Legends of Victoria West

Text and Photographs by Chris Marais

Victoria West lies at the end of a dog-leg between Carnarvon and Britstown at the Junction of the R63 and the N12 main roads. At one stage in the 1880s, it was a major stop-over for prospectors and adventurers heading from Cape Town to the diamond fields around Kimberley and Hopetown.

The village was originally established in 1844 to serve the wool-producing farm community in the area. For 23 years, it was a modest settlement built around the Dutch Reformed Church.

Downtown Victoria West – a farmer’s town with colourful components.

In 1871, a massive flood took the lives of 62 locals as a wall of water swept down the valley through the town. And then it was dry again. Records indicate that only 26mm of rain fell throughout 1922.

Victoria West was also on the international air routes from Cape Town because the Dakotas in those days could not load up enough fuel to get themselves to Johannesburg, Durban or London without first stopping here. There was a miniature Arrivals/Departure Hall, the air tower atop of which the Air Traffic controller would call the shots.

This tiny Upper Karoo spot became, for a few heady decades, world famous. It was central during the Wool Boom of the 1950s when wool sold a pound for a pound, and Karoo farmers’ wives flew to shop in Johannesburg or (according to local legend) even in London, via Harare and Nairobi.

The Victoria West airfield that once lay on an international flight route

There’s an old print shop behind a lawyer’s office near the church, with Original Heidelberg printing presses, paper guillotines, piles of printer’s trays, and rows of lead type ready to be arranged and stacked into this week’s news of note. This was once the home of the venerable Victoria West Messenger, a very old country newspaper. It is currently being published out of Calvinia.

Displays at the Victoria West Museum provide more detail on prehistory (fossils, Stone Age, rock art), the South African (Anglo-Boer) War, vegetation, old lifestyles, the well-known Apollo Theatre, the disastrous town flood, and the Victoria West Messenger.

Printer’s tray in the old print shop of the Victoria West Messenger newspaper.

There is also a section dedicated to local-born World War II fighter pilot ace Daniel Hugo, who honed his shooting skills hunting springbok in the Karoo, and joined the Royal Air Force at the start of World War II. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Order, Distinguished Flying Cross (UK), Distinguished Flying Cross (USA) and the French Croix de Guerre.

He was credited with 22 aerial kills and involved in the sinking of 20 enemy ships in his time. At one stage, the Victoria West community raised 4 000 pounds to pay for a new Spitfire fighter for their hero. It was simply called ‘Karroo’.

The Apollo Theatre on the main road is the longest-surviving Art Deco cinema in South Africa. It was built by a Greek immigrant called Andrew Aristides Bassil in 1923 and enlarged in the ‘50s. After the mid-1970s advent of television in SA, the theatre closed down. However, it was later opened again and is run under the auspices of the Apollo Development Association, and hosts a regular programme of special events, live performances and feature films.

Well-preserved blockhouse, a remnant of the South African (Anglo-Boer) War.

ACCOMMODATION

Website: www.caroskaroo.co.za

MEALS

  • Applous Café : Tel: 082 464 2690 or Email: contessakruger@gmail.com
  • Karoo Deli: Tel: 053 6210 453 or 082 772 3530 or Email: karoodeli@gmail.com
  • Merino Restaurant: Tel: 053 621 0730
  • Ka’roux Restaurant: Tel: 083 788 0802
  • Merino Junction Hotel & Bar: Tel: 082 613 6381

ATTRACTIONS:

  • Apollo Theatre: Tel: 067 062 9278 or 082 464 2690 or Email: ada@gmail.com
  • Victoria West Regional Museum: Tel: 053 621 0413 or 082 852 8618

Victoria West Tourism Info: Tel: 067 062 9278 or Email: victoriawest.tourism@gmail.com

Northern Cape Tourism Authority: www.experiencenortherncape.com

For an insider’s view on life in the Karoo, get the Three-Book Special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Moving to the Platteland – Life in Small Town South Africa by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais for only R720, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at julie@karoospace.co.za

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