Blanco Guest Farm, Tarkastad. A best-kept secret to some, a newly discovered gem to others. Or perhaps to the uninitiated, it will become both
Nestled below the Winterberg Mountains in the Eastern Cape, Blanco is a perfect escape from the busyness of work or the city. It is like some tranquil therapy, a return to forgotten country living. The warm hospitality, lack of pretentiousness and range of sporting and farm activities are great for the soul and excellent for time with the family.
Its isolated geography makes it a serene safehaven too, the stillness only broken by the toll of a small bell to signal the next meal or that tea is being served on the stretched stoep. That’s also the time when the farm reminds you that you did indeed bring children, who reappear ravenous after hours of roaming the farm or boarding donkey cart rides with their new best friends!
Blanco has been a family farm for more than a hundred years now, and while the common creaks and cracks do display the old lady’s age, her charm (that entices so many back) remains. Many prefer it that way.
Chris and Kim Laubscher have run Blanco since 2003, and there seemed an inevitability that they would always do that. ‘Mom was born at Blanco,’ Chris starts, ‘in the room behind the bar. My great gran inherited Blanco as a wedding present, and so my grandfather ran it. He realised the land (at 1 500 hectares) was too small to make a real (farming) go of it.’
But new doors opened in the late 1940s when National Geographic did a survey in the area and declared that the foot of the Winterberg has the second healthiest air in the world. That was good news for kids with asthma, skin ailments and more, and so the Laubscher grandparents set about building a local school designed to offer an education in a place that would help rid many of their ailments. With a certain boarding permanence now instilled, accommodation and meals were established for the visiting parents. And thus were set the beginnings of a guest farm, too.
Chris’s father may have been a partner with KPMG until his retirement in the late 1990s, but Chris’s interests were less inclined to bookkeeping and taxes, so he took to farming in Parys. That was until he took on the Blanco mantle from his uncle in 2003 at a time when the farm was struggling. The interest rates were a nervy 25%, but with some ensuing stability and focusing on the main revenue stream (accommodation), Blanco began building itself up again.
New buildings were erected: a farmhouse, then a manor house. New appointments also brought new sets of eyes who could tweak and improve things. But the key ingredients remained the retention of familiarity and the spirit of Blanco.
‘The challenges for us,’ Chris explains, ‘is that we’re out in the sticks, so getting people over here is not always easy. We’re reliant on local tourism too; we don’t draw international tourists like some of the game farms around Cradock. Also, the place doesn’t necessarily cater for everybody. It’s awesome for kids up to 15 or 16 years old … before they head to Plett Rage! But the funny thing is how many of those kids tend to come back as adults or come back with their own kids, after that hiatus of the late teens and perhaps early to mid-twenties.’
Blanco was not immune to the many lockdown and travel restrictions of the last few years either. Their old gates were nearly closed and locked permanently at one point …
‘March 2020 was really difficult,’ Chris reminisces. ‘School holiday folk had already arrived, and then that first speech by the President came like a bombshell. We had to send our guests away – and we remained empty for four months. We had to watch our costs so carefully, live on the absolute minimum, freeze bank loans, reduce salaries, and even take water out of the swimming pool for washing and cleaning. Government funding helped our staff a little bit, but we lost four key months of our year. At the end of June 2020, I said to Kim that if we don’t have a clear point where we can open again, I don’t think we’re going to make it.’
Some of the Blanco Faithful may have returned when the restrictions opened up, but with the levels wavering like a roller coaster, it took a long time to see confidence in travel and bookings return.
‘We were always playing catch-up on costs,’ Chris muses. ‘When we started trading again, we couldn’t strategise financially for a year either. We were dividing our year up into smaller, almost quarterly projections. It wasn’t possible for us to budget for a year.’
Still, stability has fortunately come in part with the vaccine rollouts and renewed confidence in travel, and the arrivals to Blanco look consistent with pre-COVID times: 70% of the market is Cape-based, but there are also a lot of Gauteng and inland visitors stopping over on their way down to the shores in and around the Southern Cape, PE (Gqeberha) and East London.
It’s great to see an old charm like Blanco revived once more, and take it from me and my children’s regular choruses (‘when are we going back?’): you will find few stopovers more satisfying and relaxed than Blanco. And if you are that first-timer, you’ll probably leave wondering why you hadn’t done it sooner.
BLANCO CONTACT DETAILS
(045) 846 9163
WhatsApp: 068 260 1268
- Come prepared to Blanco depending on the season … Midwinter is all about the cold and finding one of the many indoor fires, while the heat of midsummer sends you to the large pool.
- Blanco is within a registered nature reserve that includes game.
- Blanco’s facilities include tennis courts, a squash court, nine-hole chip and putt golf course, bowling green, sauna, trampoline and pool table, as well as kiddies and teenagers’ games rooms, horse riding, game park drives, hiking and mountain bike trails, birdwatching, 4 X 4 trails and kids playgrounds.
- Blanco doesn’t serve alcohol, so you’d need to bring your own drinks.
- They cater for weddings and conferences.
Matt Knight, SAICA