Sojourn in silence
Nothing much was happening. As we sat on the infinitely comfortable sofa on the stoep of Poplar Grove's stone cottage all we could see was the African harrier hawk that flew over the ironstone koppie, a scrub hare that flicked its ears in the long grass and a cloud that changed into five different shapes as it drifted across the sky.
There is no electricity here, no wi-fi, no television and no cellphone signal. Apart from this gorgeous cottage, which is a short walk from the main farmhouse, there are two solitary hermitages set on koppies plus a few rooms in the main house. But this weekend, we were the only guests.
Two doors open on to the stoep of the stone cottage, which was a pumphouse in its previous incarnation. One leads to a bedroom with a fluffy feather duvet over a double bed and an en suite bathroom (complete with rubber ducks); the other opens on to a lounge-dining room with a tiny kitchen.
This is a self-catering establishment. But you'll find fresh milk and eggs in the fridge round the back - the sole electrically powered object in the vicinity.
The stoep sofa is the perfect place to spend time with a book. Looking for a good author or a thriller? You'll find some contenders on the shelf above the bed. More spiritual books can be found in a small library off the meditation barn, or Zendo.
Poplar Grove is a simple Karoo sheep farm just south of Colesberg and you can stay there any time. Meditate if you want, or just zone out in the space and silence. But it is also a place of formal Zen Buddhist practice. During the week-long retreats held four times a year, this lovely cottage is invariably the first to be booked out.
The retreats also seem to embody the charm of farm life. Poplar Grove co-owner and Buddhist teacher Antony Osler will tell you that, while Zen tradition usually involves sitting meditation, "we don't only follow that monastic format; we also practise being at home in the place we are, walking in the veld at sunrise and sunset, doing manual work and harvesting vegetables".
Margie and Antony Osler have lived at Poplar Grove for decades, on this sheep farm originally bought by his grandfather. They raised their now-adult daughters here. Margie, who trained in remedial teaching, farms the sheep, runs retreats for troubled children and looks after guests. Antony is a human rights lawyer, a Buddhist teacher and writer of two beautiful books: Stoep Zen and Zen Dust, which you'll also find in the cottage.
We were there between retreats, free to do as we wanted. In the afternoon we went for a long walk into the poplar thicket. In the evening we watched the koppie darken and disappear before lighting the candles and fixing supper on the gas stove in the tiny kitchen. We lit a fire and watched the stars. Once we had blown out the candles, an immense silent peace descended.
In the morning we watched the cow being milked by Tongo January. The ducks fussed with their feathers and headed into their pond for a paddle. The sheep grazed their way across the open veld.
We headed off to the Zendo, a place of quiet and meditation in what used to be a stone sheep-shearing shed.
We took off our shoes and left them in the little entrance hall. There were mats and comfortable pillows to sit on, and a Buddha sat serene in an alcove. Neither of us is Buddhist, and sitting quietly cross-legged doesn't come easily.
But on a peaceful Karoo farm, each moment can be a meditation.