Sunday, November 11, 2007

In the Footprints of the Nuweveld Settlers

Outing to Carnarvon, the Petroglyphs and the Corbelled houses
(3 – 5 October 2007)

- Derek Thomas –

At the end of our trip, and seated on an immaculate green lawn in the shade of tall pine trees, we admired the garden with huge urns, a formal pond with fountain and Italian-style farmhouse. The sound of bleating sheep and the persistent call of young lambs in a camp on the edge of the lawn reminded us that we were not in Italy, but on a Karoo farm, Sakrivierspoort, with vast tracts of dry Karoo scrub just beyond the perimeter of the lush green garden. A group of fourteen Prince Alberters, all members of the Cultural Foundation, gathered for our last picnic after a memorable journey to see the petroglyphs, northwest of Vanwyksvlei. What were the highlights of our trip, asked our tour guide, Judy Maguire?

Most memorable perhaps was the visit to a remote ‘blink klip’ hill on the farm, Springbokoog, in the Vanwyksvlei district on the edge of Bushmanland. Dotted with "kokerbome" and boulders coated in a black shiny mineral patina colloquially described as "desert varnish", this site was used by the Bushmen as a sacred place to record images of animals, people and mythical creatures. The images were engraved, scratched or pecked into the black surface exposing the red colour of the unweathered dolerite rock underneath. To members of the party, the spirituality of the site was tangible.
Meeting the owner of the farm at Springbokoog, Rina van Wyk, added much to the experience. Rina farms sheep in this most remote part of our vast country. Always passionate about farming, she trained at the same agricultural college as her brothers, but it was only after many years in the teaching profession (farming being considered an unsuitable occupation for a woman) that the opportunity came for her to take over the family farm. It is thanks to her sensitivity that the pertroglyph site remains pristine. One still has the sense of discovery as one explores the site, the only hint that there might be something of interest being a rock placed on top a boulder to draw attention to the nearby presence of a petroglyph.
Other highlights included visits to farms that had corbelled houses, built by the very early settlers on the old trek routes during the early and mid-1800s. At Leyfontein, Willie and Sandra Nolte’s farm north-east of Loxton, one sees a fine example of corbelling. His grandfather went to school in one of the corbelled huts (in the mid 1880’s), indicating its use even within living memory. As trees were scarce, these circular dwellings had domed stone roofs created by the careful layering of flat stones projecting progressively inward towards the apex. Stone shelves were built into the walls of the simple interiors and animal horns were used as useful hooks for hanging objects. Small openings for ventilation and low doorways provided greater security.

The ingenuity and resourcefulness of these early inhabitants impressed us – an astonishing determination to remain and overcome the odds of living in such isolation in a remote, inhospitable landscape. The often large ‘asheaps’ with numerous broken old-fashioned pottery shards and glass told a story of long occupation and much eating and drinking. Another example of settler ingenuity was the ‘saaidamme’ where low-lying land adjacent to the Sak river was flooded, allowed to dry until cracks formed in the mud and then the seed was broadcast and the land was not watered again. This method of growing wheat produced a high yield and is still practised, as it was for millennia in Egypt.

Towns visited included Loxton and Carnarvon. Loxton is an example of many remote villages that are dying due to a lack of commercial viability. Attractive homes and the wide tree-lined streets with electric posts placed down the centre cannot compensate for the lack of facilities. With no shops and petrol only available from the Ko-op on week days, people find it hard to settle there and soon pack their bags and leave. We did however enjoy the warm hospitality of "Die Rooi Granaat", a charming tearoom that serves delicious country fare.

Our group spent the night at Jakhalsdans (spelt with an ‘h’) a hunting farm just outside Loxton. The homestead was an oasis in a vast barren landscape and we responded to the lush, elegant garden and beautiful interiors of the various dwellings. On closer inspection we realised that this was an operation on a vast scale where animals were brought there in trucks, then kept in a large boma and either auctioned or hunted on the farm. Members of our group felt ambivalent about this type of hunting operation.

Carnarvon, by contrast to Loxton, is a viable town with all the essential amenities. Wide streets lined with modest Karoostyle homes contrasted with more ornate Victorian homesteads. A feature is the wide streets and powerlines down the centre creating a car-free space where we were spectators to an informal game of cricket by the locals.

From Carnarvon, 7000 sheep carcasses are exported every week, providing a significant injection for the town’s economic sustainability. From the early 1800s its population has comprised the descendents of Xhosas, Basters, Khoi and Europeans. Marauding Zulu tribes from Natal once plundered the herds of cattle owned by the local inhabitants. Some stayed and became the forebears of many who still live in the town. One had a sense of an integrated community where property ownership was evenly distributed within the heart of the town. An immaculate information centre cum restaurant is run and owned by Alfred Vass, who speaks seven languages, and proudly acknowledges his Zulu forebears. It is a good place to gain insight into the town’s ‘rainbow’ culture.

As a group we all agreed that the immaculate planning for the trip by Judy, who willingly shared her wealth of knowledge, made the experience unforgettable. Thank you sincerely, Judy. May there be more of these enriching experiences in the future calendar of the Prince Albert Cultural Foundation.

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