A snip­pet of the colour­ful, ec­cen­tric side of South Africa’s vast hin­ter­land


Chris Marais pho­tographed Kala­hari Dirk, one of the ec­centrics you’ll meet in his story Some Kind of Magic about some of the fas­ci­nat­ing leg­ends and quirky char­ac­ters Chris knows in the Ka­roo.

On our first visit to Cradock back in 2003, we met a civil en­gi­neer called Stephen Mullineux, who was dressed like a ze­bra and limp­ing like a wounded war vet­eran. Some­one told us Stephen had com­posed an opera about Cradock called Pic­nic at Egg Rock, so it seemed a fine idea to drive him to said Egg Rock on the out­skirts of town and take a pho­to­graph.

Ac­cord­ingly, the ar­range­ments were made. Stephen met us out­side the Vic­to­ria Manor Ho­tel dressed in a ze­bra-striped suit, with a bro­ken leg and an arm in pain, his flute in a bag. His mu­si­cal in­stru­ment col­lec­tion at home in­cluded bouzoukis, bal­alaikas, Span­ish gui­tars and man­dolins. He rode big mo­tor­cy­cles and climbed moun­tains, al­ways wear­ing a bow tie.

We were cu­ri­ous about his in­juries. “I broke my foot play­ing golf. I shifted my weight as I swung the club and sud­denly all my ten­dons seemed to un­ravel and lots of bones broke.” And your neck? “I then tripped over a rock and pulled a ten­don in my neck, which made my arm sore.”

Do you still play mu­sic? “Good grief no!

If I can get that kind of in­jury from golf, can you imag­ine what dam­age I can do to my­self with a man­dolin?” We thought hell, if Cradock can ac­cept an English-speak­ing ec­cen­tric like Stephen Mullineux into its fold, we could hap­pily move here. And so we did.

Once you spend some time in the so-called ‘vast empti­ness’ of the Ka­roo, once you re­ally dig in, you dis­cover a rare sense of hu­mour and a col­lec­tion of de­light­ful out­liers, both liv­ing and his­toric. The Ka­roo is and mostly al­ways has been a coun­try for love­able odd­balls.

More than a cen­tury ago, a fa­mous Amer­i­can cir­cus cow­boy called Texas Jack

Jnr brought his trav­el­ling troupe to Cradock and they set about try­ing to catch some wild moun­tain ze­bras in the nearby Bankberge. Lo­cal scep­tics gath­ered with pic­nic bas­kets to watch the spec­ta­cle, as the cow­boys even­tu­ally man­aged to cap­ture a cou­ple.

A troupe stal­wart called Mex­i­can Bill ac­cepted a bet that he could ride a wild ze­bra. To the amaze­ment of most Cradock­ians, he las­soed one of the un­tamed ze­bras, leapt from his horse onto the back of the ze­bra and can­tered off down the moun­tain-side.

It may be of in­ter­est to note that Texas

Jack Jnr died in Kroon­stad in 1905. He was sur­vived by his part­ner Lil Marr, a sharp­shooter in his trav­el­ling show. You couldn’t ac­tu­ally make this stuff up.

Stay­ing on lo­cal mat­ters of an equine na­ture, how about the leg­end of the Al­bert Bar at the Vic Manor? It had to do with a farmer who reg­u­larly rode his horse into the pub, where a spe­cial Cadil­lac hub­cap full of beer awaited the ea­ger steed.

Drift­ing south in the Heart­land to­wards the Mo­hair Capi­tals of the Uni­verse (Jansenville and Wil­low­more), you cross many old rail­way lines dot­ted with for­got­ten sta­tions, for­lorn and side­ways-lean­ing.

Spare a thought for the sta­tion­mas­ters of old. ‘The con­di­tions of rail­way life in

South Africa lend them­selves read­ily to the de­vel­op­ment of the rail­way book­worm’, says an un­known writer in the Oc­to­ber 1906 is­sue of the South African Rail­way Mag­a­zine.

‘Take the case of the man sta­tioned out in the desert places of the Ka­roo. There is lit­tle or no lo­cal traf­fic and noth­ing to break the long monotony, ex­cept the oc­ca­sional goods train which rarely stops and the pas­sen­ger train with its one minute, just enough for the un­for­tu­nate her­mit to hear the sar­cas­tic queries of the pas­sen­gers as to why they are stop­ping at this ‘in­fer­nal place’.

‘He has very lit­tle work be­tween trains, so he must find some oc­cu­pa­tion or recre­ation to spin out the long dreary hours. If he has any taste for liquor, then God help him. The records show how many poor fel­lows have gone to ruin ow­ing to their in­abil­ity to re­strain the crav­ing for drink.

‘Where it ex­ists, some seek the near­est fe­male so­ci­ety and are fre­quently snared into the bonds of mat­ri­mony, of­ten to their sub­se­quent sor­row. Books are passed from sta­tion to sta­tion un­til they are back­less, side­less and gen­er­ally dis­in­te­grat­ing. The guards and driv­ers of wait­ing trains come jump­ing into the of­fice for read­ing mat­ter and oc­ca­sion­ally leave an old mag­a­zine or so to make up for their depre­da­tions. Read­ing is the best thing for a lonely man.’

How­ever, with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of this par­tic­u­lar ar­ti­cle, you shouldn’t be­lieve ev­ery­thing you read out here. I once came across a copy of 100 Proofs That Earth Is

Not A Globe by one EL Ven­ter, on a Free

State farm. Flat-Earthers are ev­ery­where.

I once came across a copy of 100 Proofs That Earth Is Not A Globe by one EL Ven­ter, on a Free State farm. Flat-Earthers are ev­ery­where

But it’s fun to flip through the files of the Jansenville Chron­i­cle, once owned and edited by lo­cal leg­end Sid Fourie. Heed this florid ac­count of a mar­riage be­tween a 71-year-old Mr Crouse to a 21-year-old Mrs Crouse back in 1922.

‘Punc­tu­ally at a quar­ter past two, the cou­ple mo­tored down the street, fol­lowed by a com­mando on horse­back and some carts. Ev­ery­where, peo­ple came rush­ing to their doors or win­dows, to wit­ness the some­what sin­gu­lar spec­ta­cle.’ Win­ter tied the knot with spring down at the court­house and, amid a roar of mirth­ful cheers, Mr and Mrs Crouse drove off to their home at the nearby Verge­noegd ru­ral set­tle­ment.

‘Peo­ple from far and near ar­rived on foot, horse­back, cart or wagon to con­grat­u­late the cou­ple and to chase away the glow­ing hours with fly­ing feet. The heav­enly globe had scarcely sunk be­hind the hills, when con­certina and gui­tar came into com­mis­sion, and truly can it be said, not a note was lost.’

Many lo­cals had to watch from a dis­tance be­cause the at­tend­ing crowd was sim­ply too big. ‘Full jus­tice was done to the old-time cus­tom of the all-night dance. Hearts were light and feet lighter still. The fan­tas­tic Toe & Jackal Walk was all the rage, and the hours glided by un­no­tice­ably un­til the morn­ing star, when the old con­certina gave its last squeak.’ De­spite the well-wishes of the Chron­i­cle, the mar­riage lasted only one week.

Con­tin­u­ing this book­ish note, let me tell you about our Rich­mond friends, John Don­ald­son

and his dog Pot­lood. There are many soughtafter tomes of ex­plo­ration, hunt­ing and gen­eral over­land ad­ven­tures in Africa to be found in John Don­ald­son’s Huis van Licht en Schaduw (in its for­mer life a no­to­ri­ous brothel) aka Rich­mond Books & Prints.

And then you get to the stuffed gi­raffe lurk­ing at the end of a long, clut­tered cor­ri­dor and you won­der about it. “I ac­quired the gi­raffe to set­tle a debt,” says Don­ald­son. “A me­chanic in Rood­e­poort owed me money and couldn’t come up with the cash. I said give me some­thing in re­turn. So he handed me two tro­phies, one of a kudu and one of a gi­raffe.”

En­ter the ubiq­ui­tous Pot­lood the Won­der Dog, his con­stant com­pan­ion, even on road­trips. Pot­lood likes to gaze long and lov­ingly at his master from his pas­sen­ger-seat perch, which drives John slightly in­sane. It feels like Pot­lood’s busy drilling a hole in the side of his face with his beady eyes. John has to blinker him­self with his left arm and drive with his eyes ducked be­hind his left bi­cep.

There’s a sight you might re­mem­ber if you once mo­tored down Ont­dekkers Road and saw a North­ern Cape sko­rokoro car tootling along, half a gi­raffe strapped to its roof, an ador­ing lit­tle mon­grel dog in­side and a man in a leather cow­boy hat stu­diously ig­nor­ing ev­ery­thing around him but the road ahead.

Some years ago, the Rich­mond book­shop man and a buddy were late-night carous­ing down a dirt road in the Nieu-Bethesda area when Pot­lood hopped up from the back seat and nipped John sharply on the left shoul­der. Shocked to his core, John pulled his old sedan over and stopped. Just then, a large herd of kudu crossed the road in a rush, right in front of the ve­hi­cle.

“If Pot­lood hadn’t bit­ten me, we would have been fin­ished off by the kudu,” he says. They drove on in shocked and newly-sober si­lence. Not 30 min­utes later, Pot­lood bit him

“If Pot­lood hadn’t bit­ten me, we would have been fin­ished off by the kudu,” he says. They drove on in shocked and newly-sober si­lence

again. John stopped the car. An­other herd of kudu crossed. Weird things hap­pen in the Ka­roo after dark.

While brows­ing around John’s shop, you might find him in a talk­a­tive mood. He may speak of the story he once told me, which goes some­thing like this:

There was a reclu­sive lo­cal farmer who re­buffed vis­its from his fam­ily and ig­nored the phone when it rang. His daugh­ter tried vis­it­ing him one day. She saw his bakkie out­side, but there was no an­swer when she knocked and so she drove off.

Three months later she tried again. The bakkie was still in the same place, but cov­ered in dust and leaves. The daugh­ter re­cruited some help and, when they broke in, found the farmer’s body on the bed. So they wrapped him up in his bed­clothes and took him away.

And that’s ex­actly how they fed him into the cre­ma­tion fur­nace. All of a sud­den bul­lets started fly­ing. It seems he’d slept with a loaded gun un­der the pil­low, where no one had thought to check.

As we head west on the R63, you should note the strands of sheep wool hang­ing on the fence line. Did you know that back in the days of the Wool Boom, a pock­et­ful of fence wool would cover the tab for a whole night’s drink­ing at the lo­cal pub? There is a well-known Ka­roo leg­end about a farmer who or­dered his labour­ers to pick up his fence wool bits so he could pay off his new Mercedes Benz with the pro­ceeds – with 200 pounds in change.

As we pass Vic­to­ria West, you’ll see that the lit­tle air­field was once an in­ter­na­tional air­port. By 1926, the Vic­to­ria West Aero­drome was ser­vic­ing the South African Air Force and the Im­pe­rial Air­ways (grand­daddy of British Air­ways) on its Cape Town to Lon­don route. There was a minia­ture Ar­rivals/De­par­tures Hall and a dinkum flight-con­trol tower that over­looked the de­li­cious vast­ness that is the Up­per Ka­roo. Rich wool farm­ers’ wives would climb aboard a South African Air­ways Dou­glas DC-3 and go globe-trot­ting with a shop­ping list of note.

Wait! Where are you go­ing? We still have to talk about Ka­roo cas­tles, out­back shop­ping malls, the Tomb­stone Route, the Barby Cue at the Tankwa Pad­stal and the Calvinia Quads who could rock and sing them­selves to sleep. Never mind the priests who built a cathe­dral in the desert, and the leg­end of Outa Lap­pies. And I never in­tro­duced you to Kala­hari

Dirk, a true Bo­ere Hip­pie, veg­etable farmer, col­lec­tor of odd­i­ties and long-time trav­el­ling com­pan­ion.

Oh, all right then. We’ll stoep­sit an­other time…

LEFT: Cradock’s Stephen Mullineux, who shows us it’s okay to be a plat­te­land ec­cen­tric. BELOW: The Vic­to­ria Manor Ho­tel in Cradock, where horses came to drink a beer at the bar.

ABOVE: Star at­trac­tion of the Moun­tain Ze­bra Na­tional Park, where Mex­i­can Bill once rode a wild ze­bra. ABOVE RIGHT: Flat Earthers are ev­ery­where. An un­usual tome found in great num­bers on Prior Grange Guest Farm out­side Spring­fontein.BELOW: The Mad Monk in the din­ing room of the Vic­to­ria Manor Ho­tel, Cradock. RIGHT: Dwarsvlei Sta­tion out­side Mid­del­burg – to live here it helped be­ing a book­ish sort.

TOP LEFT: The late great Sid Fourie of Jansenville: phi­lan­thropist, world trav­eller, and off­beat Ka­rooster of note. TOP RIGHT: The JansenvilleChron­i­cle files con­tain his­toric gems, few more pre­cious than the story of the all-night wed­ding. ABOVE: Pella Cathe­dral – a sub­lime oa­sis built by priests in the Kala­hari Desert. RIGHT: With such a show of leg, who wouldn’t want to step in and shop up a storm?

ABOVE: John Don­ald­son has a talk with his faith­ful hound Pot­lood. RIGHT: The lonely gi­raffe at the back of Rich­mond Books & Prints – re­pay­ment of an old debit. BELOW: The leg­endary Vic­to­ria West Aero­drome, once an in­ter­na­tional air­line re­fu­elling stop.

CLOCK­WISE FROM ABOVE: The late Outa Lap­pies, out­sider artist whose motto was: ‘Ev­ery day, make some­thing out of noth­ing’. The Calvinia Quads, who al­legedly sang and rocked them­selves to sleep. Wally Lange at his post in the Werk­swinkel Bar of the Tankwa Pad­stal. Kala­hari Dirk van Rensburg – de­light­ful dry­land ec­cen­tric and long-time fel­low-trav­eller.

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