Graaff Reinet-born Pinkey Watermeyer’s literary talents only came to the fore after he retired. At almost 80 years of age he not only sat down and penned a delightful tale of his life on 16 Karoo farms but following in his grandfather’s footsteps, he also took to painting. “Both new ventures turned out to be highly successful,” says his nephew John Finnemore. Sixteen Farms (or the Impossible Dream) is much more than a biography. It offers an entertaining look at Karoo life, first of all through the eyes of a young boy and later those of a grown man facing all the challenges of arid zone farming. The tale begins in 1881 when Pinkey’s grandfather, Henry Charles Leslie, a skilled, professional artist, arrived in South Africa to start an art school in Port Elizabeth. By 1903 TB forced Harry to seek the drier climate of the Karoo. He moved to Graaff Reinet, where his only daughter Kathleen was destined to marry Gysbert Watermeyer after her first husband was killed during World War I. Their youngest child Pinkey was born in 1921. Sixteen farms offers an enchanting peek into the world of the 1920s. It is spiced with local legends and general Karoo stories. From Graaff Reinet the story trails across Grootdriefontein, De Keur, Highlands, Lowlands, Borden, Penzoy, Thorneycroft, Dagbreek, Fort Amstrong, Glenmoor, Greystone, Doornhoek, Philandskraal, Jericho, Glencoe and Varsvlei. Pinkey completed the circle and returned to Graaff Reinet when he retired. When he began recording his adventures Pinkey undertook a ‘pilgrimage’ passing all 16 farms again, just to “stir the memories.” This delightful Karoo story is available from Fogarty’s Bookshop, Walmer Park, P O Box 1861, Port Elizabeth.


Richard Dobson’s magnificent photographic journey, Karoo Moons, will soon be on bookseller’s shelves. Struik’s editor Lesley Hay Witton reports that a ship with the main consignment is expected to dock in Cape Town, on October 1. There has been excellent reaction to pre-publicity on this beautiful, full-colour coffee table book. “We are quite proud that this really special publication, that truly captures the spirit of the Karoo, is already on Exclusive Books’ Publishers Choice list,” says Lesley.


A second edition of Helena Marincowitz’s charming little book covering the local stories of Prince Albert and its surrounds has just been published. These amusing, enjoyable collection of tales, Prince Albert Local Stories, was published by the Fransie Pienaar Musuem. The English version, first published in 2000, grew out of Prins Albert Kontreistories, published in 1994. Prince Albert Local Stories contains ghost stories, baboon, jackal and ostrich tales, as well as stories from Gamkaskloof, the Swartberg Pass and Meiringspoort. A great deal of local talent was involved in the production of the book. Anne Kerr and Dr Jan van Heerden did the illustrations, Ken Turner provided a lovely picture of the village for the cover and Surina van der Bank did the layout. Local story teller and webmaster Ailsa Tudhope edited it.


In the second half of the 19th century railway lines began snaking far into the African interior. These symbolised progress, and the advance of civilisation. One enthusiast even suggested that the “Coin of the Realm” should bear not the profile of Queen Victoria, but rather a steam train belching a plume of smoke. “Rail fever developed rapidly in 1828 when the Cape Colony began to plan a railway system,”writes Mark Strage in Cape to Cairo. “Then, for a few years, enthusiasm waned, only to resurfaced again in 1845.” Construction work and track laying began on March 31, 1859. By 1876 over 100 miles of track had been laid from Cape Town to Worcester.” Then a barrier of mountains confronted surveying crews. They stressed a way had to be found through these and “at first proposed a 200-foot tunnel, but that was quite beyond local capabilities.” Many considered the mountain barrier a disaster, but they had lost sight of the enthusiastic 20-year-old engineer George Pauling, who had arrived in the country only a year before. “He knew his job,” said Strage. “The mountain was pierced, and civilisation reached Beaufort West, 339 miles from Cape Town in 1880. Here it paused while lawmakers argued over which of their respective constituencies should next receive benefits of the rail. Diamonds had been discovered. Fortune hunters were streaming northwards, machinery was needed to run the mines. One man had no doubt. ‘Where else can it go but Kimberley?’ asked Cecil John Rhodes.”


Since its discovery in 1902, the Riverine Rabbit, Bunolagus monticularis, has not ceased to surprise researchers. “This little creature has given conservationists, researchers and scientists many a headache,” says Dr Vicky Ahlmann, chairman of the Riverine Rabbit Working Group (RRWG). “Originally, in 1903, it was named Lepus monticularis (mountain hare) because its skull is so similar to that of hares and jack rabbits. Then the Riverine Rabbit’s external appearance led scientists to the conclusion that it was more like the southern African red rock rabbit, which belongs to the Pronolagus genus. But that was still not right, there were just too many dissimilarities for the Riverine Rabbit to be placed in either genus. So, scientists concluded it was a unique species and in 1929 named it Bunolagus monticularis because they believed it occurred in rocky terrain.” Monticularis comes from “monticule” which means small mountain. Almost 20 years of protracted research followed throughout all rocky habitats of the Karoo, then Shortridge, a mammologist, discovered the rabbits came from rivierine habitats. “He established this after collecting 26 specimens in areas of dense and diverse shrub vegetation along the seasonal river courses of the Central Karoo and along the Renoster and Fish Rivers, near Calvinia. Intensive studies into the genetics of Riverine Rabbits followed in the late 1970s and early ’80s. These included the study of sperm morphology, pelage characteristics and teeth. These proved that the Riverine Rabbit’s ancestors came from Europe and Asia over 8-million years ago when sea levels were low and land bridges connected the continents,” says Vicky. “It has now been established that the closest living relatives of the Riverine Rabbit include the Amami Rabbit (Pentalagus furnessi) from Japan, the Hispid Hare (Caprolagus hispidus) from India and the domestic rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) originally only from Europe.” Both the Hispid Hare and the Riverine Rabbit are listed as endangered in the Red Data Book. They are threatened mainly by overgrazing and loss of habitat.


Once rubies, now red enamel. “That is the story of the eyes of caterpillars presented to those who join the odd and exclusive Caterpillar Club,” says David Bennett, a collector of medals and militaria, who owns one of these little badges. “I have enjoyed the stories of the Caterpillar Club in Round-up and thought readers may like to know a bit more about the ‘caterpillar’ itself. It’s actually a silkworm because parachutes were originally made of silk. The 9ct gold badges are quite small, about 19 to 20 mm long and 2 to 3 mm wide. The first was issued in about 1920 and presented by the Irvin Parachute Company of the USA and its affiliates in the United Kingdom or Commonwealth. The name of the recipient is engraved on the back. The one I own once belonged to W/O L R Scott. I wrote to the Caterpillar Club to try to find out more about him, but they were only able to tell me he received the award in 1944. They never divulge information about recipients without permission. Even if the person is dead this is still needed. Originally the eyes were made of rubies. Then, because so many were issued during World War II garnets were used for eyes. Now even these have become too costly and modern caterpillars have red enamel eyes. I imagine emeralds must have been used for the navy awards and later a less expensive stone and that they now too are made of green enamel. I was not aware of the navy awards until I read Round-up. Some say ‘caterpillars’ are quite valuable and worth “hundreds of pounds” but I am cannot confirm this.”


Way back, when few people could write, teachers were the general composers of love letters. This was one of the functions they were allowed to perform to supplement their meagre wages. So, when a young damsel caught the eye of a young swain, he often had to rely on the local teacher to find just the right words to impress her. And, oddly enough, many times when once the letter got to its destination it was the schoolmaster there who read the missive aloud to its recipient. The first schoolmasters in South Africa were required only to teach children sufficient “reading and writing” to help them pass the catechism examinations to become members of the Dutch Reformed Church. “Despite their meagre salaries schoolmasters were required to be versatile men, veritable ‘jacks of all trades,’” writes F C Metrowich in Frontier Flames. “One account stated: ‘A teacher should be a man who knows how to write in a good hand, who is good at reading, who knows the Scriptures, sol-fa-ing and can sing psalms from notes, who neither lisps, swears, nor speaks low, who can compose love letters and write regarding legal matters, requests, and orders; a man who can set a clock, manage, oil and clean it.’ A list of functions a teacher might perform to supplement his salary, declared: ‘He could become a notary, a secretary, a tax collector or computer of taxes. He could cut hair, dress wounds, act as a glazier, carve wood, make wooden balls or coffins and prepare mourning articles. He could mend shoes, cut stone, hoe gardens, bind books, stain or varnish chairs and earn a stiver by sewing. He could also keep a few cows and fatten oxen. But, it warned, he was not allowed to engage in any of these activities during school hours!” says Metrowich. “Despite such versatility, or perhaps because of it, the standard of schooling was low and wealthier families sent their sons back to Europe to be educated.”


Generally, school days are great fun but, according to Pam Avis, nothing beats a farm school. “In the Karoo when I went to school these institutions had a special atmosphere and camaraderie impossible to find elsewhere. They were a mix of freedom, fresh air and animals,” says Pam Avis, 84, who is recording childhood memories for her grandchildren. Pam grew up on the farm on De Keur, near Middelburg. “Before 1925, when the Government took over the organisation of these schools, most South African farms had either a tutor or governesses. Many governesses came to Africa with a purpose different to teaching kiddies ‘readin’, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic in mind! The trench carnage of World War 1 had left Britain with a shortage of marriageable men, so some young women emigrated to the “colonies” in search of work and a life partners. Many found their way to the Karoo, where they caught the eye of young men on far flung farms who also had little chance of meeting a mate. So, despite the problems of language, a harsh environment and extreme weather, many a good match was made.”


“When we farmed On De Keur we had our own governess,” writes Pam Avis, who now lives in England. “I am not sure whether she eventually caught the eye of any eligible young man, but I clearly recall her arrival. I accompanied my dad Gervase Collett to the train stop with all the excitement of a four-year-old. Looking back, I wonder what the poor girl must have thought, arriving at a desolate cinder track halt, railway lines snaking off to nowhere and dust blowing against a single corrugated iron goods shed.” Pam admits she, her sisters and friends from neighbouring farms “were a wild little bunch” who gave the governess many hard times. Lessons were given in a simple room with a gauze door that opened on to a verandah. There were a few desks, a blackboard and a book cupboard. “I can’t recall learning much at that school, but my sister Roslin swept all before her.” A typical farm, De Keur had a collection cats, dogs and bottle-fed lambs, which followed the children everywhere. These treasured pets could not understand why they were shut out of the schoolroom. So they stood at the door despondently mewing, woofing and bleating until the teacher lost patience and sent a child out to chase them. “They never went far. It was exasperating for the teacher, but the greatest fun for us!” recalls Pam.


Ambitious plans for a multi-million-rand complex, to honour pioneer heart surgeon Professor Chris Barnard were recently announced in Beaufort West at the Business Opportunities Conference. Sunday Times’s Ilse Fredericks reports that Project Goodwill, a massive heart-shaped complex, near the N1, will include a 160m high rainbow to represent South Africa’s rainbow nation, a gigantic globe to reflect the importance of Barnard’s work to the world, a bell to be struck in his honour each day at noon, three pyramid-shaped conference centres, a hotel or casino, an exhibition centre and “Valentine Cathedral.”


Powerful feelings affect the mind of the traveller in the Karoo. He ponders the self-sufficiency of nature, the insignificance of Man, the mystery of the universe as he moves across the brown desert in shimmering waves of heat. But most of all he wonders how much of this high desert-like interior is fit for comfortable habitation, writes James Bryce in Impressions of South Africa, “Yet the Karoo has an awesome, breath-taking beauty. A peculiar characteristic of this great inland plateau is that the scenery possesses a primeval solitude and silence. It has a charm that is differently felt by different minds. The colours in particular enchant. The grey rocks have a deeper tone and are frequently covered by red and yellow lichen, which lend them a wonderful clarity. Then the sandstone rocks take on a rich red tint in the scorching sun and give a magnificent depth to the landscape and, though the flood of midday sunshine is almost overpowering, the lights of morning and evening touching the mountains with every shade of rose and crimson and violet is indescribably beautiful. It is in those morning and evening hours that the charm of the pure dry air is specially felt. Mountains 50 or 60 miles away stand out clearly enough to enable all the wealth of their colour and all the delicacy of their outlines to be perceived and the eye realises by the exquisite tint between the nearer and more distant ranges the immensity and harmony of the landscape. It has the primitive simplicity of a country just come from the hands of the Creator.”


The magnificence and beauty of the Karoo were not lost on those who travelled through the region with the Prince of Wales. Ward Price’s account of the journey, published as Through Africa with the Prince of Wales, says the barren interior plateau of the Cape looks harsh and dried up. “Trees are rare. Everywhere grows a little grey green shrub called “Karoo Bush” which strikes its roots many feet into the ground till it reaches moisture. The leaves above ground become shrivelled to the apparent lifelessness of dried seaweed by the sun in summer. Millions of sheep (the Union of South Africa apparently has 34 million) get enough nourishment from grazing on Karoo bushes. These keep them going through the longest summer. Spring rains can transform the Karoo into a gigantic wild flower bed of red and yellow, green and blue flora. In a brief space the desert blooms with colour freshness and delight; then the relentless African sun parches it all bone-dry again for another year. The best thing about the Great Karoo is its sunsets. Directly the sun sinks behind the sharp outline of the naked ironstone kopjes the white, blank wilderness becomes transfigured with rosy light. As the first glow fades strange colours spread themselves in sweeping strokes across the sky – all hues of fiery orange, green, purple, lavender and bronze. For a few moments the whole horizon is aflame in a weird pageant of rich half tones; then suddenly the life dies out of it and the night drops down to complete the desolation of the desert.”


There is a special magic and music in dry, thirstlands, like the Karoo. And, at the heart of this is the eland, the biggest, most powerful, yet gentlest and most civilised of antelopes in Africa. Sir Laurens van der Post, describes the magic of the eland in A Mantis Carol. “The mantis, (the god of the San) loves to sit between the toes of the black, patent-leather foot of the eland. This buck’s foot expands and the toes part as it comes down on the red desert sand. This prevents the eland from sinking in too deeply for comfort. As the majestic antelope lifts its foot, the toes snap together with a sharp, electric click. Often, lying in the shade of a thorn tree, I listened to the sounds of a herd of eland grazing. The delicate and precise magnetic click made magic music for me.” In time, Sir Laurens writes, he was able to understand, not rationally, but emotionally why a god would take its position where this kind of electricity issued. “The eland was the favourite food, not only for the body, but also for the imagination of these hunters of the desert. One only has to look at San drawings of this animal, on many ‘canvases’ of rock throughout southern Africa to see that these were rendered with a special care and love which raised the animal to an almost mystical stature.” The San, writes Sir Laurens, had a “special eland” note in their voices when they spoke of this antelope. “The most evocative of all their songs was their “eland song” full and overflowing with nostalgia for the source from where life itself had come.”

A day, an hour of virtuous liberty is worth a whole eternity in bondage

Joseph Addison (1672 – 1719)