A Guide to Pella, Northern Cape.

Before I set out on this trip, I had never even heard of a little town called Pella, so you can imagine my surprise when (a month in) it turned out to be highlight thus far.

Pella is an unexpected oasis, surrounded by Medjool date palms in the Northern Cape province of South Africa, close to Pofadder.

In 1814, when Pella was still “Cammas Fontein”, the feared Nama raider and outlaw; Jager Afrikaner, attacked the Warmbad Mission in Great Namaqualand. The survivors fled like refugees to Cammas Fontein (Pella), where the resident London Missionary Society minister renamed it Pella, inspired by the ancient town east of the River Jordan to which the Christians withdrew in 70A.D. when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans.

The town was abandoned in 1872 because of drought, but the Roman Catholic Church reopened the mission in 1878 when a Roman Catholic missionary, Father Godelle, settled at Pella. His stay didn't last long though, as the intense heat and deprivation sent him back to France (not too unbelievable if you consider the temperature regularly reaches 50°C around these parts).

Father JM Simon arrived in 1882, eagerly volunteering to relinquish Father Godelle of his duty to develop this station. Struggling alone for two years, he made friends with the San who were naturally wary of strangers. Other priests tried to assist JM Simon with the development, but the heat and the loneliness drove them all back to France. That was until the arrival of Brother Leo Wolf in 1885, together with Father Simon, he was to serve the community of Pella for more than fifty years.

The permanent community and their established farming of today are primarily attributable to these two men.

Having established gardens and planted crops, they began to build a church. Today, the faded yellow cathedral seems out of place upon the dusty square, the only movement coming from the odd donkey walking past or children on their way home from school.

How the church came to be is an entire story in itself. The duo mentioned above started construction without an inkling of what they were getting themselves into. With no building experience, they based the entire design on a picture from an encyclopaedia. And so, construction started based on a copy of Encyclopedie des Arts et Metiers, which contained details of how to construct the pictured-building to a T.

Bricks were made 9 km away at the Orange River and limestone was transported by ox wagon from 160 km away and slaked with the water from the oasis. As if with every brick laid, Father Simon and Brother Leo Wolf learned more about the trade as they built. It took them seven years to finish, but the end result was magnificent. Only the altar was imported. Even the ironwork for the staircase was forged by these two priests at Pella.

Today, there’s not much to see in the town itself, aside of the cathedral and a little museum next to it, run by the resident nuns. Expect a handful of shacks, a few sandy roads and a couple of brick buildings and spaza shops.

However, the reason for my visit lies roughly 25 km from the town itself, a few kilometres south of the Orange River and home to the biggest date farm in the Southern Hemisphere. Klein Pella Guest House and Campsite is situated on a working farm. The owners are part of the Karsten Group, with ten farms, stretching from Klein Pella in the west to Kanoneiland in the east.

The Karsten Group was established in 1968, as a “family business and a business of families”. The group permanently employs almost 1 850 people and seasonally employs between 4 500 and 5 500 people.

The founder of this farming empire on the Orange River, Piet Karstens, stresses that people are the backbone of the business’s success. “Healthy profits are generated through a healthy workforce, which is why the ‘people factor’ forms a key element in our philosophy,” he says. It is thus critical to them to take care of their workers’ financial and social needs.

The Northern Cape-born business has now also expanded to the Western Cape, and they grow some of South Africa’s top export fruit like apples, dates, cherries and pears destined for mainland Europe, the UK, Asia, the Middle East, Russia, Canada, Nigeria and Ghana.

The on-site guest house has 7 en-suite bedrooms, a lounge, pool and restaurant (*a note that the guest house was closed during March of 2021 due to COVID), but I chose to set up camp on one of the 9 grassed camping sites next to the guest house. There are multiple neat and clean ablutions, a braai area, as well as a table, tap and electricity at each campsite.

There’s WiFi at the guesthouse for sending WhatsApp messages and emails, otherwise only Vodacom worked intermittently for calls and SMS’s. The sites are not pet-friendly and charged at R150 per person per night. It’s best to book by giving them a call on +27(0)54 972 9712 or +27(0)82 554 5995 or visiting the website at www.karsten.co.za.

I was lucky enough to visit during the annual date harvest (March and April), which gave me more than enough to do as I ran from plantation to plantation, taking in this mammoth task. I learned that the Karsten farm in Klein Pella is home to 87ha of date plantations consisting of 13 900 date palms. Of these, 12 600 are Medjool palms and 90% of all Medjool dates in South Africa are produced at Klein Pella.

When visiting outside of the harvest season, there are also a number of other activities to do on the farm itself. There are a couple of 4x4 routes close by and, as they’re on the Oranje River, you can look forward to activities like fishing, canoeing, river rafting, hiking, abseiling, rock climbing and picnics on the river banks.

I highly recommend driving down to the bottom plantations by the river (ask anyone on the farm for directions). Also, exit the campsite through the big farm gate at the bottom and take a walk into the veld or, if you’re feeling like more of a hike, explore the koppies on foot.

It’s good to know that, in summer, the average temperature is about 40 °C and there may be no rain for years on end. The stretch of road between Pella and Klein Pella Guest House is gravel road, but it’s in a good condition. (From Pofadder, on the N14) Drive for 24km after Pofadder turn right on the tar road to Pella, in about 300m you’ll see a sign to turn left onto a gravel road to Klein Pella. Stick to that road for 21 km until you reach a blue and white Karsten Farm Sign, leading you through two white walls. Another 7-8 km takes you straight to the farm’s entrance.

Otherwise, further information and resources: www.upington.com www.sa-venues.com www.tripadvisor.co.za www.namakwa-info.co.za www.sacampsites.co.za