Text & Photographs by Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit
Victoria West stands at the crossroads of the N12, the R63 and Time itself.
Today, we find ourselves under a whipping windsock a few kilometres outside a town that is blessed with a hundred-year biography written by the legendary historian, Eric Rosenthal. I bought it at a country book fair years ago and am now using it as a reference.
It’s only 100 pages long, but One Hundred Years of Victoria West is a cracker.
From what Eric tells me, and the info we gleaned from the excellent local historian Rochelle Vlok, I can time-travel back 66 years to the Wool Boom era, when a pound of the fluffy stuff got you an English pound in return.
Yay for the Wool Boom
Farmers in the Karoo were suddenly richer than they’d ever been before. There was money to burn. Kids were being packed off to the leafy academia of Stellenbosch, Rolls Royces were all the rage and Mama had some serious shopping on her mind.
And that sudden need for a second house on the old farmstead? Wool Boom Bucks at work.
The Victoria West Aerodrome (and don’t you just love that word?) had international status by now. Dakotas from Cape Town would re-fuel here on their way up to Jo’burg and, eventually, London.
Fly Victoria West
You could shake the dust off your pumps, gather up your skirts, march right up the stairs and ascend into the heavens from the Victoria West Aerodrome. There. I had to use that word again.
In 1932 Imperial Airways, the fore-runner of the modern British Airways (also called BOAC somewhere along the timeline) recognised Victoria West as a refuelling aerodrome for their new London – Cape Town services.
Old clippings will tell you that the bloke from Bester’s Garage in town had to occasionally climb up the little flagpole here beside us and replace the old windsock with a new one. A daunting task, by all accounts.
For an isolated little village in the middle of a Karoo nowhere (which is a serious nowhere), Victoria West punched well above its own weight.
The Killer Flood of 1871
The landmark tragedy of Victoria West, however, is the killer flood of February 27, 1871, which claimed the lives of 62 people. A bride died while trying on her wedding dress; whole families at dinner were swept away; most of a roomful of revellers at Quirk’s Hotel succumbed while a Mrs Jacobsohn and her children floated off to safety on a featherbed.
Eric Rosenthal quotes a Mr Johannes van Heerden:
“There was a carpenter by the name of Jan Janse, who saved many lives. He was over six foot tall and very powerful, so that he could carry people on his back.”
Another hero of the flood was Johannes Buyskes, the postal rider who bore the mails from Cape Town to the diamond fields via Victoria West. He saved many lives that night.
As a token of gratitude, some of the Victoria West women cut their hair and fashioned a fob-watch chain for him with the shorn locks.
Stained Glass Memories
Visit the local Anglican church and you’ll see a couple of stained glass windows commemorating the flooding of Victoria West.
The early 1870s brought big waters, but the next decade also saw many thousands of adventurers, prospectors, miners, ne’er do wells, remittance men, cutthroats, thieves, passing snake oil salesmen and some remarkably heroic characters drifting through Victoria West.
Almost to a man, they were on their way up to the diamond fields of Kimberley and later, to the goldfields of Jo’burg. The ones who left The Diamond Way and made Vic West their home established hotels, a turf club, later a bioscope and, according to records, Pagel’s Circus even made a turn here.
The Old Aerodrome
But back to the windsock and the Victoria West aerodrome.
In 1953, with all that Wool Boom money around and a refreshed sense of belonging to the world at large, Vic West built new Art Deco airport buildings.
This, say the records at the local museum, was about the time that flying passengers began to see elegant air hostesses on board, serving cocktails and such. And there was always lots of leg room. Oh, what times they must have been!
But one thing hasn’t changed. There have never been airfield lights, so when there’s an emergency night landing everyone with a car is involved. You are expected to park on the side of the runway with your lights on so a safe landing could be made.
The Doctor who Flies
Dr Johan Lochner, the local GP and pilot, arrives at the airfield. He opens one of the hangars, revealing two gliders and a couple of classic old cars in various stages of repair.
He also shows us his 1968 Cessna traildragger that he uses to fly up to nearby Vosburg, where he also has a small practice.
This rather overworked country doctor’s therapy is flight. He glances upwards and his face lights up as he tells us about the fluffy clouds, slightly domed above and dark below. These are the perfect ones for flying and especially for gliding, as there are thermals among them. The doctor keeps gazing up at them with yearning in his eyes.
Up at Moonlight Manor
Back in town, we check in at the Moonlight Manor Guest House. Where is it? At the foot of Moonlight Hill, of course.
Owners Schalk Nel and Sven Andersen came to Victoria West from Pretoria in early 2014 and fell in love with the old mansion and the promise of sundowners on its generous balcony. They bought the place and have turned it into one of the Karoo’s top boutique guest houses.
The supper of goat’s cheese halloumi, springbok carpaccio and the slow-roasted lamb shank, followed by cinnamon ice cream with rooibos-infused poached fruit and custard, is simply superb.
Well, there’s a first. I never thought I’d be eating something like cinnamon ice cream in Vic West.
Down at the Karoo Deli
The next morning we’re at Kingwill’s Corner having coffee and speaks with the owner of Karoo Deli, Nell Kingwill.
Nearby, serving customers, is Nell’s mom, Ouma Jessie, who has her own brand of rusks on sale in the shop. The place is a rich cave of crafts and decor, food from the region, hand-made teddy bears and, across the pool outside, some of the loveliest old enamel signs.
I photograph Nell sitting by her Raadsaal Koffie, Borgward Service, Prices Motor Oils and Goodyear Tyres signs. I offer her my life savings for them. She smiles, sips her coffee and demurs. She knows what journalists earn.
The Karoo Deli looks after hungry travellers passing through and locals on the hunt for something special.
An Artist with Vision
On our base-touching jaunt through town, we pop in at the home of Liza Wilson the artist. What was supposed to be a 30-minute visit turns into two hours.
Liza is a true artist, a vocational artist, a professional who thinks all the time how to express her world in a true and cogent manner, how to, in one image or symbol, show the intrusion of man in the landscape of nature and beauty.
One of the projects she has in mind involves in-spanning the local kids to help her create a series of giant artworks on the crest of Moonlight Hill.
On the blackboard in her studio is a quote from the Buddha: “We do not learn by experience but by our capacity for experience.”
Louis & Contessa
But right now we are indulging our capacity for the experience of red wine and tasty treats on the stoep with the best view in town. It belongs to Louis and Contessa Kruger, who are also recent emigres from Gauteng.
Louis was a high-flying media executive. Contessa was involved in top-end fashion. Now they make fluffy toys in the Karoo, and feel blessed for it. And as the sun goes down and the lights of Victoria West blink on, we hear the laughter of the children playing soccer in the streets below. And the stoep-stories begin…