Mystery of the girl who vanished 45 years ago:
Friends still wonder what happened to student in Knysna
MOST memories fade with time but 45 years have not diminished the image etched into the minds of those who crossed paths with the striking 20-year-old drama student who mysteriously disappeared in the Knysna forest in the late 1960s.
To those who knew Rosalind Ballingall, the picture of the beautiful, red-headed “hippie chick” in the university cafeteria or the tall, slender stranger walking along the N2 remains as clear as it did so many years ago.
On August 11 1969 Ballingall – then a second-year drama student at the University of Cape Town (UCT) – disappeared without a trace near Fisanthoek, Knsyna.
Fellow students and acquaintances said she had visited the Garden Route with two friends for a long weekend to spend time at a local hippie spot and drug hangout, the Sugar House. The story goes that one day she went for a walk in the forest, carrying a Bible, before vanishing. She was only reported missing more than 24 hours later and search efforts became nearly impossible after heavy rains washed away any tracks that could have helped to trace her.
The case made front-page headlines across the country – not only because she was the daughter of a mining magnate, but also because of the mysterious snippets of information surrounding the young woman and her disappearance.
It was said that she had been part of a cult called the Cosmic Butterfly and that she had attended a drug party in the forest before she went missing.
This led to several theories over the years, including that she lost her way in the dense Knysna forest after a drug binge or that she was accidentally killed during a drug orgy. Others have even gone as far as claiming that her disappearance was linked to an alien abduction or witchcraft, while some believe she got caught up in a lethal love triangle or was attacked by animals.
These theories were fuelled even further with reports of her later being spotted in various parts of the country and abroad.
Apart from a search party combing through the area where she had been seen before vanishing, clairvoyants were also called in to solve the mystery and the case was re-investigated several times over the years.
To this day, however, no one is any closer to finding out what happened to her. Those close to her at the time, or who had firsthand experience of that long weekend have either since died or moved abroad.
But one friend of the missing student, Robert Greig, still has a yearning for answers.
“When I was 13, growing up in Johannesburg, I was at a private boarding school in KwaZuluNatal and we used to party with girls from Roedean School during the holidays. That was when I met Ros. She was tall and exuberant and we formed a relationship. She wrote to me at school for about a year; we drifted apart . . . she was charismatic and great fun,” Greig said.
In the late 1990s at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, however, Greig was shocked to find out that she had disappeared. “I watched a documentary film made by a UCT graduate about her disappearance, and found myself in tears.”
To find closure and keep her memory alive at the same time, he wrote a novel based on her after rediscovering the letters they had exchanged.
“What I wrote was a fictional imagining of what happened, though bolstered by interviews with common friends some from Roedean. I linked her disappearance to student activism at UCT in the late ’60s – the Mafeje sit-in – and the drug/hippie culture of the time.”
He said two things emerged from interviews for the book. “One was that no one knew what had happened, so this was a breeding ground for conspiracy theories. I suppose my novel was part of that. The other was the extraordinary amount of public interest, people massing to help search for a trace of her in the forest. It was almost as if some collective mourning was involved, some sense of collective loss . . .”
He said it was very difficult to forget someone if there was no explanation for their disappearance.
An expat, who did not want to be named, is also still finding it difficult to forget.
On the day Ballingall disappeared, the woman and her boyfriend at the time were travelling along the N2 between Port Elizabeth and Knysna when they spotted two people – a tall red-headed woman and a slender blond man – walking along the N2. “Maybe two or three days later the story of Rosalind going missing was in all the papers. From the description given of her, I am certain she was the girl we saw on the road. My boyfriend agreed and we both agreed that we should give a statement to the police.”
But the following day newspaper reports suggested Ros had been spotted in George. “We decided that there was therefore no point in making the statement.”
A few days later, however, the woman received a letter from Ballingall’s family inquiring about the sighting. At the same time newspaper reports discredited the George sighting. “After that I don’t recall seeing any further coverage in the newspapers. I shrugged and got on with my life. But, of course, I remain convinced that it was Rosalind we saw that afternoon and that she was with an equally striking blond man.”
No one ever followed up on her report. “I find it very hard to believe that the Ballingalls would spend their fortune consulting psychics and so forth, without following genuine leads that they themselves had uncovered. It just doesn’t fly.”
The woman, who now lives in the UK, said this made her believe that Ballingall’s disappearance was some form of “cover up” and that she could have been involved in anti-government activities.
The sighting of Ballingall on the N2 sparked the interest of Garden Route local Paul Scheepers, who also crossed paths with Ballingall at UCT. “We shared the same cafeteria and I recall seeing this tall, good-looking chick with long hippy dresses down to the ground.” All the questions surrounding her disappearance urged him to find answers, including convincing local rangers to search the edge of the forest along the N2. He has also been in contact with others who knew her .
“When the documentary was made, none of those who were there would say a word about what happened . . . If we can find her body, it will put her soul at rest,” he said.
WAITING IN VAIN: Rosalind Ballingall’s mother, with her daughter’s dog, pictured here after Rosalind’s disappearance in 1969, waited constantly by her phone, hoping to hear news of her daughter
MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE: Rosalind Ballingall, a 20-year-old university student, went missing in the Knysna forest 45 years ago this month. No trace of her has ever been found