The fossilised remains of a complete dinocephalian, with an unusually long tail, have been found in the Central Karoo. It was discovered on a Leeu Gamka farm by labourer, Hendrik Mans. Its discovery sent ripples of excitement travelling through the palaeontological world and scientists are scheduled to visit the site shortly to evaluate it. There was a time, way back when the earth was young and the Great Karoo a primeval swamp, that these giant creatures trampled unconcernedly about in this area. They splashed in the waters at the edge of a great inland lake and squelching through fresh mud along its bank. In Trace Fossils of the Ancient Karoo, Dr Roger Smith, head of Karoo Palaeontology at the South African Museum, says: “These huge creatures, three metres long and 1,5 meters high, often broke the peace of the day as they moved about. Their most distinctive features, apart from their scaly skin, was a duck-bill shaped mouth and a peculiar bony lump on the top of their heads. This was probably used for head-butting in much the same way as modern-day goats use their horns today. These lumbering four-footed creatures had five toes on each foot. They walked with a rolling gait, which caused their long slender toes to scrape inwards as each foot was raised. This left the distinctive curved-toe footprints that are sometimes found as fossilised tracks on Karoo rocks today.”


A long-time dream came true in Prince Albert on June 9 this year when two donkey-drawn carts clinked down Prince Albert’s main street and into the heart of tourism. Some time ago tourism enthusiasts, Jim Franse and Charmain January, launched The Prince Albert Donkey Cart Project with the sole aim of raising sufficient funding to acquire donkeys and donkey carts. “Our dream has always been to transport tourists around the village in a traditional way. We wanted to give them every opportunity to breathe our crisp, clean, healthy, fresh air and listen to the babble of mountain water rippling down the irrigation furrows throughout town, while they enjoy a true taste of one of the oldest methods of transport in the Karoo – a swinging, swaying, donkey cart ride,” said Jim Franse. By June this year they had sufficient funds to buy four donkeys and two beautiful carts from the De Rust Donkey Awareness Project. Jim and Charmain’s enthusiasm rubbed off on most people in town. Despite a chilly breeze a crowd of supporters straggled down the main street to welcome the donkeys as they ambled into the village. Donkey Cart One was pulled by Vonk and Victor, while Japie and Boggom proudly drew Donkey Cart Two. Without doubt the donkeys and drivers all enjoyed the welcoming cheers as they passed. Now the carts will be on standby outside the Tourist Bureau each day to take visitors on sightseeing tours, to see the huge variety of architectural styles, the township and even, on request, perhaps the olive and other farm. General rides around town cost R10 for adults and R5 for children.


In the early years of South African history, the men of Beaufort West were true pioneers, filled with a great spirit of adventure. Reports tell of “the brave men from the Nuweveld who were among the first to cross the Orange and move into the Free State.” Years later when the Reverend Andrew Murray jnr was travelling through his vast diocese he found Beaufort Westers in many places, some even “well north of the Vaal.” In one report he writes: “A long trip by ox wagon brought us to the farm of Koos Smit, in the Suikerbosch Rand. This is a rather hilly district, healthy and fruitful, occupied by respectable and rather religious people, mostly from Beaufort West and the Swarteberg (Prince Albert) areas. Among them was David Jacobs, a humble man born in Beaufort West, who was responsible for helping this congregation of over 200 keep their religion alive.”


Captain W J Jack Rundle, who died at Beaufort West during the Anglo-Boer War, was quite a character. Australian descendant, Andrew Warden, who is researching his life, says: “Jack seems to have been a gallant, well-liked, fun-loving man.” A report in one of the Sydney Weeklies, claims Jack’s comrades considered him to have been was “born lucky”. The newspaper article states that: “Even in minor matters he always came out on the right side. His appointment to a crack regiment in England and his posting to South Africa helped intensify this reputation. He quickly became a tremendous favourite with his men, all of whom believed in his good fortune. Then, one day, it seemed as if things were about to turn sour. Jack and most of his company were captured by the Boers. After a time, the Boers decided to liberate the men, but not the officers. Jack’s Tommies quickly rustled up a private’s uniform for him to wear Fortunately he could speak in a Cockney accent with the best of them. But there was to be ‘a final inspection’ and numbers were to be taken. One extra would have been fatal, so the resourceful Tommies dug a grave in the courtyard, put Jack into it and covered him with bags and sand. He stayed buried for four hours. Then, when permission to march out was granted Jack was ‘resurrected.’ He snuck safely out with his men. Obviously, his luck was in again, because, believe it or not, the first regiment he met, only a short distance from the prison, was his own! He, however, always described his four hours’ burial with a meagre air-supply as something quite dreadful.” Jack’s luck ran out at Kareebosch, outside Beaufort West, where he was wounded in a skirmish in July 1901. He died from these wounds on July 30.


A short-sighted man’s long-term planning all came undone in the Great Karoo in the 1830s. When French missionary, Eugene Casalis, left his native land for Africa, he thought he was extremely well prepared. Short-sighted Casalis was far-sighted enough to have packed several spare pairs of spectacles in case his got broken in Darkest Africa. And, of course, they did. The journey by wagon from Port Elizabeth to Basutoland (present-day Lesotho) where he was bound, was long and tedious. In his diary he noted it was “punctuated only by occasional stops at remote Boer farms, whose owners were taciturn, spartan, but hospitable.” At one stop his spectacles were broken. Unperturbed, he confidently went to a neatly wadded packet to fetch another pair. To his horror he discovered they were all reduced to powdery fragments. Casalis hoped to find more in Graaff Reinet, which they passed en route to the Sneeuberg, but there were none. The poor man’s plight was worsened by the fact that he rode a one-eyed pony. “Without spectacles he claimed to have had difficulty in telling wildebeest from lions, a potentially unhappy form of mistaken identity,” writes Tim Couzens in Murder at Morija Casalis’s limited vision heightened his sensitivity to sound and led to him saying: “It is the incomprehensible silence of the desert to which one never gets accustomed.” Eventually he reached “the last outpost of civilisation” – Colesberg. Here he found a doctor, a carpenter, Swiss watchmaker and a German, “whose shop was probably the last before Cairo.” They he presumably helped him because his spectacles are not mentioned again.


A company with roots in the Karoo now serves the world. Lucas Quality Thatchers, which started out in picturesque little town of Prince Albert, now not only restores local buildings but also many international ones as well. Among the local historic restorations to its credit are several buildings in the Cape, including: Boschendal, Waterhof, Neethlingshof, Meerlust, Meerust, L’Omarins and Grand Provence. Lucas Quality Thatchers conducts a great deal of research before tackling any project and this has proved invaluable in the restoration and preservation of vernacular buildings. “We are immensely proud that the high standard and quality of our work in South Africa has led to us being awarded several major and interesting international contracts,” says managing director Jason Lucas. “Among these are historic buildings in Ireland, the Mediterranean and Dubai. South African craftsman have been used on all these projects and whenever necessary, we have used South African reeds as well.”


Early Beaufort Westers loved nothing more than a bit of pomp and ceremony. So, the town was abuzz with the news that Princess Christian would pass through on a northbound train at 09h40 on Saturday, October 8, 1904. In those days several daily trains passed through little Karoo towns. Many carried VIPS, so local committees kept themselves well informed of who was aboard. They always managed to rustle up a crowd on the stations to wave and cheer. Princess Christian’s trip through the Karoo was no exception. Beaufort Westers did her proud, making her feel most welcome during her brief stop.


An ill-fated family, a love story and two tragic accidental deaths were revealed when Prince Albert historian Ailsa Tudhope began researching “the ghost” of the Swartberg Pass. “Now and then travellers report a strange ‘feeling’ at some places,” says Ailsa. “As I am constantly on the lookout for extra stories to perk up my ghost walks and talks for tourists, so I instantly began researching this one. I discovered the ill-fated Swanepoel family – mother, father and two young boys, Chrisjan and Piet, nicknamed ‘Doppies. Sadly, when the boys were very young their father died suddenly. His widow struggled to raise her sons. Both grew up into likeable lads, both married, and both were killed in freak accidents. This truly was an ill-fated family. The first tragedy struck in September 1900, shortly after Chrisjan married Olga, the love of his life. He was killed in a freak accident at the toll house at the top of the Swartberg Pass. Then some years later Piet, who farmed near town and had a shop in the village, was also killed. Piet was a well loved, highly respected, deeply religious, cheerful and generous man. He served several terms as deputy mayor. When the Dutch Reformed Church installed gas lighting Piet took on the responsibility of running the acetylene gas system. Then, one June morning Piet’s wife, Hester, noticed that he seemed a bit distracted. She didn’t worry, she knew he had a busy day ahead. He set off to check on gas supplies at the church. There he met caretaker Smit, who also noticed that he seemed to be lost in thought. Together they walked to the little shed where the gas was kept. Smit opened the door and stepped back to allow Piet to pass. As Piet stepped inside, he struck a match to light his pipe. The gas bottles must have been leaking because there was a massive explosion. The blast threw Smit across the yard. Fortunately, the door shielded him, so he suffered only slight cuts and bruises, but Piet lay among the debris with a severe head wound. Dr Van Wyk was urgently summoned. He did what he could and had Piet carried home, but a few hours later he was dead. His funeral was one of the biggest the town had seen. Today it is said Chrisjan often helps people down the Swartberg pass, particularly in the dark and times of bad weather,” said Ailsa. “Also, ‘heart rending music’ is heard wafting from the old cemetery on the anniversary of Piet’s death. Indeed, a brass band did play such music at his funeral.”


Canon W J Knox-Little was in search of better health when he visited South Africa in 1898. He left England at the end of summer in “a spirit of high adventure.” He was bound for South Africa, in his opinion, “a theatre of some of the most energetic efforts of Englishmen!” He wrote: “For many reasons South Africa is one of the most interesting parts of the Empire. One cannot doubt it has a great future. It mirrors some of our gravest mistakes yet gives us many lessons for time to come.” While he could not tell of any sensational ox wagon journeys, nor “hair-raising escapes,” he enjoyed the peace and tranquillity of the South African hinterland. “I cannot agree with those who see no beauty in the Karoo. Its scenery is wild, bold, grand and beautiful. About Beaufort West the air is specially bracing and exhilarating. The effects and atmosphere, particularly of sun dawns and sunsets in the wild, weird mountains and strange desolate stretches of almost endless veld are absolutely unforgettable. The sense of extent, of silence, of solitude, and splendid colours of the place, will forever dwell with me.”


In the early 1900s the tiny towns of the central Karoo had their share of hooligans. According to The Courier of December 10, 1903, there was a ‘gang’ that operated in Donkin Street. These “hooligans” took great delight in remaining invisible while they tripped people up by drawing wires across the pavement at ankle height or knocking riders from their cycles at night. “Poor George Smith was pushed off his bicycle while riding down Donkin Street in the dark on Saturday night,” reports the newspaper. “Of course, he was assailed by a ‘person unknown.’ George fell to the ground and sustained a fracture of his left leg. His calls for help roused a friendly resident who went to fetch the doctor. He was carried to the doctors’s rooms and the injured leg was set by Drs Westby and Bensley. George is resting and recovering at home. Hopefully the hooligan now knows his little prank backfired badly!”


Oompah-pah music, a beerhalle and a delicious variety of sausage will draw Oktoberfest enthusiasts to Prince Albert again in October. The village’s 4th Annual Duitse Oktoberfest is scheduled for October 29. “Over the years Bodo Toelstede has proved himself an expert organiser of this event,” says Tourism officer Charlotte Olivier. “All enthusiasts are looking forward to what he has in store this year. As always anyone intending to visit would be advised to book early.”


South African gardeners go to great lengths to attract indigenous birds. And, most feathered friends gladly accept their invitations. “Some, like the Pied Crow have increased to such an extent that there are more of them in our cities today, than in the wild,” says expert Peter Ginn. “Sadly, in many places they are killing the trees in which they roost at night. Nevertheless, these birds perform a good service by cleaning up much of our rubbish. This helps keep rats at bay. The dove family, particularly the Laughing Dove, is another welcome visitor in many gardens. Also, widespread and welcome is The Speckled or Rock Pigeon. The Red-eyed Dove loves gardens with well-developed trees. The very large Rameron or Olive Pigeon loves gardens with fruit trees. Flocks of up to 20 will often fly in, with considerable noise. Camphor Trees are also among their favourites. Other visitors, which arrive in large flocks during fruit season, are Red-winged Starlings. These medium-sized dark blue birds, which arrive in a flash of rust-coloured wings, are very restless and constantly on the move. Sunbirds too are fond of gardens, particularly those that have plants with curved tubular flowers. The Tecomaria or Cape Honeysuckle, with its abundant nectar, is a favourite of Black or Amethyst Sunbirds. The handsome black males with their iridescent purple foreheads, throats and shoulders are easy to identify. So are the two species of Double-collared Sunbird – the Greater has a bright red breast collar, twice or three-times as wide as the Lesser Double-collared species. One of the best known and perhaps among the cutest visitors to gardens is the Cape Wagtail. They are a delight as they strut about with tails wagging, looking for insects.”


Coffee enthusiasts always find its aroma tantalising. However, in the early Karoo things were quite different. Early travellers were liable to encounter weird mixtures. In his book Karoo Lawrence Green remembers Oom Jan who clung to his favourite blend of roast peas ground up with coffee beans. Roast wheat, barley and mealies were also often used as coffee substitutes. “Some families mixed coffee with roasted peach or prickly pear peels to obtain a distinctive flavour,” writes Lawrence Green. “Carrots and ripe figs, dried and ground were also found in many a Karoo coffee mixture. Mealie coffee was the choice of men on commando during the South African War. This brew warmed them in the cold light of many a Karoo winter dawn. And, where the witgatboom grows, of course, there is no shortage of ‘coffee’”. Burchell was the first to describe this tree, known as the shepherd’s tree because it’s berries can be eaten by men and animals. Sheep thrive on its leaves. “The witgatboom is found in many parts of the Great Karoo. Evergreen, it grows to a height of twenty feet and sometimes is the only shade for miles around. It is a shapely, drought-resistant tree with a white trunk.” According to Lawrence Green farmers dug up the roots, dried these in the sun, then roasted and ground them to make the famous Karoo Witgatkoffie. “Some say too much is bad for the eyes. It certainly is far more powerful that its mealie and bran counterparts and, until you become used to it, witgatkoffie often acts as a purgative. Finally, there is ghookoffie. It is made from the fruit of the wild almond tree. When fresh the fruit is poisonous to some people. However, when dried and roasted it can be used without any ill effects.”


Beaufort West bank clerk, Arthur Wardle, planned a sublime autumn picnic for his beloved. He packed a range of tasty treats into a basket and together they set off to the Waterfall, a popular picnic spot, on the outskirts of town. Arthur laid a plaid rug on the ground – the grass was damp, but the day was perfect. He then stood up and offered his beloved a bottle of lemonade. She gratefully accepted. As he leaned across to hand it to her, he lost his footing on the wet grass, stepped on a smooth stone and took a “dreadful tumble,” according to The Courier of Friday, March 21, 1884. “Arthur fell on the bottle; it broke and gave him a serious cut on his neck. Blood spurted everywhere. The young lady screamed.” Fortunately, Dr Drew and his family were also out enjoying a picnic that day and the shrill shrieks brought him dashing over. He saved the day, staunched the bleeding and sent Arthur back to his room at the Royal Hotel. The doctor advised a few days in bed, but Arthur was back at his post on Monday, sporting bruises and bandages. He warned everyone that wet grass, smooth stones and lemonade did not mix.

“Human affairs are not serious, but they have to be taken seriously.”

Dublin-born Iris Murdoch graduated from Oxford University with first-class honours in1942. She went on to become one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century. Sadly, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994, and died in 1999. Iris was married to literary critic John Bayley for 40 years. His “Elegy for Iris” is a most moving story of her life.