The sonorous tones of a Karoo Dutch Reformed Church organ started a Laingsburg lass on a musical career that has now landed her a top job. Nicolette Solomon, an internationally-known string specialist, who was given her first music lessons by her father, Melvyn van der Spuy, once the Dutch Reformed Church organist and music teacher in Laingsburg, has been appointed executive director of the Suzuki Institute of Dallas (SID), Texas, USA. She spent her childhood in the Karoo, enjoying all the freedom that only a small South African hinterland town can offer. In time Nicolette went on to study music at the Universities of Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and the Witwatersrand. She was introduced to the Suzuki method in Cape Town by her violin teacher, Alan Solomon, whom she married in 1979. They had two children, Melissa, a gifted cellist, who has just played a recital in the Paul Hall at Julliard, and Christopher, a classical guitarist of great promise. After obtaining degrees at the University of the Witwatersrand, Nicolette went to France to complete her Suzuki studies under Christophe Bossaut, in Lyon and to study baroque music with the esteemed Eduard Melckus in Europe. She then played with several orchestras throughout Europe, Israel, Scotland and in the Royal Albert Hall, London. After that she went to Japan, where she taught and furthered her studies under Dr Shinichi Suzuki in Matsumoto. Nicolette founded and directed the Solomon Suzuki School in Johannesburg and acted as an adjudicator and examiner for many music competitions and examinations throughout South Africa. She is now married to South African composer Carel van Wyk. In announcing her appointment, James A Watt, chairman of SID board, said: “Nicolette, who has been a string teacher at SID for several years, has the necessary drive, courage and enthusiasm to take the school to new heights.”


Controversial Central Karoo municipal manager, Truman Prince, certainly kept Beaufort West in the public eye for months, however, it is now renewed interest in uranium that’s bringing the Press to town. Midnight Masquerade, one of at least three companies on the uranium trail in the Karoo, recently called a public meeting in Beaufort West to discuss uranium deposits in the detail. Its experts discussed time scales for this resource, farm and land buying options and mineral rights. Several uranium deposits are known to exist on farms around Beaufort West and in other districts further afield. The meeting, which had been advertised in Die Burger, was attended by residents, farmers, several journalists and other interested parties. Other companies interested in this resource are Uranco and Maygo.


Members of Prince Albert’s Writers’ Guild have now pooled their talents and written a book. In an entertaining way it covers the town’s history, cultures, architecture and traditions. A beautiful cover, featuring a tranquil scene of oxen in the main street of the old village, has been designed for the publication, titled Prince Albert (Kweekvallei) – landmark events, colourful characters and the free style of an historic Karoo town – a retrospective view. The book is generously illustrated by photographs and maps, also compiled by members of the guild. This 120-page book has 12 chapters which entertainingly explore and record stories from the earliest inhabitants who lived in this area during Stone Age times, as well as the Khoi-Khoi and San, to the legacy of Zacharias de Beer, owner of the first farm, Kweekvallei. There are also tales from Die Rooikamp, details of the town’s own gables, designed by Carl Lotz, and the 1891 Gold Rush. The book includes details of medicinal plants, Khoi-San remedies, the geology of the Swartberg and plant life on the R J Gordon koppie and surrounds. Fans of ghost stories will also enjoy Prince Albert Kontreistories, a 56-page booklet costing R25 from Prince Albert Museum.


In 1859 a young Swellendam man was invited to a Karoo wedding. He was not one of those who fell instantly in love with the area. In fact, he called it “unique in its ugliness and wanting in everything to please the eye.” And, he declared: “Here the poetry of life is absent.” Simply signing himself BA, in The Cape Monthly Magazine, December 1859, he describes the Karoo as “A barren, brown stony plain stretching ahead for many a tiresome league.” He adds: “No sounds of life disturb its sullen solitude; no patch of verdure yields joy to the eye, no leafy tree sheds refreshing shade. Vultures, gorged with the remains of a starved horse, rise slowly into the air, depressed by the labour of flapping their wings. Here and there bleached bones of cattle, protrude from the arid plains, silently screaming “thirstland”. Stunted, ash-coloured bushes, prickly cactus and grotesquely-shaped euphorbia, mock the needs of animals. No fields of waving corn, no snowy flocks nor lowing herds, no cheerful gardens, nor social smoke-wreaths proclaim man’s presence, yet he lives here, in dwellings hidden amid hills or secluded in hollows. What induced anyone to settle here, I wonder. How do they survive in this world where the mountains are bare and the rivers dry? Here ravines, vales, depressions, ruts, and shallow water channels are all like wrinkles on the face of the country. Yet, even in this wilderness, there is happiness when Cupid’s bow strikes home! Love triumphs here undeterred by winter frost and scorching blasts of summer heat!”


Pondering life in the hinterland BA concludes that here needs are few. “Men are comfortable with two rooms for their shelter and a stable for their horse. However, add a wife to this and a full quiver of children and their cup of happiness fills to the brim,” he writes in the December 1859 issue of The Cape Monthly Magazine. However, to attain married bliss on the frontier, he states, it is essential for a young man to observe a few formalities. “Courtship must be conducted during a series of amorous visits. For these a good horse is essential. It must be brushed, burnished and gleaming. It must also sport a saddle and bridle of the finest shining leather. A quality saddle cloth, preferably red or blue, is essential and it should be set off with fringes and tassels. The idea is to impress all who see him along the road, as well as his intended. Once he reaches her home it matters little what he says to his adored. In fact, he need not speak at all. It seems the essence of a farmer’s love resides in the act of sitting silently in the “voorhuis,” staring silently at his own huge ‘veldschoens’. Then, by degrees, if the atmosphere warms, he may gradually, with a doleful smile, siddle his chair towards hers while she blushes deeply at his every move. This whole pantomime takes place after the day’s work is finished, so it is all done by the light of a short, stubby candle, which he brings along with him in his pocket. While the candle spits and splutters he may “visit,” but when it dies, the visit must end. So, the trick is to court mother and father and tickle them into consent. Oddly these courtships always seem to work out quite amicably and as intended.”


The excitement of a Karoo wedding day is electric. The ‘jolly host’ troops out to welcome each arrival, each new horse or cart, explains BA in the December 1859, issue of The Cape Monthly Magazine. “All young men are ushered to an outbuilding to spruce up. (Damsels do this indoors). The lads are given a basin, a jug of water, and a solitary comb, which they all share. Each looks extremely satisfied as he completes his toilet and allows another to step up to the basin, towel and fractured mirror. At last each man finishes arranging his hair by the simple process of spitting on his palms and smoothing down the fretful bristles into fashionable sleekness. Then the young swains gather in little groups. Then, after the parson has done his bit, everyone moves to a large woolshed or barn to feast on venison, poultry, mutton and peacock, “an unequalled delicacy of the Karoo.” The air is filled with convivial speeches. Looking around it becomes apparent how many guests have made an attentive study of the fashion pages of the Illustrated London News. The first squeak of a violin has an electric effect. Chairs and tables are swept away while amateur fiddlers tune up like fifty stomach aches. Karoo lads, despite their heavy boots are extremely agile. They rush to partner solid sylphs and nymphs of impressive girth, but it soon becomes apparent that Karoo damsels are both light of heart and heel. Most are equal to tapping out the intricate steps of each dance. Older, more staid men puff rhythmically at their pipes talking of wool, weather and market prices. While mothers speak their eyes never leave the dancers, all the while checking that their daughter’s honour is in no way besmirched and constantly scouting out suitable sons-in-law.” BA and friends enjoyed the wedding. They left at four in the morning. On the way home, their cart overturned and slid down an embankment. Sunrise found them all with unaccountable splitting headaches. “We felt these were caused when the horse lost his footing and the cart landed on top of us!” he writes.


Two beautiful wildlife studies at St Andrew’s School in Bloemfontein have a link with the Karoo. The paintings of a guinea fowl and three red hartebeest, by well-known wildlife artist Z Eloff, were presented to the school in 1976 by Dr Anton Rupert, chairman of the Save the Karoo Campaign. He was impressed that boys at a school so far from the heart of the Great Karoo should make such a meaningful contribution towards this fund-raising campaign. Sixty boys participated in a special, sponsored relay marathon, held over two days. It was organised by Ian Stephenson, who at the time was the biology master at St Andrew’s. The boys ran from the Franklin Game Reserve on Naval Hill in Bloemfontein to the Willem Pretorius Game Reserve at Allemanskraal, near Windburg, a total distance of 160 km. Each boy covered a distance of l,6 km at a time. All of the boys who took part agreed it was “great fun.” St Andrew’s raised R1 775, which went towards helping establish two nature reserves in the Graaff Reinet area.


In 1987 Janet Beale acquired a sheepdog and it changed her life. At the time she lived in South Africa. She soon found her new pet herding school children, other animals and almost everything in sight, including footballs. She decided it needed training and because her estate agent’s job was demanding, found herself doing this before daybreak, at 04h00 and after dark, at 20h00, under floodlights at the local football club. Her perseverance paid off. In 1990 she became the first woman to win a national award in South Africa when she won the junior reserve championship. This triggered off a new career. She became a sheepdog breeder and trainer. Her new career took her to many places across South Africa, to Zimbabwe and to Europe. In 1991 Janet went to the United Kingdom on a working holiday – working with sheepdogs, of course. Using borrowed dogs Janet competed in Devon, Cornwall and North Wales. She swept the boards and returned to South Africa with some of Britain’s most prestigious awards. Janet returned to the United Kingdom in 1994 to breed and train dogs. “They have brought so much joy into my life that I am now appealing to young people to get involved.” In an interview with the Scottish Farm Journal, of May 28, 2005, she said: “Working with sheepdogs is exciting and challenging. These animals are very intelligent. I would like to see more young people and more women becoming involved with this sport. This is not a skill that can only be learned by farm folk. Townspeople enjoy it as well.”


Warren Gorringe is searching for information on his grandfather and his regiment. George William Gorringe, who rode at the head of Gorringe’s Flying Column, during the Anglo Boer War, was his grandfather, yet little seems to be known about the man and his men. “My grandfather and grandmother both seem to have been born in South Africa and married here. Shortly after the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War George William Gorringe was given permission to raise a regiment and he seems to have done this quite successfully, because it is mentioned in several books. I would greatly value any information on Gorringe and the Flying Column. I hope some of your readers will be able to help,” writes Warren.


Andrew and Shirley Warden, who live in Australia, plan to try to trace the footsteps of a British soldier who died in the Karoo during the Anglo-Boer War in 1901. They will begin by visiting his grave in Beaufort West’s old Anglican cemetery in mid-October. “William John Scott Rundle, known as Jack to his friends, was my grandfather’s brother,” says Andrew. “He was wounded in a skirmish on a farm outside Beaufort West in late July 1901. He died of his wounds in Beaufort West and was buried in the local cemetery on July 30, 1901. He seems to have been popular man and a gallant soldier. At the time of his death he was only 25. He had been made a captain of Brabant’s Horse regiment in December 1900, and became a Brevet Major, in June 1901. Jack was awarded a DSO (Distinguished Service Order) according to a Gazette dated September 27, 1901.”


A stroll through a Scottish cemetery recently revealed some South African links. Ingrid Paterson took a walk in Tomnahurich Cemetery in Inverness and was intrigued by two graves with a South African connection. A stone on the grave of Jessie Cameron Hunter, states she was born in Graaff Reinent in 1882, and died in Inverness on January 9, 1968. The other commemorates Kenneth John Mackenzie of the Standard Bank, who died in Rondebosch on May 17, 1957. He was 82. “Both stones are magnificent,” says Ingrid. “We took some pictures which I will forward to you soon.”


A carriage overturned in the Karoo in the late 1800s and almost robbed a Free State educationalist of a good wife and put paid to the opening of a new school. The story has its roots in Swellendam where Dr William Robertson, the Scottish minister of the Dutch Reformed Church was searching for a suitable rector for the Albert Academy in Burghersdorp. He persuaded a fellow countryman, Aberdeen-born Rev Dr John Brebner to accept the position. When Brebner arrived in South Africa he was dismayed at the state of education. He improved the Academy and he did the same for Gill College in Somerset East, where his wife died leaving him with six children, the eldest of whom was nine and the youngest only a few weeks old. Brebner then accepted the position as director of education in the Free State, where plans were afoot to establish a girls’ school, the Dames Instituut (Eunice). Brebner wrote to Professors he knew in Scotland asking them to help secure the services of a suitable teacher. Elizabeth Laird, a woman with close ties to the Free Church of Scotland and who for 5½ years had been principal of a school with 123 pupils in Stirling, was appointed. Her long and tedious sea voyage perhaps left her looking forward to settling in Bloemfontein, but en route to the Free State, the post cart in which she was travelling overturned and she was injured. Elizabeth spent a few months in the Karoo recuperating and, while she convalesced, helped nurse sick children. In Bloemfontein she tackled the problems of setting up the new school where, for a while, she was the only teacher, with calm, courage and determination, writes Helen O’Connor in No Other School So Dear. Then Elizabeth caught the eye of Dr John Brebner. In Scotland they had told her he was a short red-headed Scotsman with an evil temper. He was in fact a tall and handsome man, who hardly ever lost his temper. They married within a year of her arrival. Elizabeth died on April 17, 1888, leaving two sons and a daughter. Brebner then married Miss Van Andel in 1891. She was also a principal of the Dames Instituut (Eunice).

Note: This year Eunice, top school in the Free State for the past five years, celebrated its 130th anniversary in style in Bloemfontein, where it was established on June 5, 1875.


At the end of the Anglo-Boer War Lovat Scouts were welcomed back to Scotland in style. It was a dull, but fine day and people lined the streets for hours determined to see “the famous Highlanders after their brilliant service to the nation.” Inverness streets were gaily decorated with flags, streamers and festoons of red, white and blue. The same colours draped the front of the Highland Club in High Street. Offices and businesses displayed welcome signs in their windows. Two handsome, imposing standards graced the town hall and even the Castle flags were raised. “The first contingent comprised about two thirds of Lord Lovat’s original corps,” reported the Inverness Courier of August 16, 1901. “They had spent almost 18 months’ of campaigning in South Africa, doing much special scouting and many times engaging the enemy. Colonel Murray, the dashing commander of this regiment, and Lord Lovat, founder of the Scouts, are still on active duty with the second contingent of the Corps, which left Beaufort Castle for the front only a couple of months ago.” The fame of the first contingent preceded its arrival and fitting preparations were made for their reception. The crowd was agog with excitement, then dashed with disappointment because the train was delayed and then once again surprised as the Scouts seemed to appear “rather sooner than expected as was their custom on the battle field.” The South African medal was presented to all members of the Corps and fares of all Scouts attending the ceremony were paid.


Small finds of coal in the Great Karoo sparked government interest in 1879. E J Dunn, a geologist was commissioned “by command of the Government” to investigate and report back to Parliament. Dunn travelled around the Nuweveld Mountains and Camdeboo areas and on April 30, 1879 presented his report to both houses of Parliament. He said he had initially been puzzled by the news of coal being mined on Buffelskloof farm, near Aberdeen. He had not thought this possible. However, when he heard of more coal-like material on other farms in the Central Karoo he threw himself “into the investigation with great enthusiasm.” He concluded that “coal with a quality second to none in its class in the world exists under the Karoo Beds.” He estimated these beds to be from 10 to 30 miles wide, 500 miles long and suggested that they stretched from the Eastern Cape to Calvinia. He foresaw a future for coal mines in the Karoo, but history proved him wrong. The coal was of poor quality and not suitable for mining.

“Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.”

This is inscribed on the grave of T H Huxley, one of England’s foremost scientific thinkers, a supporter of Darwin and passionate writer on affairs touching language, philosophy, geology, religion and logic.