Two porcupines in the Nieuwoudtsville area are now wearing collars. These are the first of 16 state-of-the-art GPS collars sponsored by Boekenhoutskloof, makers of Porcupine Ridge Wine, for a project being run by researcher Christy Bragg. Hotgroup, South African manufacturers of collars with global position system (GPS) technology, worked long and hard with Christy to develop a collar that would not cause discomfort. Several prototypes were tested before they agreed on a product light enough not to chafe or irritate the animals in any way. Christy felt so strongly about this that she had the final product riveted onto her own neck and wore it for a few hours, “just to be sure it did not chafe.” Then, with the help of a veterinary surgeon from the Eastern Cape and monitored by SABC2’s Wild Ltd presenter, Michelle Garforth and her crew, Christy and Nieuwoudtville’s Biodiversity Facilitator, Donna Kotze, fitted the collars to two animals from Christy’s primary study site, which has now been turned into a Botanic Garden. The first porcupine came from a burrow in the Renosterveld, an area of threatened, yet diverse vegetation, and the other from a geophyte rich habitat in nearby dolerite koppies. While the animals were sedated Christy and Donna took samples of their parasites, blood and quills, as well as various essential measurements. To date the collars have delivered excellent information on movement and browsing habits, so the other 14 will be fitted soon.


In the 1870s, when frontier wars in the Eastern Cape were at their height, several inventors developed “weapons of war.” Among them was a Mr Orgill who designed a square, all steel, ox-drawn tank as “the ultimate weapon.” He proposed mounting the “tank” on a frame with four wheels “so adjusted that they could turn on a small wheel base.” The tank would be large enough to hold eight men and have slits through which they could fire their rifles. This “war machine” was described in an 1878 issue of The Cape Argus and hailed as a “remarkable contraption which could maintain a murderous discharge which few defenders would be able to withstand.” Orgill also proposed that this “formidable weapon,” should have a Gatling-type gun on its roof. This would “disseminate bullets with deadly effect.” The tank was also to have a series of small, strategically-placed apertures through which revolvers could be fired. Someone, however, pointed out a major pitfall and in a “Letter to the Editor.” He asked what would happen if the oxen got shot, stabbed to death or slaughtered? How formidable would the tank be then? Would it not simply become an all-steel grave? “Orgill’s designs were shelved – indefinitely,” writes Don Briscoe in a tour guides’ newsletter, Update.


Prince Albert Cultural Foundation is planning a trip back in time. From May 16 to 18 they will explore places of historical and social interest in and around Fraserburg, established in 1859, and Williston, which dates back to 1845. Migrant farmers (trekboere) began moving into these areas from as early as 1750, so the areas are rich in history. Places of interest in Fraserburg include the museum in the old Rectory, a reconstructed Corbel House, the power station with still has seven Lister Blackstone generators and the Pepperbox, a strange shaped structure designed and used by Dominee Bamberger as an office. The town also put it to other uses. At Groot Wagenmakersvlei they will see an historic farmhouse, complete with slave quarters and at Kerkplaas on the Sak River, they’ll explore ruins of the first mission to the San set up by the London Missionary Society in 1799. Kerkplaas also still has a functional horse mill. Williston nestles at the foot of two koppies, known as “the singing hills.” They acquired this curious name during the time of the missionaries. One of them, Frederich Wilhelm Beineke, built a path to the top of a koppie and each Sunday encouraged his flock to walk to the crest and “make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” He loved to hear people singing. In Williston, Cultural Foundation members will see the ‘fort,’ stone kraals and relics of early trekboer life at corbelled houses such as at Janklaasleegte. They will also visit Rietvallei, one of the earliest farms, where some original Nuweveld sheep farming traditions can be studied. En route home they’ll visit the famous paleo-surface at Gansfontein.


The London Missionary Society was the first British Society to enter the South African Mission field. Under its auspices, great men like Robert Moffat and David Livingstone came to South Africa. Its first four missionaries – two Hollanders, Johannes Theodorus Van der Kemp and Joannes Jacobus Kicherer and two Englishmen, John Edmonds and William Edwards – set sail for the Cape on a Botany Bay-bound convict ship, the Hillsborough in December 1798. The ship, “crowded to excess with dismal wretches goaded to desperation by miseries and maltreatment,” arrived at the end of March the following year. Van der Kemp, who was born in Rotterdam where his father was a Lutheran minister, was almost 50. He had led an eventful life. Initially his aim was to become a doctor, so he started studying medicine at Leyden University. Before completing his degree, however, he left and joined the army where he spent the next 16 years as a “slave to vice and ungodliness.” Nevertheless, he attained the rank of Lieutenant of Dragoons and Captain of Horse. However, a quarrel with the Prince of Orange, a personal friend, led to his leaving the army and going to Scotland where he completed his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh. He returned to Holland to practise as a physician in Middelburg, announcing to all that he was an atheist. Then disaster struck. His wife and only child were drowned in a boating accident, but he was “saved by a miracle.” A week later he “yielded himself to God,” and devastated by grief went into isolation to study the Bible and Oriental literature. He accepted a post as director of a Rotterdam hospital, but later offered his services to the LMS. He spent months in London in talks with the Directors, then and returned to Holland to helped set up the Netherlands Missionary Society, before leaving for South Africa.


On board ship the missionaries moved among the wretched convicts like “ministering angels.” Their south-bound voyage was long, miserable and depressing. Fever broke out on board and 34 people died. The four were warmly welcomed in Cape Town and travelled together to Roodezand, present-day Tulbagh, where a wagon waited to take Van der Kemp and Edmonds to Graaff Reinet. They were cordially received at every farm along the route and Edmonds wrote “tears flowed from my eyes when I think of the affectionate care these people afforded us.” Yet he did not stay in South Africa, he went to Bengal. Kicherer and Edwards were to set up a mission for the San near the Sak River, but no wagon, nor guide was provided. Eventually they set off on their own, accompanied by an enthusiastic colonist, Cornelius Kramer, who also wanted to be a missionary. It took them a week to reach the farm of field cornet, Floris Visser, a practical man, who instantly wrote to the Government stating that these men would achieve nothing without wagons and labourers to help them build a house. They stayed with Visser for three weeks and by then had six wagons full of provisions, 60 oxen and 200 sheep writes J du Plessis in A History of the Christian Missions in South Africa. Near the Sak River they found a strong and clear fountain, an ideal spot for their station. They called it Blijde Vooruitzichts Fontein (Fountain of Glad Prospects.) Kicherer was a restless person and lasted at the mission for only six months. The Sak River Mission failed, but it was not without importance because it opened the way for much future mission work.


Edwards went on to become one of the first missionaries to enter Bechuanaland. One early traveller described his home as a habitation of small reed huts, furnished with boxes, rough chairs and a table. His bed was a mat on the ground. His wagon was damaged, and the tent cover worn out. His oxen looked thin and poor. His only servant was an aged slave and his wife was approaching her confinement. Surrounded by the unknown, he had to rely on his gun for food. “I had known Mrs Edwards and her parents in Cape Town, where they lived in comparative affluence, however, here in the desert, she and her husband trusted in the Lord and were not forsaken,” he wrote. Moravian missionaries said that Edwards’s “great faith and humility made him source of edification and blessing to many.” But, in 1842 Moffat, wrote that “as a result of bartering with powerful nations north of the Malapo River, Edwards has amassed a handsome sum, forsaken the Lord, left the country, returned to the Colony and purchased a farm. He is now a hoary-headed infidel.”


Early missionaries had a rough time. Kicherer was once told of a place with good rainfall. This turned out to be a blatant lie. He found only a miserable waterhole, poisoned by snake heads thrown in by the San. If it had not been for a rainstorm his party and animals would have perished, writes Elsa van Schalkwyk in Die Amandel breek oop. Missionaries were often hungry, harassed, robbed or had their stock stolen. Kicherer’s group once spent six months without tasting bread. Missionary Hardelande was amazed one Sunday to see a herd of springbok grazing peacefully near the Williston mission station. Food was scarce yet no one made any attempt to shoot or catch them until Monday morning. One tiny church, was a “plain house, made from bushes, plastered with earth.” Its reed ceiling was so low that the preacher’s head disappeared into it every time he emphasised a point.


A Beaufort West traditional healer once told a fascinating tale of birds and babies. Old Xhosa people, she said, believed a baby which flailed its arms and legs about and was generally restless and whiney, had been touched by the shadow of a bird. “These shadows cast spells on the tiny infants and cause them to behave like a bird. The spell of the shadow can only be broken by a traditional healer,” she said. Such healers had to search out powerful plants and carefully pull them out ensuring that the roots remained intact. Then the entire plant had to be washed very well “water of the earth.” By this she meant borehole water because, municipal water, she said, was not pure enough. The complete plant was then be chopped up, boiled in “water of the earth” and this concoction was fed to the baby at regular intervals. Also, its whole body had to be rubbed with this water with particular attention being paid to the palms of the hands and soles of his feet. If correctly done the baby would recover within a day. Some time later I read an article written by Ben Erik van Wyk, a professor of botany, in which he discussed the properties of Dicoma Schinzii, commonly called “koorsbos(fever bush). This plant, he said, had been found to be effective in the treatment of fevers, especially in infants. A decoction had been shown to stop convulsions and flailing, while topical applications stopped “feather growth” (goose bumps) associated with fever. “In African mythology fever is associated with birds because they have a body temperature of 39 ºC to 41ºC (much higher than our 37,4º C). Dicoma Schinzii, D anomala, and D capensis are widely used across South Africa and Lesotho to treat fevers,” he said. “In fact, D capensis features in many old Cape Dutch remedy books dating back to the 1800s. It was used to cure stomach aches, as a general tonic and to boost the immune system.”


In 1835 a young British colonel rode over 600 miles from Cape Town to Grahamstown in six days and was still fit enough to immediately take command of the military post. He was, of course, the inimitable Harry Smith. Towards the end of 1834 hostilities on the Eastern Cape frontier had reached such a peak that settlers were fleeing in panic as Xhosa hoards plundered the territory. Harry Smith was despatched from Cape Town on January 1, 1835, to restore order. He galloped out of Cape Town and on the first day he rode 90 miles, across two mountain passes. Fresh horses awaited him in Caledon and early next day he sped off again. On this leg he had to make a 10-mile detour because the Buffelsjachts River was in flood. He obtained fresh horses at Swellendam and on the third day smartly covered the 100 miles to George. At one staging stop he found the field cornet not only had fresh horses for him, but also a four course mid-day meal which he was obliged to sit down and eat. He regretted this for hours as it left him with severe winds and stomach cramps. When he finally made it to George, he found another formal welcome awaiting him. By then, however, he was totally disgruntled, so promptly dismissed the dinner in favour of a hot bath and bed. He lay groaning throughout the night, he said, so next morning was up before dawn and off to Cradock. The early morning cool quickly dissipated and as the day turned blazingly hot day it did “little for his humour.” Despite this, he rode on. He met the mail coach coming from Grahamstown, stopped it and opened dispatches addressed to the Governor in Cape Town only to discover things were quite desperate on the frontier. He instantly spurred his horse to a fresh gallop. On the fifth day he covered 140 miles to Uitenhage, crossing one river seven times. Then on the final stage, when he stopped for a fresh horse, the farmer refused to provide one. So, Harry gave his a “swift crack on the head,” grabbed the horse and galloped off. Next stop was Grahamstown. He rode in proudly and took command “much to the relief of the beleaguered community.”


Rossouw Street was once the main road in Fraserburg, or so the story goes. Here, according to Jonathan Deale in Timeless Karoo, many Jewish shopkeepers started businesses and ran them very successfully for over 70 years. Then a group of Afrikaans businessmen started a Ko-op and several other stores in Voortrekker Street and to channel trade in their direction, they simply diverted traffic into Voortrekker Street and made this the main thoroughfare. Since then the road into town has taken a curious sharp right turn followed by a sharp left. “According to this bizarre local tale this all happened in 1930,” says Jonathan. “I have tried to substantiate the story without success, but it does get passed down from one generation to the next. The by-passing of Rossouw Street delivered a death blow to many Jewish traders. Most just packed up and moved away.” He mentions another curious tale, this time documented in the Dutch Reformed Church’s commemorative centenary history. It relates to the ‘Otto Hager church.’ “Built in 1868 it accommodated 1 000 people and cost £5 000. Then, in 1950, Dominee Ignatius Ferreira Retief persuaded the church council to replace the building with a costlier, smaller one seating only 834. Some claim the old church was unsound, but many insist the building was no pushover. One tractor could not demolish it, two more had to be hooked up before an impact was made.”


A casual chat about the wonders of the Karoo, led to an amazing story. Rose Willis and Coosie van Rensburg were discussing a mutual infatuation with Beaufort West one day when the talk turned to the delicious taste treats of the region. Rose said among her favourite stories were Dominee Barend Frederick Gerhardus Bastiaans’s tales of his visits to his far-flung flock spread over the vast plains of the Central Karoo. He enjoyed many superb meals at isolated dwellings. He wrote of mouth-watering mutton or goat meat stews, home-made bread and mouth-watering “roosterkoek” (griddle cakes) cooked over the coals. These were mostly spread with goats’ milk butter and filled with chunks of excellent goats’ milk cheese. The repast was normally washed down with a black coffee served in an enamel mug. Milk, he said, was never used to “whiten” coffee, it was for children and babies. “Yes,” said Coosie, “He was a magnificent man, but he wasn’t a dominee, he was a missionary.” “Oh,” said Rose, “have you also read his book?” “No,” she answered. “He was my father, known to all who knew and loved him as Oom Fred.” Coosie grew up on the Nuweveld Mountain farm, Spitzkop, and in a house in Beaufort West’s Delarey Street. Her gran Jacoba Johanna De Villiers was a member of “Ryk” Daantjie’s family and her mother, Rene De Vos, and came from the beautiful old family farm, Welgevonden. It offers breathtaking views across the endless Karoo plains from the Nuweveld escarpment. Coosie’s brother, Niel, was a good friend of Chris Barnard’s. “As young boys they played together and got up too many pranks in the village streets.” Today, the always elegantly attired, Coosie proudly sports superb pieces of ‘neckwear’ lovingly made especially for her by one of her grand daughters who is a jewellery designer.


A South African policeman escorting refugees discovered there was much more to the Karoo than he’d been led to believe. After the German forces were beaten in South West Africa, Sam Cowley was detailed to take some German refugees from Roberts Heights (Voortrekker Hoogte), outside Pretoria, to Cape Town, so that they could return to their homeland. Sam’s commanding officer crisply explained he would have to be responsible for their discipline and welfare while on the train trip across the “desert.” A G Bee describes Sam’s trip in Keeper of the Highwa: “Sam and the refugees boarded a special train which, after a journey of two days and nights, arrived at Cape Town docks. The refugees arrived hot, dusty, querulous and swearing, but the constable enjoyed the trip.” Sam later told friends: “I was told the train would run southwards from Johannesburg, over the highveld of the Free State and across the Karoo Desert. I imagined there would be absolutely nothing to see, but the Karoo is not a desert. It’s excellent sheep country, covered by a low silvery scrub. This appears to contain no nourishment, but sheep thrive on it. The Karoo has a beauty that is difficult to explain. Homesteads suddenly appear at clumps of trees near windmills. Beyond these is nothing but scrub and dust. This blows between the flat topped koppies, causing a shimmering in the heat haze and spreading like a mist over limitless flat veld. Now and then a springbok leaps into the air, but there are not the thousands that used to be. The jackal too has been shot and trapped almost to extinction. Rain comes rarely and now and then you pass a stream, but there seems to be plenty of water in the Karoo earth. They say when rain comes the Karoo it’s carpeted with little flowers and even more beautiful.” There were no flowers when the refugees passed. A hot wind blew, and fine dust filtered into the train, filled everyone’s eyes, mouths and nostrils. The sun blazed high above the koppies and the heat encouraged passengers to cool their parched throats with good South African wine in the saloon car. The trains’s last stop in the Karoo was at Touws River. From there it moved into a greener world.


The Karoo town, Cradock, has a link with the Comrades Marathon. Vic Clapham, founder of this world-famous marathon spent part of his childhood in this village. He was born in London on November 16, 1886, but a few years later left for South Africa with his parents who were bound for Cradock where they stayed for a while. Here Vic enjoyed carefree days and exploring the veld with friends. Vic participated in the Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902) as a medic and at the start of WWI (1914), he signed up with the 8th South African Infantry and was sent to German East Africa, now Tanzania. During this time as Pte No 487 he marched over 2 700 kilometres in pursuit of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s Askari Battalions. At the end of the war Vic wanted to establish a memorial to the suffering and deaths of his comrades, honour their undying spirit of camaraderie and ability to use inner strength to overcome personal physical difficulties and hardships. He suggested a road race that would test physical endurance and proposed staging a 56-mile (90 km) race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. The name he suggested was The Comrades Marathon. At first permission was refused, but it was later granted. The first Comrades Marathon took place on Empire Day, May 24, 1921. It started outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall and there were 34 runners. Since then the race has been run every year except during WWII (1941-1945.) Today it’s one of the world’s best known ultra marathons and over 20 000 runners enter.

The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play. – Arnold J. Toynbee