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The forsaken

18 February 2011

Text and photography: Ina Middel

It’s just after 12 on a blisteringly hot Northern Cape afternoon when I drive into Marydale.

43 degrees Celcius hot, claims the Nissan X-Trail’s outside temperature gauge.

It seems as if the town is deserted. The wide streets are void of traffic, and nobody is about.

I find a lonely municipal sign, painted on a metal dustbin. It says:

M – My dorpie die
A – Alkante son
R – Ry hier stof uit
Y – Yl gesaai
D – Duskant n?rens
A – Almal welkom
L – Leka vleis
E – Emmanuel

It’s the first indication that life actually does exist here!

Shortly afterwards I meet the first locals, who seem unusually jolly. I soon realise that it’s not the new face in town that has stirred up their good humour. It’s been brought on by peering too deeply into a bottle of cheap hardehout. In some cases, possibly two bottles. Their friendliness knows no bounds.

I decide to head for the hotel that doubles up as the bottle store. Perhaps I’ll find someone who can put a comprehensible sentence together. In any case, I need to find out about camping sites, and somewhere to sleep.

I find the place they call the hotel but as I walk in, it sends shivers down my spine. It’s in a bad state. Really bad.

Samantha, the “concierge”, reception lady and general all-rounder, wants me to stay but she detects some hesitancy on my part. She insists on showing me a room.

Wooden floors creak as we walk down the corridor. It smells of old floor polish. Samantha battles to unlock the door to “my” room.

Eventually she has to call back-up. Finally, the door swings open, and as I enter the room my stomach turns. It’s in a horrendous state. I politely decline an overnight stay.

What on earth has happened to Marydale – a town that was once the Mecca of this arid region?

My path crosses that of a barefoot man named Bundu Conradi, outside the hotel that is the nucleus of this place. Bundu, with his long white hair and beard, was born 56 years ago in the hospital in Prieska. His parents had bought a farm in the Marydale district in 1947. His mother was an officer in the British Army and had named the farm Bundu. And so the new baby also became Bundu. In those days all the children received nicknames. Klein Piet, son of Oom Sakkie, or Groot Willemientjie, daughter of Ronde Piet from Leeufontein.
Bundu remained Bundu.

It turns out he’s the owner of the hotel and the bottle store. He’s one of those people that leaves a lasting impression – one of wisdom, pain, and an understanding of his environment. His blue eyes do little to hide the hardships of a town that is so far off the tourists’ radar that it might as well be on Mars.

Bundu is not only concerned about his own misfortune — he is painfully aware of the hardships of the other people who live here. He knows them all by name.

While some children frolick about outside the hotel, Bundu tells the sad story of Marydale.

Nowadays, he says, there is absolutely nothing to do here. There’s no work, no play — nothing. So the locals drown their sorrows in drink, in between producing more children.

“The young meisies waltz past here on their way to the clinic, all starry-eyed. On their way back the shoulders droop and the eyes are blank. Then I know? AIDS has claimed another victim.”

Many of the girls turn to Bundu for solace and hope – and there is a lot of crying and praying. This is Bundu — town councillor, preacher, a shoulder to cry on? and the owner of the hotel and bottle store.

Watching the little kids playing about, at times looking in Bundu’s direction for a sign of approval or acknowledgement, the respect for the barefooted man with the white hair and beard is plain to see.

There are a few more twists in Bundu’s tale. In 2001 he was on holiday with his family, in George. At the time his children were teenagers – and very much aware of their father’s wild hair and beard, the fact that he hardly ever wore shoes, and of the holes in his shirts.

So whenever he dropped them off or picked them up from a venue, they asked him to park a suitable distance away, get out, and stand waiting a few metres from the car. When the kids spotted him, they would make sure the coast was clear and that none of their friends was watching. Then they would sprint for the car, and jump in. Bundu would follow afterwards.

One evening Bundu was waiting patiently for his parent-conscious children, leaning against a lamp post a few metres from his car. A man appeared in the dimly-lit street, and Bundu sensed trouble. But the man stuck out his hand, and gave him a business card.

The gentleman owned a business that provided Father Christmas impersonators for functions, and he thought Bundu was perfect for the job.

And so, in December 2002, Bundu trekked to Sandton in Gauteng – and became Father Christmas. He still makes the trip every December. It earns him a fair penny, too.

He is also a sheep farmer. His son now runs the farm while Bundu manages the hotel and the bottle store. On this particular day his regular assistant in the bottle store is off duty, so Bundu occasionally jumps in behind the counter when a client walks in. Or, more realistically, when a client stumbles in.

Bundu also discloses that he has completed the Comrades Marathon no less than 21 times, and he is planning to do it again this year.

A Marydale farmer/hotel owner/Father Christmas, running the Comrades? I just can’t imagine the white locks flowing in the wind on the road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

The interest in running stems from his childhood, Bundu explains. Growing up on the farm he was very lonely and often took his dog for a long run. While he was running, no-one could hear him having an intense discussion with the dog about all kinds of things.

Bundu serves another customer. Well, actually, he sends the tipsy man home with the suggestion that he should sleep it off.

More customers arrive. In the hustle and bustle, I hear about Oom Willem Andries Piet Moehers – at 95, the oldest male resident of Marydale. I decide to pay him a visit.

In 1933, after only three months of schooling, Oom Willem started working on sheep farms with his father. He knows everything there is to know about sheep farming. His body may not be up to the task of shearing any more, but his mind most certainly is.

He has fathered 13 children. Seven of them passed away when they were toddlers. Even so, he has 25 grandchildren, 20 great grandchildren, and two great-great grandchildren. He is proud of his family. And when Oupa speaks to the young ‘uns they’d better listen, because his walking stick is always close at hand.

He grabs at the kierrie to demonstrate, and one of his great-great grandchildren clings a little bit tighter to his mother’s skirt.

Oom Willem proudly shows me a recent birthday present from the community. It’s a laminated black-and-white photo of Oom Willem, with a message printed on the flip-side.
“Wise fathers know that their real value does not lie in the things they do for their children, but rather in what they teach their children to do for themselves.”

He looks at his kierrie, thinking of another time, another place. He sighs.

“Koegas. If only?” he begins. Then he is silent, remembering days long past.

“Koegas.” He said it as though it was a swear word. And to think that at one time it was a synonym for manna from heaven for the people of Marydale.

It’s a sad business, this asbestos thing. Asbestos was discovered in the area as far back as 1893. Not long afterwards a multinational company called Cape Asbestos Company (Cape PLC) opened a mine, and the mine received a name: Koegas.

Over the years, thousands of jobs were created in the area, and Marydale thrived. At one time Koegas was the biggest asbestos supplier in the world. But in 1968 medical evidence came to light that asbestos, and especially asbestos dust, was harmful to humans. Cape PLC’s mines in Britain were forced to shut down because of health concerns.

But the Koegas plant carried on regardless until 1979, when the mine, without apparent warning, simply stopped operating, overnight.

Eleven years. That’s how long the people who worked on the mine were exposed to the dangers of asbestos after the medical warnings. The legal disputes between former employees and the mining company continue to this day.

There are, of course, many stories about the mine. One is that, due to the high profit margins, the government was asked to keep quiet about the health risks.

I decide to visit Koegas, which is said to have affected the health of thousands of people who worked there. It is about 30km from Marydale.

It is a ghost town. The massive swimming pool where the miners and their families once bathed in the hot Karoo sun, stands empty, neglected. Most buildings that remain are in surprisingly good shape, though some have been demolished.

There is something sinister about Koegas. I feel it in my bones.

I soon hit the dirt road, back to Marydale. By now the sun is setting, and I still need a place to sleep. In Marydale? Perhaps not. I consult the map. What about Groblershoop, one of the bigger towns in the area, about 60km north? I make a few phone calls, and find what sounds like a suitable place.

I need to recharge on some positive energy, after Marydale and Koegas. A comfortable camping site near Groblershoop would help.

Driving on the long and straight N10 road towards Groblershoop, I can’t help but wonder what will happen to Marydale when the Bundus and Oom Willems are no longer there to provide a margin of structure, order and solace. What will happen to all those children? Will they also be forgotten?

It’s tragic that Marydale, once a wonderful and booming oasis, should arrive at this point, where people drown their sorrows in drink, and seem to have nothing better to do than wait for the Grim Reeper to come knocking on their shabby front door.

Marydale – the history
In 1889 the place that is today known as Marydale was a small trading post. The town was officially established in 1902 by the Dutch Reformed Church, and named after the wife of the man on whose farm (Kalkput) the town was laid out. In those early years the town’s main lifeblood was sheep farming.

In its hey-day the town had a post office, primary and secondary schools, a provincial library, a licensed airport, the Martha Bishop nursing institution, a modern abattoir, a police station, banks, filling stations, various shops, the hotel, a farmer’s co-op, and a beautiful train station. Now the historical station has fallen into disrepair, since the train doesn’t stop at Marydale anymore.

Kheis Riverside Lodge, Groblershoop: Situated 10km from Groblershoop, close to the main road between Kimberley and Groblershoop, this lodge takes its name from the Khoi-San word Kheis (meaning “place to stay”). It is located on the banks of the Orange River. Activities include fishing, 4×4-ing (on an amateur track), quad biking on the Kalahari dunes (bikes can be hired) tubing and canoeing.

The lodge has eight self-catering, log cabin-style chalets equipped with DStv and air-conditioning (R800 per chalet per night). There are also 10 camping sites next to the river, each with its own braai area. Ablutions are shared. Prices start from R140 per person per night.

Ina comments: “This is a highly recommended camp site. It’s very scenic, the ablutions are spotless, and owners Guilleame and Spokie are very hospitable.”

More information: Tel. 054 833-0833; 082 490-1321;; [email protected]

Nissan X-Trail 2.0dCi LE AT – R435 900 (line on the car in general)
Powered by a 110 kW/320 Nm turbodiesel engine, the automatic X-Trail proved to be a most comfortable and very capable towing and long-distance vehicle. Although its six-speed automatic gearbox features a manual function, our intrepid adventurer did not call on this function – the gearbox and the 320 Newtons of torque did a great job of looking after the gear-shifting details, she says.

The Nissan also comes standard with all the bells and whistles, including a massive electrically-operated sunroof, full leather trim and a sizeable boot with practical storage areas. The X-Trail offers a practical, stylish and comfortable option in the compact SUV segment.

Fuel for thought (line on the Nissan’s filling cap)
The Nissan averaged 11,1 litres/100 km, towing the Echo trailer. This gives it a range of about 585km with the Echo 3 trailer in tow. Fuel tank capacity is 65 litres.

Echo 3 – the rental option (line on the trailer)
Purchasing a new off-road trailer for that once-a-year overland expedition is a hard financial pill for some to swallow. So Echo 4×4 also offers the option of renting one of the company’s off-road trailers. The Echo 3, sporting an electro-galvanised body that is 1900mm long, is the smallest in the range, but it comes with a handy GWM of 750kg. It gets the full tent system with kitchen awning, fully equipped kitchen, storage drawers, water tank, low voltage lighting, two jerry cans, two high-lift jack points, a hardy chassis, plenty of ground clearance, and big wheels with all-terrain tyres. So it can certainly go the off-road mile.

Costs include a R5 000 deposit, a R550 fee for cross border excursions, and a daily rental rate of R550. More information: Tel. 012 345-3333;

Yokohama Geolander All Terrain-S tyre (line on the Nissan’s tyre)
For the Northern Cape’s testing dirt roads, some of which are in a bad state, we opted to replace the X-Trail’s standard rubber with something more robust. Something like Yokohama’s Geolander A/T-S. This tyre, with reinforced sidewalls for improved off-road performance, not only performs well on tar, with surprisingly low noise levels. It is also very capable off the beaten track, offering more grip than the standard tyres. It features, among other things, multi-stepped grooves, dual interlocking pyramid sipes, a rim protection bar (RPB) and an extra sidewall protector bar (SPB).

More information:

Turn 1 Sugo alloy wheels (line on one of the Nissan’s rims)
The Nissan’s standard 18-inch alloy rims and 225/55 R18 tyres do make for a pretty picture. But that’s a lot of rim and not much tyre – and on the unforgiving Northern Cape dirt roads this is not ideal. Enter the stylish Sugo 17-inch alloy wheel, from Tiger Wheel & Tyre, which played host to the Yokohama All Terrain-S tyres. This meant more rubber (and more robustness) and less rim. The combination worked like a charm on the X-Trail.

More information:

  • Tania

    God bless the Bundus of this world!