Jonathan Deale’s just-published book, Timeless Karoo, captures the magic of the Great Karoo. Magnificent photographs make it much more than a travel guide. This 180-page full colour book is a fascinating compendium of fact, folklore and natural history. Maps guide visitors to secret valleys, hidden plains and intriguing tiny towns. Timeless Karoo takes readers on a journey through the Karoo of yesteryear, the present-day region and hints at its future. Those who love the area will appreciate this book and it will be invaluable to those bent on exploring. It will help them plan their journeys so that they may discover a myriad of long-forgotten secret places. Timeless Karoo includes stories of the hidden rock folds, valleys and mountain peaks; it covers the region’s fossil beds and ancient footprints with the power to excite and to bring the primeval world to life. “No place on earth is quite like the Great Karoo,” says Jonathan. “Part of its charm lies in the fact that it has more than one face and fascinating fauna and flora. In this vast area people ‘sell’ silence, but it is never quiet. Something somewhere is always making a statement. And, then there’s the people. The area has many fascinating, captivating and unforgettable characters,” says Jonathan. His excellent photographs and text capture the ageless story of the Karoo, making it as interesting and absorbing as tomorrow.


The saga of the Scottish Baird Clan is closely woven into the history of South Africa. The family had strong ties to the Battle of Blaauwberg, to the opening of the interior and the establishment of the tiny village of Beaufort West in the Great Karoo. It also had links with Cape Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, and at least one member served him well helping to turn his dreams for Somerset Farm into reality. Within this family’s were courageous, arrogant, but deep trusting men, capable of undying loyalty and long-lasting friendships. These men added spice to the history of South Africa in the early 1800s, yet the family is surrounded by an aura of mystery. The story of the Bairds is somewhat of an enigma. The tale includes a British nobleman, General Sir David Baird, one of Scotland’s finest soldiers, a relative who took command of Navy Intelligence in Simonstown and a cousin, John, who went the Cape to Somerset Farm and later to Beaufort West where he was appointed as the town’s first magistrate. His grandson is said to have discovered one of the first fossils in this area. John was a true pioneer, a brave and honest settler, whose efforts at opening up the hinterland make great reading. Yet his story was clouded by dark tales and sly rumours. This prompted his great granddaughter Lindi Baird to set out in search of the truth “My research turned me into an adventurer and an explorer. Like a ‘cold case’ detective I spent hours unraveling mysteries and hitting discouraging dead-ends. Often when I expected a ‘gold mine’ there was little information, however, in the end I had enough for a book in which I can pay tribute to a great man who spent 39 years in the old Cape Colony.” Lindi’s book, entitled A Reflection of My Past, is available from Just Done Publications.

CAN YOU HELP? George Hamilton is coming to South Africa from Belfast in February next year to write an article for a Northern Ireland travel magazine. He is keen to know more about the Karoo of the 1850s and animals that were hunted almost to extinction during that time. “I am trying to source material that will contrast this period, and the subsequent dearth of animals in this area, to the present-day resurgence being brought about by new private reserves,” he says.


The humble donkey is in the spotlight. Peta Jones, author of Donkeys For Development and Secretary of the Steering Committee of the Animal Traction Network of Eastern and Southern Africa (Atnesa), is urgently seeking information on all projects using donkeys across South Africa. The aim is to address donkey welfare and related issues, help working animals, ensure they are well treated and, where possible, assist with the accessing of funding and aid “retirement” schemes for donkeys. A nationwide survey starting early in 2008 aims to help gather such information. Questionnaires have been compiled and an appeal is being made to all donkey project champions and managers to contact She hopes to have sufficient information to discuss funding of some projects with Rob Nicol, finance officer of the UK Donkey Sanctuary, who aims to visit Pretoria in January 2008. This Sanctuary, which attends to donkey welfare issues worldwide, has funding available for specific projects, but it needs a full national picture of South African projects. The Department of Agriculture and South African Network for Animal Traction will thus also conduct full-scale survey next year.


Leopards in the Oudtshoorn area of the Klein Karoo will be closely studied from early next year. The Cape Leopard Trust, an active predator conservation group, and CapeNature, aim to study leopard incidence and monitor movement patterns in the Swartberg-Gamkaberg-Rooiberg Conservation area, of the Gouritz Initiative. Two nature reserves, Gamkaberg and Swartberg, fall into the study area and their field rangers will be trained to take part in the study, reports Cindy Mathys in the October issue of SKEP Enews. The project will focus on critical bio-diversity of the Succulent Karoo and management strategies aimed at securing long-term viability for leopards in the Klein Karoo. Similar research projects are already underway in the Cederberg and the Baviaanskloof Conservation Areas. An important task will be liaison with landowners and leopard management strategies will be discussed at a series of meetings, says information officer Susan Botha. Fourteen cameras and six traps have been set up in a “corridor” and local veterinarians are assisting to fit collars to all leopards caught. This will aid researchers with data collection and help them to monitor the movements of the tagged animals. The team hopes to tag at least 10 leopards by the end of the year.


Catching a fish in the main road of any town sounds far fetched, but few would bet on this being possible in the Karoo. Yet, it has been done. In August 1871, Prince Albert shopkeeper, Pieter Louw, wondered why the flow of water to his property from the furrow in the main road had dropped to a trickle. He stepped out to investigate and was able to catch an 18-inch long fish, right outside his front gate, writes Frieda Haak in Prince Albert Historical Calendar. Perhaps he served fish for supper for him that day1


A new botanical garden will be opened in the far-flung little village of Nieuwoudtville in January, 2008. Its establishment brings to eight the number of such gardens created by the S A National Biodiversity Institute. Laid out on a 6 300 ha of section of land on the Bokkeveld Plateau, the garden includes excellent examples of Renosterveld Fynbos and Succulent Karoo vegetation. Its creation was made possible by Neil McGregor, who agreed to sell Glen Lyon, a farm which had been in his family for generations, to SANBI to “further the ends of conservation.” “The garden is unique.” writes Cindy Mathys in SKEP Enews, October issue. “This pristine environment, which like Kirstenbosch, has never been ploughed, is a first for the Northern Cape. The natural setting, already referred to as a ‘jewel’, is beautiful. It is will become an ecological research centre providing vital information on climate change.” Scientists and conservationists were urged to invest time and money in the garden and the local community was called upon to work together to ensure its success.


One evening in 1873 a wagon carrying fortune hunters from Cape Town to the newly-discovered diamond fields stopped for the night at Ceres. Among the passengers was a young man from the London’s East End on his way to join his brother, Harry. He decided to “put on a show to entertain his fellow travellers and town residents.” So, he hired the town hall and stunned the audience with some “brilliant magic and magnificent conjuring.” Encores proved everyone loved it. Some asked his name were told it was Barnett Isaacs. They thought he’d go far and do well for himself. They were right. He was, however, destined to attain fame and fortune, not on the stage, but rather as diamond magnate, Barney Barnato.


“You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave!” So says the sign advertising Die Richmond Supper Club. And, this is only one of the projects that has breathed new life into this tiny Karoo town nestling alongside the N1. Another was the recent Booktown project that brought many Africana hunters and “book people” to town. One was author, Chris Marais who, in the November 3, 2007, issue of The Weekend Travel and Food Journal, wrote: “There’s a name for people like me. They are called ‘book prowlers’ and they troll secondhand bookshops in search of rare or interesting volumes.” Chris visited Richmond’s Booktown, organized by two new residents, a “mad” Canadian vet, Peter Baker and Darryl Earl David, from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, who claims to be South Africa’s only Indian Afrikaans lecturer. Chris thoroughly enjoyed his visit. These two he says have had a truly positive effect on the little village and together have encouraged several other interesting people to come to town. Among them are master-chef team, Alan and Cheryl Caw, who’ve added a range of exotic dishes to the town’s restaurant and bar. Among these are springbok carpaccio, beetroot with Gorgonzola and pears in red wine with cinnamon mousse. They’ve also organized a series of soirées or ‘tuiskonserte’ which have drawn an interesting range of performers and shed new light on local talent. And, thanks to their efforts the town now has some truly interesting secondhand book shops – Bookarooz owned by Darryl Connolly and Peter Baker, The Book Orphanage, run by David and Huis van Licht and Shaduw, owned by soccer publicist John Donaldson.


When Arthur Markowitz visited Strydenburg in 1947 he found there was only one Jew left in town – the storekeeper Isaac Weinstein. Isaac told Arthur, who was researching a series of articles for the S A Jewish Times, that in the early 1900s the town had quite a vibrant Jewish community. “At the height of the ostrich feather boom the Nieburg Brothers, B Goldstuck, I Polliack, B Glaser and about a dozen other feather buyers all made a good living in this village,” said Isaac. “We were a happy community until about 1910, then, for some reason, families started moving off one by one. My hopes of seeing a thriving little Jewish community develop here crashed with the ostrich feather market in 1914. That was the death knell.”


Well educated children were few and far between on farms in the early hinterland. It took quite a while for schools to be established and for quality teachers to be appointed. So, it is hardly surprising that when magistrates Lucas Farber, from Stellenbosch, and Joachim Mentz from Swellendam, rode out in December 1769, to Queekvallei (where Prince Albert would be established in 1845) to discuss the expansion of the Colony’s borders, they were impressed to find some very well mannered and educated children. Zacharias de Beer and his third wife, Dina (nee Van Dijk), hospitably received the visitors and invited them to dinner. Both men were stunned by the grace said by eight-year-old Dina (named for her mother), before the meal. But more was to come. After dinner 13-year-old Johannes showed off his neat writing skill and impressed them even more with his reading and arithmetic. Zacharias, who had 16 children from his three marriages, explained that he regularly employed private tutors to educate his children. “He always tried to keep these men on his farm for at least three months at a time,” he said.


Prince Albert’s first school master Jan van Manen arrived from Holland late in 1852 and together with Rev. J H Neethling established the town’s first school. By January 1854, Van Manen, who was also the town’s postmaster, started a school for Coloured children. In March 1859, Klaas Doedes Haak arrived to help him, states Prince Albert’s Historical Calendar, compiled by Frieda Haak. Klaas Doedes also worked as a missionary among the Coloureds. Then, in 1866, Eric Stöckenstrom arrived to help teach the Coloured children and the local School became a “second-class public school.” When Jan van Manen left the village in 1873 to take up a post in the Transvaal he was replaced by Kooshaas Arenksen, a man who spoke seven languages fluently.


Most early hinterland towns developed when isolated communities began holding church services on specific farms, says Professor Bun Booyens. In time the church purchased the farm, divided it into erven and established a town. One of the community’s first priorities then was the building of a church. Prince Albert was no exception; a church was built soon after the town was established. However, only a few months after its inauguration one of its members complained that he could not attend services because there was a draught in the church that bothered him. The minister accepted this as a valid excuse for his absence from services.


A much looked forward to journey through Meiringspoort turned out to be a nightmare trip for Rev James O’Haire in the 1870s. This Irish priest had neither a horse nor cart of his own, so he had to travel from Oudtshoorn to Beaufort by post cart. Aware that it would be a long trip he “procured a roast fowl, some bread and other little matters to support the inner man” before leaving and deposited these in the cart box. The cart driver was a most forbidding looking fellow. “Similar only to a figure in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Works in London,” wrote Father James. However, the priest was impressed when this fearsome fellow, in a kindly voice, reminded his replacement to “stop along the road so the gentleman can have his dinner,” when the cart stopped for fresh horses. The driver did this, but to the Father James’s horror his supper was gone. The new driver then suggested Father James run across to Piet Meiring’s farm house, tell them his tale of woe and see if they could help out with a bit of food. The priest did this, but the family had already eaten and could provide him with no more than a bottle of good “Cango” brandy. Father James gladly accepted this and placed it unopened in the cart. Hungry and tired he dozed awakening only when they stopped for another change of horses and a new driver two hours later. A glance assured him his bottle was safe. He settled back for another snooze. The road into the Great Karoo was very rough, so after “being jolted about for quite some time he asked the driver to stop so that he could have “a small libation.” The man did this. Father James alighted and to his “astonishment found the bottle empty.” In his heart he knew the second driver had polished it off. “Sadly, I was thus forced to travel 200 miles with no more sustenance than a glass of Dublin stout given to me by a Protestant minister in Oudtshoorn to see me on my way,” he wrote in Recollections of Twelve Years in South Africa. “I arrived in Beaufort more dead than alive and was met by Fitzpatrick, the only Catholic in town. It took me two full days to recover.”


Father James O’Haire had many amusing adventures during his 12 years in South Africa. From Beaufort West he soldiered on to Fraserburg and was almost killed when the cart in which he was travelling nearly “tumbled down a precipice” after restive horses took fright. On one leg of this trip there was no one else but a Protestant family to accommodate him. While bustling about getting him settled for the night, the Dutch farmer’s wife asked: “Where is your wife?” He explained he was a Catholic priest and that they did not marry. “The Church is my spouse,” I said. “How sad for you,” was her reply. The house was comfortable and laid out in “aristocratic English style.” Father James was delighted when the farmer asked whether he had any objection to joining them for evening prayers. “Most decidedly not,” replied the priest. “I will say the prayers and read the Bible.” He later felt he had kept them kneeling a bit too long while he said the rosary, so he sat them down while read the Sixth Chapter of St John and “explained it in Catholic style.” He recorded “everyone was most polite.” He stayed in Fraserburg for 11 days. Mr Burke had advised all Catholics of his visit and he was delighted at the attendance at his services. Then one day a sheep farmer who lived 18 days ride away came dashing into town with his wife and all their children. The family had not seen a priest for years and none of the children had been christened. Father James was most amused to hear a wag cry out: “Hey Father, here comes Michael with a wagon load of babies for baptising!”


Les Smuts, a member of the Railway History Group, is trying to help a British friend solve a family puzzle. “None of their family members knew about Hannah Margaret Thomas Wonnacott, the daughter of Thomas Newsham, until recently when sketchy details were discovered on postcard.” It seems she was born in Dalton-in-Furness, Lancashire, in about 1859 and that she married William Wonnacott, born in South Tawton, Devonshire, in 1853. While he was working in South Africa in 1906-07 Hannah came out to visit him, then apparently died on a train on her way home. “According to a relative she was buried at ‘Tawes River’,” writes Len. “This may have been Touws River in the Karoo or Toise River in the Eastern Cape. An RHG newsletter refers to an accident at Touws River, but her name is not on the Cape Government Railway General Manager’s list of victims. If anyone has come across her grave, I’d love to hear from them.”


The Genealogical Society of South Africa registers all graves including those on farms. Two CDs containing much valuable information are already available and a third is being revised. “Everyone sends information to us and we co-ordinate it,” says Adelbert Semilink. “The Cemetery Project Team is currently working on a fourth CD and hopes to make this available at the GGSA AGM in February 2008,” he says.

Life is like a ten speed bicycle. Most of us have gears we never use.
Charles M. Schulz, creator of Peanuts