Putsonderwater, a ghost town ‘sonder’ people
WE enjoyed our breakfast on the steps of what was once the most beautiful railway station, in the country, now part of a derelict settlement baking in the blistering Northern Cape heat.
It’s difficult to believe that in 1989, the busy station with its wishing well, rock garden and roses won the Duncan trophy.
And, despite having arrived early in the soft light of dawn, the December heat was already oppressive and the birds and even the ants were already moving in slow motion.
The silence was astounding, intermittingly broken by the gentle sound of the breeze hissing through the abandoned buildings or flapping a l oose piece of corrugated iron roofing.
We walked up and down the plat- form and through the burnt-out station building and what must have been the station master’s house. The station’s name plates indicating De Aar 299km away delivered quiet testimony to a once-busy station.
It must have been close to an idyllic life if people were happy to live in a quiet enclave of a harsh land where the summer heat and the winter chill did not prevent people from settling.
It must have been a village where everybody would have known each other’s business while, thanks to the railway, was busy as cattle, tarred poles, cement and mealies came and went through the station. A nearby mine produced marble, like feldspar, which after being washed, was loaded at Putsonderwater to end up in Taiwan.
Eight people worked at the station, tending the water pumps, the potable water supply and a generator that supplied electricity to at least part of the village.
We had left Kenhardt on the R383, heading towards Marydale, and as the sun began to colour the sky, arrived at S 29 13 978, E 021 52 299, a point on the earth’s surface called Putsonderwater, once a vibrant settlement boasting a hotel, general dealer, school, at least 30 houses, but now a lonely ghost village in the Northern Cape.
Today i t c oul d e a s i l y be named “Putsonderpeople”. It has become legendary and many people believe it does n o t e x i s t a n d f a l l s i n t o t h e s a me category at Tweebuffelsmeteenskootmorsdoodgeskietfontein.
The sociable weaver nests cling dangerously to all the telephone poles. The only other testament to life in the area are the shiny railway tracks, which are still in use. Today the freight train just thunders through – a far cry from its heyday, when the small settlement was alive and bubbling with inhabitants.
Walking among the empty buildings on huge beds of devil thorns, it is difficult to believe that a passenger train and buses would stop at Putsonderwater on their way from Upington to De Aar.
While exploring t he r uins of t he hotel and general dealer, I tried to piece together the fun times the townsfolk and the visitors must have had in an area devoid of the hustle and bustle of the big city.
I could only imagine the stories that would have been told night after night in the hotel’s pub, especially when the summer heat was in the high 40s or in winter when the temperatures dropped to zero, and all would huddle in front of the fireplace.
Unfortunately, the entire town has been sadly vandalised and, although it has now become a photographer’s paradise, it would be a far more exciting place to visit if the buildings were still in good condition and it was turned into a visitor-friendly place.
I have had the good fortune to have visited Roman ruins, which are thousands of years old and, thanks to dedicated people, are in better condition.
The early history of the small settlement is not entirely clear but it appears that in the 1880s a man – possibly David Ockhuis – set himself up in the area t hen known as Kli ppan. When other thirsty trekboers arrived in the ar ea with t heir s t ock, David would exclaim that he had dug a well but it had no water.
When the area was eventually split into two, one part was named Putsonderwater and the other Middelkla.
When John Connan took over the farm, his two daughters ran the farm shop and when they married, one’s husband f a r med s he e p a nd t he o t he r became the station master.
Now John Connan’s great grandson, Michael Loubser, is the official owner of Putsonderwater, and as his forefathers did, he still farms sheep.
Michael Loubser and his son, now a fifth-generation inhabitant of the area, hope they can restore the village and attract more visitors.
An attractive interdenominational church built outside the village in 1957, as well as a huge kraal, point to a time when the trains stopped to pick up cattle.
The village’s decline began when drought after drought brought t he cattle trade to an end and the passenger trains also stopped.
Then the police station and post office closed, followed by the hotel and general dealer, as people left the village, many going to Marydale.
Finally, the freight trains had no need to stop at the station.
However, the primary school kept going up until 2004, t hanks t o t he efforts of Ena Hough, but it also closed.
She went on pension and because there was no electricity, no water and no housing, and no one was prepared to travel f rom Marydale, the village finally died.
As a final act of hope, she had the school painted and put signs in the windows asking people not to break the glass, but by that time, vandals had stripped the buildings, broken all the windows and the floors had all been removed.
Sadly, we left the ghost town as the heat increased to near an unbearable temperature, and followed the railway’s line service road to Upington.
On our way to Upington, we discussed the sad tale of a once-vibrant village now standing in ruins, very much akin to Kolmanskop the diamond mining village on the outskirts of Lüderitz in Namibia.
At least Kolmanskop has not been totally vandalised but unfortunately overrun by a sea of shifting sand.