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Karoo museums 1 — discovering big skulls, giant clock-faces and war trinkets

Karoo museums 1 — discovering big skulls, giant clock-faces and war trinkets
The Farmhouse padstal/museum in the main road of Hofmeyr, with the famous pink church in the background. (Photo: Chris Marais)

From agricultural antiques to padstals preserved in time, Karoo museums are a look back into South Africa’s fascinating past.

A Karoo museum is a very special animal.

Take an outbuilding on a farm, or a small house in a town. Tart the place up. Then put out the call for neighbours, family members and friends to contribute all their spare knick-knacks, old photographs from the wakis (wooden wagon chest), granny’s ball gowns, a great-great uncle’s war medals. Come all ye faithful, bring all your trinkets, your dust collectors and, what’s that lovely Yiddish word for it, your tchotchkes.

Now. Try to thematise.

Go veld-walking, and you’ll be surprised at what military detritus is still hanging about, in the form of old cavalry sabres, bullet shells, regimental belt buckles and such. Suddenly, with the addition of a few wooden crafts carved by long-dead Boer relatives in faraway detention camps, you have an Anglo-Boer War element in your display cabinets.

Crafted in a detention camp in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). (Photo: Chris Marais)

Crafted in a detention camp in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). (Photo: Chris Marais)

Label each item correctly and, voila, you have something to show your guests.

In the dorpies, one tries to make each room tell a story. The kitchen is, obviously, a good start. Then stuff the lounge area with Victrolas, old sepia prints of grim-looking and mostly-forgotten couples glaring at the photographer, who’s probably fiddling about far too long before snapping the shutter, popping the flash bulb. Add a fainting couch or two, perhaps a pair of shop mannequins in evening dress, forever frozen in deep conversation.

A traditional Karoo museum reflects some elements of life in a particular community, in a particular region, at a particular time, through the eyes of the people who curated it. They’re fun to visit, and quite informative, as long as you remember there are two sides, and even more, to every history.

The Farmhouse padstal/museum in the main road of Hofmeyr, Karoo museums

The Farmhouse padstal/museum in the main road of Hofmeyr, with the famous pink church in the background. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The Farmhouse Padstal Museum, Hofmeyr

The tour begins with a lovely breakfast at The Farmhouse padstal in Hofmeyr, 60-odd km north of Cradock.

As you wander about afterwards, past all the baked, canned and bottled goods produced by the cooks of the region, you experience a ‘Hamlet Moment’.

The padstal fare on display at The Farmhouse in Hofmeyr. Karoo museums

The padstal fare on display at The Farmhouse in Hofmeyr. (Photo: Chris Marais)

This particular padstal is home to one of the great Missing Links of the world: The Hofmeyr Skull (or a perfect replica of it, anyhow). Maraisburg-now-Hofmeyr sprang to life 150 years ago in this sheep-farming district and was hardly a speck on the map until 1952, when a 36,000-year-old skull was discovered in an erosion gully near the town.

The Hofmeyr Skull

The Hofmeyr Skull, palaeo-icon of the little Karoo town. (Photo: Chris Marais)

What came to be known globally as the Hofmeyr Skull provided a vital ‘missing link’ in the fossil record which contributed to the theory that modern people originally came from sub-Saharan Africa and migrated to colonise Europe and Asia around 40,000 to 60,000 years ago.

One of the members of the international team that studied the skull decades later told journalist Melanie Gosling:

“The skull is probably male and is completely modern. If he sat down next to you on the Sea Point bus you would not react, apart from wondering where he came from. He would not look like a modern African, European, or a Khoisan person, but he is definitely a modern human being.”

According to scientist Kevin Cole of the East London Museum, where the original now resides, the skull was initially examined by experts but “never deemed to be of much significance as a specimen until well into the new millennium, by which time the Out-of-Africa theory (that all modern humans in the world today originated from a population in Africa) was well developed.”

When learning about the story of the Hofmeyr Skull, this author and his wife, Julienne, contacted David Lord of The Farmhouse padstal in the little town, and connected him with Kevin Cole. A replica was made overseas, and now has pride of place in the padstal — the beginnings of one of the most unusual museums around.

Grootfontein Agricultural Institute

The museum at this school for budding farmers in Middelburg, Eastern Cape, displays Anglo-Boer War artefacts and a post-war collection as well as a large number of arcane farm implements.

Once a large Karoo farm, Grootfontein was purchased by the British government after the Anglo-Boer War. More than 12,000 British soldiers camped all over this large farm, and while they were there they planted thousands of eucalyptus trees — which one can still see all over the property.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Flocking to a sheep museum in the Karoo

In 1910, Grootfontein literally swapped swords for ploughshares and became a school of agriculture.

The museum is a delightfully eccentric collection of things: a baptismal font, an ancient calculator, toys, photographs, and a mock egg, used to encourage hens to lay — called a nest egg.

The phoney egg

The phoney egg, nestled in a crafty egg box for safe transport. (Photo: Chris Marais)

A raisin depipper. A cork shrinker. A peach peeler. A plate warmer. All sorts of bonnets, one a child’s kappie dating back to the 1700s. Old mineral water bottles. A moustache cup, a cuspidor. The skin of a dassie used to store salt and mielie meal. Old objects made by prisoners of war in Bermuda and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) after the Anglo-Boer War. One of the world’s first slide projectors. An old hot water bottle. A beautiful old pincushion. A window into past lives.

One of the first-ever slide projectors : Grootfontein museum. (Photo: Chris Marais)

One of the first-ever slide projectors: Grootfontein museum. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Victorian-era objects on display at the Grootfontein museum, including a kappie, night potty and shaving kit. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Victorian-era objects on display at the Grootfontein museum, including a kappie, night potty and shaving kit. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The museum is open by appointment.

Exterior of the Middelburg Museum, once the local Poor School. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The exterior of the Middelburg Museum. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Middelburg Museum

In 1967, seven-year-old Kobus Mentz and his mates were playing rugby on the lawn across from the church when its tower collapsed.

“It was a huge ‘block’ tower and it completely destroyed the front part of the church,” he says. “Strange noises could be heard for the week or two before the tower collapsed — it was probably the cement and old bricks starting to give way.

“So we stopped gathering in the church.  On the day before the collapse, my father (the pastor) wanted to enter and inspect the tower ruins. It had a ladder in the tower that went all the way up to the top.  My mother literally dragged him away, begging him not to enter the tower. An engineer later told my father that, had he gone up, it might have collapsed, burying him in the rubble.”

The clock-face from the collapsed church tower in Middelburg. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The clock face from the collapsed church tower in Middelburg. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The huge clock face that was once embedded in the collapsed steeple of the original church now stands proudly in the Middelburg Museum, amongst an amazing array of lifestyle-historic oddments. This includes an ashtray made from a bombshell, a waistcoat crocheted from old silk stocking, bullet moulds, strange medical instruments, part of a bedpan, old field glasses, a collection of spoons and a tribute-display featuring famous ‘homeboy’ Athol Fugard.

Read in Daily Maverick: Exploring the ominous tunnel, the train, the Poor School and padstal discoveries

The development of the Middelburg Museum has been supported by a number of keen locals, including Hennie Coetzee, the remarkable town historian. They even wrestled Victorian-era clothes and military uniforms onto donated mannequins, and once apparently scandalised townfolk when one of the married committee members publically ‘smooched’ a mannequin.

A mock-up of an old Middelburg Poor School classroom. (Photo: Chris Marais)

A mock-up of an old Middelburg Poor School classroom. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The building now occupied by the Middelburg Museum used to be the local ‘Poor School’. In deference to its origins, there is also a classroom preserved more or less as it should be. 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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