NOW THERE’S AN ART GALLERY ON A KAROO STATION
Jean Veasey, a keen artist specialising in portraits and wild life studies, is opening an art gallery on the platform at Matjiesfontein Railway Station. The Station Gallery, next door to the Marie Rawdon Museum, will include a workshop area for outreach art projects. The first of these, held in December last year, was led by Anita Glenister, who will show some of her own work at the inaugural exhibition. Clay animals, made by local school children and other youngsters in the area who attended her classes, will also be on display when the gallery is opened by David Rawdon, owner of Matjiesfontein, on March l. Also, on display will be oils, watercolours, etchings, prints, charcoal sketches, needlework, porcelain painting and crafts by Nina Claussen, Nazaneen Dharbandi, Betsy Hughs, Johnson-Ackermann, Chloe Saunders, Theresa Sparg, Marge Swanepoel, Tisa Merz, Sonia Merz-Koorts, Pia van der Linde, Walter Bonny, and Girlie Swanepoel, who farms at Geelbek next to the blockhouse on the northern side of Laingsburg. A highlight of the exhibition will be some works by internationally known artist Wallace Hulley. His wife, Moira, will be exhibiting and, to the delight of many residents, Jean will exhibit some of the portraits she has painted of people in the area. She and her husband, Alan, both love the Karoo and they spend as much time as possible on their farm, Rietfontein Private Nature Reserve, which borders on Matjiesfontein. (Further details from email@example.com)
Note: Fascinating courses on geology and natural history are run from time to time at Rietfontein Private Nature Reserve by Dr John Almond of Naturaviva. The Tanqua Karoo Bird Club also uses this venue to host events for Western Cape birders. During their last visit 15 new species were added to the Rietfontein bird list. “New species are only recorded if they are seen by ‘suitably qualified’ birders,” says Jean. Rietfontein has cottages, a mini lecture room and fully equipped kitchen to cater for conferences and seminars.
OPEN AFRICA INTRODUCES A NEW ROUTE TO EXPLORE
A new route through the mid-Karoo area has been launched by Open Africa. Centred in Middelburg, it encourages tourists to meander through the surrounding towns of Noupoort, Rosmead, Steynsburg and Nieu-Bethesda while enjoying top-class hospitality at a range of guest houses or exploring farms along the way. And, there is much to discover. This area once bristled with railway lines and interesting link roads, so it is the ideal place for railway enthusiasts to explore. Long-forgotten lines once were the arteries along which the wool wealth of the area travelled to market. Today these rails, hidden by grass and boulders, straggle off across the veld and some even come to an abrupt halt because someone found a better use for a sleeper or length of line. In the early days railway lines and roads linked the bustling little towns. However, as time passed trains ran less frequently and the roads bypassed the ‘dorpies.’ Modern travellers raced along always seeking a quicker way to get where they were going and sadly missing awe-inspiring scenery, breath-taking beauty, and the area’s rich history. Now, Open Africa is allowing those who love the Karoo to take a step back, and once again own the area with its dramatic mountains and moody plains. This region falls into the Nama Karoo Biome. In its veld are many plants and natural herbs, scarce varieties of birds excite the birders and photographers are fascinated by rich colourful sunrises, sunsets, night skies filled with stars, snow-capped mountains and two peculiarly shaped koppies named of Teebus and Koffiebus (tea and coffee cannister). Excellent examples of San rock art can be seen at a variety of venues and there is the 82,8 km long tunnel which brings water from the Gariep Dam to the Orange River Water Scheme. The water gushes into the Teebus River which carries it southwards to irrigate the Fish and Sundays River valleys. One tourist attraction of this area is the disturbingly haunting Owl House of Nieu Bethesda. Once the home of Helen Martins, it features a fascinating range of ground glass and cement statues, all silently facing eastwards. They captivate tourists. And, oddly enough along this route are two adventure sports which one would hardly associate with the arid Karoo – canoeing and river rafting. Both are extremely exciting and popular.
Note: Other nearby Open Africa Routes are: Baviaanskloof Route, near Kouga, Malaoti Route on the Lesotho border; Thunga Thunga (“house with many doors”) and Fish River Mbodla Eco-Heritage Route.
FEW ARE SO FORTUNATE
The Mid-Karoo is using the works of author Eve Palmer, a “child” of the area, to promote the route. In The Plains of Camdeboo she writes: “Few people have the good fortune to be born in a desert. I was and all my life I have been conscious of my luck.” Karoo people, however, do not necessarily think of their land as a desert, she explains. “It’s the travellers who do. The people, who for hundreds of years have crossed these arid plains and still do today, call it by this name. And, she says, perhaps they are right “because like other deserts and semi-deserts of the world, ours is a country of life.” She adds: “We have only to walk or ride into the veld to know this and be caught up in its pattern: the squat, fat, angled plants; the hunting spiders that flicker between them; the ground squirrels upright beside their burrows; the vultures; the pale wild gladioli; the cobras; the scorpions; the mantis coloured like a flower; the black beetles rolling balls of dung; the koringkrieks lurching on immense crooked legs. Here moves a steenbok, a duiker, a springbuck, a lark clapping its wings above us; here are the tracks of an ant-bear; red dust and mottled eggs; arrowheads; the smell of rain, Karoo bush, wild asparagus, mountains and hills floating in a mirage of water, a white-hot sky, the sound of cicadas and wings and wind. This home of my childhood lies on this vast plateau, rimmed by mountains.”
A WISE CHOICE – EXACTLY IN THE HEART OF THE AREA
The Mid-Karoo Route is centred in Middelburg, a town founded in 1852 by the isolated congregation of Rhenosterberg, part of the diocese of Colesberg. Jan Coetzee’s farm, Driefontein, was chosen as a suitable site for a town by Elders W S Smit and Henning J H Coetzee and they were praised for their selection. The spot was central. It was right in the heart of the area, at a halfway point between Colesberg, Cradock, Richmond and Hofmeyr (each a little over 10 hours away) and Graaff Reinet (12 hours away). Burghersdorp, the other main centre of the day, could be reached in about 16 hours. The choice of Driefontein was confirmed at a meeting in Colesberg on February 2. The great Rev Andrew Murray of Graaff Reinet expressed his delight at the elders’ choice. Richmond’s Rev J F Berrangé was equally pleased, but Rev John Taylor, who had made a name for himself in Beaufort West before moving to Cradock, was totally against the idea of splitting the congregations and did not hesitate to say so. He was overruled but asked for his objections to be minuted. Farmer Jan Coetzee was paid £3 000 for his land and a town was proclaimed. Land surveyors began measuring out streets and erven and, by May 19 the new congregation was ready for its first service. This was conducted by Rev J H Neethling from Prince Albert and attended by the clergy and VIPs from all the surrounding towns. Nine children were baptised at the service. The town flourished. On August 16, a few days after the first erven were sold, six communicants – four of whom were Van der Walts – were welcomed to the congregation by Rev John Murray. A month later, on September 20, he conducted the first marriage between Pieter Johannes Christiaan Pretorius and Elsje Olivier. The first school opened in 1880. Almost a century later, in March 1974, a flood destroyed many beautiful old buildings. (One of Middelburg’s most famous sons, playwright Athol Fugard, was born in the village in 1932.)
A RICH TAPESTRY OF HISTORY
Grootfontein’s Agricultural College has a rich and diverse history. In 1903, after the Anglo-Boer War the British set up a military peace-keeping force and troop training centre on portions of the farms Grootfontein, Leeufontein, Bultfontein and De Poort, outside Middelburg. During their stay there the soldiers planted thousands of blue gum trees, many of which today still mark spots in the veld where military buildings once stood. The camp and military presence remained part of the infrastructure of Middelburg until 1910 when the Union of South Africa was established and Grootfontein farm together with some military buildings and other equipment was sold by the British Government to the then Minister of Agriculture of the Cape Colony, Mr F S Malan. Among the buildings was a most attractive wood and iron structure built by the British in 1903 as an officers’ mess. Its facilities were greatly enjoyed by the men of the 3rd Manchester Regiment. Many were stationed there with their families. Records show 3 000 women and children, a church and school, as part of the camp. The mess, known as Karoo House, has been restored and proclaimed a national monument. It can be visited by appointment. The old British pump station, constructed in 1904 to provide water for the soldiers, is said to be the only one of its kind in the world. More Roman than Victorian in appearance, it was built by soldiers of the peace-keeping force and sited on the marshlands of the actual “groote fontein” spring. Water from this natural fountain has never dried up and is still used for irrigation purposes. The P W Vorster Museum, one of the oldest buildings in the area, exhibits an impressive array of old farm implements and tells Boer War tales of the executed Cape Colony rebels J Lötter and P J Wolfaardt, who with his men was captured nearby. The chair monument, on the Richmond road, was erected after the British occupation to commemorate their bravery.
A COLLEGE TAKES ROOT
Grootfontein was converted to an agricultural school and experimental station on February 7, 1911. From the outset discipline was strict. Each day started at 06h00 and there was no room for slackers. Students worked in teams on the farm for a week and then spent a week in the classroom. No one could leave the grounds without permission. At the end of each day all paraffin lamps, then used for lighting, had to be out by 21h00. A special dairy course was introduced in 1913. Advertised as being able to take a maximum of 10 students, it was instantly filled. This proved that the college was on the right track. The first three-week short course on Home Economics, or Domestic Science as it was known in those days, was launched in June 1913. It too was over-subscribed and 30 qualified. Grootfontein’s widely known and highly respected sheep and wool course was introduced in 1919. This course was so popular that the school could barely keep up with the demand. Grootfontein also took the lead in starting the first Wool Growers’ Association in 1922. The school acquired college status in 1939.
OWLS, PILGRIMS AND OTHER THINGS
The attractive little town of Nieu-Bethesda, established in 1875, lies in the southern foothills of the Sneeuberge. Over it towers Compass Berg, which at 2 502m is the highest peak of the range. This mountain was named by Governor Joachim van Plettenberg and Colonel Jacob Gordon in 1778 because from its summit they could “encompass a panoramic view of the whole countryside.” The availability of water – generously flowing from perennial mountain streams – led to the choice of this spot for a town in this otherwise arid countryside. These streams inspired Graaff Reinet’s Dutch Reformed minister Rev Andrew Murray to choose the name Bethesda, place of flowing waters, from John 5: verse 2-4, for the fledgling village. When he named the town in Dutch, he said “Laten sy dese plaats nu Bethesda noemen. (Let us now name the place Bethesda), but locals mistook his meaning and instead of translating “nu” into “now”, they took it to mean “new” and so for ever after the village was known as Nieu Bethesda. Just getting to this delightful village is an adventure of sightseeing along a winding mountain road which affords breathtaking views around each bend. One of the prime attractions is the Owl House, stark, disturbing, haunting, but unforgettable.
A NARROW PASSAGE AND A NAME FOREVER
When the railway line from the Karoo to Port Elizabeth was constructed in 1884 it had to pass through a very narrow pass between the Kikvorsberg and the Agter Rhenosterberg mountains. The local Dutch-speaking community referred to this as “naauw poort.” When a village was established in this strange little triangle of Karoo veld beneath these mountains, in 1884, it became known as Noupoort. In its day Noupoort, one of the smallest districts of the Great Karoo, became a major sheep farming area and an important Railway junction. Trains, the lifeblood of the village, clanked, puffed and whistled throughout the day and night. Noupoort was a bustling little dorp. It was an important marshalling yard and a staging post for post coaches, but as rail traffic declined, so did the economy of the village and it sank back into a slumber. Nevertheless, it is an interesting place to visit. The road from Middelburg also reaches Noupoort through a strange little passage, called Carlton Heights. It’s a lovely drive affording good views of the area and once in the village there are some interesting sights to see. A fascinating wood and iron “pavilion” building, which the British imported during the Anglo-Boer War as an officer’s mess and a beautiful little Anglican Church in which the troops stored their regimental badges and colours.
EXPLORE AND DISCOVER KAROO HOSPITALITY
Meander along the R56 from Middelburg to discover real Karoo hospitality at several excellent guest farms on the way to Steynsburg. Take a turn along the route to Hofmeyer and Cradock to enjoy some unequalled scenery. Along the way you will discover the remains of Anglo-Boer War blockhouses – they lie almost mid-way between Steynsburg and Rosmead on Hillston farm. Then, in an area known as the Schoombee Karoo, tourists can go river rafting – a most unusual experience in an arid zone. Karoo River Rafting lies in a picturesque spot on the banks of the great Brak River at the confluence of the Teebus. Here James and Delina Jordaan offer a variety of trips – from one to four days – each with its own challenge and level of excitement. If this is not your bag, drive on to Steynsburg, a village founded in 1872 on the farm Bulhoek, once owned by Douw Steyn, grandfather of President Paul Kruger. The original farmhouse where the president was born has been renovated and proclaimed a national monument. The town became a municipality in 1892. An unusual taste treat awaits visitors to Steynsburg. At Africa Igloo they will discover real Austrian Apfel Strudel made by Johan Fleischer, a master pastry chef, who recently moved to the village. The Mid-Karoo Route takes visitors into the real Karoo, its offers more than scenery, history and hospitality.
REPORT COVERS VAST, BUT INTERESTING, FIELDS
The Centre for Development Support at the University of the Free State last year conducted a research programme into provincial development programmes in the arid zone. It was an enormous project, covering the Western, Eastern and Northern Cape and the Free State and it was made possible by funding from the Open Society Foundation. A report just completed is available from Professor Doreen Atkinson, who coordinated the programme. “This covers strengths and weaknesses of spatial dynamics, economic imperatives and institutional issues affecting tourism, land reform, agriculture, mining, arts and culture and water, etc, in specific areas of geographic interest in the Great Karoo, Klein Karoo, Kalahari and Namaqualand,” said Doreen. “To gather a relevant cross-section of information we interviewed many government and local municipality officials, academics, researchers, role players and stakeholders. The report is lengthy, yet I feel we have not done full justice to the extraordinary range and complexity of the information garnered, so this must be regarded as the first step in a much longer, on-going research and discussion process. Also, this year we hope to extend our activities to include arid zones in Namibia and Botswana.”
PIMPERNEL OF THE BOSCHBERG
Some say the Boschberg Trail near Kepe’s Cave is haunted. Many a hiker of this well-known Somerset East trail claims to have seen a shadow in the moonlight, but it’s gone in a blink leaving them pondering tricks of the light and wind rustling leaves. Surrounding Kepe’s Cave is a tale of intrigue, involving the search for an elusive “Scarlet Pimpernel” by a dedicated policeman. The cave was named after John Kepe a sly, elusive fellow, born in about 1898 says researcher Ros Turner. A misspent youth led to his arrest in Graaff-Reinet in 1921. He spent the next 12 years in and out of jail. After his arrested in Pearston in 1933 he was ajudged a habitual criminal. He was released from a Graaff Reinet jail in 1940 on condition that he did not leave the district for five years. He accepted these conditions but ignored them and instantly vanished without trace. Police were bewildered. Months went by, then Somerset East’s Sergeant C F Potgieter, saw an article on a spate of house breaking and stock theft in a police magazine. Studying the cases, he noticed a similar “modus operandi.” In each a large bag of sugar, flour or mealies was emptied out onto the floor and the thief escaped with the sack full of small items such as sugar, coffee, meal, tobacco and matches. The thief left a distinctive “spoor” – he appeared to have a missing toe. Potgieter planned to ambush the man, but the thief was too clever. He eluded the police at every turn. Shops in Cookhouse, Longhope and Kommadagga were constantly plundered and sheep were regularly slaughtered near Boschberg Mountain. This continued for a decade.
JOINED SEARCH PARTIES TO LOOK FOR HIMSELF
Somerset East police were irate. The Boschberg housebreaker had them running in circles. Between 1950 and 1951 the police received at lease one telephone call a week reporting stock theft and house breaking. The slaughter of sheep on Boschberg also continued. In a period of 18 months Jan Nel’s farm, Ongegund, was broken into at least 13 times. People began reporting seeing an armed guard with a .22 rifle on the mountain. He stopped many and questioned them, yet this mystery man eluded the police. On November 28, 1951, an old shepherd, Dirk Goliath, reported a burglary at his hut on Boschberg. Sergeant Botha went to investigate, and Goliath told of being confronted by a man with a .22 who asked: “Are you the one killing the farmers’ sheep here on the mountain?” Goliath said “No!” He gave the police a good description of the fellow and it matched those of others who’d seen him. Sergeant Potgieter felt the trail was “hotting up.” Then, on December 14, Goliath’s wife reported her husband missing. He’d gone out into the veld, she said and not returned. Within short Dixie Erasmus, who farmed on Charlton, called to say he’d found Goliath’s body on Boschberg. Goliath appeared to have been murdered. On February 26, 1952, Constable Mafukuzele and Sergeant J. Botha, who’d been lying in wait, caught Kepe red-handed stealing salt for mutton he’d stolen on Koos Botha’s farm. They arrested him. He confessed to Goliath’s murder and several other charges of stock theft and house breaking. He laughingly added he’d often joined search parties sent out to look for him. He took the police to the Bosberg cave, telling them he’d lived there for 12 years. There was so much booty in the cave that a large truck was needed to remove it. Kepe also showed the police over 100 sheep skins in an adjacent cave. He was brought to Somerset East to be charged. A huge crowd turned out just to see him. Unperturbed he turned to them shouting: “I am Samson of the Boschberg. When the Philistines caught Samson, everyone turned out to see him just as you have come to see me today.” Kepe was found guilty of murder, in the Cradock Magistrate’s Court on April 22, 1952, and sentenced to death by Justice Gardiner. He was hanged in Pretoria on June 25. One of his last requests was to speak to Sergeant Potgieter. The sergeant went to Pretoria to see him, but never disclosed what was said.
Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour. — Truman Capote