If you want to know where the bodies are buried in the Karoo, where the ghosts walk in its Victorian-era towns and just when a certain fossil was discovered, ask Rose Willis.
The popular writer and historian began her Karoo career in 1990 by incessantly pestering the town clerk of Beaufort West and the chairman of the local publicity association for a job.
Eventually, in a perverse effort to prove to her there was absolutely no work for her, the head of the then Regional Services Council hired her for a pittance, mornings only, for six months.
She had no office, and sat in the Raadsaal. There was no computer, and no typewriter, and she had to go up the main office to get messages or make phone calls.
Nevertheless, in six months, she notched up 600 hours of overtime, and the RSC CEO eventually conceded that yes, perhaps there was a place for her.
One of the first things Rose did when she was hired was put together Rose’s Round-Up, a simple A4 folded in half, black and white newsletter, full of newsy snippets about the Central Karoo.
The first edition had six copies, one for each regional town clerk. It was done on her dot matrix printer, with a few pasted pictures.
When she got home after delivering one to the Beaufort West town clerk, he’d already left a message on her answering machine saying he wanted more copies for the Raad, please.
Much has changed in the Karoo and with Rose, but Rose’s Round-Up still continues, now in emailed form. Recipients pay only R100 for the very great pleasure of receiving a monthly infusion of historical and current news on the Karoo.
“Round-Up still excites me. And it’s very popular with academics. At one time I published some facts about a missionary called Erasmus Smit, who used to work in the Karoo. Some professors from Wits called me up and thanked me profusely. They had tracked the mission and Smit’s history, but no one knew what later happened to him.
Research into the forgotten histories of small towns has been one of Rose’s strongest tools. Her house in Bloemfontein is packed to the roof with books. She has 30 fat and invaluable files on aspects of Karoo life that she has personally dug up.
Rose has brought half-forgotten fragments of history alive.
Did you know, for example, that the very last Cape Lion was shot at Leeu Gamka in 1842 by explorer Robert Gordon (who also shot the last black rhinoceros, just outside the present Karoo National Park)?
Or that C.J Langenhoven’s secret love Helena de Vries, who lived in Prince Albert, was forbidden to marry the besotted poet by her father, who thought him too weird to court his daughter?
Or that the stunning Cape Dutch house on the farm Vrolikheid has a witblits still that has never stopped running?
“I still find the Karoo so fascinating, so enchanting,” says Rose.
It was an the obsession started by sheer chance. She and her husband Wally Kriek used to live in Johannesburg, but in 1989, they took a slow drive on the N1. Her mom lived in Bloemfontein and his in Worcester, and they had a vague idea to buy a house somewhere inbetween and use it as a stopover or holiday home.
They haggled unsuccessfully for one in Richmond, but then chanced on an old house just outside Beaufort West, allegedly designed by Sir Herbert Baker, built in 1901 for the town magistrate.
Once they bought it, it seemed silly not to live in it. They sold their house in Cyrildene and made plans to leave town.
Everyone thought they were crazed. “You’ll be back in six months,” they warned.
On the Golden Highway, packed to the hilt with dogs and earthly goods, Wally pulled over. Rose thought Brutus the dog was carsick, but Wally said he just wanted to take a last look at Johannesburg, because he’d never be back. “And he didn’t, not once.”
Wally too, fell in love with the Karoo. You’ll still find his words quoted and requoted on websites and brochures, especially this:
“The Karoo is where nature dazzles on the endless plains and in the blue mountains, here in the blazing summers and icy winters where the wild winds fade to a silence so pure you can hear God think.”
When Wally died, Rose moved to Bloemfontein to be close to her mother. She teaches, does editing and research and remains the foremost chronicler of the Karoo.
- To subscribe to Rose’s Round-Up, contact Rose on email email@example.com or call her on 082 926 0474.
- Rose has written the very popular Karoo Cookbook (published by Struik in 2008) and co-authored Yeomen of the Karoo: The Story of the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital at Deelfontein, independently published in 2016.