Maverick Life


Karoo oddities – tales from the quirky, magical heartland of South Africa

Karoo oddities – tales from the quirky, magical heartland of South Africa
Ostriches of the Karoo. Image: Chris Marais

‘And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it,’ said Roald Dahl. When you spend enough time pottering about the dry heartland of South Africa, you will realise it’s the quirkiest, most magical place in the country.

Many years ago, a crate full of copies of a book called 100 Proofs That Earth is Not a Globe was found in the attic of a Free State farm. The author, Ernst Lodewicus Venter, has long passed from this allegedly pizza-shaped world.

Blackie de Swardt of Prior Grange Guest Farm outside Springfontein now shows them to his overnighters as Karoo oddities. 

The historical enemy of Flat-Earthers, it seems, is the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who first propounded the theory of a globe-shaped Earth. Next in line on their hate list, according to the author of 100 Proofs, are the evolutionists who believe the world to be a little older than 6,000 years.

A copy of '100 Proofs That Earth is Not a Globe' by Ernst Lodewicus Venter. Image: Chris Marais

A copy of ‘100 Proofs That Earth is Not a Globe’ by Ernst Lodewicus Venter. Image: Chris Marais

Another Karoo son who followed this line of thinking was President Paul Kruger, boss of the Transvaal Republic. Kruger was born on a farm near Cradock and took his Scriptures literally, firmly believing in the pillars and the corners of a flat Earth.

Here follows one of the more interesting Kruger flat-Earth legends.

As Kruger was sailing north and into exile in the dying days of the South African War, he was invited to join the captain on the bridge for some navigational insights into the spherical nature of our planet.

Unconfirmed reports state that after the demo, Kruger fetched his Bible and hurled it into the sea. He said if the captain was right, then The Book was wrong.

Concert at breakfast

A night spent on Theefontein Farm outside Graaff-Reinet with herb healers Oom Johannes Willemse and Antoinette Pienaar brings a special bonus, in the form of a talented guest from Germany.

Young Paulus van der Merwe plays the oboe in the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra. He met Willemse and his apprentice years ago when he came to them with a heart problem.

“Oom Johannes gave me herbs,” he said. “Thus I was able to postpone a heart-valve transplant until the technology had improved.”

Van der Merwe fell under the Theefontein spell of farmyard magic: the spinning Aermotor wind pump, the scrabbling chickens, the greyhound pack and the company of two of the most special people in the whole Karoo.

These days, healthy once again, he comes out from Germany whenever he gets a gap, staying at this humble farmstead for weeks at a time. He leaves refreshed and ready to take on another gruelling season with his orchestra.

A morning of music at on Theefontein Farm. Image: Chris Marais

A morning of music at on Theefontein Farm. Image: Chris Marais

In the morning, we share a delicious breakfast of fresh-gathered eggs and roosterkoek prepared by Pienaar at her hearth. Van der Merwe hauls in a rather cumbersome monochord, sets it in front of Pienaar and takes up a flute.

She plucks a plaintive tune and begins to sing out a chant: bless Theefontein, bless Chris, bless Julie, bless Oom Johannes, bless Paulus, bless us all.

Thus fully blessed, we take our leave, hugged by everyone. The dogs bark a farewell.

The blacksmith

Kashief Booley is the village blacksmith of Prince Albert. Once upon a time, nearly every human settlement in the world had one. 

The smith made the hoes, scythes and ploughs for agriculture. The swords, daggers and shields for war. The hammers, nails, hinges and pulleys used in carpentry and construction. The horseshoes, bits, bridles and wheel casings for transport. The knives for cutting and the pots for cooking. 

The man with the strong arm, wielding hammer and tongs at the hot forge, literally created the cutting-edge tools of civilisation for centuries. 

Kashief Booley, the village blacksmith of Prince Albert. Image: Chris Marais

Kashief Booley, the village blacksmith of Prince Albert. Image: Chris Marais

An instinctive metallurgist, he would generally be among the best educated in the town, often taking on the roles of judge, undertaker, dentist and doctor. The glowing coals from his forge were even used by bakers to make the morning’s bread.

But 200 years ago, the need for village blacksmiths began to wane, their crucial profession eventually swallowed whole by the Industrial Revolution and mass production. 

Now hand-made and artisanal are back in fashion. From his smithy on the hill overlooking Prince Albert and the Swartberg mountains beyond, Kashief Booley has been practising the ancient fire arts since 2007.

He makes anything, from headboards to wine racks, chandeliers to lanterns.

“When I light up the forge, I really feel as if I am entering a different realm, working with my own creativity and all four elements of earth, fire, water and air.” 

Crows, foxes & stars

Roger Young and his partner Phyllis Midlane have set up fully artisanal lives in the Red Stone Mountains outside Calitzdorp, just off the R62 that cuts through the Little Karoo.

Midlane makes theatrical figures and puppets, while Young fashions very large pieces of furniture, transforming selected woods into works of art. 

He also shoots classic black and white photographs, mostly portraits of the everyday people living and working in the Kruisvallei area around them.

In addition, Young is quite well known for coming up with wise Afrikaans sayings, often winning him dollops of accidental respect in his neighbourhood.

His work logo is a tandem image of a howling jackal and a streaming comet tail.

“When I came out here in 2006, Comet McNaught was in the sky and, on my first night, jackals were calling close by.”

Roger Young. Image: Chris Marais

Roger Young. Image: Chris Marais

At various strategic spots in the buildings that he converted into a guest lodging, studio and workspace, he inserted little bas-reliefs with sayings like:

Kraaie kan bo die Sterre Vlieg” (Crows can Fly above the Stars)


Kom le Jou Gedagtes Voor die Vuur” (Come Lay Your Thoughts Down in front of the Fire).

And here’s the rub. Young speaks hardly a word of Afrikaans, being an Engelse Soutie to the core. He’s just a country soul who has picked up some wisdom along the way.

Railway station bookworms

“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.

The railway in Putsonderwater. Image: Chris Marais

The railway in Putsonderwater. Image: Chris Marais

“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…”

Snowbound on a train

If you stand astride the rails near Nieu-Bethesda Station and look north at the sweeping, powder-capped Lootsberg amphitheatre, you might just feel like the last remaining person on Earth.

Snow in the Karoo. Image: Chris Marais

Snow in the Karoo. Image: Chris Marais

Now back up about 50 years and imagine the bang and the beat, the creak and the clang, of a locomotive steam train preparing for one of the most challenging rail climbs in the Karoo.

The warm and well-dressed passengers in the dining car are having lunch, looking out at the sub-zero white wastes, the landscape anchored by a distant Aermotor windpump next to a farmhouse with Aga smoke rising from its chimney.

The farmer inside might look out of his window at the giant lumbering by.

When celebrated Karoo writer Guy Butler and a varsity chum were stuck in winter mud and ice on their motorcycle near Nieu-Bethesda siding back in 1935, they actually managed to halt the Middelburg-bound train before it headed up the super-steep Lootsberg Pass, which looms at an imposing 1,781m above sea level.

To keep warm, the two young men ran on the spot in the guard’s van all the way up the pass. At one of the sidings they jumped out into the snow and checked the other trucks for sheep to snuggle up to. 

Alas, not a single beast was on board, so they resorted to jogging in the guard’s van once more. DM/ML

'Karoo Roads III' book cover. Image: Supplied

‘Karoo Roads III’ book cover. Image: Supplied

For more stories from the Karoo, get the three-book special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads IIIby Julienne du Toit and Chris Maraisfor only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at [email protected]


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