Thursday, October 27, 2022

Ghosts of the Karoo

 Michael - Thursday

Karoo Landscape

I’ve always been attracted to desert environments. The major ones in southern Africa are the Kalahari (mostly in Botswana), the Namib (unsurprisingly in Namibia) and the Karoo (in South Africa). Apart from the amazing topography that deserts offer, they are home to all sorts of interesting creatures and plants—some of which are still undiscovered. And who knows what sort of pharmacological properties they may have. That was the backstory of Dying to Live. They also have extreme temperatures by South African standards. I’ve seen the Karoo covered with snow, and I’ve baked in the shade at 110F.

The sparsity of the population in these arid semi-desert areas also leads to stories and legends, and the Karoo has plenty. Given the season, let’s listen to a few ghost tales.

The has-been railway station

There is the loneliness in the deserts, the settlements are sparse and unstable. There are many sad histories of towns that grew, and then died and became ghost towns. The bustling and well-kept railway station Putsonderwater in the Northern Cape Karoo is such a place. Only forty years ago it was a busy stop on the railway line linking the Cape to Windhoek and the railway station won an award for the best kept station in South Africa. Then drought gripped the area. “Putsonderwater” means “well without water” and it seems that most of the wells went that way as the water table dropped. The area lost support and eventually the trains didn’t stop there at all anymore. Not a scary ghost, but a poignant one.

Lord Milner Hotel, Matjiesfontein

A very different fate awaited the town of Matjiesfontein, gateway to the Karoo from the lush Cape the other side of the mountains, also a railway town. Founded in 1884, the Lord Milner Hotel was an upmarket destination for travellers escaping the damp of the Cape in winter to refresh their lungs in the clean, dry desert air. The town has been carefully restored and preserved as a tourist attraction—a Victorian town in the Karoo complete with a London bus! The Lord Milner continues to host tourists in an approximation of old-world English elegance.

Complete with Bus and Bugle

Cards anyone?

As for ghosts, The Lord Milner is host to Kate the Nurse. The hotel became a convalescent home for wounded British soldiers during the South African War (Boer War), and Kate apparently tried to cheer up her patients by playing card games with them. It is said that she sometimes stares down from a turret, and that you can occasionally hear her shuffling cards late at night. Kate seems pretty harmless, and it’s rather odd that she, rather than any of her suffering patients, haunts the hotel. However, as you drive along the main road, you pass small graveyards of the soldiers who didn’t make it to the Lord Milner. Travellers tell tales that if you drive the road at night, you may see a few soldiers standing at the side of the road, limbs wrapped in bloodied bandages. I’ve done that section of the road many times and several times at night, but I’ve never seen much more than a jackal and an occasional owl. Certainly nothing scary.

The old days...

In fact, generally the ghosts of the Karoo seem, if not friendly, at least not dangerous. One can’t help wondering at what stage in the The Lord Milner’s marketing campaign Kate were inserted. Before the bus, I’d guess. It seems that most of the ghosts evolve from the English settlers. The Dutch Voortrekkers, with their horrendous and often deadly journeys, diseases, and nasty wars with the local Africans, would seem to be a richer vein for ghosts, but perhaps not so attractive from the marketing point of view.

Another tourist attraction is the “Merry Ghost Trail” from Uniondale to Burgersdorp. Various stories are told about the road. The one I like best illustrates the good sense of the local God-fearing settlers. Apparently, one evening the lady of the house was entertaining a few guests and they were drinking sherry. (The story does not specify the amount of sherry.) Suddenly, from the fireplace, a poker and tongs jumped up and began to cavort around the sitting room. The hostess didn’t panic or even look particularly surprised. She immediately rose and fetched the family bible. Then she read suitable passages to the tongs and poker until they calmed down. After that she returned to her sherry.

Happy Halloween everyone!


  1. Yes Michael, the Karoo is a special place. First time I was there in 1965 I was guest at a wedding on a farm. Suddenly it started to pour down. They had not seen rain for a few years and everybody went outside in their sunday best and just stood there in the rain, face up, and got soaked. I'll never forget it.

  2. Michael, that comment was by me, Henrik L-S

    1. Thanks, Henrik. Rain is a problem in the Karoo - usually because it doesn't. But if there is too much, there are floods. In 1981 the whole town of Laingsburg was destroyed by a flash flood.