Talesof the Golden Bakkie
Why is the little Northern Cape village of Fraserburg one of the most favoured destinations of the Karoo?
Arecent informal social-media poll asked the simple question: What’s your favourite town in the Karoo? There were more than 200 respondents and, no surprise, the winner was Prince Albert down in the Western Cape. But you had to wonder about Fraserburg, which polled in the top five out of 100 possible towns, villages and railway-siding settlements.
So that’s exactly why my wife Jules and I are here, at the front door of Die Kliphuis Herberg, on the outskirts of a place that is no more than a blip on a roadtripper’s radar screen. But a popular blip, it appears. We have to find out why travellers love Fraserburg so.
I can tell you right off the bat it doesn’t hurt to have a wondrous, old 1948 Bedford bakkie parked outside in the golden light of a new sun. Whatever the cost in sweat, cold cash and rebuilt engine parts, it really needs to be running on the back roads of the Karoo again. Must ask its owner, Herman le Roux, where it came from.
But first it’s off to the local graveyard with tour guide, museum curator and retired magistrate Marthinus Kruger. As we wander through the rows of the longdead, he tells us about his hectic times as a beak up in Bronkhorstspruit. “All those years I had to be stern. Now I can earn a living being friendly. I’ve come alive here in Fraserburg,” he says, laughing at the irony of saying such things in a cemetery.
Olive Schreiner, the writer-activist, left her mark all over the Karoo. She lived in
places like Cradock, Hanover, De Aar and Matjiesfontein. She even visited Fraserburg on occasion, staying with her sister Alice, whose seven children lie buried here, near a grave that has been struck three times by lightning. “They say the person in the grave also died of a lightning strike,” says Marthinus.
He introduces us to two Fraserburgers intimately involved with the graveyard – Jane Wilson the caretaker and Oom Sarel du Plessis the undertaker. This, for the record, is the first time we have included such cemetery familiars in a travel story, and here’s why.
Jane might be a little shy with strangers, but she’s comfortable with her own company and that of the departed, who call out her name on occasion. “I’m not scared of them,” she assures us. “They look after me and I look after them.” Jane keeps the cemetery spruce and waters the surrounding trees from a little dam originally used to wash cadavers.
Oom Sarel drives an old Mazda that doubles as a hearse and a builder’s bakkie. He says a coffin fits perfectly into the back. Marthinus tells us Oom Sarel will sometimes fill in for an absent dominee and conduct a funeral service. “He preaches very well.” Oom Sarel blushes, looks down at his boots and tells us an eerie story.
“You see those bluegums in the cemetery? Normally when the wind blows, they bend in the same direction. But now and again they don’t, and the branches scrape each other and screech. Shortly after that, someone will call me to collect a body.” I’m starting to get the picture. Our guide and mentor has a lovely take on what constitutes local tourism. The people of a town.
Over the next few days, via Marthinus Kruger, we meet a friendly mob of guest-house owners, a Chinese shopkeeper who sells toy dinosaurs, a town councillor who actually does an honest day’s work, a farming dynasty with a rollicking sense of humour, a very chatty, retired riel dancer, and a pancake queen. To name a few.
The next morning we head out to the main attraction of Fraserburg – the palaeo-surface at Gansfontein Farm. In layman’s terms, the site records a ten-day period that took place, oh, about 255 million years ago. Give or take.
There were pools here, and there was mud over a few hundred square metres. All manner of ancient creatures then strolled across the mud, each one leaving its peculiar mark. You had tiny prawns and centipedes, dicynodonts and diictodons, snails, fish, worms and, here, look, is the impression of the long toes of a dinocephalian, slipping slightly in the mud. Most eye-catching is the clear print of a bradysaurus, a large and flatulent creature that passed this way.
For kids here, Marthinus has a wonderful routine. His wife Carien makes bradysaurus toys, and he stashes frozen ‘dino eggs’ around the site and sends the children off to find them. And tells a story that comes alive.
The palaeontologists and rock specialists also like to spend time here. Of course, their discourse would be of a profoundly academic nature. But kids, hey? They love a dinosaur. Even a pre-dinosaur. And the tour guide of Fraserburg understands this.
Returning to town, we meet Mr Yao, who runs a no-name bit-of-everything shop and, most importantly, stocks the essential little plastic dinosaur toys used in the show.
Nearby is the other town attraction, Die Peperbus (The Pepper Pot), a strange little building, erected in 1861, that has done duty as a library, a magistrate’s office and a trysting spot for teenage lovers. Today it’s a tourist curiosity. The emergency bell used to hang inside Die Peperbus but then, one night when they needed to ring it, no one could find the keys so the bell was hung outside.
I’m keen to visit the museum, because the last time we were here (a decade ago) I remember seeing the most remarkable fossil in the form of a phaciocephalus (Marthinus can pronounce these names as smoothly as you can say ‘peanuts’), which means thunderously large head or something. It’s still there, curled up under a sign that says, ‘Livestock of the Ancient Karoo’.
Here, too, are the Atherstonia or Golden Fish of Fraserburg, pressed over time into mud-rock. An old telephone central exchange hasn’t been in retirement that long, and a set of mannequins seems to have undergone a wardrobe change since we were here last. “Oh, that’s the cleaning lady,” says Marthinus. “She likes to dress them up from time to time.”
We sit in on a counselling session at Inner Peace, a landmark addiction clinic and rehab centre down the road. Johan Liversage-Coetzee, director of the clinic, tells us Fraserburg is ideal for a project like Inner Peace. “The town is quiet and has a sense of spiritual healing.”
The Karoo has been a place of human
The emergency bell used to hang inside Die Peperbus but then, one night when they needed to ring it, no one could find the keys so the bell
was hung outside
FAR LEFT: The beautiful old 1948 Bedford bakkie with the back story outside Die Kliphuis guest house in Fraserburg. LEFT: Fraserburg – polled in the top five most popular Karoo towns.
ABOVE LEFT: Jane Wilson, caretaker at the Fraserburg cemetery, has a special relationship with its ‘residents’. ABOVE RIGHT: Undertaker Oom Sarel du Plessis with his unusual country hearse. BELOW: Marthinus Kruger demonstrates the Bradysaurus Walk as part of his palaeo-tour.
ABOVE: Two Fraserburg teenagers ‘doing social media’ outside the iconic Peperbus. ABOVE RIGHT: Marthinus Kruger and one of his Fraserburg friends, known to everyone as Mr Yao. LEFT: The Golden Fish of Fraserburg – Atherstonia fossils. RIGHT: Tannie Katrina Goliath explains to us the riel dans steps.