The Historic Corbelled Houses of the Karoo in South Africa

A South African Karoo corbelled house. (Photograph by Chris Marais, Karoo Space)

As you drive along one of the traveler’s routes through the Karoo region of South Africa, you’ll often see vast swathes of nothing but stone and hard ground.

Occasionally, just to break the rocky landscape, there might be an outcrop of trees. Beefwoods, pepper trees, olives, eucalypts, salt bushes, and conifers are all visible from time to time. However, they were brought in by settlers over the centuries.

corbelled house on Langbaken Farm, Northern Cape, South Africa
In parts of the Northern Cape, the first farm building was usually a corbelled house. (Photograph by Chris Marais, Karoo Space)

When the first white trekboere (migrant stock farmers) established their seasonal outposts in the Northern Cape Karoo in the early 1800s, they needed to build dwellings and granaries to protect their families and stores from the harsh climes.

Apart from the odd riverside Acacia karroo tree and millions of knee-high fragrant bushes, there was little wood to be found. There was, however, no shortage of dolerite and sandstone and so the corbelled house became the architectural style of the day.

Cozy and Safe

The houses provided excellent shelter. The six-metre-high ceilings and thick walls were cool in summer, and the rocks held the heat of the sun in winter.

Plus, you could make a fire inside. All you needed for a chimney was to climb up the rock-scaffolding and remove the topmost flat stone.

ceiling of corbelled house, Northern Cape, South Africa
The intricate geometic layering of rocks make up the ceiling of a corbelled house. (Photograph by Chris Marais, Karoo Space)

Window openings were small, specifically to restrict the effects of Bushman arrows during attacks on the settlers, which were quite frequent at the beginning of the 19th century.

You still see them out there in what is known as the Upper Karoo: raw stone or white-washed igloos built from perfectly balanced flat stones. Some have been abandoned, others have been lovingly restored and do duty as self-cater guest houses on family farms.

Once you’re in the Carnarvon-Williston district, the horizons are so wide, the road is so never-endingly straight that you feel you’re in the Faraway Country.

You’re miles from nowhere, as the song goes, and you’re staying over in a 200-year-old corbelled house with paraffin lamps and an outdoors shower kept warm by a wood-burning ‘donkey’ stove.

corbelled house at sunset in the Karoo, South Africa
A corbelled house on Osfontein Farm in the Northern Cape. (Photograph by Chris Marais, Karoo Space)

Relive the Frontier Days

On Stuurmansfontein Farm outside Carnarvon, you light the candles and relive the frontier days when bywoner (tenant farmer) Fanie Bergh and his clan thrived here.

By all accounts, the Berghs (who worked for the farm owners, the Bothas) wanted for very little. They planted a wide variety of fruit trees, a windpump supplied the water and heritage roses surrounded the homestead.

They laid out fruit to dry, protected by a low stone wall to keep hungry tortoises out.

wheat threshing area, Northern Cape farm
The stone wheat-threshing kraal and corbelled store room at Stuurmansfontein, Northern Cape. (Photograph by Chris Marais, Karoo Space)

The Bergh family was locally famous for their great coffee, and the secret lay in the dried figs that were crushed into the beans before roasting.

Fresh mutton cuts were stored in the coolest spot in the house: under the marital bed. The floors were made of mud and dung.

When the Berghs planted wheat, they would separate the grain from the chaff on the threshing floor about 200 yards down the hill, storing the grain in another special little purpose-built corbelled house.

Their recorded lifestyle offers up one major lesson to the modern visitor. It’s possible to live healthily and happily off the grid, but you need to know a lot of stuff—like how to build a corbelled house.

Corbelled House Mystery

No one really knows how this ancient Mediterranean style of architecture arrived here in South Africa’s version of the Outback.

Some say it must have been a trader or a sailor from Malta or Portugal who built the first Karoo corbelled house.

They speculate that this skill was then passed on to the indigenous Khoi-Khoi. Their clientele would have been the families of trekboers constantly swirling about the region.

Stuurmansfontein Farm, Northern Cape
Stuurmansfontein Farm – this corbelled house is now a very popular self-cater facility for travelers. (Photograph by Chris Marais, Karoo Space)

Around Williston, people still speak of ‘Tiensjielings’ (Ten Shillings) and ‘Gedaanwerk’ (Done With Work), two men of Khoi-Khoi origin who built superb corbelled houses on the farms Schuinshoogte and Arbeidersfontein.

Others say the trekboers came up with the corbelled house concept by themselves. The records are unclear.

Out here in the flat lands, it was simply a case of the self-reliant boers using what whatever was available around them.

They’d stash their tobacco and medicine in recessed ‘keep holes’, and when times were good, they built adjoining kitchens, or more rooms.

And they were blessed with the finest TV you could ever watch: Channel One, featuring the all-round night stars of the Upper Karoo.

karoo sunset, Northern Cape, South Africa
Karoo sunsets – part of your package when you stay overnight in a Northern Cape corbelled house. (Photograph by Chris Marais, Karoo Space)

Human Journey

Meet the Author
Chris Marais is an award-winning photo-journalist and independent publisher who (with his writer wife Julienne du Toit) owns and manages the definitive website on the semi-desert Karoo region – South Africa’s heartland. Chris and Julie have co-authored seven southern African travel books, including the best-selling Karoo Keepsakes I and II. Together, they cover the history, cultures, lifestyles natural elements and issues facing this massive part of South Africa.