A new biography on Olive Schreiner is proving popular. Written by Heather Parker Lewis, it is not a political work, but concentrates rather on Olive’s day-to-day life, marriage, wardrobe and medicine chest. Olive lived simply in the “uptight” era of Victorian respectability. When no woman dared to be seen without stockings, she shunned these together with corsets and stays. Olive also skinny-dipped and sunbathed in the altogether. Sadly, in later life she was so poor that she packed the inside of her coat with newspaper to keep warm. Olive Schreiner – The Other Side of the Moon, is an informal biography which covers Olive’s love for the Karoo, places she lived, people she knew and liked, as well as those she didn’t. It contains much hitherto unpublished material and lesser known facts. Much material was gleaned from her letters and the background research for her novels. “I was given a grant by the National Arts Council to write the book and was able to go to the places she stayed and also to read her letters at the University of Cape Town and in the National Library,” says Heather. Professor Rosemary Gray of the English Academy of South Africa says: “What distinguishes this biography is its easy-to-read format. Heather’s skills enable her to place herself into the midst of Olive’s society in South African, England and Europe. She imaginatively projects Olive into the 21st century and by the end of the book one feels that one has somehow personally gotten to know Olive, a remarkable seeker of the Truth, an extraordinary and unconventional woman of genius, South Africa’s first major novelist, humanist, liberal thinker, and feminist. Heather’s style is direct and conversational, yet the content is impressively authoritative. She has cleverly melded unpublished archival material with first-hand accounts of people who knew Olive. Heather has managed to treat Olive, an immensely complex person, with empathy but without sentimentality or judgment.” This well-illustrated 242-page book, published by iHilihili Press, is available at major bookstores, Matjiesfontein and at the Olive Schreiner Museum in Cradock. It costs about R145 plus postage.


In the 1800s hinterland settlers went to great trouble and sometimes immense cost to establish places of worship. These kept fledgling communities focused and together. Many of these early churches still stand and most are still used. Almost all have a story to tell, so, two men, who they share a love of travel and photography, decided to compile a book entitled 101 Country Churches of South Africa. When they got going on the project Darryl David and Philippe Menache, soon found they had sufficient photographs and all that was required was the background research. They began enthusiastically but, when the project was almost finished, disaster struck. David’s laptop was stolen, and this almost delivered a death blow to the project as it contained a great deal of material and some unusual photographs for which no back-ups had yet been done. Devastated as they were, they did not let this deter them and now the book is a reality. But why churches? Neither author is particularly religious, although David’s grandfather was a lay minister. “It has something to do with beauty and individuality,” said David. “Some churches are huge, while others are tiny, some are made of wood and others are little more than a corrugated iron shed. Some are derelict, while others are well-maintained and still used. They share a serenity; they exude an air of peace, tranquility and community pride.” Published by Booktown Richmond Press, 101 Country Churches of South Africa, costs R200 plus postage.


In the 1850s many in the Hopetown area collected “pretty ‘quartz’ pebbles.” One was Schalk van Niekerk, an intense, lean, lazy, laid-back man in his 30s. In December 1866 he noticed an unusual stone in an assortment of pebbles being used by children to play “klip-klip”. He offered to buy it, but the child’s mother, Mrs Jacobs, laughed saying it was only a stone picked up on the veld and he was welcome to it. It turned out to be a 21¼ carat diamond, the first found in South Africa and in time named the “Eureka, but no one got too excited. Even the second, a 9-carat stone, of a much better quality, did not light fires of enthusiasm, writes Brian Roberts in Kimberley, Turbulent City. “But, then, the finding of the 83½ carat “Star of Africa”, made everyone sit up. Yet, calling the movement to the diamond diggings a ‘rush’ is a bit of a misnomer. Many were cynical. Some thought the stones had been planted to lure people to Hopetown and others found the prospect of crossing the heat-hazed plains of the Karoo on foot or by ox wagon too tedious to contemplate, However, when finds were made as Colesberg Koppie prospectors did arrive in droves. Among them was Frederick Boyes.


Boyes, an English travel writer, arrived in Cape Town in November 1871, but found it impossible to book a place on a passenger wagon travelling to the diamond fields. The Inland Transport Company ran a regularly weekly service to the diggings, 750 miles away, at the outrageous fare of £12 a head, he was told, but all places were booked for weeks in advance. This was as a result of excellent finds on Colesberg Koppie, four months earlier. Every ship putting into Cape Town brought a fresh influx of prospectors from across the world and Boyes was in no mood to wait. His voyage had been horrific – a man had fallen overboard, the ship had run out of fuel, cabin doors, spars and even the deckhouse had been burned just to reach Cape Town. Boyes thus indulged in some judicious bribing and bargaining and, at a price, secured a seat. “Happily, I have a pink ticket in my hand,” he said as he raced to catch the Wellington-bound train. Leaving it to board a coach for the diamond fields he soon discovered all pretence at comfort had ended. The road trip was far worse than the sea voyage.


The “coach”, a huge wagon, was drawn by eight horses, had three wooden benches under an awning. It could seat nine passengers and two more could “perched” at the back with the guard. There was little room for luggage, so passengers sat with it cutting into their knees “Nor was this the only torment. Loose canvas pockets for carrying food swung from the roof and at every jolt, passengers had to duck to avoid being bashed on the head. Yet the bags were essential because food along the route was virtually unprocurable. The days of hospitable Boers had long gone – these farmers would have been ruined trying to feed the mob moving northwards.” Travellers were thus forced to bring their own provisions – sardines, potted meat, bread, brandy, etc. The road, said Boyle, was dreadful and the scenery so dreary that he became bored and depressed. “How the Cape gained a reputation for beauty I cannot comprehend. What a frightful wilderness.” But he had spoken too soon – he had not seen the Karoo. “After Bains Kloof the real wilderness of the Karoo began. For miles ahead lay monotonous veld shimmered, flat and forbidding under a pitiless sun,” he wrote. “There seems no end to the grey, stony, desolate plains. Nothing breaks the dead level till in a dim haze it fades against low dusty hills. No shadow falls, but the gloom of a passing cloud. Even the stones that clothe the ground are small and shadeless. A dusky knot of prickles here and there, a sprig of heath, a tuft of chamomile or sage, a thin grey arm of vegetation …the sole thing real in all this landscape is that abomination stretched before you.” Obviously, the Karoo did not impress him, and it took the coach a week to cross the Great Karoo.


Sitting stiff-backed on wooden benches, unable to move their legs or rest their heads, plagued by heat, dust and flies, the11-day journey to the diggings was hellish. “Men tried to rest, to sleep, at every stop, but it was essential to walk. My ankles began to swell and become painful,” said Boyle. “One passenger was in a terrible state. His limbs doubled in size and became discoloured. Another went totally lame and yet others were too far gone to remedy. At one stop I walked for three hours to ease the discomfort.” Occasionally they passed men slogging along on foot who begged for water. They also found men senseless with thirst in the veld and bodies were continually discovered along the route.


When the Geological Survey team moved to the Beaufort West in the 1890s to carry out an in-depth survey, they took a closer look at the coal deposit at Leeu Rivierspoort. The occurrence of coal in this area, to say the least, was unusual. The team made every effort to find out why this deposit occurred where it did, but no satisfactory conclusion was ever reached. The ground between Beaufort West and the farm Palmietfontein, 112,5km west was also scoured for clues and so were the flats of the Koup. E H L Schwarz reported: “At Leeu Rivierspoort a fissure in the mountain side is filled in with coal which cannot be classed among any ordinary coals as regards quality or occurrence” Mr Botha, the former owner of the farm reported finding bits of coal between two kranzes of sandstone in 1864. The coal was approximately 300m above the riverbed on the north side. It was thought to be a viable deposit and huge sums were spent searching for a seam. A Kimberley Syndicate began prospecting and followed the coal by tunnelling and shaft sinking, but the coal just petered out.


When Prof Schwarz visited in 1896 a coal mine had been operational for two years. Mine manager, P de Beyer, showed him around. “On the krantz where the coal was found the sandstone had been exposed and a clean-cut fissure which narrowed to a point was exposed. On either side within the fissure vertical strips of crushed shale crumpled in a series of folds at right angles to the wall of the crack. In the centre was the main “coal seam” and smaller veins of about 2,5cm thick tapered off at the sides. The main seam 3,5m broad and almost lm thick ran almost vertically down for about 76m. The first shaft made from the top followed the seam downwards for over 18m until it changed direction and ran horizontally into the mountain. A tunnel followed the coal for 36,5m until the deposit dipped downwards for 25,5m, changed direction and ran horizontally. This encouraged everyone and plans were made to start mining on a large scale. Hopes were, however, cruelly dashed because after running horizontally for just over 88m the seam dipped down again and vanished. Miners dug a shaft to follow it, but at 15m down a band of intermediate sandstone was struck and the coal petered out. Schwarz checked out the hill sides of Brandewynsgat, Paalhuis, Hartebeeste Vlei and Klipplaatsfontein, but found no other evidence of coal. “These farms were investigated in detail and mapped krantz for krantz, but not even one small seam was found,” said Schwarz. He was also unable to find any evidence of fossils in the area and the mine manager had not noticed any.


Towards the end of 1882 the District Surgeon at Hanover reported a fatal case of rabies. In a letter to the Colonial Medical Committee he stated he had been called to a farm on December 12 to attend to a woman suffering from severe convulsions. He was unable to discover the root cause of these until after her death. Only then did the family admit that she had been bitten by a wild cat early in September. She sought no medical treatment for the severe laceration on the web part of her hand between the thumb and forefinger, after the bite, but simply dressed the wound herself. “I first saw her on October 7 when she asked me to remove calloused flesh from the web part of her hand,” said the District Surgeon, “She was in perfect health. On November 7, she sent for some liniment, saying she was suffering from rheumatic pain in the left arm. On Sunday, November 9, I was called to the farm where I found her in bed. She said that on the previous Monday a broad strip of flesh, devoid of feeling, had developed from the hand to the shoulder of the left arm. After she went to bed that evening, she said, she was woken by a severe pain in her left arm. This continued all the week, but she rubbed it well with the liniment and each time felt relief. The pain moved into the upper part of her chest and throat. She became restlessness and was unable to lie or sit quietly. She was experiencing great difficulty in swallowing and her medicine had to be fed to her drop by drop. Her pulse and temperature were normal, but her breathing was erratic. I prescribed medication and left.” On Monday he was called out again. Her condition had worsened. She had a rapid pulse rate and was weak. She was also suffering from cold sweats; her extremities were cold, and she was experiencing spasmodic action of the diaphragm with incessant coughing. She was spitting out a thick viscid phlegm. We tried to get her to swallow some water, but she flung herself to the other side of the bed. Her spasms continued and her face was wiped with vinegar and water, but she did not improve. Her heart failed at 16h30. “I have no doubt that this was a case of genuine hydrophobia,” wrote the doctor.


Just as droughts are a feature of the Karoo, so too are floods. Recently some old black and white photographs reminded Dr Nathan Finkelstein of the devastating flood that hit Beaufort West in 1941. He writes: “Professor Eugene Weinberg recently sent me some photographs of that flood taken by his father, Max, a practicing attorney in Beaufort West at the time. These are the only photographs I have seen of the catastrophe that directly affected my family. My father’s general dealer’s business (Jack’s Store) was in Church Street on the banks of the Gamka River, and when it burst its banks the shop was destroyed. So was our house in the building next door to the shop and opposite Queens Hotel. I was about two years old at the time and obviously do not recall the devastation, but I remember we had to move in with my grandmother, Esther Dubowitz, in Plantation Street (now Danie Theron Street) for a while. My father then bought an erf from the Dutch Reformed Church in Bird Street and Berend Wright built a new house for us at No 144. We lived there until we left the town in 1956 and moved to Cape Town. After the loss of our home my father became quite paranoid about floods. He ordered Berend to raise the level of the house quite considerably and water had to reach the height of a car’s roof before it could get into our home. My father delighted in explaining his brainchild and architectural ‘feature’ to anyone who would listen. He also eagerly pointed out the flood level to everyone who came into his store. One of the walls had not been painted and the mud line was quite clearly visible on it. My father lost everything in that flood. He also dealt in skins and hides and these were stored in cellars below the shop until the buyers came. The water, of course, flooded that area and caused the skins to rot. From all accounts, the stench was quite unbearable. But time heals all and eventually my father’s shop was restored, and he was able to continue trading in those premises until I matriculated and we all left town. I hope the present drought is soon broken and that the town never sees another devastating flood.”


Eugene Weinberg’s mother and my mother were great friends.” writes Dr Nathan Finkelstein. “They were pregnant at the same time in 1939 with Eugene and I and from the start we became great friends. As toddlers, we played in the dry Gamka River bed. The Weinbergs left Beaufort West after WW II and settled in Bellville where Eugene’s father continued his practice as an attorney. Our mothers remained friends until my mother died in 1997. Eugene and I are still friends, we recently collaborated in writing a scientific paper for the South African Paediatric Review in 2009”


Browsing the net Adrienne de Villiers came across Rose’s blog on the Cape Info site and saw the remains of her old home, Morceaux. “It brought back such happy memories, she said. The farm did indeed belong to Charles de Villiers, but it was his son Owen de Villiers who built the Dolls House for his four children. I was the eldest and I remember spending many happy hours in this house with its special playground at the back. There we had a swing, seesaw, rings and parallel bars. This was a totally magic house. After Owen died his son-in law, Mike Boyd farmed Morceaux for a few years. Many happy times were spent with friends and family visitors who always stayed over for a few days. Now our once happy home is now part of the Karoo National Park.”


Much has been written about Shell Oil’s intention to drill or “frack” (the official term) for shale gas deposits in the Karoo. Julienne du Toit has done a sterling job keeping all Karoosters abreast of what is happening with daily reports on Facebook. She has drawn attention to statements by action groups and newspaper reports from across the world. Public meetings have been held across the Karoo, in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town and more are planned in an effort to force these plans to be abandoned. Many query why people should we be against something it is said will bring clean natural gas into the energy grid and create jobs, but the facts prove that this process has caused great environmental damage in other parts of the world. Peter Baker and the Richmond Karoosters are now selling tee shirts stating “Don’t Frack with our Karoo” at R125 each plus postage.

My country was never so rich that it could afford bad roads
William the Conqueror, 1066.