Old Habits Die Hard

The farm house at Juriesfontein

If you stand on the koppie on Juriesfontein farm in the Nelspoort area you can easily trace the route that the postman of yesteryear took from Beaufort West to Murraysburg.    It snakes across the veld  like a long brown ribbon .   The route is punctuated by a huge heap of tiny white pebbles just below the koppie at Juriesfontein and behind this lies an interesting tale.    At this spot the postman had to make a detour through a kloof to go round the koppie and as ever in the Karoo it was said that the Kloof was haunted.   More than ghosts the postmen on the route feared evil men, fearsome fellows who may pounce out of the shadows, beat them up and rob them.  Tiny white stones dropped at this specific spot were said to be powerful enough to warm off the  spectres of the road as well as those with evil intentions.   So, in days of yore each postman got off his horse at this spot to stretch his legs, answer the call of nature and seek just the right little white pebble to add to the heap.    Other passer along this route did the same and over the years the heap grew into a considerable pyramid.   Even today visitors to the farm may laugh when they hear this story, but no o ne ever leaves this spot without  dropping a pebble onto the heap – just for luck!  Experts say that this ritual of tossing a stone on a specific heap to ward off evil dates far back into the histories of several of South Africa’s indigenous races.

The San for their superstitions and strange beliefs tossed an extra stone on to any grave they passed out of respect for the dead.  They would also not cast a shadow on a dying animal for fear of evil befalling them and traditionally they saluted the bravery of any animal they had hunted and killed before tearing it up to eat.    Researchers say they considered the moon a piece of hide that had been thrown into the sky and stars to be sparks from a dying fire.

Curious Phantom of the Highway

Lord Milner Hotel, Matjiesfontein

In 1993, almost a century after one of Scotland’s greatest heroes was killed in Africa a group of admirers gathered at Matjiesfontein in the Karoo to pay tribute to him.   Major General Andrew Wauchope, known to his men as “Red Mick” was killed at Magersfontein, and as was traditional he was buried there with his men.   Soon after, however,  James D Logan, The Laird of Matjiesfontein, arranged for Wauchope’s body to be exhumed and reburied at this village which he owned in the Karoo.  The ardent followers of this hero gathered at the little village and then crammed into one car made their way to the Monument Cemetery 10 km away.   One wee dram led to another and within short the pipes were out and the haunting strains of a lament filled the crisp dry air.  Then followed some rousing reels and marches all well saluted with a glass or two of the “good stuff” specially brought into the country for the occasion.  This continued until the piper tired and lay down beside a tree to “rest his eyes” and “catch his breath”.   He closed his eyes, he said, only for a wee while and thought of Scotland. When he opened then dusk had fallen and to his horror his friends had departed.

With a philosophical shrug he decided the best he could do was to walk back to the Lord Milner Hotel at Matjiesfontein where the group was staying.  To keep his spirits up he decided to play a few airs on the bagpipes.  At this time a family travelling the N1 had just stopped for a snack and to stretch their legs.  The tourists’ hair stood on end when out of the evening gloom of the wayside cemetery they saw a piper, in full Highland regalia, emerge from among the gravestones, and start up the hill playing the pipes.  All the piper saw as he skipped across the stile was them flinging their things hastily back into the car and them racing off into the night.

The piper continued up the highway, well oiled from the drams o the afternoon and feeling no pain.  He used the white lines in the centre of the road as a guide.   There was little traffic, but the few cars that did approach slowed almost to a stop and sped furiously off.  He could not understand this behaviour.  Then a local farmer pulled up next to him and helped him into the bakkie.  “God Lord, man,” said the farmer.  “You’ve scared everyone half to death.   This is one of the most haunted areas of South Africa and cars are screeching into Matjiesfontein with everyone raving on about the ghost of the Old Major marching up the highway.”  The piper guffawed.  It gave him a splendid story to tell the lads back in the old country.  And, after this story appeared in Rose’s Round-up and the Press, some wrote in suggesting this was a wonderful job opportunity for a retired piper!

Midas of the Mountains

The Nuweveld Mountains home of a rare butterfly.

There is a rare golden creature that flutters about only in the Nuweveld Mountains above Beaufort West in the Great Karoo.   This seldom seen butterfly is the Poecilmitis midas, a handsome creature with brilliant metallic golden-orange coloured wings.   It was seen during summer flying flies under high precipices at altitudes of over 1 500 m above sea level and once reported it drew lepidopterists to the area.  The first specimen was caught in October, 1954, by D Dickson and because of its rich colour this beautiful rarity was named after the mythical King Midas who turned everything he touched to gold.  The butterfly was seen again in 1967 and after that it seems to have disappeared.  In the 1970s after a severe drought lepidopterists scoured the mountains in search of the rare butterfly without any luck.  Now and then farmers spied some, but there are no official reports of the Midas of the Mountains ever having been seen again.   There is a specimen in the British museum, a few specimens are in private collections.  Well-known lepidopterist and author of Butterflies of Africa, K M Pennington, also has a specimen.  Continuous droughts in the Karoo have been blamed for the non-appearance of this beautiful creature.

It is not the only “midas” of its kind to be found in the Karoo. The Midas Opal Chrysoritis midas, a member of the Lycaenidae family is found in various spots along the Roggeveld escarpment to Nuweveld Mountains from September to November, each year.    This creature is more common. Males have a wingspan of 24-28 mm and females are slightly bigger with a wingspan of 25-30 mm. Only one generation occurs each year.   The larvae feed on Disopyros austro-africana a beautiful indigenous shrub that bears little cream, pink and even red lantern-like flowers, commonly known as “tolbos”.  It is a water-wise plant that can tolerate frosts.  Its name comes from the Greek – “dios” meaning “divine” and “pyro” meaning whet or grain.  It was given this name because its various parts provide food for so many animals.

The butterfly larvae are attended to by Crematogaster liengmei ants.

Oddball Surveyor Was A Legend …

Beafort West's " Moederkerk"

Every man needs a little madness, so he can cut the rope and be free, was the philosophy of that unforgettable film character, Zorba the Greek. In the 1860s, James Alexander Thwaits, Beaufort West’s eccentric and greatly acclaimed land surveyor, appeared to have the same approach to life. Tall, slim and imposing, this bearded Scot, with steel blue eyes, laid out the town and served on the Council from 1858 to 1867.

A wealthy, forceful man, James had a great passion for lawsuits.   James often indulged this passion in the courts and was quite undaunted by the loss of a lawsuit. “Strategy and pursuit afford a thrill equal to victory,” he once said. James was a brilliant mathematician, with “an eye like no other for direction and distance,” it was said. He aspired to Parliament and was elected, but his career was short lived.  A heckler at his first public meeting so annoyed James  that he leaped from the platform and landed a mighty blow on his tormentor’s chin. This wild swing flattened the heckler, but it also dealt a knock-out blow to James’s  political career.

James Thwaits was the source of much amusement throughout the the Karoo.  He was once unable to find a house large enough to accommodate his family of 15. No trouble to James, he simply  purchased a hotel and turned it into a private residence. He was at times absent-minded, which his family attributed to the fact that “he lived in a maze of figures.”  James stunned Beaufort Westers one Sunday morning when he strode into church smartly swinging his walking stick, resplendent in an old nightgown and bedroom slippers, a top hat perched rakishly on his imposing head and with Bible and psalm book in an elegantly gloved hand.

The lovely Miss Bantjes eventually stole the heart of James Alexander Thwaits, and  they were married in Beaufort West’s Dutch Reformed Church.  She was a direct descendant of Jan Gerrit Bantjes, of Winschoten, a Hollander who came to South Africa as a junior officer with the Dutch East India Company, but who deserted in 1755 to become a Cape burgher.  His heartbroken father never forgave him.  He had hoped that Jan, an only child, would one day  return to run the family business.  In his anger the exceedingly wealthy old man made an astonishing will. He cut Jan out and left his fortune to any of his descendants who might be alive 100 years after his death.  In 1894, a century after old man Bantjes’s death, a notice appeared in South African newspapers calling on any Bantjes who felt he had a rightful claim to the inheritance to identify himself. By that time the fortune was said to have grown to £10 000 000.

The news caused a considerable stir, and James was convinced the children of his first wife would qualify,  so he cut them out of his will.  He died shortly afterwards, leaving them destitute.    By the 1930s South African members of  the Bantjes family were still trying to claim the family millions.

The Quiet Girl On A Dark And Lonely Road

Beafort West's main road where Abel dropped the girl

Its the people who make the Karoo.   They have a special way of creeping into your heart and ensuring that you hever forget them.   This was the case with Abel Phelps.  Way back in 1930, the then  youthful and carefree Abel,  had a strange encounter in the Karoo near Beaufort West.  The meeting lived forever in his mind and as he got older he felt a keen need to solve the riddle, but sadly he never did.  Abel, was 20 years old when he stopped to give  a mysterious young girl a lift to Beaufort West on the back of his motorcycle, and for over 70 years now he never stopped  wondering  what could have become of her.

“It was early evening when  I passed through Beaufort West en-route to  Cradock,  but  pushed on to Nelspoort.  As darkness approached, I  stopped to camp at the roadside.  I kept a  sleeping bag on to the back of my bike for such occasions. I was just about to make a little fire to braai a few mutton chops when I noticed a young girl walking along the darkening road towards Beaufort West.  She was carrying a small suitcase.  She did not pause to greet me as she purposefully strode along looking oddly nervous. I wondered where she was going, but did not react until she was quite a distance away.  Then some instinct drove me to follow her and offer her a lift. She quietly accepted, so I put my travelling pillow on the back to make a seat for her and slung her suitcase around my neck.  Strangely, it weighed almost nothing.  Soon it became dark. It was a rough ride to town on the gravel road.

I thought how uncomfortable the poor girl must be, but she did not utter a sound.”   After travelling 19 miles back to Beaufort West in silence, Abel reached the centre of town. He asked the girl where she wanted to be dropped. “‘Here will be fine,” she said, dismounted and with a simple “thank you” took her case and disappeared into the night. “I never saw nor heard of her again,” says Abel.  “All the way back to my campsite, difficult to find in the dark, I wondered about her. The next day a farmer asked if I’d seen a girl on the road the previous evening. ‘Yes,’ I eagerly replied, anxious to hear more. He simply said she’d lived on a neighbouring farm, where she had been sent to help the farmer’s wife.  She’d apparently not been kindly treated, so had probably fled in desperation, perhaps hoping to return home.

In 2002 Abel, at the age of 92 tried to find out more. “I often wonder what became of her,” he said. “ I have a friend who believes we are at times  ‘sent’ to do certain things. Perhaps  I was sent that night to help that girl on a deserted road in the middle of nowhere.  I would love to hear from anyone who can complete this story for me.” His plea was published in Rose’s Round-up – no one ever answered.

The Eternal Duel Of The Plains

The crags where eagles hunt

A daily duel takes place out there in the wilds on the limitless plains of the Great Karoo and few are even aware of it.  The adversaries have honed their timing.  This daily duel is fought with the split-second timing now associated with high-speed sports such as motor racing, yet this deadly duel was already honed to perfection when men were still swinging from the trees.  The rivals are the black eagle and the elephant’s tiny cousin, the dassie or rock hyrax. These eagles, monarchs of the mountains, prowl the skies their keen eyes scanning the plains below in search of a tasty dassie. But in order to sing his claws into this little animal, his staple diet, the eagle must dive from 150m to ground level in three seconds.  This means that the raptor hits a speed of about 180 kph as he cannons downwards.   The canny little dassie, which has a special lens in its eye which enables it to look directly into the sun,  has figured this out, so he limits his feeding to a maximum range of 12 meters from his rock shelter.  When grazing or simply basking in the sun the dassie colony ensures that sentinels are always on duty.   These fellows are extremely vigilant and scream out a warning the instant they spot an eagle. Once the sentinel sounds the warning the dassie has 2,7 seconds to scamper back to safety doing about 16 kph.    For the brave who have ventured out for the full 12 meters it’s a breathtaking dash.   But it’s all pretty neat  when you think about it – only only 0,3 seconds is the difference between eating or being eaten.   Things come apart, however, when young males are driven out of the shelters and denied the services of a sentry.    But then eagles have to eat and a pair of black eagles usually catches about 150 dassies a year.  Cute as they may seem to some dasses can be an awful menace and in days of yore early farmers used to pay a “penny a pelt” for dassie skins.

Drought always lurks in the shadows

A klipspringer searches for water

The plight of Beaufort West has touched the nation.  The town is in the grips of the worst drought in 130 years and has no water.  Most travellers of the busy N1 highway are answering pleas made by journalists like David Biggs (Tavern of the Seas, Cape Argus) and Amoré Bekker of Radio RSC who have appealed to all  who pass through to bring “a bottle for Beaufort.”   Locals say the reaction has been heart-warming.  Even Bonnievale has reacted and this little town today dispatching tankers carrying 200 000 litres of water for the struggling Beaufort Westers.

The first drought in the recorded history of Beaufort West ended in 1823. However, 1827 was also a particularly dry year and hundreds of animals died.  Then things went better for a while, but drought struck again from 1856 – 1859 and this three-year drought said the newspapers was “of a dimension never before experienced.” The farming community was crippled.  There was no fodder and fountains began to dry up. Game died in the hundreds.

Then there was a year’s reprieve, but drought struck again in 1861. For a decade and a half things were fine, but a different problem arose in 1872, and 1875 – extraordinary high falls of snow took their toll of stock.  By 1876 a new drought started and lasted until 1878. In the first year Nelspoort, a little hamlet 40 km north of Beaufort West, received only 25 mm (one inch) of rain.  Beaufort West farmers culled their lambs to save the ewes, but despite this lost over two thirds of their livestock.

Drought struck Beaufort West again in 1901 at the height of the Anglo-Boer War and the crisis was made worse by the British Army setting up a camp in this village.  In drought ravaged conditions (between 1901 and 1902) locals had to contend with supporting the thousands of British soldiers and their horses.   There was little fresh drinking water and the horses trampled what little grazing existed on the veld.  By 1903 it was so dry that 300 blue gum trees in a plantation at the end of Donkin Street died.  Relief came, then severe snow in 1912 and another extreme drought.

Beaufort West was hit by severe drought at the outbreak of the First World War and this one lasted until 1916. A decade of relief followed, but 1926 was again exceptionally dry – only a 63mm (2,47 inches) of rain fell.  Locals said this was barely enough to settle the dust.  The drought lasted for two years and in that time killed most fruit trees, quince and pomegranate hedges.  Rain came. A world wide depression followed and another drought (stories of  drought at this time appear in Rose’s Round-up)  Heavy snow fell again in 1933 – this fall was so intense that sheep were able to walk from one farm to another as the fences were buried.  Farmers considered 1934 to be “a good year” and in 1937 they said “really good rains fell.” Then there was more drought, more rain and more snow. The cycle rolled on across the decades to peaking at this severe drought.

The Karoo is a harsh country and will always be, but severest conditions bring people together and Beaufort West will be eternally grateful to all who have opened their hearts to them in this time of woe.

The Magic of Moonlight in the Karoo

If there's a road - it must go somewhere.

The Karoo – vast, endless, isolated and humbling – is perhaps the one place where you can find true freedom. Test this by visiting a far flung farm. You’ll find cellphones don’t work there, nor do faxes and telephones can’t constantly haunt you.  As you turn off the highway onto a gravel road that vanishes into the distance you can watch the cellphone reception bars disappear one by one until the screen blissfully states “no service”. Some experience withdrawal symptoms as this happens and turn back, but the true adventurer, the discerning tourist, in search of something different, will brave the route and feel tranquility creep into their soul.

Setting off down these less travelled roads is addictive.  You find yourself constantly wondering: “What’s round the next bend?”   Initially I was like a swimmer reluctant to kick off from the side of the pool because I was not sure how deep the water would be, but Wally was different.  His philosophy was: “If it’s a road it must go somewhere.”   And so we travelled on farm roads, old post roads and along countless gravel roads discovering the true Karoo.  The further we drove the more we wanted to see.  This pastime afforded us true enjoyment and absolute peace as we sat in the filtered shade of a thorn tree, sharing a flash of coffee and soaking up the ambience of the Karoo.

We often drove up into the mountains at the end of a busy day to enjoy a sundowner and maybe braai a piece of wors and watch the moonlight tint the veld with silver.  As the day faded in a rich triumph of colour little creatures would begin to scurry about greeting the coming night and searching for snacks. I think the field mice amused us most.  We would sit very quietly like pioneers beside our dying fire and watch as twitching noses and trembling whiskers appeared at the edge of the grass verge and beady eyes checked to see what morsels would be left.

Soon after Murray and Mariette de Villiers started a guest house on their farm, La De Da, on the outskirts of Beaufort West, the wife of a busy business man called to make a weekend booking.  “We may not stay the whole time,” she said. “Husband appeared more than stressed and she too had an underlying nervousness.  They were obviously tired, so they had supper and vanished off to bed,   Next day Murray took them for a long drive to show them the Karoo and Mariette suggested a few good walks in the afternoon.  The couple had ordered a warm-up supper for the evening, so De Villiers family did not see them after lunch.

At about 20h00 that night Murray was checking on things near the farm house when he heard a portable radio playing softly at the swimming pool. The visitors had obviously left it on, so he went to turn it off.   As he neared the pool he saw them dancing in the moonlight in a close embrace.  The remnants of their poolside dinner stood alongside an empty wine bottle.  Murray softly turned and tip-toed back home.  He knew the Karoo had worked its magic.

Hey Presto! A hospital

The graveyard at Deelfontein

Lord Roberts chose the spot, but it was two dynamic English women who ensured that Deelfontein Military Hospital became a reality.  Those who have seen Deelfontein wonder why such a far-flung spot was chosen as a site for a major hospital.  The Anglo-Boer War was at its height in January, 1900, when Sir Redvers Buller was recalled and Lord Roberts sent to South Africa to replace him as commander-in-chief of the British Forces.   (Lord Roberts heard the news of his appointment and of the death of his only son, Freddy, who had been killed at Colenso, almost simultaneously.)

Roberts soon discovered that typhoid (enteric fever) was rife throughout the British Army and realised that a military hospital was urgently required.     He chose Deelfontein  as the ideal spot.  Four major factors influenced his decision. Deelfontein was close to the war zone, which in February, 1900, was in the vicinity of De Aar.  The climate in the area was a healthy one, there was plenty of sunshine for convalescing patients to enjoy and there was an excellent supply of fresh drinking water (it was the polluted water that caused the typhoid).  Also, the adjacent railway station meant that supplies could be easily brought in and men too badly wounded or too ill to stay in South Africa could be sent to Cape Town by rail and shipped home.   Lady Chesham and Lady Georgina Curzon (later Countess Howe), both distressed by the war immediately set about collecting funds for the hospital.    They were horrified when they heard of a telegram sent by Sir Redvers Buller to the War Office. He called for 8 000 re-inforcements, but urged that the right kind of men should be sent. “They should be equipped as mounted infantry, be able to shoot as well as possible and ride decently.”  George Wyndham, parliamentary under-secretary at the War office saw this as an excellent way of strengthening the Yeomanry, a service which had been considered a sham during the Crimean  and Peninsular Wars.  (The Yeomanry were volunteer mounted troops, mostly good riders and marksmen, who supplemented the armed forced in times of national emergency.)

Within a week of the arrival of Buller’s telegram the Press were calling for volunteers and the two women had leapt into action.  Within a short time they had collected £174 000 – sufficient to equip and staff a hospital. Doctors, nurses and other medical specialists began arriving at Deelfontein on March 3, 1900. Water and electricity was laid on and the hospital opened on March 17, under the command of Colonel A T Sloggert, CMG, RAMC, a man with two years experience of running such a hospital.  He found the location a fortunate choice. His staff consisted of Mr HD Fripp, senior surgeon, 19 other doctors, an ophthalmologist, a dentist, 10 surgical dressers, 40 nursing sisters, 10 ward maids, 76 St John’s Ambulance men and 110 orderlies.

Two days  later the first ambulance train arrived carrying 101 men. By the end of the month there were 300 patients in prefabricated buildings and tents.  Lady Chesham came to visit in May.  By the end of the year 6 000 patients had been treated and by the time the hospital closed 134 graves scarred the veld.

A Paradox of the Plains

The Yeomanry Hotel at Deelfontein

It’s only a lonely little railway siding like so many on the plains of the Great Karoo. What makes Deelfontein eerily different, however, are its buildings. They have an old-world air of elegance and appear to have been designed to reflect the glories of the British Empire.  Not many tourists take this route, but Wally and I discovered this spot as we drove along a road less travelled between Richmond and De Aar.  Suddenly, as we reached a level crossing saw these intriguing buildings lurking like a ghostly mirage across the way from a forlorn railway station.   There they stood a sad, silent, dusty, dilapidated and a decaying paradox to the two pristine cemeteries further down the road.  The spot demanded a closer look, so we stopped and spent many more hours than we’d intended, rambling through the ruins and investigating the graves.   Deelfontein has a haunting quality and it called us back again and again, but sadly each time we visited the buildings had sunk further into decline.

Despite their pompous air of Queen and Empire, the buildings came too late to share in that glorious chapter of history.  The hotel was built after the Anglo-Boer War in the hopes that it would house visitors to wished to pay their respects to departed loved ones.  The plan was not really successful and The Yeomanry Hotel was never as popular as the owners had hoped. Local farmers say there was many an evening when they heard the haunting sounds of Joseph Adamstein’s violin creeping across the plains to greet the coming night.  Then they knew the old man was lonely and once again had no visitors at his hotel.

On our first visit little windows with ornate gold lettering still announced “Canteen”, “Bar”, “Entrance”, “Dining Room” and so on, but on subsequent trips these had vanished or been smashed.  I have never been able to understand what drives people to vandalise abandoned buildings and smash every window in sight.

A mouldering wall enclosed a whisper of an old-time garden, shaded by palm trees and a massive arch with “Yeomanry” and “1901” on its facade indicated the entrance.  Inside in the one-time lounge and dining room area were the remains of once stunning murals painted by a roving artist.  Many did such work for the price of a bed and a few meals.   But this was only what the eye could see – the once magnificent buildings had been torn apart to create sheep kraals and cattle pens.

Deelfontein in its day was the largest surgical and convalescent hospital set up by the British during the Anglo-Boer War.   It had a first class team of doctors and nurses and one of the first mobile X-ray units used in a military situation was set up here as well as an ophthalmic unit.   Basically a tent hospital Deelfontein was far ahead of its time.   Wally and I discovered this long forgotten spot was a rich fountain of stories.   Its creator was Elias Adamstein, a Lithuanian Jew and a pioneer of the ostrich industry had hopes of it becoming a second Matjiesfontein.  His dream was never realised because the road and the rail followed different routes northwards.     We unearthed stories of bravery, courage, true friendships and undying love which spanned over half a century, but those are other tales!