The legend of Victorian-era Kalahari outlaw, Scotty Smith
A drive from Cradock to Upington might take some a day. It took Chris and Julie nearly a week, all in search of the infamous Scotty Smith’s grave and legend, and discovering many other treasures along the way.
In the century-and-some-years since his death from Spanish Flu, people are still trying to deconstruct the life of Scotty Smith.
Was he just a mad horse thief, acting out his Scottish Border ancestry? Was he a true Robin Hood, blessed by lonely widows and cursed by rich men from Vryburg to Hotazel and beyond? Was he a ruthless Bushman hunter and a criminal to be caught and hanged? The jury’s still out. Suffice it to say, however, that Scotty Smith was a very naughty boy.
One time, a detective cornered Scotty, arrested him and cuffed him. Within hours, he had slipped his handcuffs, overpowered the lawman, shackled him and dropped him off at the Kimberley jail. He was such a good con artist that the cops in Kimberley believed the hapless detective to be Scotty Smith himself.
So, in the autumn of 2012, we went up to Scotty Smith country, that quadrant market by Upington, Vanzylsrus, Vryburg and Kimberley. The drive north from Cradock to Upington would take sane people a day. We spent nearly a week getting there.
The biggest wind pump
At the little verandah cafe next to the Pick n Pay Centre in a booming Upington, we met up with our travelling co-conspirators, Dirk and Sonja van Rensburg. When I initially proposed a Kalahari jaunt, Dirk suggested we spend some time at Boomskraap, his family farm in the centre of old Scotty’s neighbourhood.
“We’ve got the biggest wind pump in South Africa,” he said. I was hooked.
“OK, what’s the address?”
We headed out in convoy on the Olifantsfontein road. At a sign that simply said “D3323”, we turned north on dirt. Bob Marley was on the old tape deck singing about his government house in Trench Town, sociable weaver nests on telephone posts were flying past the window, the veld was all ash-blonde with waving Bushman grass and there was a distinct honk coming from the back seat. My wife swivelled around and investigated.
“Milk spilt in the cooler bag and it’s gone sour.”
“Turf the cooler bag.”
“No, it cost good money. I’ll clean it up.”
The Kalahari horse thief
However, my wife’s packrat instincts were nothing compared to the fellow who lived on the land we were now passing. His farmstead was like a scrap metal yard, a Hotel California for chickens in the middle of nowhere. According to our spies in the Jimny in front of us, the farmer in question was quite famous for riding a bakkie to death, parking it under the nearest tree, and getting a lift into town, where he would buy a brand new vehicle, and so on. His many chickens have the finest coops in the Kalahari.
Scotty Smith was quite good at flying the coop himself, normally on the back of another man’s horse. The story goes that when he was working for the British in the Anglo-Boer War, Lord Kitchener sent for Scotty to brief him on a spying mission in the Free State. He had just returned from patrol, and his horse was exhausted. Kitchener vaguely told Scotty to “take one of mine” and go off. He didn’t need a second invitation, and helped himself to the Big Man’s best horse, tethered right outside his tent, completely kitted out with fancy saddle, bridle and all.
His Free State foray was successful and Lord Kitchener never brought up the subject of his beloved horse again. Scotty took it as a reward for work well done.
The Dune Bush Hotel
Our Isuzu was suddenly in soft red Kalahari sand, and the wheels spun madly until I remembered the diff lock. And there, in the distance, we saw the famous wind pump. Its vanes were so big they had to be knitted together with wire. It stood still, nose bound to double tail on which the words ‘Southern’ and ‘Cross’ were painted. The Boomskraap wind pump. Wow.
Dirk’s stepmother, Charlotte, emerged from an enormous tiled stoep area and within minutes we were in a cool room away from the murderous heat outside, sipping on cordials. That night, as we supped on a delicious meal of cold meats and salad, we could hear the wind pump creaking outside. And then Dirk told us all about his childhood here.
“I grew up on this farm, in a reed house with a hot corrugated iron roof and a floor made of red clay, cattle dung and termite mounds. We called it the Duinebos (dune bush) Hotel.
“For six months, while the borehole teams were looking for water on the farm, whatever water we drank had to be brought in by a Ford bakkie over non-existent roads. At night, I would wash in the water the borehole men had used to temper the drill bit of the bore.”
When they finally hit water at a depth of 300 metres, they celebrated in true Kalahari style. All the neighbouring farmers gathered on Boomskraap, and there was much drinking of strong liquor. Then the boring machine was started up, and they would all dance in the blue diesel smoke and drink of the new water.
“Eventually, the guys would throw each other in the puddles. They called it ‘testing the water’.”
Then they installed the giant 25-foot (eight-metre diameter) Southern Cross, because it needed to do a giant job of bringing water up from a great depth. That wind pump was their guardian and saviour until piped water arrived.
And although the water was brackish, Dirk grew to love it. This is a thing that happens with natives of the Kalahari and Karoo. They get so addicted to their brackish water that when you serve them coffee made with normal tap water, they drink it with a pinch of salt.
Which is also what you need for a good Scotty Smith story. They say that when constables arrived at Scotty’s home (wherever he resided at the time) he would tell them he was just about to hold a ‘staff house service’, which he conducted in a Bushman language. So as the cops stood by unwittingly, he would instruct his workers to hide all the contraband on the property. And then he would bless them – in a Bushman tongue.
Read in Daily Maverick: Catch the wind – The meditative magic of a Karoo windpump
A Robbing Hood?
Dirk’s dad passed away last year, and Charlotte has been running Boomskraap since then. A woman working a hard Kalahari farm on her own faces no end of challenges.
By all accounts, a guy like Scotty Smith would have been a godsend to a lonely and hard-pressed Kalahari widow. One time, a widow sheltered Scotty during the Anglo-Boer War and kept mum when a patrol passed. As a reward, Scotty gave her his own horse, five pounds and a diamond. He left her farm on foot, quite sure he would be riding another man’s mount by sunset.
At dawn the next morning, I woke with the Kalahari crosswinds howling outside, and the giant wind pump had taken on a noisy life of its own.
“I lived my youth by the droning of that wind pump,” said Dirk at breakfast. “Sometimes the wind would make it sound like an aeroplane propeller.”
The Boomskraap cruiser
We had a lazy day on the farm and gathered in the late afternoon for a photo session on some nearby dunes. The light was better than a holiday by the sea. We had gathered some true Kalahari props for a styled-up shoot: ostrich eggs, porcupine quills, weaver’s nest, camelthorn pods and an old tortoise shell.
The wind came up, the shoot was a bust so we drank in the sunset and a couple of bottles of red wine instead. And then, when the light was just right, we used the grand old farm Land Cruiser, battered and beautiful, as our sundown photo prop.
The next morning, as we prepared to leave Boomskraap, we asked Charlotte what she was going to do with the rest of her day.
“I have to gather up 300 Dorpers and take them to market,” she said. We saluted her and drove to Upington, because the next part of the mission was to find Scotty Smith’s grave.
On the way back, we realised we had been here before, many years ago. Boomskraap borders on the exclusive Tswalu Kalahari Private Reserve, Nicky and Strilli Oppenheimer’s fantastic spread. Jules had ridden horses that could have been the great-great-great-grandchildren of Scotty Smith’s string of stolen mounts.
Here lies Scotty
Eventually, I pitched at the main cemetery and got myself totally lost. Where, I asked the smoking gardener, was the grave of Scotty Smith? There, he said, languidly pointing at a lone stone.
The robber’s grave looked quite smart and ordinary. I was expecting something a little more Gothic, but I guess the legendary giant wind pump of Boomskraap was the real treasure of the trip.
Second-to-last stop before heading homewards was lunch back at the little verandah cafe next to the Pick n Pay Centre, where crazy Kalahari journeys seem to begin and end. DM/ML
This is an extract from Karoo Roads I – Tales from South Africa’s Heartland, by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.
For an insider’s view on life in the Dry Country, get the three-book special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III (illustrated in black and white) for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at [email protected]