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From the Karoo down to Table Mountain

From the Karoo . . . . . . .

The ever mysterious, moody, Karoo. One’s first impression of this arid landscape is that it seems endless. It stretches from one far horizon to the other and there is a silence and an atmosphere of beauty and ancient mystery that hang in the air. The Karoo has its own unique beauty which should be experienced by all who live in and visit South Africa. One will only understand the beauty of the Karoo once having been there.

The Hottentots named the Karoo, meaning ‘land of thirst’. The name was used to describe the high-lying central plateau of Southern Africa, which projects down over much of the interior of the Western, Northern and Eastern Cape provinces. The area is drought-stricken and bare of surface water. Scientists, however, use the name Karoo to describe a vast system of sediments laid down between 150 and 250 million years ago. This system covers two-thirds of the surface of Southern Africa. In the north the Karoo System is better watered, and the land there is covered with grass and trees but beneath this green mantle, the soil and rocks are exactly the same as in the south.

The thickness of this sedimentary deposit is so great (more than 1200 meters) that the source of the material which comprises it is a mystery. Perhaps an earlier landscape totally disintegrated or vast eruptions of volcanic matter reached the surface only to be eroded by heavy rains and dispersed in complex layers of sedimentary rocks, mud-stones and shales. What the scientists know as the Karoo (or Karroo) System was laid down in three main layers, all abundant in fossils.

At the bottom of the Karoo lies the Dwyka Series, a layer 900 meters thick and consisting of pebbles, boulders and rocks which have engraved on their surfaces the typical scars and grooves of glacial activity. This material is surrounded by mud-stone and moraine and appears to be the debris left behind by an ice age. A profound change had obviously taken place in the climate of the southern hemisphere. A period of warmer weather was beginning and in the upper levels of these rocks fossils of small reptiles, fish, molluscs and plant leaves can be found. At that time the surface of the centre of South Africa must have been a slimy mixture of mud and scarred rocks with the sun slowly warming the whole mixture creating a steamy swamp.

From this mixture a layer of shales and sandstones 3 000 meters thick was formed. Known as the Ecca Series and this layer contains the great bulk of South Africa’s coal and carbonaceous shale deposits. Tantalizingly, the deposits must once have contained vast quantities of oil, but with no adequate rock strata underneath to act as a reservoir, this oil simply soaked into the depths of the earth. In the Ecca Series are enormous fossil plants and trees. Tree stumps have been discovered, still preserved in their original growing positions, and it seems that what is now the arid Karoo must at that time have been a tropical forest densely covered with trees.

The third deposit of the Karoo System lies above the Ecca Series. Known as the Beaufort Series, this is 6oo meters thick and rich in fossil reptiles including dinosaurs and amphibious creatures with mammalian features. The Beaufort Series is the surface of the arid expanse of the Karoo as it is in the Cape provinces today.

Since the days of the mighty freshwater swamps, times have changed in the interior of the Cape and the basin shaped surface of the Karoo is now in the grip of drought. The little rainfall which does fall is highly erratic and tends to come in violent thunderstorms and these are short and powerful causing flash floods which pour down normally dry watercourses and are always welcomed gratefully.

The surface of the Karoo is protected by only scanty vegetation. The periodic floods cause considerable erosion, and this gives the area its distinctive appearance. Strangely shaped rocks cover the plains and watercourses gash the surface with erratic, eroded miniature ravines. A remarkable feature of the Karoo landscape is the intrusion of hard, dolerite rocks into the sedimentary materials. At some stage after the great thicknesses of the Karoo sediments had been laid down under fresh water, a mass of molten rock was forced to the surface from the underground melting pot.

In attempting to penetrate the different layers of sediments, this molten matter found lines of weakness and spread vertically and horizontally. On the surface the vertical exposures of dolerite resemble the Great Wall of China and from the air these long, natural walls of dark, hard rock, known as dykes, meander over the Karoo, appearing and vanishing with unexpected abruptness.

The horizontal layers, known as sills, have had an even stranger effect on the landscape. In places where sections of these sills remain, they form a hard roof over the soft sediments beneath them. Rainstorms steadily erode the unprotected soil around the dolerite ‘umbrellas’. A hillock emerges with its summit capped with dolerite and the famous koppie, a scenic emblem of South Africa, is created. Eventually these dolerite caps are themselves eroded away. The entire koppie then disappears, borne away in a few seasons of rainstorms.

In the early mornings or late afternoons, when the sun is oblique and the air cool, one sees the Karoo in its most enigmatic and magnificent moods. The dawns and sunsets are like vast volcanic eruptions of red, orange and golden light. The air is clear as crystal, and the nights are brilliant with many more stars than are normally visible to the human eye. On warm summer nights these stars twinkle and glow, and on frosty winter nights they seem to be frozen fragments of ice shivering in a jet-black sky.

Beaufort West – Just more than 150 millimeters of rain fall annually in Beaufort West a relative abundance that has earned it the title of ‘the oasis town’. It is the only town in Africa with streets shaded by pear trees. The town was established in 1820 on the banks of the intermittently flowing Gamka River and was named after the fifth Duke of Beaufort. In 1837 Beaufort West became the first municipality in South Africa and now the Karoo’s largest town is also known as ‘the capital of the Karoo’.

The town became prosperous with the introduction of merino sheep to the area. One of its early citizens, Sir John Charles Molteno, a wool trader, founded the town’s first bank in 1854. He went on to become the first prime minister of the Cape.

The first edition of Beaufort West’s local newspaper, The Courier, was printed in 1869 and when the railway reached the town in 1880 Beaufort West became a marshalling yard and locomotive depot.

The town hall now houses a history museum and has been proclaimed a national monument. Among its exhibits are 19th century domestic implements, early firearms and 100s of photographs. The town is a staging post on the road from Cape Town to Johannesburg.

Laingsburg - Where the main railway and road to the north cross the Buffels (Buffalo) River the town of Laingsburg grew from its origins as a trading post. In 1881 it was named after John Laing who was a senior civil servant in the lands department of the Cape. Because so many of its buildings date back to the Victorian period the town is an excellent example of a South African dorp (‘country town’). The buildings then were made of corrugated iron, wrought iron decorative work and heavy imported building materials. The gardens of Laingsburg are bright with colourful flowering creepers, pears, quinces, figs, pomegranates and grapes.

North of the town, where the road and the railway cross a tributary of the Buffels River stands a well preserved double storey Anglo Boer War blockhouse building which is now a historical monument.

Matjiesfontein - In the 1890s a Cape Government Railway Official by the name of James Logan found health and fortune in the Karoo. Suffering from a chest complaint he applied for a transfer to the Karoo and he found it so beneficial to his health that he settled there. He bought a farm and named it Tweedside. He planted trees and wheat and built a fine farm house. For water he drilled bore holes and steadily acquired a vast land holding.

Among James Logan’s properties was the area around the railway station of Matjiesfontein (‘bulrush fountain’). There was nothing much in this area when he acquired it, only some corrugated iron railway sheds and old bits of iron machinery. It was a most improbable site for any development, but James Logan saw and thought otherwise.

Locomotives hauling trains across the Karoo were thirsty, and so were the passengers. Logan piped water to Matjiesfontein from his farm boreholes and sold it to the railways. He opened a restaurant on the station and while the locomotives replenished their water tanks he served meals and drinks to the passengers. He even went so far as to start a carbonated water plant and quenching thirsts in the arid Karoo proved to be big business. A steam locomotive consumed about 250 000 liters of water between Touws River and De Aar and there were few sources of supply but James Logan had it covered.

Logan was a Scotsman who had arrived in South Africa in 1877 and was penniless. He went on to build a grand, Victorian style hotel at Matjiesfontein and he named it after Lord Milner. From its opening it became highly fashionable with flowers and fountains in its beautiful garden. The air was crisp and clear which attracted sufferers of lung complaints, of course promoted by James Logan himself.

Matjiesfontein was accessible by train and the food was splendid, famous for the Karoo lamb and local springbok venison. It was said that the water rejuvenated the jaded and weary. Logan ornamented his village with lamp posts he imported from London. He also brought out two teams of British cricketers to play at Matjiesfontein. George Lohmann who was one of the English cricketing greats decided to settle in Matjiesfontein as well.

Unfortunately the Anglo-Boer War drastically changed Matjiesfontein and it became a military headquarters and a marshalling ground for troops. Famous regiments were quartered there and the beautiful ’Lord Milner Hotel’ became a hospital. War correspondents such as Edgar Wallace used the little post office’s brass telegraph key to send urgent military messages.

At the end of the war, Matjiesfontein was restored to its owner and he died in 1920 but his son James continued the business and added many ornaments and hunting trophies. Today Matjiesfontein remains perfectly preserved and is owned by descendants of the founder. All the original buildings, the London lamp posts, the hotel, fountain, post office, are still here and it is a favoured weekend retreat from Cape Town and a unique stopover for travellers along the Cape to Johannesburg road, the M1.

Prince Albert - A 42 kilometer road runs from the railway station of Prince Albert Road eastwards towards the end of the Karoo, the barrier of the Swartberg range. At one stage this road was is such bad condition that it was jokingly said to have been built by the British Navy. There is now tar road and is a major scenic route with its dramatic approach to the Swartberg Mountain range. Prince Albert is noted for its fruit, especially peaches and also Olives. The old watermill in Prince Albert is now a historical monument.

Touws River - When the first railway line was built from Cape Town to the north the first major staging post was built on the banks of the Touws River (‘river of the pass’).  This served as locomotive depot and marshalling yard and was positioned at the summit of the Hex River mountain pass.

A town of railway men and their families settled here. Steam locomotives still work the branch line from Touws River to Ladismith and behind the Douglas Hotel are two concrete pillars on which astronomical instruments used to observe the transit of Venus were mounted in 1882. The sightings enabled a measurement of the distance between the sun and the earth to be made. These pillars too have been proclaimed a national monument.

. . . . . . . . Table Mountain

Table Mountain is unquestionably one of the world’s most famous landmarks and is one of South Africa’s most popular tourist attractions and provides the city of Cape Town with a dramatic setting of unrivalled beauty. It has been fittingly described as the ‘Old Grey Father’ of Cape Town for without Table Mountain the city would probably not exist. Visible at times as far as 200 kilometers out to sea the mountain has made anchorage in Table Bay much easier and has offered shelter to very many sailors and explorers.

Table Mountain is a vast sandstone block 350 million years old and it is 1086 meters high and its northern face is a sheer precipice more than 3 kilometers long. From a distance this great cliff appears to be unbroken, but closer inspection reveals a deep cleft called Platteklip Gorge splits the mass from base to summit.

Mountaineers have found more than 360 routes to the summit, ranging from easy scrambles to dangerous climbs but unfortunately many climbers have been killed on the mountain. The aerial cableway was built in 1929 and enables visitors to reach the summit from Kloof Nek. The summit is marked by Maclear’s Beacon which forms one of a triangle of survey points used to map the whole of South Africa.

Devil’s Peak – The top of Devil’s Peak is 1001 meters high and flanks the eastern side of Table Mountain. It was originally known as the Wind Mountain but has taken its present name from a local legend named Van Hunks.  He was a retired pirate who spent his days sitting beneath a clump of trees at Breakfast Rock which was a large boulder on the saddle of land between Devil’s Peak and Table Mountain. Van Hunks used to smoke rum soaked tobacco and as legend has it was confronted by the devil one day who challenged him to a smoking contest. Hence the legendary name Devil’s Peak.

Lion’s Head - This strikingly beautiful peak is 669 meters high and is connected to Table Mountain by a saddle of land known as Kloof Nek. Some say the last lion of the Cape Peninsula was shot on its slopes and others fancy the mountain resembles a lion’s head with Signal Hill as the rump and the connecting ridge forming the body.

Years ago a man stationed on the summit of Lion’s Head signaled the approach of ships by firing a small cannon and this warning was relayed to the interior by other cannons mounted at various vantage points in the area. A path spirals to the top of Lion’s Head with chains to help climbers up the steep sections and from the summit there is a superb panorama of the city and the.

Rhodes Memorial - Was built in 1912 on a site particularly beloved by him. It is an impressive monument designed by Francis Masey and Sir Herbert Baker. The powerful equestrian bronze was designed by G. F. Watts. Energy dominates the memorial with eight lions guarding a flight of stairs leading to a granite building sheltering a bronze head of Rhodes. Underneath the bust are the words Kipling wrote on Rhodes’s death, ‘The immense and moving spirit still shall quicken and control. Living he was the land and dead his soul shall be her soul’.

Signal Hill - This rounded 335 meter hill overlooks Table Bay and on the summit is the famous Lion’s Battery which was used to fire salutes for visiting ships and on ceremonial occasions. A road leads to the summit and the views are amazing, especially at night when the lights of the city sparkle like jewels in the surrounding darkness.