Thoughts in a Karoo Graveyard

cradock cemetery
The main Cradock cemetery on a misty autumn morning – full of atmosphere and legend.

Text and Pix by Chris Marais

It’s one of those misty autumn mornings here in the Karoo, the perfect time to be strolling about the Cradock graveyard.

I can hear the resident harrier hawk, a juvenile by the sound of his hunting cry, as he sails through the grove of pine trees in search of breakfast.

Across the Great Fish River, the first train of the morning passes through on its way up to Johannesburg. The massive overnight trucks in the main street begin to ready themselves for the day’s driving, grumbling and growling their way past the fast-food joints.

Here in the cemetery, thick mist swirls about the old gravestones and statues, some headless, and I can’t help dwelling on a story I just heard from a long-time local.

cradock graveyard
The gathered gravesites framed by morning mist and a grove of pine trees.

The Husband at the Graveside

There was a man who lost his wife and was inconsolable.

On most nights after she was buried here, he would take a camp chair, a lantern and a book out to her graveside. There, he would sit and read to her until bedtime, when he would pack up and leave.

Cradock used to have two movie houses in the old days.

Every so often, the bereaved man would drive down to the cemetery dressed in his “going-out clothes”. He would “escort” his wife from her grave to his car, help her in and drive off to the movies.

There, he would open the door for her, let her out and buy two entrance tickets. During the movie, he would offer her chocolates.

And afterwards, he would take her back to the cemetery, open the passenger door and allow her spirit to alight.

I know that Cradock has many hard stories, some of them still in progress. But this one lifts my soul very high.


cradock eastern cape
The stone of Harry Wood, who was once the official Timekeeper of the Union of South Africa.

The Man Who Kept the Time

Here’s a simple black stone in the ground that only says:

“Harry Edwin Wood – Astronomer”

Mr Wood, history records, was the the second director of the Union Observatory in Johannesburg, and the Franklin-Adams Star Camera fell under his care. Wood was also famous for his discovery of 12 asteroids and three minor planets. The asteroid 1660 Wood was discovered by colleague Jacobus Bruwer but named in Wood’s honour

In 1941 he retired and came to farm in the Mortimer area near Cradock. Legend has it Mr Wood, the one-time National Timekeeper, used to drive all the way in to Cradock (30km) to synchronise his wristwatch with the time on the steeple clock of the Dutch Reformed Mother Church. The one that looks like St Martins in the Field, Tragalgar Square, London. He died in 1946.

Nearby stands the imposing stone belonging to General Pieter Hendrik Kritzinger, who fought the British in this district during the South African (Anglo-Boer) War.

Gen Kritzinger was one of the Boer warriors who led their British pursuers a “devil’s dance” from the Free State through the Karoo Midlands, from Graaff-Reinet to Willowmore, Aberdeen all the way across to Cradock.

This intrepid Boer guerrilla fighter also farmed around here, and later became a member of the Cape Provincial Council. Although a fine soldier, he was also known as a ‘gentlemanly general’, and after the war his attitude to the British softened considerably. In fact, the good General was a bit of an agricultural guru to young British immigrants arriving in Cradock to set up a farming life.

You used to be able to find the graves of the four Cape Rebels who were executed in Cradock in front of the Victoria Hotel, and buried here. However, the devastating floods of 1974 washed them away.

cradock cemetery
The mist lends “story atmosphere” to a walk around the Cradock cemetery.

The Rebel Who Hanged

One of those executed was the 16-year-old Johannes Petrus Coetzee, captured in a fight in the Stormberg area. He thought they would treat him as a POW. They charged him as a rebel, convicted him of treason and made all the Afrikaners in Cradock come down to the centre of town and watch the hanging.

I can just imagine the bitterness this evoked, and the subsequent fallout in the local community.

Nearly 70 British soldiers lie buried on these grounds. Some of them came back to Cradock after the Anglo-Boer War and made a life here.

One of them could have been a Harry Potter. It’s quite weird, really. Everyone seems to know something about most graves in this cemetery. No one, however, can tell me anything about this Harry Potter grave right in the centre of what a local chap calls “The Valley of the Stiffs”.

harry potter cradock
Tell the world – Harry Potter lies buried in Cradock, Karoo Heartland.

Harry Potter – Beloved Husband

All we know is that this Harry was a beloved husband who died on July 27, 1910 at the age of 46. Some say he was once stationed here with the Brit forces and liked it so much that he spent the rest of his years in the area.

Either way, I really think JK Rowling needs to find out about this particular gravesite, for obvious reasons.

The tall heaven-pointing plinth with the Freemason’s mark at its base belongs to the Koettlitz couple.

Dr Reginald Koettlitz was famous for being, according to his description:

“An explorer and traveller, surgeon and geologist to Expeditions North Polar and Abyssinia and with Scott to the Antarctic”.

Best known for his trip with Captain Scott on his first mission to the Antarctic, the story goes that Dr Koettlitz somehow neglected to add enough Vitamin C to the polar pioneers’ diet. This was attributed by some critics as having led to the Scott Party being in a weakened state before they perished on the second expedition.

Dr Koettliz was exonerated some years later – after all, Scott himself should have realised that, after the first trip, there would be a good chance of getting scurvy if they weren’t fed enough Vitamin C.

Look again at the Koettlitz stone, and you will notice that he died on January 10, 1916, and that his wife, Marie Louise, died a scant two hours after him. They are both interred at this site.

spanish flu cradock
The Brothers Botha, struck down by the Spanish ‘Flu of 1918.

Victims of the Spanish ‘Flu

Along the path, there’s another large memorial to the Brothers Botha, who died on October 25, 1918, of Die Spaanse Griep – the Spanish ‘Flu.

The word “’flu” does not really do descriptive justice to this dreaded infection which killed 20 million people around the world – 500 000 of them being right here in South Africa.

The Johannesburg Star records:

  • Now there were more than 1,000 dead in Kimberley. And they’d run out of coffins in some towns;
  • A man called William Hill working at East Rand Proprietary Mine collapsed across the machinery in the winding house at 3am one day while the cage was coming up. It crashed into the headgear, killing 19.
  • Doctors and nurses were dying. People checking on relatives living on the platteland found farmhouses as silent as the grave.

The Spanish ‘Flu epidemic of 1918 (and the fateful Black October in particular) was judged at the time to be the “single most devastating episode in the demographic history of South Africa.”

cradock cemetery
Many of the infant gravestones tell the story of the child’s passing.

Where The Children Lie

Which brings us to the children’s section of the cemetery, where wistful cherubs with downcast eyes guard the graves of babes, the pained messages of their parents on the stones almost too poignant to bear.

And as the mist clears, I see vandals have beheaded many of the little statues.

Frontier life took its toll on the offspring of the pioneers and settlers along the Great Fish River. The Spanish ‘Flu was but one of the many causes of infant death.

Stephen Mullineux, a neighbour who works at Water Affairs, knows quite a lot about Cradock’s history. He meets us down at the cemetery one day, where he indicates the graves of the four suicides buried in the cemetery.

stephen mullineux, cradock
Stephen Mullineux, who has made something of a hobby out of researching the history of Cradock.

Guided by Stephen Mullineux

They face west. All the other graves face the rising sun.

Stephen shows us the grave of one Louis Levenstein, who has an etching of a rugby ball on his stone. The inscribed dedication tells one that Louis died in Adelaide during a rugby match.

Nearby is another sports fan’s grave, that of Luzarian Vernon Holland. The stone is green and the base depicts an entire rugby field.

On the way out, I notice the stone of one Peter Sidey, buried in 1864 with the help of the Cradock Teetotal Society.

Hmm. I know we’ve got a Bridge Club, a 4X4 Club and an Afvalgilde (The Guild of Honorable Tripe-Eaters), but I never knew we had a Teetotal Society. I don’t think we have one any more…

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6 thoughts on “Thoughts in a Karoo Graveyard

  1. Réhann Coetzee says:

    In July of last year I was on a motorcycle tour of the Karoo in a group of nine bikers.

    We stopped at the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital at Deelfontein (the first battlefield hospital in the world to use X-rays). Then we went to the cemetery adjacent to it.

    You cannot visit a cemetery and not have a spiritual experience. Also, at a war-time cemetery you cannot help but experience some of the bitterness that the parents of the fallen must feel. In my report on the trip, I felt inspired enough to write this:

    “Die name en datums op die grafte laat jou duidelik onder die indruk dat dit ou mans is wat in ’n kantoor sit en ’n oorlog beplan en jong manne wat ver, ver van die huis af sterf.”
    (The names and dates on the graves leave you with a very clear impression that it is old men sitting in offices who plan wars and young men who die far, far from home.)

  2. John Cross says:

    Nice post Rehann, very true sentiment. On a recent visit to the war graves section at the Bethlehem Cemetery I took a number of pics and spent an interesting couple of hours on the net researching some of the background to the epitaphs there. A visit to a graveyard need not be a morbid experience but rather an opportunity to put a more human slant on the local history.

  3. Catherine Norton says:

    There is a fascinating headstone in the old graveyard in Bedford that I have always wondered about – I cannot remember the name now, but the inscription was “born in Barbados, died in Bedford”, in the mid 1880’s. How the hell did that happen? Was he a pirate? A smuggler?

  4. Patrick Cox says:

    I passed through Cradock eighteen months ago on my way from Bloemfontein to PE, and could not help but be struck by how much it has changed since my last visit now over 30 years ago. The same goes for many other small towns I knew and visited in the 1960s and 70s. My great grandparents are buried in the old cemetery in Alice, which, from what I can make out from Google Earth, has all but vanished from neglect. If anyone has images from there, I’d be grateful if I could see them.

    In answer to the question about a man born in Barbados and buried in Bedford (another town I once knew …), the answer is probably similar to the situation in my family – it is probably the grave of an ‘army brat’, the child of a man serving in the British Army, very likely an NCO or Officer who had his family with him. My own grandfather was born at Fort Glamorgan for this reason, the youngest of three sons. It was not unusual for such children to eventually follow their father’s into a Regiment. There are a lot of people even today in the UK born in India and other parts of the ‘Empire’ as it was, on military bases, and then, when old enough, sent ‘home’ for schooling at one of the Military schools.

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