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Karoo Oddities: Rocking it with pre-loved book safaris, donkeys, ‘Poison Doctors’ and good ol’ dog biscuits

Karoo Oddities: Rocking it with pre-loved book safaris, donkeys, ‘Poison Doctors’ and good ol’ dog biscuits
The Little Karoo is full of surprises. The Karoo Saloon on Route 62. (Photo: Chris Marais)

What do a rocking desert party, baked relics, secondhand book finds and snake venom all have in common?

The Karoo Rock Saloon

About 20 klicks on the Cape Town side of Barrydale on Route 62 you’ll find out how to rock the Karoo — in style. Marius Slabber and Janet Brewer came out here to farm some time ago and ended up with a fantasy made real — the Karoo “rock” Saloon, a music venue in the scrub desert. What in the world could be more romantic?

Most weekends there’s a live boogie going down, out here in the land of meerkats and mountains, usually involving a bit of Jose Cuervo, a touch of Tex-Mex, a dollop of “All Right Now” and a generous helping of “Voodoo Chile”.

Weekend escape artists, overlanders and biker clans all stream over to the Karoo Saloon, pitch their tents and light their braai fires within hearing distance of the sound stage. The bikers wear Black Sabbath T-shirts, club jackets, boots and leather. They all love rock, lots of hard rock music. The heavier the metal, the colder the beer, the wider the smiles.

The bands play loudly and dress motley. A lovely guest singer called Savannah flies in from Namibia, begins with a Suzi Quatro number and then raises the house with Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”.

One of the signs at the bar, which sports very large portraits of Jimi Hendrix and Slash, says:

“Alcohol. Because no great story ever started with someone eating a salad.”

Between the dustcovers

There’s a real art (a God-given gift, some might say) to be a good second-hand book scout.

First, you have to have a mental (or real-time, stashed in the back pocket of your jeans) list of books that mean something to you. Books you don’t already own. Or books you want copies of. Books you should never live without.

For the Karoo book lovers, there are baseline titles you should own: Plains of Camdeboo by Eve Palmer, Karoo by Lawrence Green, Karoo Morning by Guy Butler, The Truth in Masquerade by Jane Meiring, just about anything by Etienne van Heerden, Timeless Karoo by Jonathan Deal, Karoo – Long Time Passing by Obie Oberholzer and, of course, the Karoo Roads series by this writer and co.

Look what fell out of an old book at Dustcovers in Nieu-Bethesda. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Read more in Daily Maverick: Karoo Oddities (Part One) — snowmen, spooks, willy warmers and a resurrected Barbie-Q

A Karoo Book Safari should include a night at the Book Hotel in Bethulie, a tour of Cradock’s More4Less emporium, visits to Dustcovers in Nieu-Bethesda and McNaughton’s in Graaff-Reinet, and a tour of Richmond’s Booktown complex.

Second-hand book scouts the world over will tell you about the mysteries and magic of opening a dusty tome and finding a sad girl’s love letter penned to her dead soldier from the Great War of 1914-18. Or a sprig of dried lavender from long ago, that once did duty as a bookmark in a far-off place. Or, as in this case, a postcard from somewhere along the route of the fabled Orient Express.

The ‘Poison Doctor’

The weirdest Karoo snake story in our records is the legend of the Williston gifdokter — the Poison Doctor.

A missionary who worked in the area recorded the instance of a gifdokter who never washed his body or his clothes. He spent his days collecting poison sacs of snakes and scorpions, snacking on them and building his immunity to the venoms.

The Karoo ‘Poison Doctor’ has a unique way of dealing with puff adder bites. (Photo: Chris Marais)

If anyone was bitten by, say, a puff adder, then the gifdokter would eat the snake’s venom sac immediately — presuming, of course, that said puffie had lingered long enough to be killed.

In the ensuing delirium, an assistant would scrape the sweat and filth from his thrashing body. This extract, along with all his clothes, would be boiled up in a pot. The poisoned patient would then be given a potion which consisted of the foul stuff in the pot, along with a liberal dose of the gifdokter’s urine.

In the book Karoo, Lawrence Green speaks of one Jacob Klaas, a slangmeester (snake master) and gifdokter of note. He used to make little cuts in his arms, rub doses of cobra and puff adder venom into the incisions and become immune to their bites.

“As for scorpions,” says Green, “he treated them with contempt and they were allowed to sting him, simply to impress his audience.”

Green adds, however, that the slangmeester later became almost permanently cold and sleepy, “only comfortable on burning summer days.”

Dog biscuits

There are dog biscuits — and then there are dog biscuits.

Ask anyone with infantry experience and he’ll tell of the kind they issue to soldiers in the field. They’re normally square and hard as hell, baked to within a micrometre of becoming stone.

An army dog biscuit – one bite and you’re off to the dentist. (Photo: Chris Marais)

But once you dunk an army “dog biscuit” into a large, steaming mug of hot tea just after dawn out there in the Great Karoo veld, it becomes a charming breakfast companion.

Supplies to the British Army during the Anglo-Boer War included massive shipments of biscuits like the one on display in the East London Museum. More than four million of them were baked at Spratt’s, a converted pet food factory in London.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Karoo Oddities (Part Two) – welcome to the Street of Dreams, where there’s power in the sausage   

Spratt’s Works was an enterprising business. They produced regular dog biscuits, biscuits for polar explorers and military types both on land and at sea, bird seed, packaged butter beans, lentils and peas with a side-trade in live horses, foxes and monkeys that were shipped around the world.

But back to war biscuits, both loved and hated during down-times in the field of battle. They could be used for dunking, possibly for hand-to-hand combat but also as writing paper in times of need. Soldiers sent them back home to their loved ones, having scribbled a short message on each one.

Those personalised dog biscuits, also known as “sweetheart badges”, have become serious international collector’s items.

Donkey farm near Nieu-Bethesda

There’s a story lurking in almost every nook at Doornberg Farm outside Nieu-Bethesda.

It’s a very old, legend-rich farm and the current owner, Peet van Heerden, is a born storyteller himself. He collects amusing tales of unusual events that have happened in the district and occasionally publishes them in a newsletter. A precious source of Peet’s anecdotes is an inherited collection of letters written by his father, the late Boet van Heerden, regularly updating the family on Doornberg affairs.

Peet van Heerden of Doornberg Farm outside Nieu-Bethesda at his huge outdoor “big donkey shed”. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Perhaps one of the oddest sights a first-time visitor encounters at Doornberg, however, is that of huge donkey billboards fixed to the side of an open-air shed. And, of course, hereby hangs a tale.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Karoo oddities – tales from the quirky, magical heartland of South Africa

Back in the height of summer in 1996, Johannesburg artist Jo Radcliffe was on an N1 road trip through the sweltering Karoo. She came upon three dead donkeys lying at the side of the highway.

This encounter made Jo think of the legendary sub-culture of wandering Khoi-origin farm workers who once roamed the Karoo on donkey carts, selling their skills as shearers and fence-makers. This thought gave birth to the concept which led to her “End of Time” exhibition in Nieu-Bethesda, part of which involved the erection of giant donkey billboards in the veld.

“I made the stands for the donkey billboards,” says Peet van Heerden. “And after the exhibition, I asked if I could have them.” DM

For an insider’s view on life in the Karoo, get the Three-Book Special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at [email protected]

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Norman Sander says:

    Karoo Saloon is a regular destination for us, on one of our Boneys. A tremendous place with wonderful owners. Surprisingly good food and a great barman. The music rocks, as do the destinations close by enough for a Run on the bikes.
    Just one of those places you can’t help loving. We will sometimes do the run with the rest of our “Posse” and our average age is around about 60.
    If you are in the area on a weekend, the music entertainment is out of the top drawer. Just check when they have a live band.
    The Karoo becomes more attractive to me, every time I go there. The Karoo Saloon fits the required mould perfectly.

  • Dorothy Laura Lucas says:

    For over 15 years we ordered two boxes of these biscuits from Andersons of Kokstad. They stopped manufacturing them as I wanted to start ordering again for a school feeding scheme and was very disappointed to learn that although still in business they no longer manufacture the high protein biscuits

  • David Bristow says:

    Back in 1984, on my first proper Karoo safari, to seek out mountains to climb, Peet towed our broken Austen Marina (what a kak car), to Doornberg and fixed it boer-style. Then sent us on to the Rubidges at Wellwood. Life changing moments.

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