Where memories and mountains meet

The tiny Central Karoo town of Merweville lies in a picturesque area of plains often likened to the desert region of the United States. The similarity is so striking that film makers often choose this sector of the Great Karoo to portray scenes in Nevada and Arizona. One international advertising company filmed a J & B whiskey corporate advertisement on the outskirts of the town. The scene called for a tiny town on the Mexican border, a road which ran off into the sunset and a couple of lovers. Set builders created some adobe huts, cars and actors were imported and the producers proudly announced that when the final product was screened "no one knew the difference". Farms called Montana and Arizona today bear testimony to the fact that early farmers also likened this arid zone the American desert.

Merweville lies in the Koup. The word means "caulfat". The area was named by early indigenous inhabitants. They felt the patches of golden veld grass interspersed by dark brown ground resembled the fat and blood vessels surrounding a sheep's liver. The reason for this name is quite apparent at the onset of winter. Then the veld is less lush. The gold and brown patches become quite evident.

Boer War Thwarts Town Planners

The Dutch Reformed congregation of Beaufort West grew rapidly towards the end of the 1800s. Originally this parish covered an area of 20 000 square miles, but there were few church members. By 1850 only 800 of the 3 000 people in this vast area were church members. By the turn of the century the picture had changed. Farmers in the area of present-day Merweville organised a meeting in 1897 under the chairmanship of Beaufort West's Dominee Pieter van der Merwe to appeal for permission to break away and establish their own parish. Their pleas met sympathetic ears. Church leaders were only too well aware that this far flung community had to travel for days to a place of worship for communion, to marry and to baptise their children. The Dominee himself faced regular arduous trips to conduct services for them. It was agreed that an offer be made to purchase a portion of the farm Vanderbylskraal, 80 miles from Beaufort West. It belonged to Johannes Jacobus Le Seur van der Byl, farmer, shopkeeper, postmaster and Justice of the Peace. He built a church, later used as a school. But before further development could take place the world's attention was focussed on rumblings which erupted into the Anglo-Boer War. Plans were shelved and it was only after the declaration of peace that the town became a reality. Ds. Van der Merwe, however, conducted communion services in the little farm church twice a year from February, 1899.

Founding Father Of Foresight

Van der Byl, an enterprising and entrepreneurial frontiersman, not only gave his family name to his farm but to the nearby river as well. His well laid out farm was also well-managed. It became the pride of the district. It lay in a water rich area fed by the river and several permanent fountains. This abundance of water allowed him to developed an efficient irrigation system that ensured his vegetable gardens, orchards and pomegranate hedges always 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. Van der Byl created "pools" in the river, streams and irrigation ditches so that his children could enjoy swimming.

Centre Develops Near Farmstead

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 Justice of the Peace/magistrate Van der Byl heard cases on petty offences and law infringements. He imposed fines, punishments and short-term sentences which were served in the farm jail. Van der Byl insisted that his children be educated. When the eldest of his brood of nine was old enough for school he employed a Mr Coller to teach the child and others of similar age. This school flourished until the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War. Then attendance dropped to 50% due to difficulties of Martial Law and dangers of travelling.

Jailer Jailed!

Also 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 it seems that Commandant Wynand Malan and his men arrived at the farm. After an altercation with Van der Byl, they locked him in the little farm jail and rode off with the key. Chaos erupted as no spare keys could be found. Members of the farm community together with labourers had to break into the jail to free the magistrate. The event remained forever a sore point with Van der Byl who was never keen to discuss it.

Merweville's Australian "Englishman"

On the outskirts of town is a signpost pointing the way to "The Englishman's Grave". Nearby in the veld is a tiny marble cross which marks the grave of a lieutenant from Australia, who served with the British forces during the Anglo-Boer War. Walter Oliphant Arnot was a member of the 3rd South Australian Contingent. He served with distinction, but died by his own hand on April 16, 1902.He left a strange note in his Book of Common Prayer for his wife, Eleanor Frederica Rosevear Seabrook, whom he had married in June 1888. He affectionately called her Nell. By 1900 they had four children aged between 4 and 9. On a page torn from his pocket book, Arnot had drawn a sketch map of the road and across it was written "This was not for the Boers". On the back of the page were the words: "I swear before God, whom I am going to meet, that I am innocent." It was signed W O Arnot. In his prayer book was a photograph of his wife and between its last page and back cover was a picture of his four children. On the fourth page, written in shaking hand was: "I was never in any concern with a Boer or Boer Agent by all we ever had between us good held me and you my darling - goodbye, Walter." Rail tickets to Matjiesfontein and Laingsburg , a quotation from Shakespeare and letters to his wife and children were also found in his pocket.

An Excellent Stockman

Walter Oliphant Arnot was the son of Dr Henry Arnot, MD RN. He was born in Essex on September 9, 1860 and educated at the Royal Naval School, in New Cross. When he finished college he moved to Australia to take up sheep farming. He was 19 years old. He did well and the following year was approached to manage a large sheep station. During the next eight years he held similar positions on other major stations and was complemented on his stock management procedures during a long drought. He moved to Adelaide in 1888 and joined "A" Battery Field Artillery. Later that year he decided to marry. Arnot was an efficient gunner and was qualifying for a commission when the Anglo-Boer War broke out. He joined the 3rd South Australian Contingent, the S A Bushmen Corps, as a sergeant and left for South Africa in March 1900. This corps, funded by public subscription, was basically a scouting and intelligence force. Soon after arrival at Beira Arnot was promoted to lieutenant. He faced several problems as his unit moved towards the War zone. He later joined the Rhodesian Field Artillery. This led to service pay complications which left his wife financially distressed.

Sad End To Patrol

A few days before he died Arnot had left Laingsburg in a mule drawn cart on 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. Also in the party was Abraham January, known as Jacob, a scout and resident of Laingsburg. They spent the first night at Blaaubank farm, rode on to Dwars River farm, near Sutherland, to interview Jacobus Adriaan Victor, "the only person in the district who spoke English". At the inquest Victor said Arnot had been in "good spirits and quite jolly". But soon after that his mood seemed to change. He sank into a deep depression as the group rode via Modderfontein, Desyver and Van Wyksberg farms to Prince Albert Road. By the 15th, 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 several times before. Suddenly Jacob 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 arranged for the erection of a memorial stone and the people of Merweville undertook to "tend his grave froever". This is a promise which has not been forgotten.

The Start Of The Town

Sadly Van der Byl did not live to see the town become a reality. He died on New Year's Day in 1904, only a week after his youngest daughter had died of measles. The church then purchased the farm from his estate at the cost of £4 500. The ground was transferred to the church in 1905. The first church council meeting to plan town affairs was held on January 5 that year. By March, a minister, Dominee Willem Pienaar, had been called. He accepted in April, and arrived in June. While the town arranged a royal welcome, it had no funds to provide him with a parsonage and he had to take lodgings with the school teacher. Sadly one of his first services was the funeral of the wife of one of his elders.

Coal-Based Romance

During the Anglo-Boer War a series of tiny coal mines on various farms provided the people of several towns with fuel. The coal was transported to town after dark by wagons with well-greased wheels so that as little noise as possible was made. Normally people in these far flung communities used dung patties for fuel, but as so much of the livestock had been commandeered by the British, these were scarce. The coal was of a low grade, but it nevertheless interested Bernard Israel Nowitz, a Cape Town businessman. He moved to Merweville and applied for permission to prospect and mine the coal deposits. The request was turned down, but that did not deter him from becoming a member of the local community. He set up a general dealer's store, married a local girl, joined the Dutch Reformed Church and declared himself a "Christian Jew". He became a highly respected and dearly loved member of the community and soon more Jews followed. Among them were the Katz, Magid, Samuel, Godliep, Lazarus and Solomon families. Some of these men had travelled the Karoo as peddlers and speculators before they decided to marry local lasses and settle in Merweville.

Hit By The Flu

The town continued to flourish. A parsonage and many other dwelling houses were built. Well-known architects Heese and Heese arrived in 1906 with plans for a the magnificent church which today still stands and has been declared a National Monument. Shops sprang up and in 1914 some men of Merweville answered the call of duty to serve in the fighting forces of World War 1. Then, in October 1918, one of the greatest single disasters ever to hit South Africa, swept through the happy little community, affecting a great many families. Their beloved Dominee and several church members died in this Great Flu Epidemic, which killed 140 000 South Africans within a six week period. When the grieving community met to bury Dominee Pienaar in the church grounds and they also mourned Mrs Snyman, A Kuhn, Jac Le Roux, Miss E van der Westhuizen, Jan Opperman, and Mrs F Turck, also victims of "the Spanish Flu". Medical men appealed to the people to eat salt, take snuff and wear a bag of garlic or "wilde als" around their necks. The number of home remedies mushroomed. People were so afraid they were prepared to try almost anything.

Not Far From The Beaten Track

Merweville maintains a great deal of old world charm. It is an ideal spot to rest, relax and unwind from the pressures of modern-day city life. There are some guest houses in the town where visitors can look after themselves or arrange to enjoy some traditional Karoo fare prepared by the locals. And, there are farms which offer superb eco-tourism experiences. Also, the village is easy to reach along good quality gravel roads. There is a 40 km scenic drive from Prince Albert Road and those who prefer can drive along the tar road from Leeu Gamka to Fraserburg. Halfway is a turn off to Merweville, near the spectacular Teekloof Pass. Those who enjoy exploring the by-ways of the Great Karoo will find two other gravel roads offer splendid views over the plains and of the mountains. One of these leaves the N1 at Koup Station and the other is 15 km south of Beaufort West. Both meander through farming areas and allow users to enjoy the the magnificence and isolation of the Great Karoo.

Discover A Local Arts & Craft Project

Come visit a local arts and crafts upliftment project in Voortrekker Street, Merweville. Eight local ladies and one local man are manufacturing beadworks, necklaces, local crafts of all sorts, very beautiful things created with lots of skills, taught by Chrissie. They work five days a week until 5 pm. The art is for sale in Prince Albert, in De Rust at the Blicktrommel, in Leeu Gamka at the Nursery, in Oudtshoorn, Fraserburg, Hopetown and Knysna. Financial discipline is being taught, one third of the income has to be saved, one third is being spent on new materials and one third is the wage of the artist. Chrissie, involved in the project since many years, has a house in 33 Voortrekker Street with a humble little shop to display all the manufactured art locally too. (Contact: 084-6575643)