A small band of travel journalists and photographers have begun a strange custom of late: Putsonderwater Rail Surfing.
Whenever these scribes and photographers pass the derelict Northern Cape settlement of Putsonderwater, they stop at the station, straddle the rails, adopt a surfer’s pose and have their photo taken.
Why? You might ask.
They probably do that because for many years few people – except for those who live around here – really believed Putsonderwater actually existed. Like Timbuktu or Brigadoon, it has always been a term bandied about to indicate a far-off, never-never place. Narnia in the scrub desert, if you will.
Putsonderwater is also part of the grand Afrikaans tradition of hardship names for towns and farms. The celebrated writer Etienne van Heerden says it best in his book Kikoejoe, when he lists “Soebatsfontein … Moordenaarskaroo … Allesverloor … Genadebrood … Wurgdroogte … Godverlaat … Moedverloor … Knersberg … Verneukpan … Putsonderwater … Genadeloosrand … Pynlikheid … Perdvreklaagte … Allesverby.”
You roll those words slowly around on your tongue, conjure up the images they speak of and it’s all flat, bleak and generally in dire need of 30mm of hard rain, a plate of koeksusters and a raucous mampoer party on the stoep.
The back story of Putsonderwater is that a man called David Ockhuis and his two sons found water here and dug a well. And when a trekboer and his vast, thirsty herds came to look for a drink, they would say:
“Ja meneer, ek het ‘n put, maar dit is ‘n put sonder water.” (Yes, sir, I have a well, but it is a well without water.) So the place became Putzonderwater. In later years, the ‘z’ was dropped in favour of the modern spelling.
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