ON THE COVER
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.