THEN & NOW
The main street in Laingsburg, 36 years after the flood.
Iwas only three months old when the flood hit Laingsburg and I lived many towns away in the Boland, yet I feel like I can remember it. This is partly due to the fact that my grandfather’s lucerne fields, 115 km downstream, were also swept away, and because a disaster of this magnitude digs itself into the collective memory of a nation. On Sunday 25 January 1981, when the Buffels River burst its banks, there was little cause for concern at first. But the flood grew stronger as branches and other debris accumulated below the railway bridge and more and more water was channelled into the streets. By noon the water level rose suddenly and by 3 pm the flood stormed over the road bridge. Two hours later the water was lapping against the windows of the school hostel. The people of Laingsburg climbed onto the roofs of their houses and watched at 5 pm as a wall of water, 4,5 m high, tore through their town. The flood dissipated as quickly as it had arrived. By 8 pm the water was low enough for residents to wade through the streets. But the damage had been done: 184 houses destroyed, as well as the old-age home, the school hostel and 23 businesses. More tragic was the loss of life: 104 residents perished, but only 32 bodies were retrieved downstream. The rest… who knows? When I visit Laingsburg, I like to pop into Karoo Biltong in Voortrekker Street. The building that now houses the shop was one of the few in town to survive the flood. It was built by a certain SL Solomon and was owned by general dealer Hennie van Vuuren at the time of the flood. Hennie’s shop was called CBM Supermark – CBM is the Laingsburg vehicle registration number. Hennie’s wife Denise remembers that Sunday in 1981 very well: “We had been away for the weekend in Hartenbos,” she says. “When we returned that night our shop and our house next door were among the few buildings still standing. People gathered on the railway platform and we opened the shop to feed them.” The Van Vuurens also arranged ropes and torches to help people get down from their roofs. Also candles, clothes… The residents of Laingsburg took what they needed from CBM Supermark. Next time you’re in town, look for the flood marker in Voortrekker Street. You’ll be surprised by what you can remember… Sources: Laingsburg Flood Museum, Die Siviele Ingenieur in Suid-Afrika (January 1982)
DISASTER RELIEF. A police Land Rover wades through the mud. The archive photo was taken a few days after the flood, when clearing operations had already begun. Karoo Biltong (pictured right) is housed in one of the few buildings that survived the 1981 flood.