Desert tourism is growing steadily. Previously a difficult product to sell, “dryland tourism” has now become a recognized niche market across the world for discerning arid zone travelers. “Perceptions have changed from down market and cheap to exciting and adventurous. Remoteness, bareness, silence and solitude have become drawcards,” says Doreen Atkinson, an authority on Karoo tourism. In an article in the Journal of Arid Environments, she states that the Karoo is reaping dividends from the trend towards “getting away” and really exploring the great outdoors. “The Karoo is no longer considered hostile, dangerous or boring. It is now seen as awe-inspiring, fascinating and spiritual. Accommodation facilities are growing apace as people move from seeing the Karoo as a quick over-night stopover and begin to explore its possibilities as a destination. The economic potential of the Karoo has been obscured because it straddles four provinces. However, together these offer many exciting getaway opportunities, from river rafting to hiking along breathtaking rugged routes, from total rest and relaxation to creative art and cookery courses on far flung farms, from challenging 4 x 4 routes, horse trails, mountain biking to stargazing. The time has come for more coordinated marketing strategies to be developed so that the Karoo can take its rightful place and become a destination of choice.”


Over the years the image of the Karoo has changed dramatically. In 1871, Boyes, who was travelling to the diamond fields, described the landscape as desolate, grim and rather frightening. “For miles ahead the monotonous veld shimmered, flat and forbidding under a pitiless sun. There seems no end to the grey stoney, desolate plains. Nothing breaks the dead level till in a dim haze it fades against low dusty hills. No shadow falls but the gloom of a passing cloud …” Over the years opinions have changed. Beaufort West, once damned as “the archetypal stop over town” was later termed “not lacking in appeal” and later still described as “a place to linger, a place filled with a strange faded charm.” Perceptions of Prince Albert changed from “a peaceful town dozing on the edge of the Karoo” to “idyllic and representative of the Karoo lifestyle” and Matjiesfontein moved from “impressive, but incongruous” to “one of the most fascinating places of the arid zone”. “Quirky”, “quintessential”, “charming” and “gem” are all attached to descriptions of Graaff-Reinet. Travel writers urge: “If you are going to visit only one hinterland town, make it this one.”


“Seventy thousand years ago, Homo sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business in a corner of Africa. In the following millennia it transformed itself into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystem,” states Dr Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. This number one international bestseller, a groundbreaking narrative of humanity’s creation and evolution, originally written in Hebrew, explores the ways in which biology and history have defined us. Harari says: ‘One hundred thousand years ago, at least six different species of humans inhabited Earth. Today there is only one—homo sapiens. What happened to the others? And what may happen to us?” The book, a compelling read, is available from most reputable booksellers.


Fort Beaufort’s Reverend George Booth was forced to dash from the pulpit while delivering his Good Friday message on April 16,1843. Friends found him outside “doubled up with stomach cramps”. They raced him to the hospital where he died next morning of inflammation of the bowels. In a eulogy he was hailed as an excellent, well-loved man, and a zealous Anglican preacher, stated the Cape Frontier Times of April 20, 1843.

Dates to diarise:

May, 26 to 28 the 6th Annual JM Coetzee/AtholFugard Festival, Richmond;

April 29 to May 1 The Karoo Food Festival, Cradock;

October the 10th Bookbedonnerd Festival, Richmond


William Guybon Atherstone was the perfect example of a successful settler and pioneer doctor. The eldest son of Dr John Atherstone, he was destined to leave an indelible mark on South African history. He arrived at the age of six with his parents and three sisters, in an 1820 settler party led by his uncle. Energetic, enthusiastic, brimful of vigor and gusto, he was a great patriot, who loved South Africa and everything in it. He had a mind full of original ideas, an insatiable curiosity and the knack of imparting his passion to others. WGA attended the Dr Rose Innes Academy in Uitenhage and the Messenger House School in Grahamstown. He received his medical training under the guidance of his father, an excellent teacher, who went as far as to acquire the bodies of deceased prisoners from the Grahamstown jail to give his students a good grounding in anatomy. At the conclusion of his apprenticeship, WGA was 21 and undecided about his future, so he joined a surveying team. Then when the sixth frontier war broke out, in 1834, he joined the forces led by Colonel (later Sir) Harry Smith, as an assistant surgeon.


In 1887 WGA travelled to Europe to attend the lectures of Stokes and Graves at Dublin University. The following year, as one Michael Faraday’s pupils, he qualified MRCS (London). He spent a year in Paris, then went to Germany to obtain his MD, with honours, at the University of Heidelberg. In 1839 he went to England from Germany to marry his cousin, Catherine Handel Atherstone. In the same year he and F W Barber, a fellow South African, attended the announcement of Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre’s invention – the first commercially successful photographic process – at the Academie de Beaux Arte in Paris. Soon after that he sailed for home and was among first to bring news of this revolutionary photographic process to South Africa. He settled in Grahamstown in December that year and with his father practised medicine in the Eastern Cape for the six decades. According to Harriet Deacon and co-authors of The Cape Doctor in the 19th Century he spent the rest of his life in the Colony except for a short period in 1875 when, at the instruction of prime minister John Molteno, he went to England to investigate the latest treatments for mental illnesses. During this trip he devoted considerable time to the inspection of asylums and, in time, played a meaningful role in bettering of treatment conditions for the insane in South Africa. On that visit WGA was granted the freedom of the city of London and of the Worshipful Company of Turners.


WGA’s wife was the daughter of British poet, Edwin Atherstone. When the couple decided to marry Edwin gave them four violins. According to WGA’s biographer Nerine Mathie these were a Stradivarius – the Titan; a Joseph del Gesa – the Giant; an Amati and a Steiner. Historian Elizabeth van Heyningen asked: “What happened to these instruments?” It seems Stradivarius was sold to the fiery Hungarian violin virtuoso, Eduard or Ede Reményi, who gave a concert in Grahamstown while on a world tour in 1886. In an interview Reményi said WGA displayed an interest in his Lupot and Joseph Guarnerius instruments and mentioned he had some violins at home. He took the “master of masters” to see them. Reményi said that despite the fact that neither instruments had strings, he could not understand how such gems could be unnoticed in Grahamstown. “The doctor then, in an ordinary way, said there was another and asked me to examine it while he went out to visit a patient.” The maestro opened the case not knowing what to expect. A silk rag was thrown over the violin.”I lifted it without any real feelings and there saw the Grand Signeur. It was like finding the Venus de Milo on a roadside. I scarcely dared to touch it, it was such a sacred sight. Eventually I lifted it from its case. Never had I thought to discover such a treasure, but now I had in my hands a coveted instrument.” It took Reményi two hours to string the instruments. The Steiner was in excellent condition, the Giant – theJoseph del Gesa – had a “lovely grand tone”, but the Titan Stradivarius stole his heart and put both in the shade. WGA seems to have sold the Titan to him because he later stated that the priceless Titan had one drawback – it overshadowed all his other excellent violins so totally that he could almost no longer play them. Years later, after Reményi’s death, the distinguished American violinist Sol Marcosson, who knew Reményi well in life, acquired the Stradivarius, from his widow for $4000. It bore the date 1724. The other violins seem to have stayed in the family because on January 24, 1889, a grandchild of WGA wrote to an 80-year old family member stating that they had acquired £65 000 in gold shares and that the Steiner had been repaired by a man named Muir. She was so delighted with the job he had done that she had sent the Amati to have cracks and worm holes filled”

Note: Reményi was Born Eduard Hoffman to Jewish parents. He “Hungarianised” his name and gave up his faith when he took to the concert circuits.


WGA’s interest in natural history was sparked in Cape Town when he attended lectures given by Dr (later Sir) Andrew Smith, who many years later, as Director-General of the Army Medical Department, was made the scapegoat for the medical scandals of the Crimean War. When not attending patients WGA loved nothing more than indulging his wide interests in music, art, astronomy, photography, ornithology, geology, botany, palaeontology, agriculture and veterinary science. He conducted meaningful research into lung-sickness, horse-sickness, tick-borne fever and ostrich-farming. He travelled widely and recorded these expeditions in about 200 notebooks now in the Albany Museum. On one trip stated that Seweweekspoort was the most wonderful gorge he had ever seen. He journeyed to Namaqualand (1854), Stormberg (1870) and Kimberley and the Lydenburg goldfields; he encouraged diamond diggings at Jagersfontein, pointed out the significance of the diamondiferous pipe at Kimberley and confirmed the alluvial gold found near Prince Albert.


WGA had a wonderful collection of fossils and geological specimens. In 1857 he published an account of the rocks and fossils around Uitenhage. He studied Karoo fossils and sent specimens to the British Museum where Sir Richard Owen analysed them The huge saurian, which he presented to the British Museum, was named Tapio Cephalus Athersonii in his honour. While in Europe he was made a Fellow of the Geological Society, and honorary corresponding secretary of the Colonial Institute. By 1864 he was hailed as SA’s leading geologist. In 1856 he established the Grahamstown Botanical Gardens, (originally on his property) and in 1862, with Peter MacOwen, founded the SA Botanical Exchange. He was largely responsible for the estalishment of the Grahamstown library. He founded the Grahamstown Medical Chirurgical Society, a precursor of the Albany Museum in 1855, the Albany Hospital in 1858 and was its first medical director. He started the Fort England Mental Institute in 1878 and in 1891the Government Bacteriologial Institute, South Africa’s first centre for medical research. He was elected a Member of the House of Assembly in 1883, and was later raised to the Legislative Council, where he served for 10 years. He was elected honorary president of the South African Association at its first congress in 1896. He was keenly interested in the development of railways and urged the annexation of the Congo so that a line might be carried from the Cape Town to Cairo. In 1878 he tried to get a telegraph line carried overland to Egypt. Both projects failed, but this interest was carried on by his son, Guybon Damant, who became a railway engineer of note. As a Grahamstown municipal councillor he kept a stern eye on sanitation. He was an active member of the Literary Scientific and Medical Society and contributed many papers on wide range of subjects to a huge variety of journals.


Frederick Carlisle made it into the history books when WGA amputated his leg in Grahamstown on June 26, 1847. News of the operation, the first of its kind to be performed under anaesthetic, in Africa, in a British Colony, and outside of Europe and America, swept across the world. WGA used the then new anaesthetic, diethel ether. But was it really the first asks historian Elizabeth van Heyningen? “I have been told on good authority by anaesthetists who are very keen on their history, that a Cape Town “quack” dentist pipped WGA at the post by a few weeks by performing a similar operation.”


The famous amputee, Frederick Carlisle, born on April 13, 1804, in Ipstone, England, was the son of Rev William Carlisle and his wife, Prudence Woolfe. He married Mary Agnes Robinson and they had seven children. He left Gravesend with an 1820 settler party led by his elder brother, John, who became the first deputy sheriff of Albany. The brothers were granted 1268 acres, in a valley which they named it Belmont in memory of their Staffordshire home. They were sole proprietors of this land because they had paid the immigration fees for their entire party. Frederick returned to England in 1825 to seek more settlers, servants and labourers, but was not successful. On his return he took over as the deputy sheriff’s post from his brother and held it for years. He also served on the school committee and was Messenger of the Court. In the late 1840s he developed a leg ulcer that refused to heal. The pain became quite unbearable. By 1847 he had almost lost the use of the leg and gangarene was setting in. He approached WGA stating that he would gladly have his leg “cut off” if the pain would stop. Fortunately, WGA had just read an editorial in the July issue of the Cape Town Medical Gazette describing a below the knee amputation done by eminent surgeon, Robert Liston, on December 19, 1846, at the University College Hospital in London. Liston had used ether.


Towards the end of 1866 WGA, with the help of Peter MacOwan and H C Galpin, identified the first diamond found at Colesberg Kop – now Kimberley. This pretty “crystal pebble” – the famous 21¼-ct Eureka – was found on the bank of a river on the farm De Kalk, near Hopetown, by 15-year-old Erasmus Stephanus Jacobs. WGA examined it under a polariscope and tried its hardness on glass. The window pane on which he experimented was framed and preserved. In 1888 the Kimberley Companies clubbed together and presented him with a 4-carat diamond in recognition of his services.

Note: Peter MacOwan, the son of a Scottish, Wesleyan minister, was a respected botanist and school teacher. A severe lung condition, possibly asthma, caused him to move to South Africa to take up the post of principal at Grahamstown’s Shaw College. Henry Charles Galpin, was a rather flambouyant, eccentric architect, surveyor, civil engineer, jeweller, chronometer, watch and clock maker. His seven sons all wore dresses until they were eight. His curious house, filled with unusual artifacts, became the Observatory Museum.


Photography arrived in Africa soon after its Paris launch. “The first photographs were taken in Egypt and it is safe to assume that when Atherstone and Barber, returned home they were the first to bring detailed information to this county,” writes Hywell Walters in an MA degree thesis. WGA’s photographic endeavours only really began in early 1850, but from then on he played a meaningful role in the development of photography particularly in Grahamstown. Much of his work was done using the collodion technique. This chemical, used in the wet-plate era, had to be smuggled into South Africa because steamship captains refused to transport it, as it was an explosive ingredient of gunpowder. WGA frequently wrote to SirJohn Herschell to discuss most of the problems he faced. Herschell was considered “the father of photograpy” by London’s Science Museum. In his diaries, WGA also described his various cameras. He constantly tried to upgrade his equipment to match European standards says Hywell. “WGA’s images go beyond the topographical and documentary. Their value arises from the insight they offer into the mindset of that time.” When his eyesight began failing around 1887, he retired from photography and medicine, yet in 1896 he consented to serve as President of the South African Medical Congress when it met in Grahamstown. He died on June 26th, 1898.


Regarding the story in Round-up 265 about the Esterhuysen man who inadvertently poisoned his son, Judy Maguire, from Prince Albert writes: “I saw a picture of Esterhuyse and his dour wife in the Sutherland church, where the story is mentioned as a life-changing episode. I also heard a similar story about two young boys, members of the Nel family from Die Hel, who also died after eating poisonous ‘tulp’ bulbs. There is a Kraaitulp, which comes out in thousands, on account of overgrazing, in the Roggeveld. It is Morea miniata (formerly known as Homeria miniata) and it contains heart glycosides The Swartberg boys probably ate Morea stricta (bloutulp). The poisonous bulbs are easily confused with harmless edible species.”


Charles H Grisbrook (Round-up 266) practised as an apothecary in Graaff Reinet from about 1832, much to the displeasure of the local doctors, says historian Stephen Craven. He constantly reported them for interfering in his field and suggested a revision of the laws pertaining to the vending of medicines. He arrived at the Cape from England in about 1816, studied medicine under Dr John Atherstone, but did not qualify. He went on to indulge his interest in geology and palaeontology. In October 1829 he presented some minerals to the new South African Institution, the only scientific society in the Colony. He published some papers and drew attention to the fossiliferous deposits on the banks of the Swartkops River near Uitenhage, where he and W L von Buchenroder had collected specimens in 1828. He also referred to a large fossil tooth which he had seen at the home of John Baird, the former magistrate of Beaufort West. The tooth represents the earliest known fossil of a vertebrate animal found in South Africa. Grisbrook and Baird visited the Nuweveld site where this tooth had been discovered and found the remains of two large skeletons.

NOTE: Doornkuil Farm, the heart of art and food in the Karoo is offering three art workshops and a yoga course this year. Fees range from R5900 to R6900 per person including all meals and accommodation for yoga and art class fees from R4900-R6500. Call Cecile Blevi at 072 553 5547 or

A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know. – Diane Arbus