Historic researcher Kent Rasmussen recently came across an interesting item. He wrote: “I have a copy of a letter that Charles H. Crane wrote to Mark Twain in June 1901, inviting him to write an article, apparently for The New Examiner. Mark Twain left a note indicating that he planned to answer Crane’s letter, but I can find no record that he actually did. Perhaps a letter from him to Crane has been preserved somewhere.” Kent feels that Twain’s correspondence with Crane might have been mentioned in one of the early issues of the Beaufort West Courier, or perhaps even in one of the other Karoo newspapers of the day. He wonders whether any other Karoo historic researcher has come across a reference to this correspondence.


Some would-be settlers were dealt a severe blow the early 1800s stated an item in the S A Commercial Advertiser of May 21, 1831. For instance, Mrs. Ashburn lost her husband and three of her children in a four-month period. The family had come to South Africa filled with hopes of a new life. Ill luck, however, dogged their path and poor finances prevented them from proceeding to their allocated land. Heaped on this were the deaths and these so devastated the poor widow that she had to be admitted to hospital. She had no means of supporting herself and her remaining offspring, so a subscription fund for her relief was opened at the newspaper offices. Margaret Hely and her four young children were also struck by a similar fate. They too left England full of hope, but nothing planned out in South Africa as they had hoped. The vessel on which they arrived, the ill-fated Jane & Henry, was impounded with all goods aboard and sold. This meant that Margaret lost her few belongings, stated the Eastern Province Herald of October 19, 1833, because her passage was not fully paid. She had no way of continuing her journey and she was been reduced to a state extreme need, so a subscription was also opened to assist her. A plea was made for “some decent clothes for the children.”


A severe storm hit Grahamstown on October 19, 1833 and caused “cruel damage to a young lady’s underwear”. The Grahamstown Journal reported that huge hailstones damaged almost every house in town, breaking 40 to 60 glass panes in some areas. However, the most serious damage occurred at the home of James White. His house was struck by lightening. “Electric fluid passed through the thatched roof, setting it on fire. It then moved to the room below, where the family was sitting, and struck a young woman, lying in front of the hearth. Her dress caught fire and the steel supports in her stays melted. This caused severe burns to parts of her body. For a considerable time, she lay there in convulsions. Doctors, however, hope for a complete recovery.”


Burchell found “an abundance of verdure” when he traveled into the interior in 1812. On the way to Graaff-Reinet he found the road very steep, and in some places broken and dangerous. He saw trees of a larger size than he had seen before, he said. “The deep glens and bold sides of the mountain were verdant with spekboom (Portulacria afra). The village of ‘Graaffreynet’, situated in the heart of a country is productive in cattle and corn and has a rapidly increasing in population. It is surrounded by fertile soil, an abundance of water, and it has a healthy climate. Fruits and vegetables of all kinds grow here in perfection. The village is sheltered by lofty mountains. The perpetual and beautiful spekboom covers their rocky declivities.”

The Hazards of the Early Roads

Lieutenant Daniell of the farm Sweet Milk Fountain was returning home from dropping his children at a boarding school in Uitenhage, when disaster struck. The night was dark and moonless, but he knew the road well, so he was not worried. Sadly, however, he did not know that heavy rains had fallen during the time he had been away. He tried to cross a river that earlier had only about half a meter’s depth of water in it. He was unaware that heavy rains had fallen throughout most of the day, so when he steered his wagon into the water around midnight, he found himself suddenly afloat in about 15 feet (4,5m) of swirling torrent. The wagon, oxen, two asses, he’d purchased for 400 dollars and a horse which had been fastened behind the wagon, were instantly swept away by the violent stream, stated the Grahamstown Journal of February 25, 1832. “Daniell succeeded in disengaging one of the asses, but the violent torrent prevented him from doing anything else. He had to leave the rest of the animals to their fate and swim for his life. He only managed to save his own life by clinging to a bush hanging over the river. The driver and small ox-team leader also only narrowly escaped. This small boy was the hero of the day. He raced to the near-by hotel to summon help.” Innkeeper Ian Hubbard raced to the scene to rendered assistance. Using a boat, he managed to reach Daniels and row him to safety. Together they proceeded downstream hoping to find the wagon driven on to the riverbank, but it was still being bashed and buffeted mid-stream. They did everything in their power but were not able to save the wagon or animals, stated the newspaper. Next morning, they found seven of the oxen dead, but in their yokes, floating on the river. Three seemed to have escaped. The horse was alive and, even though he had been in the water for five hours, was saved. None of the other stock was found, nor were any of the Daniell’s purchases.


On Saturday afternoon, November 9, 1833, Mr. H. Luttig. Member of Parliament for Beaufort district was returning home from Cape Town. There had been some rain, but the Breede River seemed safe to him, so he attempted to cross on horseback, at the new drift near Worcester. The current, however, was stronger than he had imagined and both he and his horse were carried off, reported the Eastern Province Herald of November 20, 1833. Luttig was drowned and the horse was lost. He was survived by a widow and five young children. He was greatly missed by the people of Prince Albert and Beaufort West.


Dirk Cloete of Stellenbosch and one of his daughters were returning from church when disaster struck. Their horses were trotting merrily along, and they were enjoying the peaceful morning sunshine, when suddenly the pole on the cart broke. Dirk was thrown out of the vehicle, but his leg was on a strap in the cart and he was dragged along the ground, as the horses bolted. By the time his daughter managed to get them under control the old man’s leg was shattered and lacerated, two ribs were broken, and he was also very badly bruised. Help arrived and Dirk, who was in great pain, was taken home, states the Eastern Province Herald, of February 26, 1833: “Gangarene set in within a day and his leg had to be amputated. He bore this heroically; but the great shock to his constitution, coupled to his age (66 years), killed him. His daughter, fortunately, though severely bruised, and shocked, recovered.”


On June 4, 1831, a simple visit to church, ended in disaster. Mr and Mrs A. Roux of the Fransch Hoek left their beautiful farm to attend Divine Worship in Paarl, stated the Commercial Advertiser. The day was calm and beautiful, but towards evening it rained. Next morning while returning home with their two children, Miss Malan, a 17-year old friend, and a slave girl, they found the Fransch Hoek River more swollen than expected, nevertheless, Mr Roux decided to try and cross. “Half way across rapidly swirling waters disengaged the cart from the horses and it started to drift down stream,” stated the newspaper. “Mr Roux leapt into the water and, with great difficulty, manager to save his wife and children, but Miss Malan and the slave girl were born away by the force of the flood waters. For a while they clung to part of the vehicle, but it sank beneath the waters and both drowned. The bodies were later found a little distance from the spot where the accident occurred, said the Commercial Advertiser of June 1, 1831.


After WWI, small air transport businesses were established in several South African centres. Among these companies were South African Aerial Transport and South African Aerial Navigation Company, which operated on the Witwatersrand, Natal, and in the Eastern and Western Cape. Aerial Stunts, an air taxi company, opened by a syndicate, offered joy rides over Durban. Aviation Limited which started in 1919 and Air Flights, which opened in East London, with three aircraft, in 1920, operated for about three years, states Gordon Pirie, Professor of the Geography Department, University of the Western Cape in a paper entitled British Air Shows In South Africa, 1932/33: ‘Airmindedness’, Ambition And Anxiety. Air Flights’s aircraft were seen occasionally over Stellenbosch, Paarl, Wellington and Worcester, an aircraft was based at Somerset East for five days of joyriding – from May 7 to 11, 1920 – and flying was advertised as “the most wonderful tonic in the world”. Cost of a 10 minute “flip”, with pilot Frank Solomon, was £3/3/-. A 20-minute flight cost five guineas and longer ones could be booked by arrangement with Mr J Williams, at the Royal Hotel. Flights were also offered at Graaff-Reinet, Upington and De Aar. For many South Africans, the event that triggered ‘airmindedness’ was the arrival in 1920 of the first-ever flight from London. At the end of a succession of short hops down Africa, two South Africans, Lt-Col. Pierre van Ryneveld and Lt Quintin Brand, eventually “hopped” to Cape Town landing at Pretoria, Johannesburg, Bloemfontein and Beaufort West, states Gordon.


February 23, 1832, started out as a beautiful morning. Rhenoster River Field Cornet, Arie Willem Steenkamp, stepped out of his house on his farm Windhoek, on the Sak River, in the district of Clanwilliam, to take a breath of fresh air and his world suddenly changed. He had only taken a few paces when he was struck by an arrow. He turned and rushed back indoors immediately closing the door firmly behind him. Then, in severe pain, he turned and peered through a crack in the door and to his horror saw a band of Bushmen and Corannas destroying everything in sight. Some rushed right up to his dwelling house and began trying to get inside. Others were making off with his horses, small stock and cattle. Although severely wounded Steenkamp fought back, assisted by members of his family. He took an enormously courageous stand and managed to force the marauders to retreat. They made off with some stock and about 50 horses, yet Steenkamp was convinced he had saved his family from being murdered. His wife then sprang into action and removed the arrow, but the poison was already in his bloodstream and she could do nothing to save him. Despite putting up a brave fight for his life, he died of his wounds a few days later, said an item in the Graaff-Reinet Herald of March 14, 1832, leaving his widow and four children to mourn his loss. “The entire farming community of this district hope that the murderers will soon be apprehended,” wrote the correspondent.


A smallpox epidemic broke out in District Six in 1882. This led to the closure of inner-city cemeteries, and the construction of drains and wash-houses in the city, but all these scheduled improvements didn’t go as planned and the cemetery closures led to riots. The smallpox threat travelled into the hinterland. It was believed that smallpox could be beaten in places by whitewashing the walls of homes. For this reason, lime and carbolic acid was distributed free to residents in Beaufort West. All travelers were stopped at Modder River, about 35 km from Kimberley, and this settlement was used as a quarantine station to keep smallpox away from Kimberley. Travellers en route to Kimberley had to produce a valid vaccination certificate or be vaccinated at the station, before being allowed to proceed.


A former Karoo farmer and well-known historic researcher David Shearing started a search for his roots and ended up with a genealogical website. It all began with a trip through history and down memory lane in search of family history, however, in time David found he had so much information that he created a site on to share his information. Here he built a family tree with interesting details and many photographs. Currently there are 4 790 names in the family tree. The earliest snippet contains information on Minnie Alice Fynn who was born on May 16, 1862 and the most recent event was the death of Francois Andre de Vries on October 2, last year. David regularly updates this site, which currently has 205 registered members.


Traveling through the Karoo in 1876 R M and his friend, Hobson, stopped to let their horses rest and “have a roll.” In Six months at the Cape, Hobson states they lay down in the shade of a bush to rest and his friend began to tell “lion tales”. He started off by saying that a Cape lion had killed a man near this spot 36 years before. “The man, a runaway soldier, had been en-route to Graaff-Reinet, in each for a job. Farms were very few and far between, so as darkness fell, he called at the house of a farmer, named Smit, in the hopes of getting a bed for the night. Smit, however, was a surly fellow and refused the soldier shelter, so the man continued on into the night. Next day, his mangled body was found at the foot of a small tree. Clearly the soldier had been killed by a lion. There were footprints all around the body. It was clear that the soldier had tried to climb into the tree to escape, but it was little more than a bush, so the lion managed to tear him down, kill him and devour half of his body.” The storyteller continued: “On another occasion an old Dutch farmer was travelling through the area when a prowling lion pounced upon him. The farmer had heard that lions did not like to eat dead meat, so he let he let himself go limp and pretended to be dead. The story goes that the lion then put his mouth to the old fellow’s ear and roared. The old farmer paid no attention. He continued to ‘play dead’. Then the lion pawed him, lay down on him, rolled him about as a cat plays with a mouse, still the old fellow stayed limp. The lion moved off and crouched a few yards off near some bushes watching for the slightest sign of life. But the Dutchman remained lying motionless on the ground. Eventually, it seems the lion became bored and loped off. The old man waited till he was sure it was gone, then leapt to his feet and ran off,” said Hobson.


Colin Fraser, a Scot, came to serve the Dutch Reformed congregation in Beaufort West as a minister in 1825. He had some incredible experiences in the Karoo and many of these are written up in a biography, Episodes in my Life, written by his son John. To begin with when he arrived in this far flung spot no real house, nor church had been readied for him. He had to hold his services under a wagon sail strung between two trees and he continued to preach there and at other ad hoc places until the church was built five years later. Fraser had a huge parish to serve and getting around it was very demanding. He rode out on his favourite horse, accompanied by an elder and agterryer, leading a spare horse loaded with his vestments, communion and communion plate. On one such trip the good reverend was just falling asleep under his “veld kombers” (field blanket) when he heard his elder softly calling: “Meneer, please listen carefully, a big snake has just crept under our blanket and settled on my stomach. Slip out quietly and call the agterryer.” Fraser felt the hair of his neck rising but he slipped softly sidewards and called the agterryer who knew just what to do. He grabbed the blanket with one hand, caught the snake’s tail with the other and flung it so far away that even if they had searched for it, they would never have found it, said the minister. At times it was a strain of running such a huge parish, so far from the civilized world, took its toll, so Fraser got into the habit of walking out of the village and down to the river to read his Bible. One day, after reading for a while in the warmth of the afternoon sun, he closed his eyes to pray. He must have dozed, he said, but we woke feeling something or someone was staring at him. He opened his eyes and looked straight into the face of a young lion. He closed his eyes again to pray and as he did, he heard the cheery chatter of a band of Bushmen passing nearby by. The lion heard them too and fled.


Andrew McNaughton heard of a cure that lasted when a Mr Wilson came to visit him in January 2001. In an issue of Karoo Connections he writes that this gentleman told him that his grandfather had suffered badly from mustard gas poisoning during World War I and been given only a year to live. He looked for a second opinion and consulted Lord Dawson of Penn, at time senior physician to the Royal family, and, in his opinion, the best medical man in the world. Lord Dawson told him bluntly that if he wished to survive, he should go to the South African Karoo every English winter. So, when each winter came around in Britain, Mr Wilson sailed for South Africa on one of the Union Castle Line mail ships. With him he brought his Model ‘T’ Ford. He stayed three months every year and spent these camping at various venues in the Karoo. This “cure” was so successful that the old man lived to the ripe old age of 86. His wife only once accompanied him, but after one night found a snake in her bed, she never came back to Africa again.

Years and years I’ve trekked across it, ridden back and fore,
Till the silence and the glamour ruled me to the core;
No one ever knew it better, and none could love it more.

Percival Gibbon on the Karoo