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Here be dragons… but that’s just one of the surprising things in Aberdeen, a remarkable Karoo town

Here be dragons… but that’s just one of the surprising things in Aberdeen, a remarkable Karoo town
Pagel House, formerly Claremont House. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Attractions include the post office griffins and the mother church with its special olive tree.

There are three dozen Aberdeens in this world, and ours lies about 50km southwest of Graaff-Reinet on the N9.

This Karoo town in the shadow of the Camdeboo Mountains has remarkable history and architecture, including Pagel House Bed and Breakfast. Pagel House was built in 1897 by a wealthy trader, RC Logie, during the pre-World War 1 feather boom and it was called Claremont House. It was later bought by Frank Wilke and renamed after one of his heroes, the old-time circus strongman Wilhelm Pagel.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Jewels on the road — here are SA’s Best Small Towns 2023, as chosen by our readers

Present owner Lynette Dugmore was born in the Eastern Cape, in Fort Beaufort, but spent most of her working life far from her roots, employed as a nurse in Switzerland.

“However, I always loved the wild landscapes of home. My mom sent me a subscription to South African Country Life magazine, which I’d read from cover to cover when I got homesick. And in the December/January edition of 1998, it had a property advert in the back saying something about escaping the crime, a little town near Graaff-Reinet, and a Victorian broekie lace house.

“It caught my attention, and I kept picking up the magazine to have another look. I bought the house in 2001 and since then I have never felt so free – as I do here in the Karoo.”

Aberdeen: The bedstead in the veld, which has evoked many a legend and theory of love lost on an old trek through the Karoo. (Image: Chris Marais)

Aberdeen: The bedstead in the veld, which has evoked many a legend and theory of love lost on an old trek through the Karoo. Image: Chris Marais

Aberdeen: The Aberdeen NG Mother Church, with an olive tree from the Garden of Gethsemane in the yard. Image: Chris Marais

Aberdeen: The Aberdeen NG Mother Church, with an olive tree from the Garden of Gethsemane in the yard. Image: Chris Marais

Bedstead in the veld

About 30km south of Graaff-Reinet towards Aberdeen on the N9, you’ll need sharp eyes to spot a poignant little sight on the left. It’s an ornate old cast-iron bedstead that, according to legend, covers the grave of someone’s wife who died on trek.

Apparently, she succumbed to her illness before her husband could get her to a doctor in Graaff-Reinet. So he buried her at this spot, left their marital bed here as a headstone and moved on. Be warned: Take your photographs from the fence line. The farmer does not love trespassers.

Mother church and griffins

The Dutch Reformed Church in Aberdeen boasts one of the highest steeples, albeit a tad off-centre, in the country.

But this place of worship has another distinctive feature: There’s an olive tree in the grounds that was once a cutting from a  tree in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem.

Aberdeen: The famous Post Office Dragon that was originally destined for Grahamstown (now-Makhanda). Image: Chris Marais

Aberdeen: The famous Post Office Dragon that was originally destined for Grahamstown (now-Makhanda). Image: Chris Marais

Aberdeen: One of the long-serving standing generator engines that once lit up the Cango Caves, now on display at Waterkloof Farm outside Aberdeen. Image: Chris Marais

Aberdeen: One of the long-serving standing generator engines that once lit up the Cango Caves, now on display at Waterkloof Farm outside Aberdeen. Image: Chris Marais

Read more in Daily Maverick: One hot Aberdeen night in the Karoo

If you’re looking for an interesting meeting point in Aberdeen, you could do worse than to gather under the griffin at the old post office building.

In fact, you should then specify which griffin (the northern one or the southern one), to avoid confusion.

These Victorian-era figurines grinning down from the tiled rooftops of the former post office and present magistrates’ court buildings (circa 1898) are also known by some as terracotta dragons or gargoyles.

Lurking in the shed

There were once a couple of enormous stationary generator engines just outside the Cango Caves near Oudtshoorn in the Little Karoo.

The 20kW engines were built by Crossley in Manchester, England, and made a lot of noise. They kept the lights on in the caves from 1928 until 1963, after which they were replaced by a link-up to the Eskom grid.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Graaff-Reinet II: The very social Karoo Heartland town of storytellers and stoep-tasters

Tucked into the Camdeboo Mountains near Aberdeen is a guest farm called Waterkloof. Owned by the Lategan family, the farmhouse can sleep 15 and is surrounded by stone kraals.

If you have an interest, Koos and John Lategan will take you up the hill to a musty shed. Inside, they will reveal one of the legendary standing Cango engines, purchased more than 50 years ago by their father.

They say it can run on diesel, petrol or crude oil. Perhaps even a dash of mampoer (a home-distilled brandy), witblits (a clear spirit) or cheap whisky. 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 (both illustrated in black and white) at only R520, including courier costs in South Africa. For enquiries, contact [email protected].

‘Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo’ by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.

‘Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo’ by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.

‘Moving to the Platteland: Life in Small Town South Africa’ by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.

‘Moving to the Platteland: Life in Small Town South Africa’ by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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