Text and Pictures by Chris Marais
Some time ago, a Karoo Space social media poll asked the simple question: what’s your favourite town in the Karoo?
More than 200 respondents replied and, no surprise, the winner was Prince Albert down in the Western Cape. But you had to wonder about Fraserburg, which polled in the top five – out of 100 possible towns, villages and railway siding settlements.
So that’s exactly why Jules and I are here, at the front door of Die Kliphuis Herberg on the outskirts of a place that is no more than a blip on a road tripper’s radar screen. But a popular blip, it appears. We have to find out why South African travellers love Fraserburg so.
Tales of the Golden Bakkie
I can tell you right off the bat it doesn’t hurt to have a wondrous old 1948 Bedford bakkie parked outside in the golden light of a new sun. Whatever the cost in sweat, cold cash and rebuilt engine parts, it really needs to be running on the backroads of the Karoo again. Must ask its owner, Herman le Roux, where it came from.
Down at the Graveyard
But first, it’s off to the local graveyard with tour guide, museum curator and retired magistrate Marthinus Kruger. As we wander through the rows of the long-dead, he’s telling us about his hectic times as a beak up in Bronkhorstspruit.
“All those years I had to be stern. Now I can earn a living being friendly. I’ve come alive here in Fraserburg,” he says, laughing at the irony of saying such things in a cemetery.
Olive Schreiner, the writer-activist, left her mark all over the Karoo. She lived in places like Cradock, Hanover, De Aar and Matjiesfontein. She even visited Fraserburg on occasion, staying with her sister Alice, whose seven children lie buried here, near a grave that has been struck three times by lightning.
“They say the person in the grave actually died of a lightning strike as well,” says Marthinus.
Jane and the Departed
He introduces us to two Fraserburgers who are intimately involved with the graveyard: Jane Wilson the caretaker and Oom Sarel du Plessis the undertaker. This, for the record, is the first time we have ever included such cemetery familiars in a travel story, and here’s why.
Jane might be a little shy with strangers, but she’s totally comfortable with her own company and that of the departed who call out her name on occasion.
“I’m not scared of them,” she assures us. “They look after me and I look after them.”
Jane keeps the cemetery spruce and waters the surrounding casuarinas, bluegums and pine trees from a little dam that was originally used to wash cadavers.
Sarel the Undertaker
Oom Sarel drives an old Mazda which doubles up as a hearse and a builder’s bakkie. He says a coffin fits perfectly in the back. Marthinus tells us Oom Sarel will sometimes fill in for an absent dominee and conduct a funeral service.
“He preaches very well.” Oom Sarel blushes, looks down at his boots and tells us an eerie story.
“You see those bluegums in the cemetery? Normally, when the wind blows, they bend in the same direction. But now and again they don’t, and the branches scrape each other and screech. Shortly after that, someone will call me to collect a body.”
I’m starting to get the picture. Our guide and mentor has a lovely take on what constitutes local tourism: the people of a town.
Over the next few days, via Marthinus Kruger, we will meet a friendly mob of guest house owners, a Chinese shopkeeper who sells him toy dinosaurs, a town councillor who actually does an honest day’s work, a farming dynasty with a rollicking sense of humour, a very chatty retired riel dancer and a pancake queen. To name a few.
The Bustling Bradysaurus
The next morning kicks off shortly after dawn, as we head out for the main attraction of Fraserburg: the Palaeo Surface at Gansfontein Farm.
In real layman’s terms, the site records a ten-day period that took place oh, about 255 million years ago. Give or take.
There were pools here, and there was mud over a few hundred square metres. All manner of ancient creature then strolled across the mud, each one leaving its peculiar mark. You had tiny prawns and centipedes, Diictodonts and Dicynodonts, snails, fish, worms and here, look, is the impression of the long toes of a Dinocephalian, slipping slightly in the mud.
Kids Love a Dino
Most eye-catching of them all is the clear print of a Bradysaurus, a large and flatulent creature that passed this way.
For the kids who come here, Marthinus has worked out a wonderful routine. His wife Carien has made little Bradysaurus toys, he stashes frozen ‘dino eggs’ around the site and sends the children off to find them. He tells his story so it comes alive for young and old.
The palaeontologists and rock specialists also like to spend time here. Of course, their discourse would be of a profoundly more academic nature.
But kids, hey? They love a dinosaur. Even a pre-dinosaur. And the tour guide of Fraserburg understands this.
Mr Yao’s Shop
Returning to town, we meet Mr Yao, who runs a no-name bit-of-everything shop and, most importantly, stocks the essential little plastic dinosaur toys used in the show. Marthinus coaxes Mr Yao out of the shadows to pose for a photograph in the shop doorway.
Nearby is the other town attraction, Die Peperbus (The Pepper Pot). This strange little building, erected in 1861, has done duty as a library, a magistrate’s office and a trysting spot for teenage lovers. Today it’s a tourist curiosity.
The emergency bell used to hang inside Die Peperbus but then, one night when they needed to ring it, no one could find the keys to the building. So the bell was hung outside.
Livestock of the Ancient Karoo
I’m keen to visit the museum, because the last time we were here (a full decade ago) I remember seeing the most remarkable fossil in the form of a Rhaciocephalus (Marthinus can pronounce these names as smoothly as you can say ‘peanuts’) which means thunderously large head or something.
It’s still there, curled up under a sign that says: “Livestock of the Ancient Karoo”.
Here, too, are the Golden Fish of Fraserburg, called Atherstonia and pressed over time into mud-rock; an old telephone central exchange that hasn’t been in retirement that long and a set of mannequins that seemed to have undergone a wardrobe change since we were here last.
Mannequins on the Move
“Oh, that’s the cleaning lady,” says Marthinus. “She likes to dress them up from time to time.”
We sit in on a counselling session at Inner Peace, a landmark addiction clinic and rehab centre down the road. Johan Liversage-Coetzee, director of the clinic, tells us Fraserburg is ideal for a project like Inner Peace.
“The town is quiet and has a sense of spiritual healing.”
The patients are happy to talk about their experience here.
“No taxis, no noise, no distractions,” says one. “This place has allowed me to dive into myself.”
“You know what I found amazing? It was simply that Johan comes to say goodnight to us when we go to sleep.”
A Place of Healing
The Karoo has been a place of human healing since the Victorian era, when ‘consumptives’ (tuberculosis suffers) came out from the industrial wasteland of England and thrived in the fresh air. Why not a rehab centre in the middle of nowhere?
In the course of the afternoon we meet one Charmie Jooste, a local councillor who comes highly recommended by Marthinus. He says the Fraserburg community has issues with pit toilets, an ageing power grid, access to healthcare and a dire need to tar the road linking up with Sutherland.
Councillor Charmie Jooste
“But we do not owe Eskom a cent,” he says proudly. And, in these times, that’s a thing indeed.
Jules has heard about a senior squad of riel dancers in town called Die Ouma Kappies Rieldans Groep, led by Tannie Katrina Goliath of the Ammerville township. We find her and a bunch of aged friends sitting in the sun at the old Congregational Church.
Within minutes, the chatty Tannie Katrina is explaining the intricacies of the Ostrich Riel, the Baboon Riel and the legendary askoek, which involves a tricky back-kick move.
Mammatjie’s in the Kitchen
In the meantime, I am inside the church kitchen area watching Mammatjie van Wyk flip pancakes with consummate skill. I’m eyeing out a couple of cinnamon-dusted numbers but alas, they’re all spoken for. Those oldies out there in the sun are having all the fun, it seems.
That night we meet up with the other Kliphuis guest, who turns out to be an old friend called Danie Hefers. He’s a one-man TV team working on the ongoing Northern Cape drought story for SABC’s Fokus programme. He says tomorrow something special is going to go down in Fraserburg.
The Gift of the Givers
And so it does. By mid-morning, three huge interlink trucks laden with hay bales and bearing the Gift of the Givers logo pitch up at the auction grounds to be met with a phalanx of grateful local farmers. A fourth is en route, currently delayed with gearbox problems somewhere outside Loxton.
“Gift” is delivering drought relief to Fraserburg in one of its first forays into the Karoo. The hay comes from up in Delmas at a subsidised price and Gift of the Givers is pitching in with deliveries.
Save a Farmer, Save a Town
The help has not arrived unscathed. One of the truck’s windscreens is a maze of cracks. Two drivers and their trucks were targeted by muggers last night in Beaufort West. But convoy leader Ali Sablay is exhilarated on this freezing cold day in Fraserburg.
“If you can save a farmer, you can save a farm, you save jobs and you save a town. You can carry on feeding your own citizens.”
Local relief organiser Elmar le Roux climbs onto the tailgate of a bakkie and calls the crowd to order. The men and women in the gathering bow their heads in prayer. Suddenly one feels great to be in South Africa, where Moslems, Christians and wandering souls like myself can occasionally pull together and do a good thing.
The Long Dry
That afternoon Elmar’s brother Pieter takes us on a drive out into the country to see the droughtlands. While the rest of SA has been filling its dams to the brim with excellent 2018 rains, there are still parts that are bone dry.
We travel through a blasted heath of a landscape, replete with ghost poplars and sheep that come charging up in the hope of something nourishing from the back of Pieter’s bakkie.
“I am a child of the drought,” he says. “The first time I ever saw rain I was already four years old. I ran outside, astonished to feel this wetness all over my body.”
Little Schoolhouse on the Veld
He takes us to a little corbelled house in the veld, where once 12 local farm children were schooled by a teacher who was also a fitness fanatic.
“The farmer came over one evening to see if she was alright and found her hanging upside-down from one of the beams in her undies, like a half-naked bat,” says Pieter. “The children loved to spy on her.”
It suddenly comes upon me. To survive out here in the Hard Man’s Karoo like Pieter, Elmar and their father Piet, you need to have your head screwed on right. But you also need a sense of humour.
Back to the Bakkie
The next morning there’s one more thing I have to clear up, before saying goodbye to Ronel and Herman at Die Kliphuis: what’s with the golden bakkie?
“Oh, it washed up under a tree during the Laingsburg flood of 1981,” says Herman. “I got it from a farmer in Merweville.”
Stop it. I can’t fit in yet another tale. And just to complete the never-ending fable of Fraserburg, the first snowflakes of late winter begin to drop like magic as we leave town.
- Tours: Marthinus Kruger
Tel: 061 058 5594
- Die Kliphuis Guest House:
Tel: 023 741 1870