructed to take a photo beneath the sign, which we diligently do, before proceeding farther down the road to the stone gate through which we are transported from South African farmland to the German countryside. Lush green fields are surrounded on three sides by the river which encircles the farm, whose hillsides are dotted with charming stone cottages and the cattle don’t look like they miss many meals. We reach the farmhouse, barns, and stables; every building, piece of machinery, every fencepost is neat and orderly. The garden around the farmhouse is immaculately groomed, there are no rubbish heaps or semi-broken-down vehicles in the yard, and the stables are made up of four perfect rows full of knee-deep soft straw. Everything about the place is touched by German edifice and efficiency, and only the red dirt road and the occasional zebra or antelope grazing with the cattle remind us that we are still in Africa.
The Rand Hunt has come to Fortress Farm for an away hunt, a weekend of riding, wining, and dining. Our host is a native German and the father of one of our hunt members. Hosting us here is an annual tradition, but last year the farm was too flooded and the year before the drought was too severe, so it has been three years since the last occasion.
Horses and riders arrive on Friday, trickling in in twos and threes. After several hours of diligently reminding myself to drive on the “wrong” side of the road, Penny, Judy, and I arrive just after the horses. Inca, my ride for the weekend, is a lovely ride, though I have not ridden him in a couple of years. He has hunted quite a bit, but this is his very first away hunt and from the moment he steps off the truck he is having the time of his life. For him, this may be the most exciting thing since his racing days. Penny takes him on a short outride Friday afternoon with several other riders, and he prances, dances, leaps and lunges as our host gives a short tour of the farm. By Saturday morning he has settled considerably, and I ride him when we take the hounds out. What started off as a damp, drizzly morning gives way to an afternoon full of sunshine, and after our ride the riders, family, friends, and followers gather at the riverbank for a picnic braai, drinks, and general debauchery into the afternoon. The previous evening we went as a group to take Frankfort by storm, a small town and farming community where we had dinner in celebration of one of the hunt members’ birthday, and explored the local nightlife (one bar) and populace (mostly farmers). A young Afrikaans farmer approached me at the bar to tell me, in Afrikaans, that I had beautiful eyes and he wished to marry me. Aaand that’s my cue to leave. Saturday afternoon is only slightly more subdued. There is a moment of excitement when Ali’s horse, Phantom, decides he isn’t cut out for farm life and decides to bust out of his paddock and gallop for Joburg. Quite a few kilometers later, between several vehicles and runners, he is finally caught and returned, reluctantly, to his stable.
Dawn breaks quietly Sunday morning; Penny, Ali and I are the first to the stables to groom our horses and plait their manes. The grooms ready the other horses, and when the rest of the riders arrive the yard becomes a flurry of activity. The excitement is palpable, as thick as the humidity in the still air. The horses breath it deeply and cavort in eagerness. The landowner welcomes us, inviting us to jump the jumps he has proudly built, which he claims are all measured to be within 800 millimeters and asks any rider who jumps every single one to report to him afterwards. I think, only the Germans must measure their jumps in millimeters, and after the hunt I questioned whether they had been measured at all.
The drag leaves with the son of the landowner, and the minutes are counted down until the hounds are released. Inca paces, anticipating the takeoff to the first line, awaiting the call of the horn. When it blows, hounds and horses charge ahead, a flurry of hooves on the dirt track as the hounds disappear into the next field. We come around a bend to find the first line of jumps, four large log piles in front of the car followers. Inca takes them all beautifully, smoothly, and effortlessly. The line seems to go on forever; three kilometers is quite long for a single line, and before the end most of the hunt has slowed to a trot, then a walk before we rejoin the hounds at the check. I dismount, Penny climbs aboard Inca, and at the last minute another rider asks me to take her horse, Power for a line. I’m barely in the saddle when the hounds leave, and I only have a brief canter to get to know the horse before the first jumps. A timid horse with a bold jump, I hold Power straight and steady, then do my best to get out of his way over the logs, and he soars over with ease. Somewhere along the line Ali’s horse, Phantom, once again decides he would rather return home and takes a sharp dive to the left and leaves the rest of the hunt to go charging of by himself, with Ali his hopeless passenger. She manages to rejoin us at the next check, having found a large herd of bush buck grazing atop the hill and a beautiful view over the valley. I switch horses again, this time to a Clydesdale-cross named Whiskey, whose octogenarian rider, a tough old Brit, needs a rest. I take Whiskey for the next two lines, cruising along around the outskirts of cornfields, up and down hills, and Ali and I take one jump in unison, grinning from ear to ear.
I return to Inca for the final line, and as we canter between fields of grass blowing in the breeze like ocean waves, a trio of zebras in the field next to us take flight, galloping alongside the horses. They break off as we dip into a donga, a small gully, come out the other side over the final fence and find ourselves at the end of the line, at the edge of the river. A herd of curious cattle amble towards the hounds, who are too busy checking all he scents to notice until the cows are almost upon them. They yelp and run back underneath the fence to rejoin their Master. All the riders come back together to stroll back towards the stables, where we dismount and shake the hand of the Herr Herrmann, who presents us each with a small oak branch and green ribbon, which he pins to the lapels of our hunt coats. The only rider in the field to have taken every single jump is our youngest member, 13-year-old Julia, on her fearless pony Chocolate.
On top of the tallest hill of the farm sits a stone cottage where breakfast is held; waffles, served with syrup, custard, apple sauce, and other pureed fruits. This German fare goes nicely with the very South Africa boerwurst, traditional sausage, and we take in the view as we fill our bellies, overlooking chestnut cattle foraging at the edge of the floodplain, where flamingos graze in the calm water. So full of waffles, I sleep through the whole drive back to the city.
The Rand Hunt holds three away hunts each season, at different farms a few hours from the city and suburbs. It reminds me of weekends at horse shows and clinics as a child and teenager, extended sleepovers with the horses and all my horsey friends. We don’t get to do that as adults, and this type of hunt lets us do exactly that. With grooms to handle the care of the horses, we are free of responsibility and for a brief couple of days we get to be horse-crazy kids again, surrounded by friends of all ages and walks of life who come together to share our passion for this wild sport that is foxhunting.