Wellknown Prince Albert artist, Christine Thomas, is presenting a new exhibition. Entitled Een Mens Het Baie Name (One Person Has Many Names) it opens on April l and celebrates the words, works and world of Piet Balelie, a colourful local personality. “The exhibition is a multi-dimensional portrait of Piet, his extraordinary clothing and colourful hats,” says Christine. “Each hat in itself is a story and sums up Piet’s philosophy of life. He is illiterate, yet has an enviable ability to use words, stories, rhymes, riddles and jokes to share his world with others. His philosophies effectively are part of his paintings.” Christine has long used local inhabitants and their stories as a theme. In the past her exhibitions have recorded the stories of Gamkaskloof, “The Hel”, riddles and forced removals. So many residents in this area have wonderful stories to tell and Christine captures these in her artworks. She often claims to be able to “paint in Afrikaans.” She and Outa Piet have been meeting for several years “These conversations have always been lively and over the years his clothing, especially his hats, has become more elaborate,” she says. Piet and his wife, Gertruida, an ardent supporter, will be at the opening. Many of his colourful hats will be on display.


Water is a treasure of the Karoo. It always was and, no doubt, always will be scarce so, understandably, every effort must be made to conserve it. Many communities throughout the Karoo are totally dependent on groundwater. Any action that harms its purity will be disastrous to man and beast. So, farmers and action groups throughout the Karoo are standing together to stop the multinational giant Shell from drilling for shale gas deposits or fracking (the official term) across a 98 000ha tract of the Karoo in the western, northern and eastern Cape. “Surely something completely different and more meaningful to this region can be done with Shell’s R3.5-billion budget,” said the farmers. Farmer and lawyer Mike Ferrar said: “Fracking will destroy the essence of the Karoo”. Fracking uses up to six million litres of water for each well. The water is laced with chemicals and corrosive additives. It is pumped down a drill shaft, then forced at great pressure through apertures in the shaft into the surrounding shale rock beds, which can lie up to 5km below the surface. The shale fractures and releases gas which travels back up a separate shaft to be harvested as a source of electricity. Dr Peter Baker, director of the Richmond Community Development Foundation, said “If Shell used the money earmarked for the fracking to instead develop renewable energy like solar power, the people of the Karoo would benefit. With the fracking, the landowner can expect no return at all and what jobs there might be, except perhaps for a few truck-driving opportunities, will be for people with skills in the gas drilling sector – again cutting the locals out of the equation.”.


In the 1880s some men from the Cradock district took a closer look at the Ugie area with the idea of expanding their farms. Among them were Gottlieb Schutte, whose son Ernest married the Ugie church organist and Piet de Wet, a massive, powerful, robust, strong-willed fellow and a stalwart of the Cradock community. He was offered a good farm in exchange for a bottle of brandy but refused to “buy” it say the writers of Die Romantiese Verhaal Van Die Dorp Ugie. Piet was a strict teetotaler and dealing in liquor was totally against his principles. Also, he reasoned, sending someone off to acquire a bottle of brandy was just not worth the effort.


Archaeologist, Garth Sampson, started working on a large-scale, long-term project in the 1970s. Over the years this project developed into the largest surveyed archaeological site in Africa and the best-known research project in the Karoo, states the summer 2011 issue of Karoo News, the Nama Karoo Foundation newsletter. The inspiration for this Zeekoei Valley Archaeological Project (ZVAP), which covers hundreds of thousands of years of hominid history, was the Bushmen, the people with the oldest DNA in the world. In his first paper, just published, Garth discusses the fact that livestock farming was taking place in the Karoo long before the arrival of settlers from Europe. “Ethno-historian, Richard Elphick, made this point in 1977, when he was the first to propose a southward migration of Khoekhoe stock herders and to suggest that their southward migration was more complex than the traditionally accepted. Internal strife seems to have caused a large group to split up near the Gariep\Vaal junction and while one sector moved along the Gariep River the other found a path through the Sneeuwberg Mountains and into the Karoo. In his paper Garth poses an intriguing question: “Were ancient stone walls which so interest archaeologists made by European ostrich farmers, Khoekhoe livestock herders or by Bushmen/San for hunting Springbok, possibly during Springbok stampedes?” He is still searching for the answer.


A partnership between the Endangered Wild Life Trust and Eskom Power Lines, is investigating burying problematic spans to save the cranes at Zoetvlei farm. New studies have shown that this will be more cost effective than putting warning devices on the lines to decrease bird mortality. Karoo News, Summer 2011 Nama Karoo Newsletter, states that blue cranes are valued at between R15 000 and R20 000 each and that the cost of cranes killed on high kilowatt power lines in the past two years alone will more than cover the most of burying the lines. Solar-powered warning lights are also being used. These devices are extremely durable, easy to install and have a five-year guarantee. They hold a charge for 36 hours and longer. Ornithologist Richard Dean suggests that white flashing lights might be more effective than coloured ones the HKP spans. So, currently nine white flashing lights are being tried on one span, while non‐flashing units are being tested on another. At this stage the white flashing lights do seem to be the most effective.


Graaff Reinet also had a rifle corp. Its formation came when a Burgher Law was passed because of rumours of another war were rife. John H Roselt, placed an advertisement in the Graaff-Reinet Herald early in February 1856, stated a meeting would be held in the Court Room at 19h30 on February 21 for the purpose of establishing a corps. This was a successful, well attended event and it was decided to name it Graaff-Reinet Mounted Rifle Corps and it was agreed that Mr Heugh could fulfilled the office of Captain of the Corps as well as Captain of the Burghers. A full meeting took place at P Caro’s offices on March 9, and H Benjamin was voted into the chair. Regulations were presented and approved, and officers elected. They included Comdt. Anthony Berrange, Capt. John Heugh, Lt. and Adj. William Henry Addison; Lt. John Henry Roselt and Quartermaster Edward Nathan. On June 28, 1856, Lt Addison called for tenders for uniforms and these were delivered by February 10, 1857. Cornet Chris van Blommenstein was commissioned on February 25. By September 9 that year the strength of the corps was 55. The Corps mustered on the Queen’s Birthday “to receive presentation of their colours which had been elegantly designed and worked by the ladies”


When The Graaff-Reinet Herald proudly announced it was moving into its second year of successful publication, it took what seemed to be a snide jibe at one of its competitors. On Wednesday, August 24, 1853, the newspaper reported: “This week we have the gratification of presenting, the first newspapers of our second year. The paper has been enlarged and although we do not ambitiously wish emulate the gigantic proportions of The Grahamstown Journal, nor the versatile powers of the double-tongued Commercial Advertiser (we refer, of course, to its being printed in two languages), we hope our columns will be adequate to the requirements of the community we serve.”


“The Blyth sisters were mentioned in the December Round-up and I remember them vividly,” writes Dr Nathan Finkelstein, from Cape Town. “May and Gladys Blyth lived in Bird Street diagonally opposite the Land Bank. The Police station stands on that site today,” he says. “The reason I recall them so well is because it was extremely difficult for any potential suitor to visit any young lasses boarding with them. Among their boarders were Louisa and Annatjie Pienaar, whose father farmed at Stolzhoek and so dropped them off at the Misses Blyth after each weekend. I quite fancied Louisa who was in my Std 7 Latin class. In those days there were separate classes for English and Afrikaans speaking students up to Std 8 at Central High School and thereafter classes were combined until Matric. The school was then situated near the former power station and sports ground. Any young man wishing to see one of the girls, would either wait until the Blyth sisters went out to do their shopping or ‘casually catch up’ with the girls when they went for their daily walk in the early evenings. It was great fun trying to woo a lass with all those “obstacles” in your way.” Regarding Baird Street vs. Bird Street controversy, he adds. “I am also of the opinion that it should be Baird Street. My mother always used that in her letters, but in those days, I used to think that she just could not spell. I guess at some stage the municipal authorities left out the “a” and that’s how it became Bird Street. Once when we had to write a letter am Afrikaans letter for an exam I got into trouble for writing 144 Voëltjiestraat . Old Willie Rheeder reprimanded me for being a‘domkop’ and in unforgettable fashion, explained names are never translated.”


In the 1870s a slick merchant rode into the Karoo to buy wool. One farmer asked £1 a bale and initially the merchant agreed, but when time came to pay up there was a disagreement as to the final total. They haggled and heatedly argued until the farmer produced a ready reckoner. The merchant looked at it and guffawed. “Good God man, that’s last year’s model,” he said, “it won’t give you the correct answer for this year!” Completely flummoxed the farmer had no alternative but to accept the merchant’s final figure.


Rocks truly are the curators of history in the Karoo. Way back in 1780 a Dane left his mark on a Karoo boulder. A G Schoombee was so delighted by the Karoo that he carved a message on a rock and settled right there despite the fact that the area was in the grips of a locust plague. In time his farm, 15km northeast of Middelburg became known as Schoombeesklip (literally Schoombee’s stone). Years later Joan Sutherland, a genealogical researcher “went looking for this stone on a delightful summer morning.” She wrote: “The view was magnificent with the Middelburg mountains in the distance, misty and ethereal against the sharp blue sky. Stark white labourers’ cottages filled the foreground and it was like walking through a painting. We had to step carefully so as not to trample the Karoo violets and other wild flowers. Eventually we found the boulder near a koppie. The letters, although carefully hewn out of the rock, were practically obliterated by orange and green lichen, but we could still decipher them. The inscription read: ‘Anno 1780 Aprel ik ben die plaas heft aangelygyt. AGSB uyt Denemark sprenghane als s/a/nt.’ (“The year is 1780 April and this farm was founded by me AGSB from Denmark. Locusts like sand.”) It must have been quite an effort for Schoombee to carve out this message. Sadly, however, he eventually straightened up to admire his work, he discovered he had left out the “a” in “sand”, so he had to go back and squeeze it in.”


John X Merriman was an ardent champion of the railway system. He saw this as an efficient way to link Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and East London to the diamond fields, yet in July 1882, after attending yet another disasterous meeting with the Railway Extension Committee, he said: “I cannot understand how grown men can make such donkeys of themselves. Not one of them has been up the line, not one knows anything about it, yet they lecture me on progress. It’s hard to keep one’s temper. Now not only the progress, but the slowness of the trains has become a joke.” Even when the line advanced through the Karoo many found it speedier to travel all the way from Cape Town on a Gibson Brothers coach, says Brian Roberts in Kimberley, Turbulent City. Then, The Cape Times ran a report entitled Railway Trains and Flying Coaches and in this it was stated that the mail coach normally arrived two hours ahead of the train.


The realities of rinderpest were revealed in 1897 by William Guss Manson a farmer, speculator, carrier and holder of a Bechuanaland fencing contract. When the Rindepest Commission interviewed him on April 22, he said he had withdrawn because of penalties and costs. Too much money was being swallowed up just on getting wire and poles. “We use camel-thorn, yellow-wood, olive and sneezewood posts, costing 2\6d each,” he said. He had taken great care with his herds, but rindepest had been brought onto his land by passing mule wagons. “I was ordered to shoot my cattle immediately. I asked what use that would be as I had no pits ready to bury them. I explained people could never exist on a farm with 500 head of unburied cattle lying on the ground. This met with little sympathy. The order to shoot them was repeated. I said if they were not buried, I will have to flee with my family, but the order was once again repeated. I knew it would have to be done, however, I refused to have the police shoot them. My cattle were valuable, and I was not going to have them turned into targets. I had seen that happen at a neighbour’s farm. The police simply blazed away into the herd killing few and wounding many who were left with entrails handing out and broken legs. I said I could not stand such cruelty. The inspector offered me two policemen, but I chose two young Dutchmen whom I considered fair shot to assist me.” Manson set labourers to digging pits. He said: “I was compelled to shot 140 head of cattle on the Sabbath. I started burying them on Monday, but even using casual labour was not able to finish. Carcasses lay all over the ground, swelling up in the broiling sun. We could not bury them all until Thursday and then we started shooting my healthy stock.”


Horse racing became an extremely popular sport among diggers at the diamond fields in the 1870s. The first race at the fields was run at Pniel in January 1871, and it was such a success that a group of sporting diggers banded together to form the Diamond Fields Turf Club, writes Brian Roberts in Kimberley, Turbulent City. A course was laid out near Du Toitspan and Bultfontein mines and a gala meeting, lasting three days, was widely advertised. Substantial cash prizes were offered. Karoo horses were in demand. Their quality and stamina were widely known. Turf Club officials bought horses from breeders in Beaufort West, Cradock and Colesberg. Exciting as the event was, it was remembered not so much for the races, as for the side shows it attracted. Crooks of all kinds converged at the course. Among them were card sharps, slight-of-hand tricksters and “three-card-monty-men”. Small time chisellers had a field day and ladies of the night did a brisk day-time trade. After these races, diggers found it safer to gamble in the billiards saloons.


In the mid-1800s a group of Griquas who had been given ground in the Ugie and Maclear areas sold it for a song and moved into the Karoo. Under the leadership of a man called Le Fleur, they chose to settle at Touws River after wandering about for a while seeking a suitable spot, say the writers of Die Romantiese Verhaal Van Die Dorp Ugie. They hoped that at Touws River they would be able to build up a viable settlement and develop into “a great, independent people,” but this did not happen. The settlement was a disaster and in order not to starve to death many simply straggled back to the Ugie area. The more entrepreneurial types set their sights on Cape Town, managed to get there and find jobs. Almost none of these men and their families returned to Ugie or the Karoo


In May 1897, Oudtshoorn Divisional Council asked Parliament to pass a bill forbidding the erection of anymore swing gates on main roads. It stated that on the road to Calitzdorp a gate was encountered every 200 or 300 yards, however, with the increasing popularity of ostrich farming and the need for smaller camps, gates on this route had increased to 630. They were popping up at intervals of every 40, 50 or 60 yards. Not only was this annoying, it is dangerous because people travelling on foot or horseback were being attacked by ostriches. Male birds in particular seemed to be taking exception to people in their camps. Breeders complained. They said it was essential for ostriches to be fenced in to prevent them from “going wild”. The council pointed out that gates in the Great Karoo gate were miles apart. Travelling through the Klein Karoo was becoming time-consuming, annoying and downright dangerous.”

A good leader needs to stand behind his followers as often as he needs to stand in front of them. – Marilyn von Savan