The Williston Hotel wears its one star proudly, on a plaque outside the door. It wears, equally proudly, a certificate stating that it serves wine by the glass. There are old sewing machines, leather suitcases and hatboxes, wooden kists, old tins and tea-chests. ‘Hotel California’ is playing in the bar. We’d been driving through the Karoo most of the day. We hadn’t checked in yet and already we thought we might never leave.
It was like going back twenty years. None of the political claptrap of twenty years ago, mind you. Just the easy-going hospitality of a South African dorp hotel. Williston is in the middle of the Karoo, in the centre of South Africa. Away from the tourist routes. Away from timeshare and golf resorts, zebra-stripe and sushi.
Like all those old dorp hotels, the Williston Hotel is intriguing. The rooms are basic; the curtains are threadbare, the floors creaking, the mattresses sprung like traps. Sit down too suddenly and you hit the ceiling. There is an old bakelite phone by the bed, but it isn’t connected, and a hospital-style radio marked with sadly obsolete stations – Springbok and the A programme. You expect to press a button and for a pukka-toned voice in the bedhead to say “Good Morning, this is the English Service of the SABC”.
The bathwater takes 10 minutes to run hot, amidst much creaking and cracking, but when it gets to you it’s instantly so hot that you can’t put the bath-plug in. The loo-handle is upside down and has to be yanked but it flushes with the power of the Victoria Falls.
By the time I reached the bar that evening, I knew the definition. Gasvryheid. Hospitality is one thing, but gasvryheid is more. Guest freedom.
Gasvryheid-Provider-in-Chief is Else Grant. She and husband Geoff (who is banished to the kitchen for good reason) bought the hotel a year ago. Else was born in Williston but they had been living in Aliwal-North for many years. They then tried P.E. for a year but hated it. (Could this be further proof that gasvryheid is a step beyond friendliness?).
The bar is filled with friends and locals and Else is buzzing around sympathising with those of us who think that the Karoo night is chilly and showing us how to dress for the climate. Else is hospitality in an anorak.
Geoff came out of the kitchen only once, when she called him to “kom kyk vir hierdie mense van Aliwal-Noord”. He wasn’t to speak to them though. Merely to look at them and remind himself, presumably, how lucky he was to be living in Williston (which 20 years ago would have said it had a population of 300) and not on the N6 just around the corner from a concentration camp in Aliwal North. Much better off here with the quiet, the karakuls and the corbelled houses.
We learned about chiselled tombstones and singing hills, skuinskoek and kossemeer. But more than anything else we learnt what it is to be looked after, in an alien environment, as if you belong.
Geoff’s menu was a shock, as was his dinner. No frozen calamari, no chicken and chips here. I had the snails in blue cheese which bubbled deliciously all over the place like a souffle and then I had the best Madagascar Green Peppercorn steak imaginable to follow. Tender beef, crunchy fresh peppercorns, chopped onions and cream, al dente veggies and a good dose of gasvryheid. The lamb chops were just as good.
We drank too much, but not as much too much as the overwhelmed woman from Cape Town at the next table. She got stuck into the cocktails after dinner and her last words to the locals, as we sidled off to bed, were “Daar’s en special op whisky in Teazers van half agt tot tien”. One wonders what the good burgers of Williston (pop. 300) made of that.
Breakfast held no surprises. It was expectedly excellent and we were greeted with freshly-ground coffee, real toast made from real bread (not government loaf squashed in sandwich-toaster), the perfect fried egg and that almost extinct concept, the edible breakfast sausage.
The Grants have plans to renovate the rooms but I have some advice for them. Change the mattresses and possibly the curtains (but please no pink and green swirly) and connect the phones and the radios if you must, but don’t change anything else. Keep it one star and, Else, keep him in the kitchen.
We were sorry to check out. Never mind The Eagles, we didn’t want to leave. We wanted to stay in the Karoo for the rest of our lives..
Williston Savoury Grilled Lamb Chops
Lamb loin chops cut to 2-2,5cm thickness
Colmans hot English mustard
Colmans mint sauce
1. Heat a small quantity of oil in a thick-based pan. Sear chops on both sides for 30 seconds to seal them.
2. Make a paste of 50% mustard and 50% mint sauce. Spread a layer on one side of the chops. Sprinkle with a little pepper and salt. Make a mix of 60% honey and 40% lemon juice. Pour some over each chop.
3. Place under grill, 15cm below the element. Grill until covering caramelises (approx 3 minutes).
4. Turn chops over and repeat steps 2 and 3.