Tale­sof the Golden Bakkie

Why is the lit­tle North­ern Cape vil­lage of Fraserburg one of the most favoured des­ti­na­tions of the Ka­roo?

South African Country Life - - Travel - WORDS AND PIC­TURES CHRIS MARAIS WWW.KAROOSPACE.CO.ZA

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.

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