Our Story Route
Our Story Route Information
The stories of the past have been part of Karoo life for thousands of years; from the time of the Bushman hunter-gatherers and the Khoikhoi herders, to the wandering pastoralists of Dutch, German and Huguenot descent and the English settlers who arrived on these parched plains during the 18th and 19th century.
These stories and legends were handed down from generation to generation, told under the clear Karoo night skies around the fire and this tradition continues unbroken. So if you want to hear them; take a dram of the locally distilled Withond and sometimes a pinch of salt and stand closer to the fire…
You may hear of the legendary Chief Hykon; Koebaha or Lord of the Inqua Tribe; rich in cattle and men. Or maybe Koeriekei; the Bushman leader who rebelled against the Dutch farmers and famously shouted from a cliff-top to his pursuers: "You have taken all the places where the Eland lived. Why do you not go back to where you came from, there where the sun sets?"
You may hear of Coenraad de Buys who rebelled against both the Dutch and the English. He stood nearly 7 ft tall and is reputed to have been the first white man across the Vaal River. He was a hunter, an outlaw with a price on his head, a cattle raider, an instigator of wars and also a warrior in the service of African allies and the lover of two African queens.
You may hear of the eccentric French naturalist and explorer Francois de Vaillant who roamed these parts in the 1780’s with a Chacma baboon called Kees that was his faithful travelling companion, guard, food taster and court jester. He became infatuated with a young Gonaqua woman called Narina and named in her honour the rare and beautiful bird known as the Narina Trogon.
He was also witness to the spectacular Springbok migrations across the Great Karoo. These so-called Trekbokke are said to have taken three days to pass by and to have drawn “princes and paupers to witness and hunt the great herds that would arise out of the dust trampling all before them, before melting away with the onset of summer rains…”
If the dram of Withond and the fire-side chats of the past have whet your appetite then be sure to read Karoo by Lawrence G. Green, Plains of Camdeboo by Eve Palmer and Karoo Keepsakes I & II by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit.
And for one of Graaff-Reinet’s authentic “stoepstories” or a bit of local gossip then look up that storyteller around the corner and take up that offer of tea and koek…and remember just don’t tell anyone I told you!
Visitors to our little dorp always ask me what the predominant language is, but here in Graaff-Reinet we have an efficient way of mixing our languages to give expression to emotion and sommer just because it sounds lekker.
The Story of Withond from 1929 - 1933
This little incident was perhaps symptomatic of the struggle of the ordinary man in the street of Graaff-Reinet to keep his head above water. The erfholders turned to a pursuit which they found very lucrative. Vineyard cultivation had always given them a good income, for the Graaff-Reinet grapes were well-known and had, prior to the Depression, received good prices in the surrounding centres, especially Port Elizabeth. But there were a large number who cultivated grapes in Graaff-Reinet and the competition was strong. As the Depression worsened the erfholders found that it did not pay them to pack, crate and send grapes by rail to the Port Elizabeth market.
Liquor distilling had always been a traditional activity in Graaff-Reinet and as the Depression continued many of the erfholders found that illegal distilling was their most profitable source of income. Prior to the Depression the Government had tightened the control on the distillation of spirits for sale, and by law the Graaff-Reinetters were allowed to distill only twenty-eight gallons of spirits per licence-holder and this amount was for personal use only. Having big surpluses of grapes they distilled quantities greatly in excess of the legal maximum, and sold this to the public. Their biggest customers were the railway workers and the non-Europeans.
The Graaff-Reinet grape, because of its high sugar content, was ideally suited to the distillation of brandy. This illegal brandy, named “Withond” was so potent that if you poured it on a table and lit it, it would burn. The erfholders also distilled a white wine and a red Jeripigo wine that was supposedly much sought after. Other favourite illegal liquors were what was called “Jan Groentjie” which was a peppermint liqueur, aniseed brandy and ginger brandy liqueur all of which were sold for 3 a bottle while withond sold for between 1 and 2 6 per bottle, with the odd good quality bottle, going 3 6 . The most lucrative part of the distilling process, and one which was not illegal, was the selling of the “mos”, which was the left-over must after the grapes had been crushed. This had a slight alcohol content and was sold for a “tickey a tot”, a tot being a full tin cup, to the non Europeans. This trade in must reached large proportions and there were numerous complaints from residents, of the increase of disorderliness and drunkenness of the non-Europeans in town. Apparently only a “small quota of liquor consumed by the coloured people is obtained from licensed houses, while natives cannot purchase any from this source”
The Coloured and Black people of Graaff-Reinet made extensive use of the “Illicit trade, through which any amount of intoxicants can be purchased at prices to suit the poorest pocket, and with no restrictions on the hours of trade”.
This illicit trade was further brought to the notice of the more upright citizens by the fact that most of the distilling was done by the agterstraters situated mainly at the western end of the town along Plasket Street. The native location was situated on the extreme eastern side of town, so to get their tot of must the location residents had to walk through town, and inevitably their behaviour on their return trip led to complaints, Jansen Street, leading off Plasket Street, was nicknamed slinger straat because of this return traffic of inebriated location residents.
The number of erfholders wanting to get into this must trade grew alarmingly. The possession of a licence to distill for personal use entitled one to sell must, so accordingly the number of distilling licences grew from eighty-nine in 1928 to one-hundred and thirty-two in 1930.
Early in 1930 a local Doctor, C.J.J van Heerden, discovered several cases of lead poisoning in his patients which he traced to several of the illicit distillers in the Plasket Street area. Apparently some of the newcomers to the business, being unable to afford the more expensive copper piping had used lead piping. Being threatened with prosecution by the doctor some of the distillers stopped their distilling, which was evident in the drop in licenses issued in 1931, a drop to one-hundred and nine from a peak of one-hundred and thirty-two in 1930.
Another problem for the distillers was the continual threat of unexpected visits from the Customs and Excise Officers, who would be checking on the legal quantities of liquor distilled, and the illegal distillers went to great lengths to hide their excess amounts. Some whose plots backed onto the Sunday’s River, hid their barrels in the river sand. Others had hidden cellars or false back cupboards.
During the “stooking” season a constant watch had to be kept for the police and police traps. One distiller, Dirk Olivier had a sawn off palm tree on the corner of his plot (Jansen and Plasket Streets). On the top of this tree he would hide a coloured boy who, having a clear view of the street, could warn the distillers of the approach of any suspicious looking characters or the police. This system was not without its comical side. One day, on being warned of the approach of the police the daughter of Withuis Jansen, an illegal distiller, hastily took a basket full of bottled withond and threw the bottles into their Lucerne plot. But the police had merely come to report the theft from the town commonage on the Jansen’s cow.
On another occasion two of these distillers, Piet Els and Kerneels Smit, were busy distilling in their cellar and Kerneels Smit’s wife did not have sufficient time to warn her husband and his partner of the approach of the police. There was only time for her to close the cellar door, raking gravel over it to disguise it, before the police arrived to make an inspection. While they did not discover anything suspicious, they did spend some time chatting to Smit’s wife. By the time the police left and she opened the cellar door, the two distillers, were overcome by the fumes were completely intoxicated, needing forty-eight hours to recover.
A favourite ploy of the police was to station a man with a pair of binoculars on the mountainside rising on the west of town, on the other side of the Sunday’s River. From this vantage point he was able to look down on the plots of the agterstraters, and to see who was distilling. One of the largest distillers, Withuis Jansen, took exception to this invasion of his privacy and loosed off a few rifle shots in the general direction of the mountain. When asked by the police for an explanation he merely replied that he was cleaning his rifle after a long spell of disuse. (Jansen could not be prosecuted as at that time it was still no offence to fire a weapon within municipal limits). The police thought it wise to curtail their surveillance operations and Jansen became the toast of the local distillers for some months afterwards. The police also tried to use non-Europeans in an endeavour to catch the distillers selling their illegal liquor, but I some way it was always known who was to be used as the trap, and so the distillers were prepared.
The police even resorted to the use do marked money but Graaff-Reinet was a small community and in the hard times being experienced by everyone there was considerable sympathy for the distillers.
At one stage the police decided to bring in outsider to help them. But according to the police regulations any member of the police force has first to report to the station commander of the district into which he moves before he can go about his duty, and the arrival of these newcomers was always promptly reported to the distillers. Only once was a distiller caught in his illegal trading. A C.I.D. detective from Port Elizabeth, one de Villiers, was sent into the area. On his own de Villiers arrived in civilian clothes and went straight to Withuis Jansen, introduced himself asking to buy some of Jansen’ Withond which had been recommended to him. Quite unsuspecting, Jansen sold him some bottles of his finest and was promptly charged for illicit distilling. Jansen complained bitterly of this underhand way of being caught, but paid his fine. But the lucrative business of illegal distilling nevertheless continued since it enabled many an erfholder to pay for his children’s education. Illegal distilling was by no means frowned upon by the townspeople as the “agterstraters het hulself gehou met die verkoop van Withond” . So much so that Withuis Jansen used to pay his year’s water rate entirely with “tickeys”. Obviously the proceeds from his must sales.
Withond is still made at Reinet House for tourism purposes and can be bought at Reinet House.
Mangoliso Robert Sobukwe`s Story
M R Sobukwe identified with the Africanists within the ANC and was for two years editor of The Africanist.
He broke away from the PAC, an exclusively African organisation which, he hoped, would carry out the decisive thrust against apartheid
The break caused a deep rift within the ranks of South Africa`s black nationalists which has lasted to this day.
Under Sobukwe the PAC organised mass demonstrations against the pass laws which he regarded as being the lynch pin of the apartheid system. It was during one of these demonstrations that he was arrested on charges of incitement outside Orlando police station in Soweto. The date was March 21 1960, the day of the Sharpeville shootings.
He was sentenced to three years imprisonment but when that expired he was held in detention for a further six years under a special amendment of the Suppression of Communism Act ( which subsequently became known as the “Sobukwe Clause”)
During his time in prison he completed a correspondence degree in economics through London University.
In mid-1969 M R Sobukwe was released from Robben Island and sent to Kimbereley where he was placed under a five-year banning order. The order was renewed for a further five years in 1974.
On two occasions after his release from detention he was offered academic posts in the United States but was refused permission to leave the country. In 1975 he qualified as an attorney, a profession which he followed after that.
Despite all he suffered, Sobukwe never lost his sense of dignity or his gentleness towards those who persecuted him.
He died on 27 February 1978 and was buried in Graaff-Reinet. He left behind his wife, Zodwa Veronica and his daughter Miliswa and sons Dinilesizwe, Dedanizizwe and Dalindyebo.
The Royal Block
The name uMasizakhe means “We built it ourselves” and is a suburb which officially started its development around 1857 when an influx of starving Xhosas came to the district after the devastating “cattle killing” that took place following the visions of the young Nongqause, the Xhosa prophetess in 1856.
Some of the original houses were built from materials to hand namely dolorite rocks mixed with mud and mud bricks. The mud houses were thatched and round in the Khoi style with reed mats for roofing. Soon they developed their own style of building, a fine example of which is “The Royal Block”.
The Royal Block was constructed during the early 20th century as the buildings are built of brick and cement and have flat corrugated-iron roofs. Although reminiscent of Stretch’s Court these homes are semi-detached and of a uniform style and size indicating that these homes were built as one construction phase. The individual homes are also much smaller in size which gives one the impression that they were built as lodgings for men. In my opinion this points to only one possibility and that is that labourers were housed there during the construction of the Van Ryneveld’s Pass Irrigation Dam in the 1920’s. Find below an extract from “Nqweba Dam – Supplying water to the thirsty Karoo” by Lani van Vuuren which supports this view.
“As was typical of that time, one’s position and one’s race very much dictated what lodgings one would be afforded on site. All white (skilled) quarters were constructed of brick under an iron roof. The married quarters consisted of pairs of semi-detached cottages with flat roofs while single quarters comprised single rooms with small kitchen attached. The staff (mainly engineers) lived in single cottages with pitched roofs. All the houses had water laid on to near the kitchen door and were supplied with electric light. Black employees, who made up the whole of the unskilled work contingent, were housed in two brick compounds, each capable of accommodating 200 men. When the number of black staff rose to 700 between July-November 1923 the extra men had to be accommodated in huts made of cement bags.”
The name "Royal" Block probably originates from the fact that the men living in this street lived like royalty compared to the rest of the labour force who lived in cement bag huts.
The Bed Grave
Near the roadside between Aberdeen and Graaff-Reinet, in the middle of the veld, lies an old cast iron bedstead.
According to legend this is the grave of a woman who took ill and died while the family were trekking by ox-wagon through the Karoo. They were not from the area and so had no farm or town to return to for a proper burial in a cemetery. Her husband therefore buried her next to the road and touchingly used their marital bed to mark and protect her grave, and proceeded on the journey with the rest of the family.
Cast iron beds only became commonplace in the late 19th century so it is unlikely to have been from the time of the Great Trek.
Although the true facts will probably never be known, the grave site can be easily seen on the left on the N9 to Aberdeen, about 25 km from Graaff-Reinet. It remains undisturbed despite recent road construction in the area and lies on private property.
Anglo Boer War Grave Site at Mount Camdeboo
September marks the 110th anniversary of the Battle of Paardefontein which took place in the hills of Mount Camdeboo, bringing an to the pursuit of Commandant Johannes Lotter, believed to be one of the last Boer rebels. No visit at Mount Camdeboo is complete without a visit to this battle site and stirring account of this remarkable story.
It is the stuff legends are made of. Deep in the Camdeboo Valley, at a farm once known as Paardefontein, which today forms part of the much larger Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve, Anglo-Boer War hero Hannes Lotter’s luck finally ran out.
The year was 1901 and Lotter, then only 26 and a former barman from Nieu-Bethesda, had established himself as one of the Boers’ toughest commando leaders. This bitter, ugly war was nearing its end and Lotter’s was the last commando yet to be captured by the British, who had heard whispers of their elusive enemy’s activities for many months, but had repeatedly failed to engage Lotter and his men. It was a half-starved band of men, some mere boys, who found shelter in a sheep kraal on the farm on the fateful night of September 5 1901. Their clothes were reduced to rages and their shoes so worn that many only had sheepskins on their feet. And they might well have remained safe had it not been for the worst kind of bad luck – or so we believe.
The 9th Lancers ’A’ Squadron, having got wind of Lotter and his rebels were hiding out on the farm, presumed they would be stationed at the old farmhouse. It being a dark and miserable night, they rode right past the kraal, totally unaware of Lotter and his men’s presence. Then, after everyone had passed, one of the solders at the back dropped his rifle. The Boers woke up with a start and, believing the man to be a scout, shot him on the spot. This alerted the rest of the squadron, and a shoot-out ensued. Hopelessly outnumbered, many of the Boers lost their lives and the rest were captured, while the English too recorded several fatalities. Some of the injured were treated at farms in the areas, including at Camdeboo Manor, today one of Mount Camdeboo’s magnificently restored farm houses.
Lotter was captured and later killed by firing squad in Middelburg, where he is buried. He is still regarded as something of a hero by many Afrikaners. Lotter’s story has been well documented by Taffy Shearing, who did her Master’s degree on the Anglo-Boer wars some years ago. Shearing and her husband wrote Commandant Johannes Lotter and his Rebels, which is part of their Cape Commando series, and still a popular purchase by visitors to Mount Camdeboo and also the Graaff-Reinet region.
For Guided Tours in and around Graaff-Reinet contact:
Camdeboo Adventures www.karoopark.co.za
Jacobs Donkey Cart rides
For further information visit Nieu-Bethesda Tourism web site https://www.nieu-bethesda.org
History of the Cemetries
For further information visit the Aberdeen Tourism web site https://www.aberdeencape.org
Our Story Route Points of Interest