Josef Talotta
Josef Talotta
Image: Gareth Jacobs

"You know if you’re going to Woolies, you can get dark green lettuce, rocket, or rosa tomatoes, or any of that fancy salad stuff that you Joburg lot might want,” says my great mate Kathy Hyson, a new-generation Karoo farmer who doesn’t farm, as I ring her from her closest 
shopping mall in Bloemfontein, a few hours away. Kathy, a hospitality recruitment executive, and her UK-born husband Trevor abandoned their suburban life in Nelspruit a dozen years ago, opting for a simpler life in the Karoo, where they live in a converted stable.

They now run a B&B, Erin Country House, 15 minutes outside Middelburg, the closest town. Days are long in the Karoo. You can have breakfast, go for a walk, have lunch, read a book, and get drunk twice — all in one day. Outings are exciting, once you get through the rather taxing farm-gate openings — no remote controls here.

We’re heading off to go shopping in Graaff-Reinet, the nearest semblance of a “city”.

“But it’s not Joburg shopping, so don’t get too excited, jong,” cautions Hyson. “We’re just going to Clicks.”

We park and walk around. I can’t help but notice how orderly everything is. It’s a month-end Saturday and the town is humming.

We can’t get a table at the full-booked Polka, Graaff-Reinet’s answer to tashas or Vovo Telo, so we opt for Maria’s Coffee Roastery. Dozens of shiny happy 
people spin out over cappuccinos, doing the Green Point or Parkhurst Saturday thing — without the stress of car park attendants. “Lots of tourists,” I note, checking out the well-groomed lounge lizards.

“Locals,” retorts Hyson, with a slightly disdainful snort. I eye an elderly gent with long salt-and-pepper hair, Camper shoes, tweed waistcoat, and round John Lennon specs. He looks like Luciano Benetton. I point him out with a quick nod of the head. “Also local,” reports Hyson, “but ex-Cape Town. Lots of them here now.” He’s not alone. Thousands of city slickers from Joburg, Cape Town, Pretoria, and Durban are deslicking — opting for quieter, simpler times.

For those looking for a change, the SA Visas website has a handy list ranking the 25 best small towns in South Africa. Hyson has two, NieuBethesda and Graaff-Reinet, with an hour’s drive. The usual suspects — Prince Albert, 
Franschhoek, Clarens, Dullstroom, and Nottingham Road - crack the nod, 
which is rounded out by less-celebrated dorps, such as Kakamas, Gariepdam, Sabie, and Sutherland. 

Joburg graphic designer Pinky Rapitsi has just made the move to Port Alfred, where she runs an online upcycled furniture store. “You get forced to be creative. I find that if I have something in mind that I want, I end up making it, or painting it, or building it.” She loves Port Alfred’s location in “the heart of the sunshine coast. We’re a destination of note.” 

After less than one month in the town, she’s speaking like a local, using the inclusive “we”, and has already set up a weekly supper club. “Our tiny paradise has attractions to offer even the most discerning visitor — amazing beaches, 
indigenous valley bushveld, semi-mountainous contrasts, and glorious valleys. 

Thousands of
city slickers from
Joburg, Cape
Town, Pretoria,
and Durban are
deslicking —
opting for quieter,
simpler times

"And to top it all, a blissful temperate climate, 
with the longest sunshine hours,” gushes Port Alfred’s self-appointed minister of tourism and migration. The only thing Rapitsi misses? “Twenty-four hour shopping, but I can shop online.” In this, she sees opportunity: “There’s only one of everything. One set of traffic lights, one of each type of business, but this makes business competition, the supply and demand, healthy.” 

Small-town living is easy, once you know 
your way around. Joburg media sales executive Sue Grant moved to Calitzdorp a year ago. “I own a mud-and-straw nagmaal 
cottage that’s 120 years old. On the day  I 
moved in, I had no electricity and someone told me to ring Hannes, the go-to guy here for that sort of service delivery glitch. I 
called him on his cell and he climbed a lamp post and sorted things out within minutes.” 

Grant doesn’t waste time searching for big city consumer nirvana. Choices are limited. “There’s a butcher, two small supermarkets, and a Pep store. Life is very simple. Loyalty cards are useless.” But she is spoilt for choice with vino. “Calitzdorp is the country’s top port-style wine producer, with five award-winning estates, and they also win many of the international awards,” she says. “We’re in the middle of Route 62, the world’s longest wine route.”

Media personality Amanda Forrow moved from Joburg to Knysna in 2011. “Knysna is the best-kept secret in the world. I’m still discovering all of these weird and wonderful out-of-the-way shops and restaurants. What’s also 
fascinating is that we have so many clever people who come down here. For example, we have one of the world’s top maxillofacial surgeons,” she says.

“Professionals also want to retire somewhere lovely and they often move
well before retirement, so they still carry on with their practices. We also have one of the best hospitals in the country, and it’s just been refurbished. And it’s our general public hospital. 

“The biggest thing for me,” Forrow says, “is the peace and quiet. I wake up every morning and there’s no noise. I go to sleep every night and there’s no noise. The only time there’s noise is December when all the Joburg people come down and have their parties.” Note to self: organise silent disco for December holidays in Knysna. And stock up on fancy salad stuff. But perhaps I’m just jealous. 

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