Latest News! 6th September, 2018

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The DR church in Merweville The DR church in Merweville - Photo: KarooSpace.co.za

Time travel exists right here in SA

South Africa has no shortage of mountain passes and interesting places to write about and this week our featured pass of the week lies in the rugged mountains between Sutherland and Merweville. It's the small villages that pique our interest, so we decided to explore the history of Merweville in some detail. And what a treasure chest of stories we uncovered!

There's an immaculate grave site in the village that is lovingly tended by the local townsfolk, but what makes this grave-site so special is that it's more than 110 years old and fulfills a promise made back in 1902 by the local villagers.

An Englishman, that became an Australian that died for the Boers

This is the tragic story of yet another "Englishman's Grave" ~ On the outskirts of the village a signpost points the way to where a marble cross above a well-tended grave marks the final resting place of Lieutenant Walter Arnot from Australia who served with the British forces during the Anglo Boer War. His second name was 'Oliphant' which was particularly unusual and adds another question mark to this story.

Walter Arnot, was the son of Dr Henry Arnot, MD RN. He was born in Essex in England on 9 September 1860 and was educated at the Royal Naval School in New Cross, London. At the age of nineteen he moved to Australia to take up sheep farming and by the age of 20 was managing a large sheep station.

During the next eight years he held similar positions on other major sheep stations and was complemented on his stock management practices during a long drought. In 1888 he joined A Battery Field Artillery in Adelaide and was married in the same year. When the Anglo Boer war broke out in 1899 he joined the 3rd South Australian Contingent - the South Australia Bushmen Corps, as a sergeant. The Corps specialised in scouting and intelligence gathering. He arrived in Africa at the port of Beira in Portuguese East Africa and was promoted to lieutenant. [More lower down]

In April 1902 Lietenant Arnot found himself in the Laingsburg district and was engaged in a scouting patrol. He was accompanied by Private John Sparkes, of the 16th Lancers, who was stationed at Laingsburg and in charge of the Intelligence Department's horse unit and Abraham January, a scout and resident of Laingsburg. The patrol spent the first night at Blaaubank farm and rode on to Dwars River farm, near Sutherland, to interview Jacobus Adriaan Victor, "the only person in the district who spoke English". Here it would seem that Arnot developed a grea deal of sympathy for the Boer cause and resulted in Arnot falling into a deep depression.

Englishman's grave, Merweville / Photo: A.K.Cruywagen

At the inquest Victor said Arnot had been in "good spirits and quite jolly". But soon after that his mood seemed to change as the patrol rode via Modderfontein, Desyver and Van Wyksberg farms to Prince Albert Road. By the 15th of April, as Jacob stated at the inquest, "Arnot was not in his usual mood. He was very quiet and withdrawn. He had been particularly disturbed the previous night."

Just outside the tiny village of Merweville he took his rifle and a cartridge and walked towards a small hill. His companions thought he was going to shoot a bird as he had done before. Suddenly Abraham January shouted: "He's going to shoot himself!" Before they could reach him, he pulled the trigger.The inquest found he had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound "while in a state of temporary derangement."

Arnot was buried where he fell. His wife, Eleanor Seabrook, arranged for the erection of a memorial stone and the people of Merweville undertook to "tend his grave forever." This is a promise that has been honoured for more than 110-years since this tragic incident occurred.

Louder than the loudest thunder

In April 1903 a thunderous roar and a deafening explosion rocked the farms Jakkelsfontein and Tamboersfontein that could be heard as far away as Prince Albert Road and Merweville. Local farmers rushed to the scene of the explosion and discovered a meteorite that had plunged to the earth on the boundary of the two farms. The Jakkelsfontein meteorite was donated to the South African Museum in 1907. And who says nothing ever happens in Merweville!

The sleepy little town has seen periodic moments of excitement, such as some serious exploration for oil, but not a drop was found and in more recent times, geologists believed there might be platinum hiding beneath the Karoo shale, but once again, nothing of consequence was found.

He of the axe

You'll see the church steeple from a long way out of town and as you get closer, the stunning grey-stone church takes on a majesty of its own, completely dominating everything else in the village. The town was named after Pieter Van Der Merwe, the minister of the Dutch reformed church in Beaufort West at the time.

In 1897 the local farmers appealed to the church authorities to create a new parish. An offer was made to purchase a portion of the farm Vanderbylskraal from its owner who gloried in the name Johannes Jacobus Le Seur van der Byl. The sale was concluded for the sum of £4,500 and from this transaction the village of Merweville was born. The outbreak of the Anglo Boer War in 1899 interrupted the establishment and development of the village and it was only in 1905 that the land was transferred to the church and the village was formally established.

Van der Byl was an enterprising and entrepreneurial frontiersman and his well-managed farm was the pride of the district. The farm was located in a well-watered area fed by the river and several permanent fountains. The abundant water allowed him to develop an efficient irrigation system that ensured his vegetable gardens, orchards and pomegranate hedges flourished. As Vanderbylskraal thrived so the community attached to the farm grew. This meant that within a few years the nucleus of a village had developed around the Van der Byl homestead.

Judge, Jury and Executioner

In addition to houses and cottages surrounding the main house, there were store rooms, stables, sheds, a shop and post office. The farm often hosted post coach passengers. There was also a small police station and a jail. As the locally appointed magistrate, Van der Byl heard cases on petty offences and infringements of the law. He imposed fines, punishments and short-term sentences which were served in the farm jail.

During the Anglo-Boer War Van der Byl suffered the indignity of becoming a prisoner in his own farm jail. On a scouting mission one day a raiding Boer Commando under the command of Commandant Wynand Malan locked van der Byl in the little farm jail and rode off with the key. As there was no spare key, members of the farming community had to break into the jail to free the magistrate. The event remained forever a sore point with Van der Byl.

So next time you're in the Northern Cape and you're looking for something different, here's a South African town with a rich history made up by real earthy people. And if you can get to drive there via the Karelskraal Pass, then so much better! Don't forget to linger a while.......and find the place that makes the freshest pannekoek in the Karoo. 

* * * * *   K A R E L S K R A A L    P A S S   * * * * *

Upgraded videos added this week:

Grey's Pass (Historical) - The original gravel Thomas Bain built pass that approximately tracks the Piekenierskloof Pass

Jan Muller Pass - A short, steep (and rough) gravel pass that crosses the Gouritz River

Trygve Roberts

Thought for the day: "In a world of negativity, find your energy and be the positive light" ~ Anonymous 

[Information on Merweville courtesy of Karoo-SouthAfrica.com]

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