A mammoth 450 km walk, the first of its kind across the Karoo, is planned for October. The route follows the course of the Sak River, the Karoo’s longest watercourse, from its source in the Nuweveld Mountains, outside Beaufort West, to its end at ‘Blok se Kolk’ on Grootvloer, a giant pan at Onderstedorings in Bushmanland. It passes through an isolated part of the Karoo and places that few South Africans have seen. The aim is to raise funds for riverine rabbit research. This little creature, one of the world’s most highly endangered species, is listed as critical in the Red Data Book. Only about 250 survive. The expedition, organised by photojournalist Steve Moseley, in co-operation with Dr Vicky Ahlmann, chairman of the Riverine Rabbit Research Group (RRWG), crosses part of the rabbit’s natural habitat. Steve’s wife Brent will stay in touch with the expedition through a variety of unusual means, including smoke signals. “Organising this walk took time because we had to obtain permission to cross and camp on several private farms,” says Steve. “Research reveals that no one has yet walked the length of the Sak River.” Steve estimates the trip will take 20 days. He hopes at least ten enthusiasts will take up this challenge. The walk is not for the fainthearted, warns Steve. “The terrain is rugged, and we will not be able to pamper anyone. Participants must each carry their own food, water and tent, and help with cooking as well as returning campsites to pristine on departure.” Fifty percent of the expedition fee will be donated to riverine rabbit research. Conservation is now handled under the auspices of the Endangered Wildilfe Trust (EWT), one of SA’s largest conservation NGOs. EWT set up the RRWG last August.


The Riverine Rabbit Working Group has a new sponsor. The Mazda Wildlife Fund (MWF) recently donated a Mazda B 2500 TD to the group. “This means a great deal,” says RRWG chairperson, Dr Vicky Ahlmann. “My aging bakkie, which up to now has served as the research vehicle, is falling apart. Without the MWF donation my work would have ground to a standstill.” MWF, formed in 1990 by the Ford Motor Company of S A and its nation-wide dealer network, has invested about Rlm a year in over 120 different conservation projects for the past 14 years,” says Vicky. “They mostly donate vehicles, which are always gratefully accepted. Reliable wheels are vital in virtually every conservation project. MWF’s sponsorship will enable us to support several conservation efforts including the dissemination of information, environmental education, awareness, habitat management, population monitoring and conservancy stewardship.


Many have heard of the “Great Wind” that once hit Beaufort West. Few are sure of when it happened. Well it seems that some of the strongest winds ever recorded in South Africa wreaked havoc as they blew through Beaufort West at speeds of over 180 km per hour on May 16, 1984. The winds were so fierce that they blew the anemometer away and the last speed recorded was 180km, say the experts.


The tiny town of Merweville celebrates its centenary this year. Locals are planning a special festival from September 24 to 26. This will include stalls selling a variety of items, traditional dishes, specially labelled wines, fun runs and cycle competitions. Twelve oil paintings with Merweville as central theme will be auctioned. The Dutch Reformed Church of Merweville has compiled a commemorative book of events that have taken place in the town over the last century. This “Eeufeesbundel,” currently at the printers, will be available at the festival at R100 a copy.


A search for information on her great grand father has led Desiree Braithwaite to the Karoo. It has also raised some interesting questions lined to the Anglo-Boer War. Desiree’s great grandfather William Douglas Jost was born in 1875 or 1882 near Uitenahage or Port Elizabeth. Confusion surrounds his name. “It seems the family knew him as William, his brother called him Billy, and he is listed as Nicholas Douglas on my grandmother’s death notice,” says Desiree. William, a brick mason, met Maria Louisa Nienaber, Desiree’s great grandmother, in Graaff Reinet in 1900. “Did people travel great distances during the Anglo-Boer War? Was transport not limited? Would he have found building work there with the war in progress?” William married Maria, daughter of Pieter Carel and Maria Louisa Nienaber (nee Van Dalen) in about 1901/2 in Graaff Reinet, where she was baptised in 1882. Desiree hasn’t yet found their marriage certificate. She did, however, find Marie Minnie Stewart and Jacobus George Jost’s marriage certificate, dated Albany, September l, 1861. “I have a strong feeling that they were Williams parents and consequently my great-great grandparents but have not been able to substantiate this.” William’s sister Margaret Daisy Violet married Marthinus Gerhardus Deetlefs in Uitenhage. “They had two sets of twins. This caused me some confusion and I had to spend quite some time placing Nicholas Douglas and two girls named Gertrude on my family tree.” The Deetlef’s family lived on Klipkule, near Uitenhage in about 1905. In 1909 they moved to Union Lane. “My great-grandfather William was at his youngest daughter Margaret Mineus Jost’s wedding in Durban in 1933. She married Fred Botha. I feel the name Mineus is a mis-spelling of Minnie, William’s mother’s second name,” Desiree, who lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, is a keen porcelain doll maker. She created Cosette Jost, dedicated to her quest for information. Cosette turned out to be a prizewinner. “I trust this is a good omen,” says Desiree.


Tourist routes are the in thing these days, yet, the concept is not new. Several early visitors suggested routes to fellow travellers. In 1900 Charlotte Mansfield, bound for Rhodesia, fell in love with the Karoo. In Via Rhodesia she says she always regretted travelling straight from Cape Town to Kimberley. She advises visitors to take a train from Cape Town to George. “Pay first class fare and stay over at a good hotels. On day two drive to the Wilderness, walk along the Kaymans River, see a wonderful waterfall, bathe in the sea or river. On day three hire a Cape cart with a good team and go to Oudtshoorn via the Montagu Pass. This way you will see some of the finest scenery in the Colony.” Charlotte describes the excitement of driving along mountain roads with heavy timber wagons passing you. “When you arrive in Oudtshoorn immediately book a Cape cart to travel to Prince Albert. Next day, before departing, see Oudtshoorn, Schoemanshoek, the ostrich farms and Cango Caves. These are looked after by the Government. Then, drive along the Crocodile Valley, over the magnificent Swartberg Pass to Prince Albert. After enjoying the hospitality of this little village drive to Prince Albert Road and join the train to Kimberley. Those who have time and money to spare will truly enjoy this wonderful part of Africa.”


The Karoo did not impress French-born writer-adventurer Lionel Decle. When he set off on his “great African journey” in 1891, he found it a “woebegone” place. The French Government had commissioned Decle, a “globetrotter of repute” to study “the ethnology and anthropology of Africa.” He travelled from Cape Town to Mombasa, but the French received his report “with coldness” because it favoured British enterprises and Cecil John Rhodes. Decle’s trip, recorded in Three Years in Savage Africa, is dedicated to Rhodes “in admiration of a creative of statesman and generous man.” Decle started travelling at the age of nine when he went to Italy, Egypt and up the Nile with his parents.” His nanny taught him to speak English without an accent. He also became proficient in German, Portuguese, Hindustani and Kiswahili. Decle started climbing mountains when he was 14. By the time he turned 18 he had climbed the highest peaks of the Alps. He had travelled through Europe, Tibet, India, Burma, Cochin-China, Cambodia, China, Japan, Java, Russia, the Pescadore Islands and America before he came to Africa. His train trip from Cape Town across the Karoo to Kimberley took 36 long hours. He found the Karoo “an uninteresting and woebegone land.” He wrote: “It is practically a desert, covered with a short yellowish grass and strewn with stones. Every now and then the grass is replaced by patches of heather, but stones are everywhere. This whole stretch of country is without a drop of water and consequently without a single tree. In the midst of this desert there rises from time to time hollow ridges of hills as naked and arid as the plain itself. Here and there are stations around which are grouped a few houses, all more or less desolate in appearance. Kimberley came as a relief from this dreadful monotony.”


Long-drops seem to have their own special brand of humour. And Pam Avis, 84, who is recording memories of her childhood on the Karoo farm De Keur, near Middelburg, for her grandchildren, recalls a day when her pet lamb, fell into one of these outdoor pit loos commonly called privies or “dubs.” They were the precursors of indoor plumbing. “’Laamie’ often used to nose around at the back of the wagon shed near this pit toilet, a little stone building fitted with a custom-made wooden seat, ash and paper box. Someone, once reaching for paper found a cobra in the box and claimed this cured his constipation! However, one afternoon, a visiting Aunt had just settled on “the throne” for a brief meditation when she heard pitiful bleating. She could not make out where it was coming from, then suddenly realised it emanated from below. Poor Laamie had somehow managed to fall into the evil pit. This put paid to Aunty’s toilet time. Dad got a rope and managed to haul the stinking lamb out. Laamie was doused with water and well washed. Sadly, the odour would not leave him, so despite my floods of tears, Dad sent him off to join the flock. Their sense of smell must be different to that of humans, because they gladly accepted and tolerated him.”


Born in the Karoo, she made a name for herself in the Free State. Queenie, a 13 ½ year old border collie and the oldest police dog in the Free State, retired at the end of June. Said to have been born in Willow-more, Queenie’s early life is shrouded in mystery. She ended up in Johannesburg where she was donated to the Police Dog Squad. Once trained she covered herself in glory and became a star in the Stock Theft Unit in Bloemfontein with her handler Juan Rautenbach. Over the years the pair built up a formidable reputation. Like all other “employees” of the Police Force Queenie had 26 days leave each year. She used these to compete at sheepdog trails. In 1997 she won the coveted top prize in South Africa. Yet, with a final wag of her tail before TV cameras she has bade the Force farewell, leapt on to Juan’s bakkie and closed her eyes seeming to start dreaming of a well-earned rest after well over a decade of service.


Wellknown birder Japie Claasen recently encountered some delightful feathered friends while ringing birds in Prince Albert. “The local club’s bush camp is a wonderfully bird rich area. I saw a Southern Grey Tit carrying nesting material and cheerfully singing as he worked. Larks were plentiful. A Karoo Longbilled Lark flew by carrying food while I watched Pale Chanting Goshawks, a juvenile black eagle, Lanner Falcon and large flocks of Blackheaded Canaries feeding on grass. I also saw Black-headed and White-throated canaries, Larklike and Cape Buntings and Chestnutvented Titbabblers.” Birding, or avitourism as it is known, is a rapidly growing market throughout the world. Duncan Pritchard of Birdlife recently told the Community Tourism Association that as long ago as 1997 birding contributed over R150m to the South African economy. “South Africa has 146 endemic species, not seen anywhere else in the world. These are now attracting an increasing number of international birders to the country. Americans are the world’s biggest bird watchers. Over 70 million people in the United States spend about $34-billion annually on their hobby annually.


A private nature reserve near Matjiesfontein now welcomes nature lovers and tourists. In 1996 Alan and Jean Veasey purchased Rietfontein, the most easterly farm which once belonged to James Douglas Logan, Laird of Matjiesfontein. They intended to use it as a “de-stress” getaway. Initially their 100 pregnant Dorper ewes and small herd of springbok were looked after by Abraham Adams, his wife Susan and their extended family. But the Karoo soon worked its magic on the Veaseys. They discovered Rietfontein was a special place with a diversity of biospheres ranging from succulent Karoo through a riverine area to mountain fynbos. They decided to rehabilitate the farm. The sheep were sold and gradually more game was introduced. The weather played along. They had five years of good rains. Regrowth was remarkable, so was the increase in indigenous game. “The farm turned into such a natural paradise that in 2001 we approached Cape Nature Conservation about the possibility of declaring it a private nature reserve,” says Alan. “Experts visited and they agreed, so our status as a reserve was confirmed. Since then we have built a cottage and renovated others, which are over 100 years old. Now nature lovers can join us in appreciating this pristine environment. We have a hiking and 4 x 4 trail, horse riding, bird watching and mountain biking routes. We also offer target shooting and night drives. A booklet listing fauna, flora, amphibians and reptiles and giving the history of the area is also available.”


When Steve Herbert and Fay Lea took a closer look at the Flemmers in South Africa they found a delightful woman. Betty Flemmer, nee von Abo arrived from Denmark in 1853 to settle in Cradock. Despite being pregnant when she left and on the point of delivering a child when she arrived, this incredible woman rated only two pages in the family history. So Fay decided to delve deeper into her story. “Brave, dainty, petite and five months pregnant, Betty, 37, sailed for South Africa with four children all under 12 to care for. She was accompanied by a servant, and hopefully Camilla,11 and Charlotte, 8, helped look after Hans,4, and Salvator, 2,” says Fay. The voyage took three months during which time no fresh water, meat or vegetables were to be had. According to reports noise on board ship was incredible. The vessel creaked continuously, and sailors and passengers alike never stopped shouting. Water leaked in everywhere and Betty valiantly tried to keep her family’s clothes dry. By the time they reached Algoa Bay Betty was eight months pregnant. “She was faced with leaving the ship in a basket, being lowered by rope to a tiny boat, or climbing down a swaying rope ladder. Her choice is not recorded,” says Fay, “But somehow, she made it to the small rowing boat which carried the family and all their possessions ashore. Her first encounter with a black person was when a huge dark-skinned man lifted her from the boat and carried her to the beach.


Once ashore there was no time for Betty Flemmer to rest. In temperature, which perhaps reached the 30’s and humidity high, she had to search for food to feed her family. A tent camp had been erected and “the beach was like a bazaar with stalls selling all manner of things to the new arrivals.” Betty saw food she had never seen before. She wasn’t sure how to cook most things. Then it was off to Cradock by ox wagon. This trip took three weeks. All along the route the family had to be fed. “The Danes love soup and sometimes had two kinds at a meal,” says Fay. “At times Betty had just managed to get the soup pot going on the an open fire when she heard the cry to inspan and move off. There was never any fresh bread. According to one story a woman was cooking vetkoek in oil over the open fire one day, when a herd of elephant charged through the camp. They upset the pot of oil, setting a tree on fire. Fortunately, the men managed to rescue the wagons.” Toger von Abo, Betty’s brother, readied a house in Cradock, near present-day Victoria Hotel for his sister. “Hopefully he also furnished it because with the birth of her baby only days away Betty had to begin bottling fruit and vegetables to see her family through winter. She also had to make candles and soap. Betty found that she had arrived in a place where only a decade before the locals produced 26 000 gallons of wine and 10 640 gallons of brandy. This led James Collet to report that ‘English servants were always intoxicated.’ Little wonder Dr C.A. Flemmer in time became so actively involved in the teetotaller’s organisation.” All Betty’s children married into local families such as the Distin’s, Gilfillans, Naesteds and Hopleys.” Despite her wonderful accomplishments and the fact that she bore her husband seven children, she rates only two pages in the 100-page family history.


A good story depends on the ability of the teller to use the stage of the theatre of the mind. I remembered Wally Kriek saying this to me way back when I was searching for material for my very first talk on the Karoo. So, when recently asked to address the Bloemfontein Ladies 100 Luncheon Club and speak at the relaunch of Kimberley Historical Society all in one week, I decided to see just how many interesting characters I could find who had once strutted across the stage of the Karoo. Tracing them was great fun. The Karoo has an enormously rich heritage filled with adventurers, explorers, poets, musicians, doctors, priests and just ordinary, every-day people, who each in their own way, have contributed a thread or two to the tapestry that is the Karoo. Some colours are vibrant and bright, others muted, but still each adds a special personal twist to the tale.


Browsing through back issues of Round-up writer Myrna Robbins was struck by the many nationalities who have been part of the Karoo. “The May 2003 in particular struck me. In 1906, for instance Beaufort West was a mini-league of nations, with Jews, Scots, Germans and Dutch people all being part of the local scene. I just thought what a wonderful gathering it could be in 2006 if descendants of all those old residents could come for a re-union to sample the wonderful Karoo kos, kambro and good Cape wines.”