Ficksburg Cherry Festival

Cherry Festival 2010

By Alice Kuhne

At exactly 12:30 noon on Friday I closed my laptop and cherrily bade colleagues goodbye and hopped into the car to meet up with my fellow cherry-pickers. We had about 350 kilometres of driving ahead and we wanted to get a good start. The weather was perfect. Joburg to the Free State is pretty low on scenery, but the roads are great. About 50 kilometres from Ficksburg, the landscape started to change. Flat veld rose up to soft hills and the distinctive lush green of Lesotho grew hill after hill.

We drove into Ficksburg at around six, just as the sun was setting, but we had to head out again to reach the camping grounds at Meulspruit Dam. The road took us above and around Ficksburg, and we could see the twinkling of fun fair rides below. I could see everyone in the car shifting excitedly like ten year-olds, all plastering our faces on the window facing Ficksburg.

We made it to Meulspruit Dam, about five kilometres outside of town. The very poor signage had us driving up and down and around, missing the camping grounds. At one point we had to do a three-point turn on a narrow road up against a cliff. We ended up in a six-point turn and a very grumpy owner of a scratched BMW, luckily we got some directions to the site from other fellow travellers and there was just enough light for us to pitch our tents and we wasted no time piling back into the cars and head back to town to find the festival.

Tired by now, and very hungry, we were salivating as we paid our R40 entrance to the festival. Entertainer, Nadine, was jumping and singing on stage to a huge audience of mesmerised two-tone shirts and velskoene. Soon we were tasting all sorts of cherry liqueurs, kirschwassers, fresh cherries, and then other goodies like cold meats, smoked fish, the most amazing chilli olives and Frangolina Rosso, an Italian red bubbly that tasted of strawberries (which had every girl in our group weak at the knees as we let out a synchronised: ’awww’.

After trawling the market stalls and fully loading on liqueurs and chutneys, we entered the Castle tent for beer; lots and lots of cold, draft beer. I was also excited to discover Premium Klippies on sale for R15, but most exciting was seeing the crowd. I wasn’t sure whether they were small dorpie folk or visiting festival goers from the cities like us. But you know how the 80s are back, in a retro, funky sort of way? I don’t think the 80s ever left Ficksburg. There was much langarm/soki-soki, which was challenging considering the dance floor of lumpy grass, which meant everyone compensated by hopping their way across the tent. It felt oddly natural, and I truly experienced our rainbow nation when I was langarm-ing with an energetic Indian guy to Lady Gaga.

Early Saturday morning, I dreamed of crying babies and bad music, only to wake up to crying babies and bad music. The Cherry Mountain Bike Challenge registration started at 6:30 and that was preceded by very loud house music. The already risen sun meant that our tents were slowly turning into mini ovens, so we dragged our hung-over heads into town for breakfast. Breakfast at the Cliff House was surprisingly good, we all had the eat-as-much-as-you-can buffet for R55. They had run out of the advertised muffins by the time we got there, so we were graciously given a R20 discount each, a big surprise to all of us. This doesn’t happen in the cities.

The Tourist Information Centre was situated on the same property and after breakfast, we booked a cherry tour. There were two such tours operating from the tourist information office (Ben Nevis Farm and Loskop Farm): R140 included a shuttle ride to the farm, a tour, and cherry picking in the orchards. But the number of waiting tourists grew as we sweated under the scorching Free State sun. Shuttle busses arrived few and far between and at one point I thought the tourists would turn into angry mobs wielding fire torches and pitchforks to burn down the impromptu Computicket office. Luckily we were tipped off by an old acquaintance to drive to a cherry farm in our own car, so we ask for refunds and headed out.

Ionia Farm is just 24 kilometres outside of Ficksburg. Their cherry tours included information on the cultivation, ten minutes of cherry-picking, and a punnet of Grade A cherries to take home (or eat there, if you can’t wait). We had hoped to find the famed stained windows at All Saint’s Church (we read about it in the official Cherry Festival Programme), but it was closed. Then we tried to follow the signs to fresh asparagus, but only to find that the signs led nowhere. How we managed to get lost in a town about the size of four city blocks, I don’t know.

That evening, after a nap and shower back at the camp site, we drove into town for a good supper. We walked into a fancy-looking hotel only to be told supper was not served there. They recommended the Cliff House (where we had had breakfast), and well that was about the choice of fine dining at Ficksburg. But supper at Cliff House was fantastic. Service was super friendly, all the mains were served at the same time (!), and the ingredients just fantastic. We rolled out with full bellies and looked forward to snuggling inside our tents.

Thankfully Sunday morning was uninterrupted by doof-doof music, and it was overcast, which meant we could comfortably sleep in a little later, until about 7:30. Hey, the camp site is only R100, which fits about four people’s worth of tent space and a car, so that’s only R25 per person per night. You can’t expect to get too much comfortable sleep at those prices.

An early start meant we could fit in more activities on our last day. We headed back to Ionia farm. We each stocked up on a year’s supply of maraschino cherries, cherries in liqueur, and fresh cherries to take back to friends and family back home. Lunch was at Clarens (hot air ballooning in Clarens is occassionally on offer), a relatively large town and more catered for tourists (they had more than two restaurants), and we ended up spending a good few hours eating, drinking, and browsing the shops. It’s always interesting to see what you can find at these places. We found a belt bag made out of the head (and another one, the claw) of a baby crocodile. The possibilities are just endless.

We reluctantly said goodbye and headed home, getting back to Gauteng in a comfortable three hours. Overall, the trip was fantastic. We had good company, good food, good wine, and lots of beautiful food to share when we got home. We can now all say that we have picked cherries from a cherry farm. But in all honesty, it was one of those: I’m glad I did it, but once in a lifetime is enough.

I would, however, drive the three odd hours back to stock up on maraschino cherries, as it’s only been five days and I’m already about halfway through my year’s supply.

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