Arthur Charles Jackson converted to Christianity in a Karoo sheep pasture. He had dreamed of becoming a farmer and when in his teens went to help out on a Kuilspoort, a farm belonging to his father’s cousin, Julius Jackson. While out in the veld one day Charles had an epiphany “beside a Karoo bush” and gave himself to God A de Jager Jackson tells the story in Manna In The Desert: In 1894 our cousin, Charles, was overcome by the forlorn state of shepherds, lonely deaths, rude and summary burials and absence of aid in the hour of trouble. He threw up farming, qualified as a missionary and went to labour among the poor.” After being ordained Charles went to Pamushana Mission, in Zimbabwe. He married and in 1909 his second child was born prematurely when his wife went into early labour due to malaria medication she was taking. The weather was bad when this emergency arose, and Charles could not get help. He eventually managed to get a message to a neighbour, Bob Richards, asking him to contact the doctor at Masvingo and tell him of his plight. Bob raced off on a bicycle, crossing five swollen rivers and carrying his cycle across precarious pedestrian suspension bridges. He arrived in town in a state of utter exhaustion and nervous anxiety. The astonished doctor thought the wild-looking, wide-eyed man, who had burst into his rooms, had gone mad when he announced that on a far away farm there was a man with a newborn baby in his pocket. This, in fact, was true. Not knowing what to do with the premature baby, Charles fell back on his Karoo farming experience and popped it into the deep pocket of his jacket. He knew many Karoo farmers saved newborn lambs in this way. By the time the doctor arrived three days, later after negotiating the swollen rivers by donkey cart, Charles’s wife and child were fine. “The Karoo can become bitterly cold in winter,” said Pieter Lund, who farms on Bleakhouse at Nelspoort. “In winter lambing season farmers have been known to place eight to twelve half frozen lambs, already stiff with cold, into a sack, take it home and place it near the coal stove in the kitchen. There the lambs thaw and most survive.”


Early geologists did considerable research in the Karoo. This was evident in First Annual Report of the Geological Commission dated 1896 and presented to both Houses of Parliament in 1897. Professor Corstorphine, who was appointed as geologist to the Commission in 1895, visited Laingsburg, Prince Albert, Graaff Reinet and Oudtshoorn. He reported in detail on the sandstone and shales near Beaufort West. The man appointed to carry out this survey was Professor E H L Schwarz and he was tasked with tracing the relation of these to what appeared to be a southern continuation of the same. The Commission also also took a fresh look at various formations, such a the Bokkeveld Beds, coal and reports of fossil finds made by men such as Andrew Geddes Bain and Professor Seeley


The Geological Commission, chaired by John Xavier Merriman, Member of the Legislative Assembly, included Thomas Muir, superintendent of education, David Gill, Her Majesty’s astronomer, Thomas Steward and Charles Currey, under-secretary for agriculture. Chief geologist, George S Corstorphine, was assisted by Arthur W Rogers and Ernest Schwarz. The main objective of the commission was “to study of the geology of the Colony,” to assess the viability of coal in areas such as Laingsburg and Beaufort West and to study the limestone formations at the Cango Caves outside Oudtshoorn.

Continuing Peter Lund’s drought studies

Over the years the Karoo has seen many droughts and, even now despite good rains in the interior, Beaufort West’s Gamka Dam remains empty. Droughts were reported in 1864, 1877, 1903, 1916, 1925 through to 1928. The one considered to be the fiercest climaxed in 1933. Known as The Great Drought it peaked after almost five years of little rain in large parts of the Karoo, north-western Cape and Orange Free State. It reduced thousands of farmers to poverty and wiped out some once prosperous farms. “The hinterland became a barren wasteland,” says Pieter Lund, continuing the stories on drought in the arid zone that he started in Round Up No 84. Pieter gleaned most of these from The Farmer’s Weekly from 1930 to 1934. “Fortunately for my father the lessons he had learned in earlier droughts carried him through. He applied a policy of lower stock numbers coupled to a conservative grazing and this enabled him to survive without having to leave the farm.” It was a tough time said Pieter. “Vleis and dams dried. Windmills clanked in vain over dry boreholes. Grazing withered and eventually even the karoo bush disappeared. Barren land stretched into the distance as far as the eye could see. Across the Karoo farmers were forced to abandon their land. Shepherds became drovers as stock was driven great distances in search of grazing. The railways offered preferential rates for the transport of livestock to any area where grazing was available.” Severe financial constraints made it impossible for very many of the farmers to trek and, as the drought wore on, their animals became too weak to travel. Slaughter stock was in poor condition and far too lean to be sent to the abattoirs. In any event there were very few buyers,” said Pieter.


The worst thing about the Great Drought was that it coincided with the Great Depression – a terrible time for farmers and almost everyone else in the country. Many farmers left because they could not afford to stay. Animals stood forlornly about without food or water, abandoned by owners who could not afford to keep them. They simply waited patiently to die. Dead and dying sheep were everywhere. Swollen carcasses lay all over the veld decaying in the fierce heat. By the end of September 1933 millions of sheep and cattle had been lost. Hundreds of farmers searched for “relief jobs.” Prime Minister Barry Hertzog called on the people to turn to God, confess their sins and pray for help. The change came in October when some showers were reported at various spots in the drought-stricken area. The people rejoiced and gave thanks. Then, the rains came in earnest and by the end of November rivers were in flood and dams overflowing. Farmers deserted their “relief jobs” and raced back to their farms. They dispayed an amazing resilience. Everyone was keen to start again.


Dr Johan Loock referred to “river capture” in his explanation of the Schwarz scheme. Some wondered what he meant. In South African Geology Professor E H L Schwarz explains: If two rivers were running parallel – one runs over soft ground and the other over hard ground or with a bar in its course, the first would lower its bed more rapidly than the second. The drainage area of the first river would tend to enlarge more rapidly than the second and it may happen that a tributary of the lower river may eat back as far as to draw off the water from the upper part of the (second) river i.e. the one at the higher level. This frequently happens in nature and the process is called river capture. The river with its headwaters drained into the basin of another is said to be beheaded.”


Little has changed in the dryland. Towards the end of the 1890s Professor Ernest Schwarz wrote in The Kalahari or Thirstland Redemption: “When one travels in the hinterland of South Africa and talks to farmers at the outspans, one hears tales of the country having been much better supplied with rain. They say: “Fifty years ago the river used to run ten months in the year. Grass grew over a large portion of the farm.” Regarding droughts they would say: “Yes, there used to be bad droughts, but after these one could reckon on having a succession of good years. Now droughts follow droughts and the land has no opportunity of recovering.” Such are the tales one hears says Schwarz and he posed the question: “Are they true or are they simply the reminiscences of old men who feel the world was a better place when they were young.” He set out to investigate.


Schwarz studied the writings of early explorers such Le Vaillant, Barrow and Lichtenstein. He discovered their reports differed little to those of men like George Thompson (1827) through to Gordon Cumming (1850) and even to the then present day. “The same droughts, the same floods bringing down masses of mud instead of water, the same failure of harvests. Only the distress was not so acute.” Yet many denied South Africa was drying up. Most maintained it was just an ordinary cycle of dry to be followed by good. Schwarz did not think so. He believed droughts were becoming worse and worse and that people would be squeezed out of the central district to eventually take refuge at the coast. “The time is not far distant when the Karoo will become a desert like the Sahara where exactly the same thing happened a thousand years ago.” Referring to the works of early travellers in The Kalahari or Thirstland Redemption he said: According to early travellers the western Karoo had already advanced towards its present condition, but the eastern Karoo was different. “When Barrow crossed the Kowie, south of Grahamstown, in 1797 he described great herds of elephants roaming forested kloofs near the Kariega, while lions, leopards, hyaenas and other beasts of prey abounded in this wild part of the country.”


The early travellers reported vast herds. They wrote of steenbuck, bushbuck, reedbuck, oribi, hartebeest, kudu, buffalo, lion, wildebeest, springbuck, ostrich, hippo and rhino said Schwarz who dated the drying of the Karoo to the disappearance of the Kalahari lakes in 1820. He said the configuration of the Karoo around Beaufort West was the same as around Cradock, but only much drier. He drew attention to the fact that the Bushmen named the Gamka River for the number of lions on its banks and Zeekoeigat, north-east of Prince Albert, because a deep hollow always held sufficient pools for hippos. There were other similarly named places across the Karoo. “When we dig along the banks of these dry rivers in the Gouph, Beaufort West and Prince Albert areas we find almost everywhere the bones of large game, including hippo. This indicates that tropical animals requiring vast amounts of food existed along the rivers where now only small stock can live, says Schwarz in The Kalahari or Thirstland Redemption. At Beer Vlei, north of Willowmore, Barrow in 1797 described “a plain of several miles long at the foot of the Black Mountain.” He said it seemed to be “the reservoir of a number of periodical rivers whose sources are in the Nuweveld, Winterberg and Camdeboo Mountains.” One was running at the time of Barrrow’s visit. It had “a considerable current,” but was “as salt as brine”. Others, some fresh, had less current. These streams “fell into a valley skirted with tall mimosas which spread into a forest. This was a delightful spot in the middle of a barren desert, and it afforded shelter, food and water to a vast variety of game.” Schwarz said droughts had driven the animals from the open veld and destroyed this idyllic spot.


In the Karoo, after rain, there is a growth of grass and plants that ordinarily thrive in better watered parts. “This is known to the Dutch as ‘opslag’.” Schwarz said: “Ordinarily the hot, scorching winds cut down this growth before it has attained any size or strength, but sometimes it does happen, as it did in the Cradock district in 1906 that rains are sufficiently continuous to allow it to spread and the most extraordinary result follows. The bare hills are covered to their tops with green grass. One might imagine the koppies are somewhere in Europe. One hill in Cradock reminded me of Arthurs Seat in Edinburgh, but I have seen this only once in 25 years”.


In his book South African Geology Professor E H L Schwarz says the best examples of peneplains in South Africa can be seen at Oudtshoorn, Uniondale and around Grahamstown. This phenomenon is caused by river action when a continent remains stationary for a long time. The river banks eventually disappear, and the rivers cut out sideways. Eventually it creates a level featureless plain called a peneplain. “In such cases the whole country is said to be base-levelled,” says Schwarz. In time the rivers cut downwards again and saw out valleys on the plains and the river material on the flat ground eventually hardens. The original peneplains are thus high on hills above the river valleys and their edges cut off abruptly at the start of the slope where the river began its downward movement. “The result is peculiar table-topped hills covered with hardened river sand that are characteristic along the South African coast. These must, however, not be confused with the table topped hills of the Karoo. They are quite different.”


The Irma Booysen Flora Reserve at Cape St Francis has a link with the Karoo. Irma Booysen, acknowledged as one of the country’s finest floral artists, was born as Irma Ina von Below in Middelburg, in the Karoo, on January 13, 1920. Her husband was the original owner of the farm Ongegunde Vryheid, and in time this was developed into a township in the Cape St Francis area. When this happened Irma, well-known for her botanical paintings of plants in the area, persuaded him to set aside a tract of land for the preservation of coastal fynbos. Irma grew up in the Karoo and attended school in Cradock. She missed the area when her family moved to Durban and when she moved to Johannesburg to study nursing. After qualifying she worked at the Johannesburg General Hospital where she met Dr. Edward Matson Kerr, a neuro-surgeon. After they were married in the early 1950s, she took part-time art classes ad soon discovered watercolours were her preferred medium. She loved painting Ericas, and did the paintings for Fay Anderson’s book, Ericas in Southern Africa, published in November 1967. These paintings received the Grenfell Gold Medal at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Spring Show in London in 1968. At this time Irma lived on a farm between Humansdorp and Plettenberg Bay. She and Edward were divorced in 1967. She later married John Booysen and settled in St. Francis Bay. Here she met Richard Cowling, who was working on a doctorate on fynbos of the area and Irma providing excellent illustrations for his thesis. By the time Dr. Cowling moved to Australia in December 1983 Irma had completed 97 sketches for their planned book. She died on 21 January 1984.


Among the prolific Afrikaans writers who come from the Karoo is Ena Murray. Born in Loxton on December 27, 1936, she was the second of Dr Mans’s three daughters. Ena spent most of her childhood years in Loxton or Victoria West where she went to school. After completing matric she trained to become a nurse and worked for a while in a hospital until she married Boet Murray, a Loxton farmer. She then returned to her beloved Karoo and the town of her birth. Once settled there her literary career tookoff and she became a full-time writer, producing romance, detective fiction, espionage and adventure novels for almost four decades. Ena has been hailed as the most read Afrikaans writer and one of the most respected. This was proved in a survey conducted by the Afrikaans Radio Programme Radio Sonder Grense, in collaboration with Tafelkop Publishers. It revealed that Ena Murray was the most popular Afrikaans writer in the country. In addition to producing over 130 novels, she has also written spiritual literature and poetry. Her works are so popular that many have appeared in large print to assist the visually impaired and some have been printed in Braille or recorded by Brandhulp vir Blindes at the Pioneer School in Worcester so that they can be enjoyed by the blind. Ena and Boet’s marriage lasted for 20 years. After their divorce she moved to the Wilderness, where she some time later met and marrieds Jacques Mosert. Ten years later they moved to Mossel Bay. Many of Ena’s novels were semi-biographical and these proved to be the most popular as her readers who easily identified with the characters. Some of her works, such as works such as Vrou Uit Die Nag and Plekke in die Son were filmed. The latter was set in a leper colony and in order to ensure that her facts were totally correct Ena went to live in such a colony for a while. From the outset Ena was considered a thorough researcher.


Way back in the 1800s a Mr. Jeffrey then started a “private school” in Cradock. He was known to be a good teacher and many parents opted to remove their offspring from the Government School and place them in Mr. Jeffrey’s establishment. This was not a popular decision as far as the youngsters were concerned because Mr Jeffrey was far too strict for their liking. He was not a popular man among his pupils, in fact many claimed they “would rather die than attend his classes”. Their parents turned deaf ears to such dramatic remarks. Mr Jeffrey’s punishments were rather severe. For both offending boys and girls he dished out “a good dose of Epsom Salts as well as a flogging.” Real miscreants were made to to kneel on a platform before the whole school and ask God’s forgiveness. One young man punished in this way for “making marks on a book, said he knew God would never hear him because he did not commit the offence.” Another was sentenced to 19 cuts. The lad counted the strokes as they were administered, then laughed at the end. “What is so amusing?” asked Mr Jeffrey. “I only got 18,” he said. “Well, my little mathematician, here is the missing one,” said Mr. Jeffrey, administering it with gusto.

Even a stopped clock is right twice every day and after some years can boast of a long series of successesMarie von Ebner-Eschenbach