All About Karoo Donkeys

karoo donkeys

Karoo donkeys – still a major form of transport in the desert lands of South Africa.

By Julienne du Toit

Photographs by Chris Marais

Here’s something you may not know about donkeys. They are sentimental souls with a particular love for old-time country and western music, as sung by the likes of Hank Williams Jnr and Willie Nelson.

The way into a donkey’s heart is via a mournful slide guitar (or any available string instrument, really) into his long ears.

Many years ago, Oom Kallie Gagiano of Nababeep used to play the fiddle for his donkeys out on his little plot three kilometres from this Namaqualand mining town. His donkeys had been banned from Nababeep because during a particularly bad drought he’d snuck them into people’s well-tended gardens to graze. Only people he didn’t know or particularly like, Oom Kallie hastened to add.

But then his favourite donkey Grasveld stepped into a tin can and woke up the whole neighbourhood as he clip-clop-clattered down the road. The game was up. There was a lot of mournful fiddle playing after that episode.

Oom Kallie is long dead by now, and his donkeys too, but Grasveld’s genes live on around Nababeep.

williston donkey

Magrieta Botha of Williston believes in the power of donkeys.

Cheaper than a Bakkie

Grasveld is a popular name for donkeys. So are Kleinveld and Sarah. We once met two music-loving long-eared steeds that answered to these names pulling a neat little cart belonged to Magrieta Botha of Williston. She used to farm with a few milk goats, sheep and vegetables on a little smallholding some kilometres out of town.

Two or three times a week, she’d don her Voortrekker kappie and dark glasses (probably the source of her nickname – Uiltjie or Little Owl), pull on gloves, put Sarah and Kleinveld in harness, cover her skirt with a blanket and head off to town to sell her goat cheese and vegetables.

“Donkeys are very cheap to run, much cheaper than a diesel bakkie,” she said, pointedly staring at our Isuzu double-cab. “They just eat grass and lucerne pellets.”

Magrieta had two problems, though. The first was that once in harness, Sarah had only one mission, and that was to move. It was only with great difficulty that Magrieta taught the donkey not to hare through a gate and keep going until the next one.

“I’ve taught her now to wait once I’ve opened and closed a gate, but she only gives me so long. She’ll look back twice. And if I’m not already on board by the second glance, she’s off and I’m walking.”

The other problem was that she was so often stopped by ‘Kaapse karre’ (people in Cape Town cars) who wanted to take a photograph of them. And they just didn’t understand about Sarah and her need for speed.

Magrieta used music to train her donkeys. They love boeremusiek or country music, she said. “And it teaches them rhythm.”

karoo donkey

Oom Johannes Willemse – you don’t whip a donkey in his presence.

Donkey Dealings

Of course, some people think donkeys are untrainable and obstinate. Nothing could be further from the truth. The late Elizabeth Svendsen, who started the Donkey Sanctuary in England, said “They are not stubborn, they are simply intelligent. You can tell a horse what to do and force it to obey. But you have to negotiate with a donkey.”

Many decades ago, donkey carts were the main form of transport. People like Oom Johannes Willemse (now a legendary healer on Theefontein farm near Beaufort West) would make donkey carts, harnesses and train the donkeys that went with it. You’d buy them as a package deal. “Chocolate and Laftrap were popular names for donkeys back then,” he said nostalgically.

Oom Johannes learnt to love and respect donkeys, and hates seeing them treated badly.

Singer Antoinette Pienaar, who is learning about healing Karoo plants from him (as documented in her book The Griqua’s Apprentice) told us “If Oom passes a donkey cart and the owner is whipping the donkeys, he stops, halts the donkeys and gets the whip from the driver, all the while offering to show him how to make the donkeys go faster. ‘Sit on the driver’s seat, I’m going to the back,’ he’ll say. Then he lashes the driver between the shoulder blades, so he knows how much it hurts.”

All this is good because there’s a bit of a donkey boom on at the moment. Years ago you’d only have seen donkey carts on farm roads. Now you can experience donkey cart tours in Willowmore, Nieu-Bethesda and Beaufort West. You can go hiking in the Cederberg with donkeys walking alongside, transporting your luggage.

And the rising price of fuel – as Magrieta Botha points out – is only aiding their cause. Engela Kruger, who started GDE Leather in Middelburg (Eastern Cape) says she’s noticed a distinct uptick in demand for donkey harnesses.

“Instead of sending a farmworker with a bakkie to look for the ostrich eggs on the farm, they’re now sending a donkey cart. I’m making lots and lots of donkey cart harnesses.”

perd smit

Julie du Toit interviewing Perd Smith, drivers Jonathan Bantom and Henry van Tonder of Graaff-Reinet.

Perd Smit

Another person who is seeing a lot more donkey business is Andries “Perd” Smit in Graaff-Reinet.

Andries has been involved with draught animals and thongs and harnesses for as long as he can remember. He grew up in the Camdeboo district, and his father had 20 Afrikaner oxen and five mules. With these animals he built a dam on his farm. Later they moved closer to Steynsburg and Middelburg.

“I learnt a lot from him. I got myself a small span of 6 to 8 oxen and taught them to turn on command.”

“You know how long it takes to train an animal? For an ox, three months, horses three weeks and donkeys three days. Donkeys are very clever, but it is true that they don’t like to be pushed into anything.”

His grandmother used to tell Andries stories about the Jewish smouse (pedlars) and how they used to travel around on their little horse or donkey carts, selling things.

“I loved this idea. So I got together a cart and donkeys and began to smous with clothes and shoes. Whatever I was paid, I said I wanted half in cash and half in clothes. So I’d get huge bundles, which I sold on. Then I started asking for chickens as part payment. I’d keep the best ones and put them with my leghorn rooster. That’s how I started chicken and egg trade, supplying restaurants and the hotel in Middelburg.”

He eventually went into the leather business, mostly doing riempies (rawhide straps for chairs). But five years ago, he did what Oom Johannes Willemse used to do and started making donkey carts for farms and tourism.

Inspanned and pulling the donkey cart were the donkeys Mens and Blouberg with Jonathan Bantom (aka Rooi Jan) and Henry van Tonder (aka Kraan) at the reins. Andries is particularly proud that Rooi Jan can train a donkey within four days – so well that it comes to a halt at stop streets.

The subject drifts on to names, specifically names of donkeys. Andries favours names like Witbooi, Appel, Bakskeen, Vos, Spiekeries, Sokkie, Salsien, Koffie, Ysterman, Soldaat, Kasper, Buks, Valk, Doortjie, Jagel. He called the donkey in front of us Mens (Human) because everyone calls him Andries Perd (Andries Horse).

And why do donkeys favour old Texas country music? I guess, like Willie, they’re always keen to be “on the road again”. To get hold of Andries or his son Marthinus Smit, visit smitandco.co.za or call 078 244 1752.

nieu bethesda

Donkey taxi of Nieu-Bethesda.

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4 Responses to All About Karoo Donkeys

  1. Neville wyness May 20, 2015 at 6:43 pm #

    An excellent read. Send more.

  2. Jon Pieters June 19, 2015 at 8:09 pm #

    Very much interested. Am planning slow trip around Karoo back roads and surrounds with wife in light “Gypsey” van on hitchcart powered by donkeys over extended period soon after winter 2015. Would like other interested people to contact us should they like to take part as we believe there is safety in numbers as well as for the sake of companionship on the road. Donkeys, carts/tents and sleeping stuff essential.

  3. Tracey Michau April 2, 2016 at 5:00 pm #

    Hi Julie, I know this is strange but im desperately looking for a herd of Saanen goats, 2 donkeys and a cart! Do you know anybody in the business :) !

    • Julienne du Toit April 3, 2016 at 10:04 am #

      Of course! I’m emailing you the contacts.

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