A plaque is to be erected in Prince Albert’s Fransie Pienaar Museum in memory of Helena Marincowitz, who died a short while ago. A model of this plaque, which is being presented by Heritage South Africa to honour Helena’s great contribution to the preservation of cultural heritage in the Karoo, was unveiled at a dinner at the Swartberg Hotel recently. Former mayor, Dawid Rossouw paid tribute to Helena’s love of the Karoo and her efforts at keeping it in the public eye. “Helena loved the Karoo and above all Prince Albert. She made a highly significant contribution to this town, not only by preserving old buildings, but also through collecting oral history. She had an incredible ability to encourage the right people to do the right thing at the right time and, therefore, much of the preservation of Prince Albert’s beautiful buildings are due to her unstinting efforts. She developed the museum, which was started by Fransie Pienaar, and turned it into a viable institution. When the building in which it is housed was threatened with demolition, she galvanized the town into action to prevent this. She said Prince Albert’s main street would look like a mouth that has lost a tooth if the old Haak family home were torn down. The building was preserved and, within short, it became the museum that today fills us all with pride. Helena was a first-rate Voortrekker officer. She played a leading roll as chairperson of the Woman’s Agricultural Union and in founding the Simon van der Stel Foundation. She wrote an unforgettable series of little booklets to promoting a variety of places in the Karoo. These were snapped up by tourists, historians and researchers. And, at times, she achieved the impossible. Thanks to her efforts, Fransie Pienaar was the first museum to obtain a license to make `Witblits’. When she achieved this, the customs and excise officers were so astounded they paid the license fees for the first year themselves. That was Helena. She always worked for the good of others and never for herself. We honour her memory. We are proud to have known her. She was an integral part of Prince Albert. We will never forget her, and we will treasure her memory.” A replica of the plaque was presented to Helena’s husband Pat. They had been married for 54 years when she died.


A new riverine rabbit conservancy has been established to try to increase the numbers of this critically endangered creature and improve its rapidly disappearing habitat. The new dedicated conservancy is on the 75 000-private farm, Wagenaarskraal, once a widely known post coach stop in the Victoria West area. The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Riverine Rabbit Working Group (EWT-RRWG) recently erected boards to mark this farm as a new conservation area. The riverine rabbit is one of the most critically endangered mammals in southern Africa. Only a few hundred mature animals are left in the wild and it is facing extinction. Being highly specialised lagomorphs, they can only survive in the fairly pristine riparian vegetation alongside the Karoo’s seasonal rivers. The survival of the species lies in the hands of the landowners.


One of Beaufort West’s oldest residents has become a sought-after bed and breakfast stop. This Victorian mansion, on the north side of town, was built in 1905 by Abraham Robertson Truter, then secretary to the Divisional Council. For 40 years this house and a similar residence, built further down Stroebel Street by shopkeeper Tommy Foulkes, stood like lonely icons on the outskirts of Beaufort West. A R Truter, a widely known and highly respected local attorney, was also the sworn translator of the Supreme Court, a member of the school board and vice president of the Gymkhana Club, that held its inaugural meeting in Beaufort West in May, 1903. An imperious man, he had the site for the hospital moved to the other side of town, because he did not want the peace and quiet of his home to be disturbed. In his day his home, with its magnificent marble fire places, was said to be one of the most elegant in town. This tranquil stop, a “neighbour” of the Karoo National Park, will be featured on the KykNet Breakfast programme on September 15.


Prof Doreen Atkinson recently led a team of nine American students in a fieldwork project in Graaff-Reinet and New Bethesda. The survey was implemented in partnership with the Camdeboo Local Municipality and the students, all part of the Rhodes University International Summer School (RISS), took a closer look at business operations and the general economy of these towns. “During the survey the students conducted in-depth surveys of formal and informal businesses based on a carefully structured questionnaire,” said Doreen. “This ensured that each student obtained relevant economic and operational information about each business, its set-up and background. In addition, focus group discussions were held with business people in Graaff-Reinet on July 15, and in New Bethesda on August 8. The findings will be written up as an academic paper designed to assist future business development in these two towns. The paper will be circulated within the Municipality of Camdeboo, and to members of the business community in both towns. A similar study was done in Aberdeen in 2006.” Additional information on these surveys can be obtained from Doreen (karoo@intekom.co.za). She hopes to undertake a similar survey next year.


The tiny Karoo town of Aberdeen, now about 150 years old, once had quite a vibrant economy. The town was laid out on the farm Brakkefontein in 1855. “The first erven were auctioned off just before Christmas in 1857 and a viable village developed. It had plenty of water – this came from a permanent fountain and boreholes – two good hotels, four churches, several businesses, many beautiful houses with fine gardens and stock farms in the district did well,” says Professor Doreen Atkinson. The municipal market was also inaugurated in 1857, periodic courts were held from 1860 and in 1882 observations of Venus were done here to determine the distance from earth to the sun, writes Wendy van Schalkwyk in Aberdeen of the Cape. A Public library was established in 1886 with 5 000 books. It received an annual government grant of £40. Roads were laid and a post office was built in 1898, just before the outbreak of the Anglo Boer War. Aberdeen Road Railway Station, 33 km from town, was serviced by a cart that ran four times a week, to bring goods and visitors to the little village. By 1913 there was a daily motor service to the station. . Monthly stock fairs saw many thousands of pounds changing hands for prime stock. Aberdeen Afrikaanse Handelshuis was established in 1900 and 190 people invested a start-up capital totalling £10 000.


Aberdeen’s first newspaper, Die Nuwe Tyd, was started in 1904 by P S Mohr. He had become so aggravated by post being directed to Aberdeen, in Scotland, because the local village was so obscure that he decided the time had come to put it on the map. The Aberdeen Post/Pos took its place and, by 1955 was still being published by the Graaff-Reinet Advertiser. Cattle did well in the area. At one time the town was once a major cattle centre and even had a cheese factory. Then, after prickly pear was eradicated, cattle lost ground to sheep. As the town’s prosperity came mainly from wool, The Aberdeen Wool Growers’ Association was formed in 1921, to encourage farmers to breed better sheep. It held regular demonstrations on shearing and classing. These paid dividends and within short farmers were receiving higher prices for their product. A telephone exchange with 13 subscribers and one public phone was opened in 1921. The town also had a good social life. People enjoyed the movies and the races. The horse racing club started in 1880 and by 1952, Aberdeen’s Victoria Cinema was featuring two shows a week.


In the 1950s Aberdeen had the largest private zoo in the world. It belonged to Francois Johannes “Fearless Frank” Wilke and it grew out of a training farm which he ran for Pagel’s Circus. Frank bought and sold wild animals across South Africa and abroad. He maintained close ties with Pagel’s Circus and together with “Bubie” Maiers trained animals for them, as well as for several other major circuses. In time taming lions, training monkeys and horses, became a full-time job for “Bubie.” This zoo drew thousands of visitors to Aberdeen each year and to keep them entertained a free circus performance was given each day. Running such an operation and feeding the animals was a major task. The lions alone consumed over 500 donkeys a year. At one time the zoo boasted 40 lions, but generally only 25 were on show. It also had seven bears, a Bengal tiger, three hyenas, two wolves, four pumas, a camel, many monkeys and a huge variety of birds. “Lions that had become troublesome in circus tents, or who had attacked their trainers, were often sent to Aberdeen’s Circus School to be retrained,” writes Wendy van Schalkwyk in Aberdeen of the Cape. “At times lions escaped from the zoo, but it was said Frank Wilke easily rounded them up by showing them the lighted tip of his cigarette. This apparently controlled them, and no whip was needed.”


Poem Mooney, the elected chief of the Attaqua people, explained the myths and magic of mermaids and water snakes of the Karoo to delegates at the Heritage Symposium in Prince Albert recently. “To understand the stories, you must know where you’re coming from and where you’re going,” he said. “These tales are an integral part of my people’s heritage and traditions, in which they take great pride. My grandfather first told me of the magical powers of the Karoo’s water snakes and of mermaids (watermeide). I was so intrigued that I began collecting the stories. They are fascinating. I was told at a gathering of Cape Khoi, Griqua, Bushmen and Nama people recently held in Bloemfontein, that only a man fortunate enough to own a Joseph Rogers pocket knife could kill the mystical water snake, a fearsome creature with the head of a horse. They swim up the Orange River. In daytime they are shiny white but turn pitch black at night. They terrorise the people along the banks and they’re able to catch young girls who go down to the river with buckets to collect water. Recently, a water snake snatched a young girl and was crushing her in its coils when a young man who owned a Joseph Rogers knife appeared and cut her from its terrible grasp.” Poem said his sister once had a dreadful experience with a water snake. One day at a pool near Meiringspoort a water snake appeared and fixed its hypnotic gaze on her. She became mesmerized. She was being drawn nearer and nearer to the water. She would have walked straight in and drowned had my father not rushed to her rescue. “Fortunately, the water snake losses its influence and power over persons that are wrested from its power, so now she is safe.” He added that if a water snake manages to drown someone, it is best for them to be buried near a river and not in a graveyard. “Some Karoo rivers themselves have great powers,” said Poem. “There is one near Klaarstroom, which has a pool called `Die Aap’. It is always wise to throw a pebble into that pool before you cross. This appeases the water snake and acts as a payment to grant you a safe passage through the water. If you neglect to do this a terrible storm may overtake you and you would perhaps never get back home safely.”


Mermaid tales, and etchings in Karoo rock art, never cease to intrigue visitors. Most find it strange that such creatures are part of the myths and legends of a dry land. “Not at all,” says Poem Mooney, elected chief of the Attaqua people. “They are an essential part of the heritage of the Karoo. Surrounded in mystery, they have their own powerful magic. At Rooikrans, in Meiringspoort, for instance, you will often feel your feet tingle right through the soles of your shoes. This is a reminder to you to pause and remember all the tragedies that have occurred here, the crashes and the drownings. A mermaid once used to rollick on the sand here. She was clearly seen by many people, but sadly all the road building, cement works and the blasting have driven her away. The awful noise made by the earthmoving machinery was too much for her. It ruined the tranquility of this spot.” Then Poem told the meeting of a deep pool, near Oudtshoorn, a favourite spot among divers, which has its own intriguing legends. “One day Oom Jannie had a remarkable experience there. He asked a diver to take him down into the pool. The man agreed. When he dived deep into the pool Oom Jannie clung to his back. Down, down, down, they went. Then, when they re-surfaced Oom Jannie said they had seen green lands down there and fat cattle grazing.” There are, of course, not only the river mermaids, said Poem. “There are sea creatures, too. My Aunt Sophie tells of fishermen, near Oranjemund, who caught a mermaid in their net. They were cruel to the poor thing. They terrorized and tormented her and were going to kill her, embalm her body and exhibit it. They decided they would sell tickets for people to see her. However, one of the younger fishermen became sorry for her. He grabbed her and threw her back into the sea. From the waves, she cursed her tormentors, saying all their eldest sons would drown at sea. They did. The only one in that party who did not suffer was the young fisherman who saved her.” Poem stressed the importance of recording oral history and researching old traditions. “We must make every effort to collect the remnants of the old Cape Khoi language as well. This is vital to our heritage.” Their music too was important he said, and he reminded delegates that a choir was to sing Nama songs at a concert in Plettenberg Bay in September.


Klawervlei Primary School learners recently visited the Hydroponics Centre in Beaufort West to study water-wise crop production. High quality fresh vegetables and herbs are produced at this centre and essential oils are also extracted. Learners were shown how to prepare the growing substrates, plant seeds, nurture seedlings, irrigate and harvesting the crops. They were also told of environmentally friendly pest control procedures and shown how best to pack products for the markets. They were then allowed to sow some spinach seeds themselves and taste some of the herbs. The Beaufort West Hydroponics Centre employs 60 trained previously disadvantaged people, 50% are women.


The arid plains of Africa did not impress Melton Prior, war correspondent for the Illustrated London News. From 1870 to 1905 he seems to have covered every major war in the world, but he found South Africa’s platteland scenery unbearable and disappointing. He found some of the accommodation on offer even worse. “Each day we push on with renewed vigour only to find that at its end we have arrived at a miserable shanty or store, with the grand title of hotel. The proprietors of these shanties, as a rule, are abominably rude. Often these fellows do not attempt to hide their belief that they are obliging you when they are asked if they can give you a room or put you up for the night. Often, they do not even call a servant to show you to your room which, once you find it, has mud floors, broken furniture, dirty bed linen and a myriad of flies to torment you. As for water, that is always trouble. I have more than once been told that if I wanted water I should fetch it myself, or send down to the river for it.”


Water was indeed often at the centre of great dramas in the Karoo. War correspondent Melton Prior discovered this to his cost and details some of his experiences in Campaigns of a War Correspondent. Once, having been told no water was available, he drew his host’s attention to two large tubs of rain water that were standing in the yard and asked why he could not use some. “The man flew into a rage and told me that was for his private use. Alright, I told myself, I will have my revenge. And, sure enough I did. I rose early next day and with my man, George, upset the tubs. They rolled over with a bang, water splashed all over the yard. We mounted quickly and rode rapidly away. Private water, indeed! I was, however, punished at the next hotel. We arrived late and dirty, but just in time for a very poor dinner. I retired immediately to bed but woke in the middle of the night with a most intolerable thirst. Stupid-like, I had allowed my candle to burn right down and striking a match I could see little more than a washing basin and jug on a night stand. I staggered over to it and to my delight it contained water. In my desperate thirst I grabbed the jug with both hands and took a good long draught. The water had a dreadful flavour, downright nasty, in fact quite sudsy. On lighting more matches and examining it, I found that it actually was soapy water. Evidently this place’s wretched servant had been too lazy to fetch clean water and had emptied the water the previous traveller had used back into the jug. And, I had actually drunk some. Thank Goodness, I had my whisky flask handy!” Next day when he related this tale to a travelling companion the man was far from sorry for him. “In some ways he felt it served me right. After expressing his disgust at our tipping over the first man’s water, he unfeelingly declared that it might do me some good to have scoured my insides out with soap and soda.”


Mine dumps will soon be covered by daisies in Namaqualand. This project of the Namaqualand Restoration Initiative (NRI) is the brainchild of Dr Peter Carrick. “Soon after we started, we realised we did not have to re-invent the wheel because many people were already doing restoration. We felt we could learn from them. So armed with a tape recorder and an open mind, one of our team members, Susan Botha, set off to interview farmers, mine operators, agricultural scientists and restoration business owners. We gained a wealth of knowledge from these interviews. This was synthesized to develop guidelines and highlight gaps where more knowledge or scientific work was needed. One identified gap was the difficulty of establishing non-succulent perennial species on restored areas. Another team, led by Raldo Kruger, then undertook field experiments and over the past three years they have been deciphering the ecological requirements for establishing a diversity of perennial species on mined areas. This team monitored the experiments through wind and rain, and they also learned a great deal from these field trials. They discovered that the first four to five months are the most critical for seedlings. Once they have survived these, they tend to make it through the dry summer season. We give the seedlings all the help we cam. We plant them in boxes to provide extra protection from wind. We add nutrients and water to give them an extra boost to help them establish good roots as fast as possible. We are still monitoring seedling survival. We will know which treatment combination yields the best results by the end of the year.” In the meantime, the NRI has developed a restoration training course, complete with manual. “By the end of 2007 we envisage that one team will be able restore about 35 hectares annually, replacing dumps with the diversity of plants that grew there before mining began,” he said.

The length of your education is less important than its breadth; the length of your life is less important than its depth.
Marilyn vos Savan – at ten she got the highest ever recorded score on the Stanford-Binet IntelligenceTest. Her parents kept the results private to let her live a normal childhood – 30 years later, in 1986, she became an overnight celebrity when the Guinness Book of Records listed her as the world’s smartest person.