AND THE DREAM REMAINS
An icon of the Karoo has passed on, but his dreams will never die. David Duncan Rawdon, the man, who loved life, enjoyed Spanish champagne and a good brandy will forever be remembered at his beloved Matjiesfontein. He re-created this village 40 years ago and turned it into the tourist spot that its original owner James D Logan would have envied. David, a legend in the hotel industry, an inspiration to many, a mentor, a guru, discovered Matjiesfontein in about 1960. By then he had a long list of top class hotels to his credit – Rawdons in Natal, the Lanzerac in Stellenbosch and the Marine in Hermanus – yet it was the ramshackled, rundown Matjiesfontein that stole his heart. He once laughing said: “The day after I bought the village I went into the bank at Laingsburg and heard some locals whisper ‘there’s the mad Englishman who bought Matjiesfontein – what does he think he can do with that dump?” As ever David had seen past the sad, forlorn buildings. He’d seen a little piece of Old Victorian England on the plains of the Karoo and within ten years, like the Phoenix it rose, and his dream became a reality. The old Milner Hotel, ennobled to Lord Milner, opened its doors in 1970 and by 1979, in David’s capable hands, the village was declared a National Heritage site. David once said: “All my hotels have been important, exciting and different, but Matjiesfontein was a real struggle and for this reason is special and closest to my heart. I hope it will go on forever.” So, does everyone who loves the village.
DEDICATED TO PRESERVING HIS WISH
Few realise that despite reaching great heights of brilliance in the hospitality and interior decorating, David, by his own admission, lacked ambition as a young man. So much so that his father despaired of him ever “making anything of himself.” Born in 1924, David was the eldest of three sons. His father was an American dentist Dr George Rawdon, and his beloved mother, Marie, was a domestic science teacher. She ensured all her boys learned to cook and David discovered many culinary secrets at her side. He was devoted to her and created a museum in her memory on the Matjiesfontein station. Educated at Hilton College, David was a keen rugby player and represented Northern Transvaal in 1944. He also served in the South African Air Force in Italy during World War II. On his return from “up north” he exasperated his father by not settling down and finding a job. His father warned he would end up as a rat catcher, instead he became a hawker. Then he “almost tried farming” but moved into the hotel industry and never looked back. He set the standards and created iconic hotels widely known not only in South Africa but also internationally. A love of antiques led to him making a name in interior decorating. He encouraged his workforce, inspired loyalty and dedication. He loved sharing knowledge and fostering ability. David adored Matjiesfontein where he created a home in the old jail. To consolidate his dream, he placed Matjiesfontein in an Educational Trust to be run by two nephews and younger brother Benjamin. They will ensure the magic lives on. “David was much loved,” says Jonathan Rawdon. “He showed us the fun side of life. Nothing got him down. Ever the optimist, he never took things too seriously and always looked on the bright side. Matjiesfontein will continue as was his dearest wish.”
FROM A MAN WHO SAW THE MAPS
Among the many readers of Round-up who enjoyed the story of the Kalahari Lakes (Issue No 202) was Peter Myles. He writes: “Another interesting Round-up. In the days when I lived and worked in Botswana, I had sight of Prof. Schwarz’s maps and the concept documents of what was called the ‘Schwarz Scheme’. It proposed linking the main rivers by a canal system to irrigate the Kalahari. He calculated that a Kalahari irrigation scheme could produce enough food to feed Africa!”
Dr Johan Loock replies regarding the Kalahari Lake Scheme…
… AND THE MAN WHO WISHED TO TRANSFORM THE DESERT
“To begin with, we must first look at E H L Schwarz the man and the geologist,” said Johan. “Ernest Hubert Lewis Schwarz was born in London on February 27, 1873. After completing his studies at Westminster School and the Royal College of Science, he voyaged to South Africa and joined the newly established Geological Commission of the Cape of Good Hope as a field geologist in 1896. He spent ten years with this organization and published 115 papers. By 1905 Schwarz, an established geologist, investigator and geomorphologist, left for Grahamstown to become the first professor of geology at the Rhodes University College. Over the next 15 years he travelled, read and wrote many papers, including three textbooks. His interests took him to the Kalahari, Bechuanaland and South West Africa where he wrote of all he found, interviewed old-timers and planned a grand scheme, which he had for years been pondering. His mind ranged across Africa, but the southern part bothered him. He saw it as an elevated waterless area because rivers on its fringes had been robbed of once plentiful water by main river capture. Schwarz proposed damming the waters of the Cunene, Okavango, Chobe and Zambezi, which were “hurrying uselessly to the sea”, and diverting their flow into the Etosha Pan, Lake Ngami and the Makarikari Depression. His goal was to stimulate agriculture. He believed he could transform the Kalahari into a vast lake by constructing two weirs, one in the Cunene and another on the Chobe, to divert waters to the Kalahari. He felt this vast sheet of water would, by evaporation and subsequent rainfall, convert this huge area into a lush and fertile land capable of supporting thousands of people.”
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE KALAHARI
“Next we must now discover what the Kalahari is,” says Johan. “The Kalahari is a huge, flat and shallow basin formed by downwarping and tectonic activity of the southernmost reach of the Rift valley of Africa. As the lowland was formed rivers washed in conglomerates, sand and mud to the thickness of 200 meters in places. After publication of E H L Schwarz’s The Kalahari, or Thirstland Redemption in 1920 many individuals and groups agitated for the implementation of the scheme. There were two definite schools of thought: the academics who did not accept Schwarz’s reasoning and a vociferous majority who tried to force the government into action. Governmental statements and reports of 1921 and one of 1926, which included an investigation by Alex L du Toit, a wellknown geologist and incidentally a friend of Schwarz, were both negative. This was followed by another investigation in 1946. The conclusions were that Schwarz had incomplete and inaccurate climatic data and that some of the geomorphological data was incorrect. Schwarz was dismayed. He became more reticent, but ever a traveller and investigator, went to Senegal in 1928, to try to find the headwaters of the Niger. There he experienced health problems and complications related to a stomach ulcer which caused him to suffered a heart attack. He died and was buried under a large tree on the banks of the river near St Louis. His wife later had his body exhumed and he was re-interred in England.”
THE VIEW OF A MODERN-DAY GEOLOGIST
What then is the detached view of a modern-day geologist? “First we must note that deserts and semi-deserts of the world lie between 30º latitude north and 30º latitude south and that a belt of tropical forests straddles the equator and separates these desert zones. The area of the Kalahari and its northern area of infill by rivers, lies between 13º and 27º south, thus within the southern desert zone and here there is simply not enough rain and run-off to fill Schwarz’s lakes,” says Johan. “Secondly, a huge and almost incalculable volume of water will disappear into the Kalahari sediments before the lake can actually start to fill. Thirdly, even if we divert all the waters of the Cunene and tributaries of the Zambezi into the Kalahari, we will end up with a few channels and lakes, but not the grand lakes which Schwarz envisaged. So his grand scheme, simply would not work, but his studies were not in vain. He will always be valued for his work and research as a great geologist. The lasting value of his work is that engineers, geomorphologists and hydrologists have realized rather belatedly that the Kalahari itself, as well as the Chobe area, is much more complicated than once thought. I personally – and I am sure many others who have walked in his tracks in the Beaufort West area – have a high regard for Ernest Schwarz as a field geologist and an astute observer. In my opinion he did much meaningful work in Beaufort West and in the Baviaanskloof. Let us remember Ernest Schwarz not for his Kalahari scheme, but for his meticulous studies of the rocks and strata of the Cape. Even today his works make interesting reading.”
HOW BROOKS INSPIRED A BOOK
People write books for many reasons, but perhaps only one has been written because brooks have nothing to do with trousers. Way back in the early 1900s Prof Ernest Schwarz in a class lecture said: “In the desert springs have no brooks.” The remark was greeted with a loud roar of laughter. Schwarz was affronted. “It took me a long time to see the point. Brooks are unknown in South Africa. Here ‘brooks’ is a Dutch word meaning trousers.” That decided him to write a geology handbook.
SIMPLY THE BEST
Earlier this year Prince Albert’s extra virgin olive oil walked off with a top prize. The Special Karoo Blend was adjudged to be the top “delicate” oil in the commercial category and awarded a gold medal in the South African Olive Industry Association (SAOIA) competition. The oil was made by Essie Esterhuizen from olives grown on Fred Badenhorst’s farm. Essie’s special blend was made from Frantoio, Coratina, Favallosa and Mission olives. “Most people said a delicate oil could not be made in the Karoo because of the harsh climate,” said Fred in an interview with the Prince Albert Friend No 165. “We believed otherwise, so we adapted our irrigation schedules and the management of our orchards and we were proved right. South Africans seem to prefer delicate olive oils.”
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE WIND CHARGERS?
Tino Rupping, a reader of David Biggs’ column Tavern of the Seas in the Cape Argus wonders what happened to the old windlaaiers of the Karoo. Tino says he regularly travelled through the Karoo on trips from Cape Town to the then Rhodesia in years gone by. “In those days, virtually every farm had a windmill for water and wind chargers for electricity. What happened to these old wind generators? Surely, if they were good enough to provide thousands of farmers with electricity for years, they could now still be used in the same capacity by poorer communities to provide electricity for lighting at night?” David found this an interesting thought and wondered how many Karoo farms, since the arrival of Eskom power, still had old wind chargers lying discarded in lofts. “Maybe they could be brought out of storage and recycled to provide lighting where it’s needed now. With the introduction of LED lights, a wind generator could keep the average home, school, clinic or library lights burning and cut down on electricity bills,” he says.
A DIFFERENT LONELY SOLDIER?
“Another interesting Round-up,” writes Boer War researcher Richard Tomlinson, who congratulates Allen Duff on establishing the identity of Lt Austin’s lost soldier. (Round up 202) “However, I don’t think Austin was the man that Emily Hobhouse met. He was stationed at Geelbek River blockhouse, 13km east of Laingsburg. It must have been another lonely soldier that she refered to. Her letter was written on April 18\19, 1900, and his on January 13, 1902. She was journeying by train from Kimberley to Bloemfontein, via Noupoort and Springfontein (the rail link between Kimberley and Bloemfontein only opened in 1908). So, must have met another lonely lad, but I am sure there were plenty.”
NEW BOOK – IDEAL FOR CHRISTMAS
David and Taffy Shearing have done it again. They have put together a fascinating book on the experiences of a South African war veteran, Dick Dickinson, now 92. His story is told in From Jo’burg to Dresden. David and Taffy met Dick when they moved to Mossel Bay. In conversation they found he had joined up in 1940, gone “up north” with the 2nd Transvaal Scottish because he “liked bagpipes”, but later found members were forbidden to wear underpants with their kilts. He served in the desert for a year and was then captured at Tobruk with about ten thousand men. He was sent from Egypt to Fara Sabina in Italy as a POW and he stayed there until Italy collapsed. He then fled to the mountains, but was recaptured by the Germans, sent to Stalag IVB. Later he was sent to Dresden as a postal worker and stayed there until the end of the war. “POWs were forbidden to keep dairies, but Dick managed to do this. We used his diary to capture daily life of a soldier, jokes, tragedies, hopes, rumours, news, and stories. At the end of the war Dick left Dresden, found his way to the Russian lines. They handed him over to the Yanks, who sent him to England and eventually he got back to South Africa.”
CROSSED THE MOUNTAINS TO TRAVEL IN TIME
Seekoeigat and Klaarstroom recently shared their secrets with members of the Outeniqua Heritage Society. Chairman Allen Duff arranged a visit to these two hamlets and gave an interesting talk on the history and architecture of the area. “The main building at Seekoeigat seems to date back to 1865, but many features suggest it might have been built earlier,” said Allen. “Clearly it started small and grew to meet the demands of its owners over the years. It became a hotel. Stables, rooms, and a kitchen were added and a post office and shop were built on the south side. These served farmers until the shop was plundered by Commandant Gideon Scheepers during the Anglo Boer War.” Allen showed the group a photograph, taken in 1908, showing the hotel, with a Victorian façade, stone entrance pillars and wrought-iron railings – “no doubt imported from Scotland,” he said. “The wall and railing in front of the building kept the dogs and poultry off the stoep and out of the house. The frontage was practical and decorative.” Using Gabriël Fagan’s book Brakdak, Allen pointed out many interesting features. He explained that “brakdak” refers to a building with a flat-roof made of beams with transverse overlaid reeds topped with alkaline (brak) clay mixed with lime or wood-ash. In the Cape winelands molasses was sometimes added to help the bonding.”
A BUILDING WITH UNIQUE FEATURES
The Seekoeigat buildings have several unique features. “The square ‘chimneys’ at the corners and apex are known as ‘acroteria’. They reflect a late 18th century Cape style. According to Gabriël Fagan these formal pediments makes this complex quite unique. Another unique feature is the slightly pitched ‘brak’ roof – normally these are flat. Corrugated-iron was once fixed over the “brak” yet the building remained cool because the reeds provided insulation against heat absorbed by the iron. Adding corrugated iron to ‘brak” or thatched roofs was a common practice in the hinterland in the Edwardian era. “The generous width of the floor boards and the thickness of the ceiling/upper floor beams confirm that the hotel was built before the discovery of diamonds and the subsequent steep rise in timber prices.” Allen pointed to the thinner ceiling that covered what once was a courtyard between two buildings. It later became a kitchen. “The concrete ramp suggests motor repair services were available here. Even in the 1950s cars were not particularly reliable over long distances on rough gravel roads,” said Allen.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
A controversy surrounds the origins of Bird Street in Beaufort West. Some say it was named after the Colonial Secretary, while others say it was named after the first magistrate, John Baird, who came to start the town on November 27, 1818. Genaeological researcher, Ralph Anderson, says this is definitely so. He writes: “Some are of the opinion that there was no Baird Street in Beaufort West. However, since my mother, Sheila Blyth grew up and taught in Beaufort, I am able to refute this. I have of at least 300 postcards sent to her and her sister May Blyth definitely proving the existence of Baird St. I think Bird Street is simply a misspelling that gained ground and was compounded. Wynand Vivier’s book Hooyvlakte also suggests this. In Bylae 8 where Bird St is mentioned and there is a note about the miss-named Baird St. Incidentally there is no mention of Blyth St. which was probably only named after my maiden aunts, May and Gladys had passed away. In the same book there are photos of P.J. Weeber and his wife Anne Murray (nee Wilson). He was a brother of my grandmother Cornelia Blyth (nee Weeber). I have seen the house in Baird St. where they once lived. I thought you would be the best person to tell you what I know so as to clarify the issue.”
OLD BEAUFORT WESTER BECOMES NEW READER
Sonia Norrie, who lived in Beaufort West for 16 years, has recently joined the ranks of Round-up readers. She writes: “My husband Emil was born in Williston in 1923 and moved to Beaufort West at the age of 18. There he became one of the owners of Glatt and Norrie, a well-known general dealer store, opposite the Royal Hotel. He ran this store until we decided to move to Cape Town to educate our children there. I loved Beaufort West and while living there learned to love the Karoo and all its stories. Sadly, Emil passed away only four months ago after two years of ill health.
All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure. – Mark Twain