Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Bakkrans: click on map to enlarge

Bakkrans is not a resort, it’s an experience, a dip into history at several levels. There’s the recent past, the bywoners who’ve been gone for about forty years. It’s their footprint upon the landscape, maybe a century or two old, that is Bakkrans – their cottages, their stone walls, their name for the place. 
Bakkrans cottages: pics by David Slingsby
We don’t know the Khoi herders’ name for Bakkrans, and their traces are few – some ochre-red handprints, a scatter of broken pottery. They were here for a millennium or two, camping amongst these weathered boulders, passing by with their fat-tailed sheep. They displaced or murdered or merged with – who knows? – the San. 

left: Khoi handprints; centre: the Mannetjie;
right: a rare San polychrome

pics by David Slingsby 
The San were here for perhaps eight thousand years – before that the climate might have been too cold. They saw the Bakkrans itself, the rocky overhangs, the massive, eroded boulders exactly as we do today. Only the stone walls, the little buildings, the jeep tracks, Wynand du Preez’s apple tree and the name itself – Bakkrans – would be strange to them. They left their astonishing legacy of rock art in hundreds of rocky shelters, or simply upon the giant boulders amongst which they hunted game that was probably richer in species then. There are elephants in the rock art, even a few rhino and one or two lions. At times it was wetter than today, at other times during those eight millennia it was drier, and colder. The vegetation was much the same as we see it now, with occasional invasion and retreat of species as the climate fluctuated.
Bakkrans wildlife: Mountain zebra; Tok-tokkie; Steenbokkie
The Grey rhebuck [bottom right] was taken on the road home

pics: David Slingsby
Arrie Beukes is your guide at Bakkrans. Soft-spoken, gentle, one of the best Landrover drivers in the world, 74-year old Arrie has lived in the area all his life; he knew the last of the du Preez who scratched a living here. Arrie built many of the roads at Bakkrans: perhaps that’s why he drives on them so respectfully. Arrie built the road down into the Mooibergvlakte, and Arrie discovered the fossils, and that’s where we leave the human history very far behind.
Arrie Beukes and his Landie
pic: David Slingsby
If we could squeeze every year into one tiny minute, then the first motor vehicle arrived at Bakkrans just seventy-five minutes ago. One day and four hours ago the first Khoi arrived; the San had perhaps been here for five days before them. But Bakkrans  holds a much more ancient surprise for us. We have to wrench our minds back for an impossible 750 years at our condensed scale – or somewhere close to 400 million in reality – in a feeble, probably doomed attempt to understand the age of the fossils of Bakkrans.
This wasn’t even Africa, then. It wasn’t even Pangaea, the giant super-continent that later split into Gondwanaland and Laurasia. It was still 300 years [at our one minute-a-year scale] before the dinosaurs began. The giant view of the Tanqua that unfolds east of Bakkrans includes a sharp peak, the Skoorsteenberg. Skoorsteenberg is a geologically-famous site, a centre of 500 metre-thick lake- or ocean-floor deposits from the Permian, when the Karoo was all “onnerwater”, as David Kramer has it. The Skoorsteenberg formations are only half as old as the Bakkrans fossils.

These are club-mosses. They represent some of the earliest land plants that emerged during the Devonian era. They shared the marshy landscape with giant dragonflies and the first half-fish half-reptile vertebrates that managed to crawl out onto the mudflats to sun themselves. Archaeosigillaria is their name; “traces ... have been discovered in parts of Guinea, Ghana, and Arabia, as well as in Gabon; they also occur in the Bokkeveld Series of South Africa. Fossilized plants that include Archaeosigillaria (ancient club mosses) may be traced in formations of the earlier Devonian Period in the Sahara and in South Africa (Witteberg Series).” – I quote from Britannica.

A stay at Bakkrans is relatively expensive, but Arrie and his Landrover remain there with you during your stay. If you don’t make use of Arrie’s superb guiding, info, and his knowledge of the area the loss will be all yours. The facilities are basic but complete – the idea is that you should gain some insight into the lives of the bywoners who built your cottage so long ago. Don’t be alarmed – you’ll get a lekker warm shower, a flush loo and a comfortable-if-narrow bed, but I have one criticism. It’s all very well living like a bywoner but us old toppies need our sleep. Why is there only one hard, thin pillow upon which to rest your ageing head? I can’t pretend to be a bywoner while I’m trying to get to sleep [Johan was horrified by this remark – he’d overlooked the problem! There will be plenty of pillows for the next round of outoppie visitors!].
Inside a cottage; A glimpse through the kookskerm door
pics by David Slingsby
There are some good short walks, stunning flowers – spring flowers as well as fynbos on the hilltops – and tremendous views, over the Tanqua to the east, over the full span of the eastern Cederberg to the west. From the right vantage point you can see from the Wolfberg Arch, to Tafelberg, Sneeukop, even to Krakadouw and the Pakhuis Pass. Even the ubiquitous Citadel peeks over the ridge that hides Wupperthal from view. There are genuine endangered mountain zebra, herds of gemsbok, and all the usual small guys, the inquisitive klipspringers, steenbokkies, dassies and the tracks and traces of aardvark, porcupine, leopard ... Baboons there are not, but the compensation is the silence. When there is no wind you can hear your campfire crackling from hundreds of metres away.
View to the distant Wolfberg Arch
pic: David Slingsby
Look up Bakkrans on its superb website – it’s all there, except for the “must brings”. Take extra fluffy pillows. A solar-lamp if you have one. Matches – lots. Pack your food in plastic lug-boxes that you can seal – there are lots of cheeky mice, even a couple of namtaps. The only thing you won’t need is earplugs – unless you find that the silent brilliant starlight keeps you awake ...
Namtap or Spectacled dormouse (Graphiurus ocularis)
pic courtesy of Witteberg Private Game Reserve
And when you leave, thank Johan van der Westhuizen for opening up this extraordinary dip into the past, both the recent and the really deep. Baie dankie, Johan, vir ons Kaartmans was dit ’n ware belewenis!

– Kaartman May 2013

Friday, May 17, 2013

Famous Family Members

The Kaartmans were recently surprised to find that 
they had a tenuous familial link to one of their favourite poets .....

          Miss Helen Slingsby was my maiden aunt,
               And lived in a small house near a fashionable square
          Cared for by servants to the number of four.
          Now when she died there was silence in heaven
               And silence at her end of the street.
          The shutters were drawn and the undertaker wiped his feet – 
               He was aware that this sort of thing had occurred before.
          The dogs were handsomely provided for,
               But shortly afterwards the parrot died too.
          The Dresden clock continued ticking on the mantelpiece,
               And the footman sat upon the dining-table
               Holding the second housemaid on his knees – 
          Who had always been so careful while her mistress lived.

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)

– Kaartman, May 2013