Maverick Life


Bandits, big birds and a busted box in Barrydale — a Karoo Space bakkie tale

Bandits, big birds and a busted box in Barrydale — a Karoo Space bakkie tale
The Old Jail in Willowmore – every brick tells a story. Image: Chris Marais

This is a road trip that begins with a little jail time and ends with a shattered gearbox on Route 62.

Let me tell you the tale of Sophie Schutte, the Mad Woman of Willowmore, who was so meshugge that when she went to jail the warden begged the magistrate to set her free.

The Old Jail in Willowmore was built back in 1880 to house stock thieves, cutthroats, bandits and drunks on what we politely call a “railway bender”. It was then transformed, first into a rather upmarket guesthouse and, lately, a Karoo hypnosis retreat, by owners Karen von Loeper-Dyatshenko and her husband Oleg.

We are booked into one of the awaiting-trial cells, where the old gaoler Sidney Walter Williams once spent a month himself for the crime of light fingers in the food stocks. 

It’s not like it was.

These days, you really want to do time in this particular Old Jail, what with tea and coffee stations, fluffy gowns and slippers, yummy chocolates on pillows and free-range eggs for breakfast.

But back to Sophie Schutte in the hot Karoo summer of 1899, behaving quite disgracefully in the prison courtyard.

Syphilis has touched the poor woman’s brain and she’s gone through three nurses in just over a month. She’s also pregnant, and she is prone to fits of rage, throwing knives, forks and plates of food at the matron, who has attempted to come to her aid. Not the kind of guest you find in The Old Jail in Willowmore circa 2020.

One of the revamped courtyards of the Old Jail in Willowmore. (Photo: Chris Marais)

A Dickensian Tale

On 27 March 1899, the warden makes a written plea to the local magistrate:

“In her present condition it is impossible to punish her,” he says. “Her discharge is advisable. She is no danger to the public health.” Oh really?

The Dyatshenkos actually made a trip to the national archives in Cape Town and dug up all manner of records on the erstwhile Willowmore jail. This sad story is one of them, but it’s also a window into 120 years ago, decorated with utterly Dickensian narrative touches.

It seems the jail warden was very keen on his written reports. Another continues:

“I have the honour to bring to your notice the great inconvenience and loss of time to constables in taking insubordinates to the local Gaol owing to the want of a hand cart. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: A traveller’s leisurely guide from Rietbron to Willowmore

“The two hotels in proximity to which most drunks are found are situated half a mile from the Gaol, consequently if the inobediate is helpless it takes two or three (constables) to convey him to the Gaol.

“Since a pump has been fixed at the Gaol the water cart is no longer necessary, and I have ascertained that for the sum of five pounds, a body could be made for the water cart wheels including a new axle, which will serve the purpose of a hand cart.”

After first looking up the meaning of “inobediate”, I feel a pun coming on. Something to do with being drunk on the water cart which is now a hand cart. But it needs some work, which we don’t really have time for because look where we are this morning: up in the craggy reaches of the Swartberg Pass.

The Pass of Passes

You know, sometimes I envy those GP SUVs that scoot past us on a hot and lonely Karoo road, all their bells and whistles humming, their puddle lights flashing, backseat kids glued to something gripping on touchscreens, smooth 10-speed gearboxes and cabins as sound-free as a Zen retreat in a Trappist monastery with the volume turned way, way down. You get the picture: it’s really quiet in there. Like a bloody hi-tech graveyard. 

Mostly though, I’m perfectly happy in my freshly reconditioned old Isuzu KB relic from a distant past, yammering away loudly to my wife’s in the passenger seat as the wind roars through the aged door seals.

Swartberg Pass

The Karoo Space bakkie taking on the daunting Swartberg Pass for the 50th time in its life. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Descending the Swartberg Pass down to the Oudtshoorn side. Image: Chris Marais

Like today, chugging up and down this Thomas Bain masterpiece of magical dirt road, it seems even the old Karoo Spacemobile loves the views. If diesel bakkies could sing the blues, mine would have the midnight voice of Tom Waits.

At the top of the pass looking down on the Oudtshoorn Flats, we talk about the little construction village that once existed around here.

Late local author Helena Marincowitz (you can buy all her wonderful booklets at the Fransie Pienaar Museum in Prince Albert) records that fresh bread was baked on-site, while one ox and 16 sheep were slaughtered for rations every week. 

Once veggies were added to the protein, it was all sliced, diced and cooked up in massive cast-iron receptacles for the road builders, who were mainly convicts from Cape Town. Potjie a la Pass on a grand scale.

The fantastical setting of Rietfontein Ostrich Palace alone warrants an overnight stay. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Lightning visit to the CP Nel Museum in Oudtshoorn. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Swanky parking background for the old Karoo Space bakkie. Image: Chris Marais

Ostrich Country

The next morning we wake up at Rietfontein Farm, with first light shining pink on the distant Swartberg range. 

Because of the drought and the fickle bird market, owner Kobus Potgieter, descendant of the first-ever ostrich farmer, now deals in tourism and Feather Boom legends. He has a trio of tame ostriches in a paddock out back, his wife Elmaré will feed you a sumptuous dinner with ostrich fillet as the main course and, best of all, you sleep scant metres away from one of the most beautifully designed feather palaces in the district.

We stop briefly at Ronnie’s Sex Shop (can’t drive past legends) and then we’re in Barrydale and suddenly there’s something terribly wrong with the bakkie’s innards. All its gears have gone pear-shaped. We just make it into the Auto Clinic, owned by Charl and Dottie Phillips.

A brief stop at Ronnie’s Sex Shop outside Barrydale before heading west again. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The Barrydale Auto Clinic team. From left: Spencer Mandix, Evahn Phillips, his parents Dottie and Charl Phillips, and Ranold Pretorius. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Pretty soon mechanic Spencer Mandix emerges from under the vehicle with bad news: little shiny bits of the synchro mesh have found their way into the gearbox oil, which means the Karoo Space bakkie had been grinding itself to pieces up there in the Swartberg Pass, down through Ostrich Country and beyond. 

The Auto Clinic in Barrydale has a quick confab with our home base mechanics at C.A.T. Motors in Cradock and they both agree: we need a decent reconditioned gearbox from somewhere.

Dottie makes calls to all the shops she knows in the region and finally finds something that suits our freelance pockets up in Worcester.

Adventures and misadventures on Route 62. (Photo: Chris Marais)

A Little Help from New Friends

Charl, bless his country soul, has our broken gearbox packed in the boot of his old Audi sedan and drives off personally to fetch the reconditioned one in Worcester, a 300km round trip.

“We’ll have it in for you by tomorrow morning,” he promises.

In the meantime, the folks at the Diesel & Crème Diner have offered up their Karoo Moon Cottage and a cute little bread van for us to use as a runabout. 

Ashley Janniker busy in his milkshake den at Diesel & Crème. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The Diesel & Crème Gang waiting to welcome travellers on Route 62. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Coming up roses at the Karoo Moon Motel on Route 62. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Early morning on the stoep of the Karoo Moon Cottage. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Breakfast is with Arthur Pharo, co-owner of Diesel & Crème, hoarder, builder, décor fiend and South African picker supreme. He has an eye for the Crazy Harmony of Things.

Just walk around the place: old drive-in speakers, Kewpie dolls, petroliana, a carousel horse called Betty, found lying in the dust outside Hartenbos, an enamel sign advertising the services of a seamstress, back in the days where such people would travel door to door with a suitcase full of “lappies”.

There’s a bit of folk art from here, carnival decor and troll dolls from there. Some items, like the stained glass and the Las Vegas flashing sign, come from foreign climes. A few Hollywood posters were bought from a vintage shop in Italy.

His son Dean is the legendary Milkshake Maestro of this fabulous diner on Route 62. Over the years, he’s taught young Ashley Janniker (Swag to his friends) the art of the Amazing Milkshake. The milkshake Capetonians queue up for on weekends, the milkshake that sends them into sugar-orbit all Sunday afternoon.

Before Swag can fling a couple of these delicious monsters our way, Dottie Phillips from down the road is on the blower: our bakkie awaits.

We head off to Diesel & Crème to return their delivery van and shower them all with thanks. As we climb out of the repaired bakkie, two South Americans pull over in their hire car and point at the image of the ostrich on our back window.

“Where can we find this animal?” they ask. We show them the way to Oudtshoorn.

Lunchtime stop at Doornkraal Padstal outside De Rust. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Stopping for a bag of biltong in Prince Albert. (Photo: Chris Marais)


Driving through a world of onions in the Klein Karoo. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Smousing one last time on the trip with Celia le Roux of Doornkraal Padstal outside De Rust, we pick up on this woman’s incredible wisdom. 

Upon hearing of our gearbox woes, she says:

“In the Karoo, a broken-down bakkie lets you meet the nicest people.”

At the sight of my wife stashing one of her padstal pelargoniums into the back of the Isuzu, she comments, with a twinkle in the eye:

“It will grow better than anything else in your garden – because you stole it from the right place…”


  • The Old Jail, Willowmore: 076 792 0622.
  • Kruisrivier Art Gallery: 044 213 3296.
  • Rietfontein Ostrich Palace (Oudtshoorn): 082 971 8474 or 044 213 3784.
  • Barrydale: Diesel & Crème Roadside Diner and Karoo Moon Motel: 028 572 1008. DM

The three-book special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III,

For more stories on life in the Karoo, get the three-book special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III (illustrated in black in white) for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at [email protected]


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • David Bristow says:

    I have found this to be true, the broken bakkie thing.

  • Tjaard du Plessis says:

    Ai I’m now “sommer net lus” and go tour there

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Barrydale is a jewel of a place,lovely article

  • Ritey roo roo says:

    Used to have to travel to Oudtshoorn for work. What a lovely trip. Although it did get tiring after a few months, but it came to an end then anyway. I remember we always stopped for wine and depending on who I was with, biltong. You could get a nice half bottle of a good red. You never see that anywhere and I wonder if they still have it.

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