Travelling through the Karoo in the 1940s

A South African policeman escorting refugees discovered there was much more to the Karoo than he’d been led to believe. During WWI, after the German forces were beaten in South West Africa, Sam Cowley was detailed to take some German refugees from Roberts Heights (Voortrekkerhoogte), outside Pretoria, to Cape Town, so that they could return to their homeland. Sam’s commanding officer crisply explained he would have to be responsible for their discipline and welfare while on the train trip across the “desert.” A G Bee describes Sam’s trip in Keeper of the Highway: “Sam and the refugees boarded a special train which, after a journey of two days and nights, arrived at Cape Town docks. The refugees arrived hot, dusty, querulous and swearing, but the constable enjoyed the trip.” Sam later told friends: “I was told the train would run southwards from Johannesburg, over the highveld of the Free State and across the Karoo Desert. I imagined there would be absolutely nothing to see, but the Karoo is not a desert. It’s excellent sheep country, covered by a low silvery scrub. This appears to contain no nourishment, but sheep thrive on it. The Karoo has a beauty that is difficult to explain. Homesteads suddenly appear at clumps of trees near windmills. Beyond these is nothing but scrub and dust. This blows between the flat topped koppies, causing a shimmering in the heat haze and spreading like a mist over limitless flat veld. Now and then a springbok leaps into the air, but there are not the thousands that used to be. The jackal too has been shot and trapped almost to extinction. Rain comes rarely and now and then you pass a stream, but there seems to be plenty of water in the Karoo earth. They say when rain comes the Karoo it’s carpeted with little flowers and even more beautiful.” There were no flowers when the refugees passed. A hot wind blew and fine dust filtered into the train, filled everyone’s eyes, mouths and nostrils. The sun blazed high above the koppies and the heat encouraged passengers to cool their parched throats with good South African wine in the saloon car. The train’s last stop in the Karoo was at Touws River. From there it moved into a greener world.


© Rose’s Roundup, vol. 2, no. 56, May 2008.

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