Between a rock and a Badplaas

2015-05-29 13:42

Stidy (File)

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A QUEST to find the birthplace of my paternal grandmother found me rattling along the road between Badplaas and Barberton. I had been told there was a house, now included in the local Heritage Walk, that had belonged to someone who shared her maiden name.

As it turned out, it could not have been her home because she was born on August 8, 1888, and left shortly afterwards in an ox wagon heading north, whereas the building I found myself gaping at was erected only in 1902.

It was, nevertheless, a very fine house, furnished, according to a brochure I picked up in its rooms, in the style of the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods and “depicting the lifestyle of a wealthy middle-class family”.

No longer inhabited, it has been curated and turned into a museum and become a tourist attractive “objet”, a slice of authentic gold mining town Africana.

Built of corrugated iron with a wrap-around veranda and elaborately ornamented rooms, it hearkened back to an era when family life was much more rigidly formalised than it is today. There was a smoking room where only men were allowed to gather and another room reserved exclusively for the use of the womenfolk. Children, presumably, were not allowed to enter either.

In terms of social status and breeding, it’s original occupants were clearly a cut above the majority of the riffraff who poured into the area in its early days, hoping to strike it rich in what was to become South Africa’s first major gold rush and whose legacy can still be seen in the numerous old diggings, abandoned shafts, prospecting trenches and slime dumps that litter the surrounding countryside. Starting off as a forlorn grid of dirt streets, grubby tents and mouldering shacks, Barberton quickly evolved, in classic Wild West style, into a bustling frontier town full of hotels and bars frequented by miners and prostitutes, the most notorious of whom was Cockney Liz. At the height of its boom years, it even boasted its own stock exchange.

Although long gone, the departed fortune seekers continue to haunt the landscape in one important way, mapping it with names evoking both hope and despair, such as Revolver Creek, Joe’s Luck, Honeybird, Fever Creek and Eureka.

Still rummaging around in the detritus of other people’s lives, I stumbled upon yet another family connection. The first major gold strike had, in fact, been found on a farm in the De Kaap Valley that had been granted to another very distant relative of mine by the Boer Republic government as a reward for his abortive efforts to promote the construction of a railway line between Pretoria and Lourenço Marques.

At the time he had made himself highly unpopular by first offering a reward and generous terms to anyone who discovered gold on his farm and then attempting to eject forcibly the hordes of prospectors who had gathered on his property when they did just that.

Any lingering ill feelings that his somewhat uncharitable actions may have generated do not appear to have permanently harmed his reputation. He continued to prosper and double-barrelled his parents’ names when he became member for the West in the Cape Town Legislative Council and purchased Westbrooke in Rondebosch — destined to be the future Cape Town residence of the governor-generals of the Union of South Africa.

The fact that the area filled in a few missing entries in my own family history is not, of course, its sole claim to fame. In geological terms it is, literally and figuratively, a veritable gold mine, so much so that it has been declared a World Heritage Site. Not only does it contain some of the world’s oldest known rocks, but because the world’s oldest fossils have also been found there, the area has become a Mecca for scientists interested in how the Earth worked 3 500 000 millennia ago, and in searching for clues to the origins of life. Just in case you thought this was not enough to justify its elevated status, the area also contains the earliest evidence of meteorite impact on Earth, as well as the world’s earliest known gold deposits. Cashing in on this impressive CV, the local tourist authority has created the Barberton-Makhonjwa Geotrail which runs into the mountains behind the town and ends in Pigg’s Peak in Swaziland.

I took a drive up this road skirting buttock-like clefts and exposed rock faces striped with alternating shades of colour like a layered birthday cake. There are regular stopping-off points along the route where you can get out and read about the rock formations you are looking at, what age they are and how they came into existence. It was here I found one last link to my past — an entire layer of geological strata named after the same relative on whose farm gold had first been found in payable quantities.

As I headed homewards, well-pleased with all my discoveries, I wondered how many other people could say they had a whole pile of very old rocks named after one of their kinsfolk?

• Anthony Stidolph is The Witness cartoonist

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