A rainbow of light shimmering through a dewdrop almost 80 years ago has resulted in a book which captures the essence of the Karoo. Tom Burgers’s Karoo Pastoral encapsulates the spirit of the Karoo in extraordinarily beautiful photographs coupled to the works of some of South Africa’s finest poets. Among these are emotive works, such as Dolf van Niekerk’s Dubbel Ster and Jan F Cilliers’s Die Vlakte, which have been translated for the English version of the book by Deryck Uys. No ordinary travel book, Karoo Pastoral is a journey through the endless, limitless landscape of the Karoo and into the lives of people, under the guidance of a master photographer. It spans 40 years of photography rooted in a deep love of the Karoo. This book transports readers into an ancient world where the touch of God is light and where the rocks are the curators of time. The intensity of blazing summers, icy winters, the pain of drought, the joy of rain, all become real to the reader through the intense imagery of this book. Tom Burgers’s love of photography shines through every page. This love was ignited many years ago by his mother who showed him a glittering dewdrop on a blade of grass. The magnificent contrast of captured colour, light and shadow fascinated him, and the beauty of that moment never left him. Years later Tom worked through the American Professional Photographers’ Course, and in 1958 started a full-time studio in the Karoo. In 1966 he moved to Cape Town and into the world of advertising and fashion photography, but the call of the Karoo was strong, and he regularly found himself roaming this vast landscape of this ancient land to capture its mythical beauty on film. The result is this superb, full-colour Karoo Pastoral, independently published and available in limited quantities – in English or Afrikaans – at a cost of R750


Round-up has lost one of its staunchest supporters. Arnold Hutchinson, widely-known across the Karoo, lost his three-year long battle with cancer on January15 this year. He was cremated and his ashes will be sprinkled in the Nuweveld Mountains, one of his favourite spots. Arnold loved the Karoo and his life in the region was a constant journey of discovery. While working for Eskom he constantly surveyed the far-flung gravel roads and Railway tracks he travelled searching for traces of endangered species of veld plants and animals. He also searched for long forgotten roads, routes, graves and evidence of early settlers. Arnold monitored everything from eagles to ants. He loved history and passed countless snippets on to Round-up. Enchanted by the idea of a simple, pioneer lifestyle Arnold once set off in a donkey cart from Beaufort West bound for Worcester. At the end of this long journey he quipped that anyone else wishing to undertake a similar trip should ensure that they did not feed their donkey beans. Arnold also rode from Beaufort West to Victoria West and then to Richmond alone and on horseback, just to get a taste of what life was like in the 1800s. A keen writer, part time poet and never-ending Karoo enthusiast, Arnold will be mourned by all who knew him.


Anglo Boer War enthusiasts will be delighted to learn that Taffy and David Shearing are in the process of completing their “rebel list”. They have been working on this project for 50 years. “Taffy got the name of the first rebel when we were engaged!” says David. Tracing 15435 rebels and their stories has been a labour of love, so they have decided to publish this list to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary next year. This promises to be a publication worth waiting for.


The trials and tribulations of the 1820 settlers are widely recorded, but those of their wives are not so well known. Most came from places where food was reasonably easily acquired. Then, suddenly they found themselves in far-flung spots of the African veld where recipe books were useless and supplies almost impossible to find. In An Albany Settler’s Reminiscences, Rev H H Dugmore, describes the adventures of three women hoping only to prepare a simple meal of stewed mutton. Their husbands had gone to town in search of work and “it happened that their wives needed meat while they were away,” writes the good reverend. “A sheep was procured from the ration stock, but the good women had no one who could undertake to slaughter it for them. What was to be done? They had no compunction about eating the sheep; but it seems they all had qualms of conscience about reducing it to an edible state. They managed to tie its feet together, then in animated discussion tried to screw up sufficient courage to ‘do the deed’. They were just at the point of drawing lots when the sheep, whose bonds were by no means as indissoluble as their problem, suddenly started to its feet and ran for its life, pursued, of course, by all three ladies.


The situation was by no means an ordinary one and a view of the chase must have been interesting. Rev Dugmore continues: “The sheep was so hard pressed that it fled straight into a dam and there was nothing left for the amateur lady butchers to do but to take to the water after it. They did not actually end up swimming, but a step or two more would have set them either floating or sinking. Nevertheless, they gained possession of their prize once more and this time secured it. Then with averted heads, the fatal stroke, or rather succession of strokes was struck. Poor sheep! Had the good creatures been less tender hearted it would have suffered less. But now the sheep was dead, and they were still in the midst of their difficulties. They knew no more about skinning than slaughtering and less still about cutting up the meat. Yet the indomitable three were not to be beaten. The skin came off at last, bit by bit. The meat was cut into the most extraordinary joints and carried home where dinner was served in triumph. It was said the ladies ate well, no doubt with appetites sharpened by the labours of procuring their meal. The skin became the ‘crowning glory’ of their exploit. It was made into hats for their children.”


Fancy a stay on a historic Karoo farm? Try Rietpoort, 30 km north of Victoria West on the road to Britstown. This farm lies right alongside the N12 and its “modern history”, say owners Dirk and Naomi Ras, begins in the 1700’s, when nomadic European farmers moved into the hinterland and started settling down. They chose this spot because it was near a spring, once a. source of life for ancient people and animals. It still supplies sufficient water for household needs, irrigation purposes and to maintain a poplar grove as well as ancient orchard with 150-year old pear trees. Ruins of an old watermill bear testimony to the fact that flour was once milled at this spring. The foundation stones of the first cottage are still clearly visible near the current homestead, which is over 200 years old and was built from stone and clay brick. Its walls are half a metre thick. Floor and ceilings planks are of yellow wood brought from Knysna by ox wagon. In time sash windows and Oregon pine shutters were added as well as a Victorian veranda. “In the 1920’s, when my grandparents married, pressed steel ceilings were installed in the dining room, reception rooms and main bedroom,” says Dick. A slave bell adorns the front porch. Other structures, once built as dwellings still stand but, over the years, have been turned into stables and barns. Fortunately, many interesting original features, such as “brandsolders” (old fire-ceilings) of reeds and clay and lofts with wide support beams still exist. There are also signs of ancient civilisations across the farm and there is a fascinating patch of fossilised mudstone. Dick once found a stone tool in an ancient “work area” near some ostrich egg shards. There are also rock engravings of eland, elephant and other animals. “One depicts a creature that looks like an ancient sabre-tooth tiger,” says Dick. “We also have a Bushman piano, made from specially positioned sections of dolerite which emit different notes when struck with another piece of rock.” Old stone kraals date back to the early 1800’s when predators roamed the Karoo and it was essential to bring in all livestock at night. “Over the years the dung in these kraals became so thick that sheep could jump over the walls. The dung was so compacted that a special implement had to be used to cut it into sods which were used to heighten the wall,” said Dick. Rietpoort is now part of the modern world and runs on solar and wind power.


When Robert Grey, Bishop of Cape Town, set off for the northernmost reaches of the Colony, he was captivated by the Karoo. “There was no time for reading in the wagon,” writes Thelma Gutsche in The Bishop’s Lady. “The arid desert-like Karoo with its abrupt rocky kopjes, occasional mirages and stunted bushes sparsely mixed with grass, was full of fascination.” The Bishop saw thousands of springbok, gnus and swarms of locusts, rare pools of water, called “vleis” and sometimes, but very seldom, a Hottentot family trekking along the “road”. The Bishop enjoyed a stopover with the stormy petrel of Cape politics, Andries Stockenström, famed for intransigent liberal views and swam in the Great Fish River, before entering the Great Karoo. Graaff-Reinet’s Rev W Long and his wife met the Bishop at Somerset (East) where Robert preached in the Dutch church. He then doubled back across Agterbruintjieshoogte and travelled to Cradock – full of English-speaking people, but with no church. The Great Karoo in those days had a large English-speaking population. Robert tried to preach in Dutch at some farms. He was sure his messages were quite unintelligible, but his Boer hosts politely disagreed. He gave a Dutch-English prayer book to one family with whom he spent the night. In Colesberg he stayed with Dr Orpen, a sincere, but explosive Irishman, whom he ordained as a deacon in the Dutch church where Thomas Reid, a Scotsman, was the minister. The fabled Orange River was only a three-hour ride away, so Robert rode out at 05h00 one morning to see the river and have a swim in its muddy waters.


The first report on coal deposits in the Karoo is dated 1871. It was written by Dr Guyborne Atherstone and a Mr Bain and it studied deposits at Leeu Riverspoort, in the Nuweveld Mountains and on Rabie’s farm in the Camdeboo. These experts stated: “The coal is anthracite and occurs in a vertical fissure 10 cm thick. Coal shales, similar to Stormberg grit, extends for about 12,5m vertically, but these rocks are so steep almost vertical, so we were unable to make more than a cursory examination. We found indications of a small horizontal layer of coal in shales extending for about 36,5 m from the vertical fissure. This fissure we imagine has been filled with pulverised coal from some horizontal coal seam, traces of which were found at the surface. Probably on opening it up a sufficient thickness to be of value might be found. The pressure of the greenstone dyke has altered the coal here, an effect which is probably local.” In 1886 Dunn underlined his belief that there were extensive deposits of coal under the Karoo in the Lower Karoo or Ecca Beds. He based this assumption on “the glacial conglomerate occurring on the northern side of the Karoo identical to the Dwyka conglomerate on the south side. “The two conglomerates establish a great basin-shaped area with an inner rim of black carbonaceous shale dipping towards the centre. These black shales are covered by a thick strata – the Karoo beds”


Government geologist E J Dunn sincerely believed there was coal in the Karoo. His reports of 1879, 1883, and 1886 prove this. William Molyneux wrote a similar report in 1881 and so did Professor A H Green in 1883. Dunn felt the Karoo lay on the “outer edge of a coal field” and to test his theory arranged for boreholes to be sunk. The first at Kalkbult, 9,6 km from Potfontein Station was started in May 1886. This exploratory hole reached 250 m by October that year without any coal being discovered. On the advice of Professor Hahn operations were stopped and a new site was selected at Klein Kruidfontein near Fraserberg Road Station. Here a depth of 338 m was reached without result and then one of the drill rods broke. A new site was selected nearby, and drilling was also carried out in the Camdeboo, all without positive result. By 1896 hopes of finding viable coal in the Karoo were dashed by the First Annual Report of the Geological Commission which reported only thin partings and “leaders’ of coal in the Prince Albert area. Hopes of finding sufficiently thick deposits dwindled. Shafts were dug into the blackest of black shale in the Swartberg, but still no coal. The coal at Leeu Rivierspoort was enough to “nonplus geologists and exasperate coal seekers.”


Investigations were also done in the Laingsburg area. Some farmers between Prince Albert Road and Laingsburg started “mining” operations, however, once again the geologists found only thin irregular layers between beds of hard, compact blue sandstone. Chief geologist George S Corstorphine reported “nothing resembling a ‘coal seam’ was found.”


“The word “brak” is an ominous one for South Africa,” says Professor E H L Schwarz. “Briefly this condition is created by salts of soda and lime that have collected in the growing zone to such an extent that ordinary plants are killed. In the Karoo, however, several pants, such as ganna, have adapted to this condition. Other plants, such as beetroot and lucerne can become tolerant to brak in the thirstland areas, so judicious crop farming is possible,” said Prof Schwarz


Former Karoo farmer David Shearing is one of the readers who has enjoyed stories covering the history of drought in the Karoo. “We must, however, remember that in the Karoo – so the saying goes – there is ‘only thing more certain than death and that is drought!’ A Karoo drought certainly does take a severe toll, but when it’s over it gives so much back. On balance the Karoo remains a wonderful place.” Many agree with that statement. The Karoo is a place of fascinating contrasts. The Graaff-Reinet Herald of Thursday, March 28, 1889, reported that “a warm gentle warm rain during the past week broke a dry spell, but in the Camdeboo the mountains are thickly covered with snow. We anticipate a continuance of the delightfully bracing cold weather that set in after the rain. It is a break from the heat. Pasturage will be abundant this winter and we are looking forward to a fest of fat beef and mutton. Sadly, however, during a thunderstorm on Wednesday 75 sheep were struck dead by lightning on Stephanus Meintjies’s farm.” On December 14, 1777, explorer Robert Jacob Gordon, the first person to formally state the relationship between the south-east winds of the Cape and rains up country was caught in a hail storm in the Sneeuwberg area. “There was heavy thunder, gusts of high wind, large hailstones and heavy rain. A few days before pieces of broken ice, the size of a man’s fist, fell during a thunder storm.” he wrote.


Your readers may be interested to know that Prof Richard Cowling returned to South Africa. (Round-up, January 2011), writes Prof Sue Milton. “After spending a year or so in Australia doing his post doctoral thesis, he returned to teach in the University of Cape Town Botany Department where he started the Institute for Plant Conservation (backed by Lesley Hill a donor with a passion for Karoo Succulents). Richard then moved back to Cape St Francis and still lives there teaching and supervising research on a part-time basis for Botany at NMMU.


In the 1800s the night was the time to travel. Many early journals state that they travelled by night and rested by day because of the fearsome heat of the hinterland. Most found travelling by moonlight a most enjoyable experience, especially if there was “a cool breeze dancing across the plains”. And so it was that on the night of Tuesday, December 28, 1853, a Mr Drury from Uitenhage was riding his horse along a lonely night at about 20h00 when suddenly a shot rang out. The Port Elizabeth Telegraph reports that at the sound both Mr Drury and his horse almost fainted. The shot which came from the bushes alongside the road killed Drury’s pack horse. Out the corner of his eye Drury saw two men leaping towards him. He fired on reflex and thought he may have wounded one, but he didn’t wait to find out. He kicked his horse into a gallop and fled. A few meters further down the road another vagabond leapt into the roadway, almost right beside the horse. He fired a single shot. The ball fortunately missed Drury’s body, but struck him in his bridle arm. It passed right through the arm about 15 cm above the wrist. Drury was disabled and in dreadful pain but being totally alone he again spurred his horse on. He rode at speed for about 15 minutes, then due to the pain, exhaustion and lack of blood he had to stop. He dismounted and stood quite still for a few seconds. There was no sound. It seemed he was utterly alone. Drury then reloaded his gun, tore strips from his shirt to fashion a tourniquet, bandaged his wound as best he could, remounted and rode off to the nearest farmhouse at a steady pace without further incident. Sadly, the saddle bags on the horse which was killed contained, £500 in gold. Drury offered £100 reward for its recovery, but it was never heard of again.

If you’re interested in ‘balancing’ work and pleasure, try to make your work more pleasurable – Donald Trump