A group of young adventurers recently arrived in Beaufort West seeking the place where Polish explorer Kazimierz Nowak spent a night in 1935. This was an odd request, and it so intrigued Caroline Bedeker at the Beaufort West Museum, that she went to considerable trouble trying to assist them. The group is placing plaques along Nowak’s route because he was the first man to travel alone on foot and by bicycle across Africa. His 40 000 km journey started in November 1931, and took five years to complete. Nowak cycled most of the way, but there were times when he had to cross rivers using a canoe and travel by camel in the deepest desert. Travelling between 1 500 to 1 800 km a month he visited 18 countries. Now, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Nowak’s journey, the independence, diversity and beauty of Africa, and the bicycle as an ideal means of transport, this group, under the leadership of Eliza Czyzewska, is re-tracing tour. They hope to complete their crusade by 2011.


Nowak was born in Stryj, in Poland in 1897. After World War I he moved to Poznan, where he found a job with an insurance company and took up cycling as a hobby. He started taking photographs to record his trips and soon was so skilled that he became a Press correspondent. On his trusty bicycle he made two trips across Europe. Then, in 1928 he made his sortee to Africa, but a war in Tripoli, health problems and a shortage of funds forced him to go back home. He longed to return to Africa and ride the length of this continent. This dream became a reality in 1931. November of that year saw Nowak and his trusty, seven-year-old bicycle back in Tripoli and from there he set off immediately for Cape Aghulas – 12 000 km away. On his way south he scared desert dwellers by suddenly appearing out of nowhere. When he reached Cyrenaica, another war was in progress and Italian authorities ordered him to change his route. He doubled back through Benghazi to Alexandria and from there set off southwards again. He then travelled through Egypt and the Sudan, briefly detoured towards Abyssinia and then rode along the border between the Congo and Kenya, through the then Rhodesias and into the Union of South Africa. He continued southwards, his sights still on Africa’s southernmost tip. It was on this leg of his journey that he stopped for a night in Beaufort West and met some locals.


Nowak reached Cape Agulhas by April 1934 and from there went to Cape Town where he decided to return home by another home route. He travelled northwards up the West Coast, through the then South West Africa, Angola, French Equatorial Africa, Nigeria, French West Africa and Algeria, reaching Algiers in November 1936. His cycle disintegrated totally in SWA and a Polish farmer gave him a horse called Lynx. He acquired another, Wildcat, as a pack animal, but swopped him for Cowboy. He learned horses were not the answer. They had to be fed. So, after 3 000 km in the saddle, Nowak left his four-legged companions in Angola and continued on foot for hundreds of kilometres until he found another bicycle. Back home he undertook a series of lecture tours, but weakened by malaria contracted on his African adventure, he was unable to fight off pneumonia and died on October 13, 1937. Nowak received neither material nor financial aid for this trip. . His only support was a few sets of bicycle tyres sent to him periodically by the Stomil factory in Poland. Using a 35mm Contax camera Nowak took over 10 000 photographs in Africa. He sold these to German and Polish newspapers to himself and his family. He reported on the difficulties of the journey as well as on the cultures of the peoples.

More on droughts of yesteryear

In 1919 Prof E H I Schwarz, head of Geology at Rhodes University, declared that drying lakes in the Kalahari were responsible for drought in the Karoo. This respected geologist, who spent most of his life in the field, said there was abundant, well-documented evidence to prove that Karoo droughts were increasing annually. Yet, he said, prior to 1820 the Great Fish River, as well as many Karoo Rivers, had run for at least ten months each year. Some had run throughout the year. Then, the great Ngami Lakes of the Kalahari had begun to dry and regular rainfall ceased. The last lake dried up in 1820 and extremely dry periods with intermittent heavy rain, flooding and serious erosion followed. Prof Schwarz believed the Ngami Lakes were essential to the eco-system as evaporation from them supplied moisture to the air in the central regions. This combined with sea-borne moisture created rain, he said. Once the lakes dried the air in the interior became increasingly hot and dry. Moisture was blown away and no rain fell. The professor proposed a remedy – recreate the lakes. “The old lake floors are plotted on all maps,” he said. “The peculiar courses of the rivers indicate the manner in which the Kalahari lakes have been drained by the Zambezi. The means for stopping up the gaps are there; the channels for filling the reservoirs, though choked up, are in existence, and the natural depressions only wait for water for the system to function once more and become a rain distributor for South Africa. When the gaps are blocked up and the old Kalahari lakes once more become a reality, there will be a regular supply of moist air across the region and the old central river of the Kalahari will once more flow.” Pieter Lund, who farms at Bleakhouse, found Prof. Schwarz’s book The Kalahari or Thirstland Redemption, most interesting. I wonder what a modern-day geologist like Dr Johan Loock will have to say,” he asks.


Robert Moffat had a keen eye when it came to the ecology. In The Lives of Robert and Mary Moffat, their son, John S Moffat, writes: “The natural resources of the country and their capacity for development did not escape his observation during journeys of the most hazardous kind. Even when famine or death by wild beasts stared him in the face his trained eye was involuntarily noting plants, minerals and the geological structure of the tract through which he was passing. He was struck with the extent to which the climate must have been affected by the local’s reckless habit of destroying the forests. He said the country had changed in 50 years. “Today the hinterland appears something like an old neglected garden or field, to the eye of a European. The explanation is not far to seek. The locals are a nation of levellers, reducing hills to plains. They cut down every species of tree to build their towns. Thus, of whole forests, where the giraffe and elephant were wont to seek their daily food, nothing remains. The long succession of dry seasons may be attributed to this extermination.”


Izak (Klontjies) van der Merwe, who farmed on Vondeling, in the Fraserburg district, wrote: “The drought of 1933 was most severe. At its height my father and Gawie le Roux trekked to Beaufort West with all their sheep and railed them with stock belonging to other farmers, to Jansenville, where there was grazing for hire. Sadly, the animals did not make it. When the trucks were opened at Klipplaat, the nearest station to Jansenville, all the sheep were dead. Farmers wept when they saw all the dead bodies” The train had travelled from Beaufort West north to De Aar, then south-east to Noupoort, south to Middelburg, Graaff-Reinet and Aberdeen Road to reach this destination. The journey was too arduous for the weakened animals. Izak’s father sold all other stock to speculators at prices far below their market value. They did not want his bell goats but, after much bickering, the dealer took them for 25 cents each. Weeks later, it rained and after than Old Man van der Merwe bought new stock.


It’s easy to see whirlwinds in the Karoo, they are made visible by dust, wrote J H Balfour Browne in South Africa. “This is a dryland watered by dry spruits. We encountered real dust storms here. The atmosphere was not air, but dust. One breathed gritty dust. One could not see houses, nor guerrilla towns for dust. It penetrated everywhere. A surgeon, who visited South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War, spoke of two plagues – women and flies. He must have been a man of superficial observation. He did not mention the dust. All this hinterland area needs to make it a garden is water.”


Medicine had been taught at Edinburgh University since the beginning of the sixteenth century. This University Medical School is one of the oldest in the world and it has a rich history. Before 1832 few bodies were legitimately obtainable for study purposes and keen medical students were often forced to “acquire” bodies by illicit means to use as study aids. Dr Robert Knox, one of Scotland’s best-known anatomy teachers, drew his students from Edinburgh’s Medical College and sourced material for dissection from such infamous body snatchers, as Irish immigrants William Burke and William Hare. Oddly a scandal related to the illegal removal of bodies for study purposes in Scotland brought a handsome, 23-year old medical man to early Beaufort West to serve as the first doctor in the district. He was James Christie and in order to avoid prosecution in a matter related to the acquisition of anatomy study material he took a job as a ship’s surgeon on the Borneo, a vessel bound for India. “He never reached India,” says Round-up reader, Ingrid Paterson, of Inverness, Scotland, an expert on the Christie clan. “The Borneo ran aground in the Mozambique Channel.” Ingrid’s great grandfather, John, was James’s youngest brother. He came to South Africa after their mother died in 1862. She is buried in St Vigean’s cemetery in Arbroath, Scotland. So is their father.


James Christie was born in Forfar, Scotland in 1810. He was the eldest son of John and Jane Christie, (nee Dalgetty) and his siblings were Jane (1808), William (1812), Alexander (1815), Robert (1817) and John (1824). They were a farming family who owned a wool washery. In about 1830 James fled to avoid a scandal but was ship-wrecked. He and a friend survived for three months on the small island of Joanna by eating shell fish and rice. Eventually they were picked up by the HMS Isis and arrived in Cape Town in 1833. Despite his lack of a surgical degree – he had a diploma in midwifery – James was immediately registered to practise as a surgeon and accoucheur and appointed Medical Officer of Health for the district between Cape Town and Beaufort. On visit to Beaufort West he met Maria Andriesima Geertruida Meintjies, the magistrate’s daughter and she stole his heart. Maria’s father Jacobus Johannes Meintjies was one of the first magistrates appointed by Lord Charles Somerset, and her mother, Maria Carolina, was a daughter of Sir Andries Stockenström and Maria Gertruida Broeders. “James lost no time in proposing. They married and lived happily in Beaufort West where they reared ten children in Clyde House, once an old police station, but now a landmark and wellknown guest house. “Ill health and a severe kidney problem forced James to leave his beloved Karoo and move to Cape Town, where he could receive treatment. He died there. He and his wife are buried in St Saviour’s cemetery in Claremont.


Old Beaufort West’s beloved doctor was an imposing, respected and well-known figure throughout his huge “practice” which covered a radius of 200 miles. He travelled vast distances in all kinds of weather to attend to his patients and on these trips developed a great love for the Karoo. James helped start a bank in Beaufort West, served on the municipal council from 1850 to 1852 and was a member of parliament until 1870 with Sir John Charles Molteno, who became the first premier of the country. Three years later James was elevated to the Legislative Council. He persuaded his brother, William, to join him in South Africa. William came, farmed for a while, but did not fall under the spell of the Karoo and so returned to Scotland. James’s family prospered. The Beaufort West Courier often carried reports of “Christie achievements”. “AB” became a champion billiards player, James’s daughter, Maria Caroline, married George Centlivres-Chase, Jas was a star tennis player and he became a steward at the Gymkhana Club when it was formed in May, 1903, Blanche, donated a pillow to the Army’s pillow fund in 1918, James John, appointed Civil Commissioner, Registrar Magistrate and Registrar of Deeds, married Theresa Vigne and Jim married Miss Mitchell in 1919. James youngest brother John, then 38, came out to South Africa and bought the farm “Doordrift’” now “Dundee” near Beaufort. He married Wilhelmina Elizabeth C Wolhuter, (Betty). “They had 11 children, including my grandfather, Avon Bruce Brand Christie who married Anne Symington, a grand-daughter of James Symington, a Moodie Settler,” writes Ingrid. “John became Field Cornet of Nuweveld Ward 2 in 1877. Like his father he was a Free Mason. His eldest son John took over the farm when he moved to a house in Donkin Street, where the Co-op now stands. He died on 26 July 1897, aged 73, and is buried in the old cemetery. His memorial reads: A voice we love is still, a chair is vacant in our home, which never can be filled’


Thomas William Smart had such a high profile as a politician that his medical background has almost been forgotten. He was born in Trinn, County Meath, Ireland, on February 22, 1858, and he obtained his degree from Trinity College, in Dublin. He came to the Cape, was registered as a medical doctor and, in 1880, went to the little Karoo town of Britstown to start a general practice. Smartt was a supporter of Cecil John Rhodes and in 1893 when he was elected to the Legislative Assembly as member for Woodhouse – he later represented Cathcart, East London and Fort Beaufort, from 1910 to 1929, and Hopetown from 1924 to 1929. Smartt served as Colonial Secretary from 1896 to 1898. He was appointed Commissioner of Lands and Public Works in 1900 and again from 1904 to 1908. He was a delegate at the National Convention, and he served as a member of the Union House of Assembly from 1910 until May, 1929. (He died on April 17, that year.) Sir Thomas was one of the initial 121 members elected to the first Union Parliament which held its inaugural meeting on October 31, 1910. He and three other members – Leander Starr Jameson, Dr A I de Jager and Bissett Berry – had served in the Cape Parliament. In fact, Smartt served without interruption in the Cape and Union Parliaments for 35 years Smartt became the leader of the Unionist Party in 1911 (the same year as he was knighted) and continued in this capacity until it amalgamated with the South African Party under the leadership of General Smuts in 1921. He became Minister of Agriculture in 1921 and held this position until 1924. During this time he started an agricultural syndicate at De Aar in the Karoo and one of the two dams it built was named in his honour. This syndicate planted lucerne and wheat and set up breeding and feeding programmes for sheep, karakul, goats and Clydesdale horses. It operated until 1954 when it was liquidated. The assets of this considerable enterprise were dispersed among its members. A massive flood in the Ongers River area in March 1961, destroyed the Smartt Syndicate Irrigation Dam. A new dam was then built in 1964.


Boer War researcher Allen Duff recently visited the graves in Laingsburg and was faced with a puzzle. The inscription on the grave of Private F Gardner, of the 5th Royal Warwickshire Regiment, stated: “Accidentally killed in the execution of his duty on 9.01.1902.” Allen wondered just how Private Gardener could have been ‘accidentally’ killed’ then he remembered Round-up and rushed to his files. There he found a story quoting a letter written by Lieutenant Austin of C Company, Fifth Warwickshire Field Force, while stationed in Laingsburg. On January 13, 1902, Austin wrote: “The men are ready to blaze away at anything at night, so I sing out ‘friend’ when doing my rounds. We had a man killed at Laingsburg on Thursday, they mistook him for the enemy. Raw militia are beauties, but these men are improving, thanks to me, of course.” So, there was the explanation of how poor Private F Gardner met his death and the riddle was solved! 


In the same letter Lt Austin mentioned suffering from intense loneliness “I am in charge of a blockhouse with twenty men to guard a bridge 200 miles from Cape Town. Our HQ is at Worcester, a long way off, so I am my own master here. I have no troubles, except it is awfully lonely.” “It seems he was the man that Emily Hobhouse met,” said Allen. In Boer War Letters she describes her trip from Kimberley (April 18 – 19, 1902) and states: “The journey was tedious and now autumn had come the nights were cold in the train. There stands out in my mind a bare spot where the eye swept the horizon in vain for even a tree and no human creature was in sight, where I talked with a Tommy almost mad with the aching solitude around him. He poured out his feelings: (accustomed to town life) he found himself in this – to him – torturing silence. He said he had been out for months and had never seen an enemy but felt he was going out of his mind with loneliness and lack of employment. I gave him my novel to read – it was a Dickens – and such papers as I had and suggested collecting strange flowers and insects, or tilling the ground. We crawled away and left him on the silent veld. What is it Kipling wrote of these boys? ‘Few, forgotten and lonely, Where the white car-windows shine, No, not combatants only, Details guarding the line, Out of the darkness we reach, For a handful of week-old papers, And a mouthful of human speech….”

We are all so much together, but we are all dying of lonelinessAlbert Schweitzer