Exploring the ominous tunnel, the train, the Poor School and padstal discoveries
This vibrant Karoo farming community has history in spades, outdoor adventures for everyone, and a bunch of farm stalls to delight all passing travellers.
South Africa once had more than 21,000km of working railways. About half of that was dedicated to rural branches serving farming communities.
Trains crossing the Karoo had distinct names. For instance, the Cape Town — De Aar train was called Die Spooktrein, because it ran in the dead of night. The train that came from the coast past Klipplaat and up to Middelburg was called Die Skilpadtrein (The Tortoise Train) because it stopped so often at the many sidings to pick up milk, mail and children bound for boarding school.
Heading south on the N9 from Middelburg to Graaff-Reinet, before reaching the fabled Lootsberg Pass, there is one of the most iconic railway sidings in the Karoo. Dwarsvlei doesn’t have the comic gravitas of Draghoender; it doesn’t bear a rich legend to compare with the likes of Putsonderwater. But the deserted Dwarsvlei siding, once part of the Cape Midlands agricultural rail system, symbolises every lonely railway stop where a young Eastern Cape Karoo farm kid would huddle in the icy depth of winter, waiting to board, settle in and steam off into the distance.
Every grey-headed Midlands farmer in the area still remembers that era with fondness — and a slight shiver down his spine.
The tunnel under Teebus
It’s like the villain’s HQ in a typical James Bond movie: a honeycomb of underground passages under a hill somewhere between Steynsburg, Hofmeyr and Middelburg.
To add to the cinema effect, strategically placed lights cast long shadows as workers in wellingtons (and special visitor groups) scurry past on their missions. And you just know there’s a fat man with a bald head and a Persian kitty lurking about.
Actually, it’s only winter maintenance time down in one of the world’s longest aqueducts, the Orange-Fish River Tunnel, which connects the Gariep Dam to the Great Fish and brings water to the Eastern Cape right down to the sea. For four weeks every year between June and July, the inlet at Gariep Dam is closed and dozens of staffers move into a small settlement called Orangeville next to the tunnel entrance near the landmark Teebus and Koffiebus hills. The technicians caulk the walls, replace the plastic lining of holes in the massive ‘pepperpot’ valves and generally restore order to an amazing hydro-management system that roars with water for the rest of the year.
Local farmer Charles Jordaan still remembers the day in 1976 the tunnel was opened, and the vast amount of fish that poured through.
“We were kids, and very excited as we caught them in netting, took them away by the bakkie-load and had ourselves a feast.”
Rolling down the river
In high summer, one can hear the delighted shrieks of schoolkids as they float down the Great Fish River on huge tyre tubes. As far as anyone can remember, this has been a Karoo custom since the Orange–Fish connection was made in 1976 and serious water began to flow through these parts.
Upriver at Schoombee, an enterprising schoolteacher called James Jordaan and his wife Delina have their own Karoo version of the famous Victoria Falls white water adventures and, although not quite as scary as the rapids up north, it’s every bit as exotic. The guides from Karoo River Rafting take their clients (normally groups of corporate team-builders and youngsters on school outings) on one- to four-day trips down both the Brak and Great Fish Rivers.
Like their better-known counterparts on the Zambezi River, the course is lined with occasionally daunting rapids (grades 1 to 4) and equally dramatic names like Jackie Chan, S-Bend, The Thousand Waves, Washing Machine, Suicide Weir and Mother-in-Law. But you didn’t only come for the rush of the white water. You came for the incredible Karoo landscape, the joy of being out with friends and family — and the feasts they lay on back at Base Camp at the end of the day’s adventures.
The Middelburg Museum
Middelburg’s eminent historian Hennie Coetzee relates an interesting anecdote about the establishment of the town museum in his book Middelburg: Hede en Verlede.
Back in 1982, the Poor School was being converted into its new identity as the Middelburg Museum. It was the job of Mr PF Aucamp to visit the local businesses and ask for shelving and shop mannequins for display purposes.
Mr Aucamp’s wife worked at the town library. He drove up in his car, with a female mannequin in the seat next to him. In full view of everyone, he began kissing the shop doll rather passionately. Mrs Aucamp was called out to witness this act of ‘infidelity’ and was, according to reports, mightily displeased until she realised she’d been tricked by her husband.
As it stands today, the Middelburg Museum is a rich eclectic mix of artefacts and recorded history. One of the most striking exhibits leans against the wall of a corridor. It is a massive clock-face, almost as tall as a human. It was salvaged from the NG Moederkerk when the steeple dramatically collapsed in 1967. Instead of doing without the steeple and just closing up the building, the church was completely dismantled and a modern version was built. All that remains of the first building are some pews and the clock-face in the passage.
The execution chair
Just outside Middelburg on the Richmond road, you’ll pass a stone memorial on the left. The stone bears the etching of a riempies chair, a symbol of two men who were seated here back in October 1901 and executed by firing squad.
A scant month before, Commandant JC Lötter and Lieutenant PJ Wolfaardt and their unit of 117 men were surrounded by a large British force as they camped at a mountain kraal in the Camdeboo. In the firefight that ensued they lost 14 men, killed 18 British troops but were eventually forced to surrender.
The capture of Cmdt Lotter, in particular, was a major coup for the Brits and seemed to turn this phase of the Anglo-Boer War in their favour. For many months they had been chasing a number of senior Boer fighters and their mobile units up and down the mountains and plains of the Eastern Cape Midlands. Aided by some tricky geography and sympathetic citizens, these flying commandoes had been blowing up railway lines, looting small settlements for supplies and popping up all over the place to the embarrassment of the mighty British.
Shortly they would capture another big Boer fish, in the form of Cmdt Gideon Scheepers. They were brought to trial in Graaff-Reinet and sentenced to death as war criminals.
Each padstal along the oval-shaped Eastern Cape Karoo Route has its own eccentric flavour and style.
The traditional Karoo farmstall stands firm against the Mac of Everything (homogenisation, boet) in which a culture adopts the characteristics of a fast-food joint. That’s why a wise road-tripper will come to know the essential differences between the Karoo Roos outside Middelburg, Schoombee Karoo in Middelburg, The Farmhouse Padstal in Hofmeyr, Daggaboer on the N10, Kamdebo and Oppi-Vlak on the N9. Not forgetting the Noorsveld Padstal outside Jansenville, and De Toren outside Nieu Bethesda.
If one really wants to kuier in the Karoo you have to pop in at every padstal you see. Each isolated shop along the way is a reflection of the people who live here: what they farm, what they make and even what their sense of humour is all about.
And when you come to Jagtpoort up there on the N9 on the upper lip of the Lootsberg Pass by the monster Coke bottle, look left and you’ll see the eternal Ouma & Oupa on the stoep. They’re sitting under the enamel signs, waiting to welcome the hungry and the curious with droewors (dried sausage), venison biltong and hand-made knives, along with bottles of pineapple chilli jam, tomato jam and prickly pear syrup.
No one leaves a Karoo padstal with empty hands. DM
This is an excerpt from Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. The authors are offering a two-book special of Moving to the Platteland: Life in Small Town South Africa and Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo at only R520, including courier costs in South Africa. For enquiries, contact [email protected].