This story was first published in the October 2014 issue of SA COUNTRY LIFE.
There will be a terrible cry when they arrive at midnight to draw and quarter the ghost of Jan Prinsloo
Midnight on January 15 is witching hour for what is arguably South Africa’s most ghoulish ravine: Moordenaars Kloof in the Langkloof valley of the Eastern Cape. Folklore has it that when the sun slides behind the sheer red cliffs of this Kou-Kamma kloof, and the pale moon rises behind gathering storm clouds, all hell will break loose.
At midnight, amid crashing thunder, the drumming of hooves will echo from the gorge as ghost horses with fiendish mounts gallop toward the crumbled ruins of a bygone Boer farmhouse. In an act of vengeance, six Khoikhoi spirits will dismember the ghost of farmer Jan Prinsloo or tie him between two of his stud horses and drive them up the pass until he is effectively drawn and quartered.
There will be a terrible cry and, for dramatic effect, his head will be dispatched by the battering rocks and roll down the pass where his eyes will forever shine in the dark.
Fiendish fireside stuff but how much is based on historical fact? I invited granddaughter of the Kouga soil, Ronel Shaw (a Ferreira descendent), to join me on an investigative sojourn over the Suuranys Mountains to Moordenaars Kloof and Jan Prinsloo’s original farm.
Fact or Fiction?
This spookstorie had featured prominently in her childhood memories. “We used to camp at New Year with our families, near the Kouga river crossing,” says Ronel. “An enormous canvas was draped over a frame for a tent. Home-made bread was baked in a bakoond and refrigeration was an air-cooled, wire-mesh cage.
Summer days were spent swimming in the river while the men fished for eels upstream. In the evening the men would get ‘mellow’ on heuningkarrie (home-brewed liquor made from honey) and mischievous boys would creep out in the dark and drag cowhides past them through the bush. The rustling of the dragged skins sounded like ghost horses in the night and the men would be full of embellished stories the next morning. That was when we would hear about the ghosts of Moordenaars Kloof.”
In H.A. Brydon’s book From Veldt Campfires – written just over a century ago – a chapter called Jan Prinsloo’s Kloof details the experiences of a young English colonial called Stephen Goodrick who had amassed some £4 000 from elephant hunting. Disposing of his ivory in Grahamstown, he took a Scottish wife and searched for a farm. Hearing that the Van der Meulen family were leaving their farm in the Kouga area, he saddled up, traversed the Langkloof and entered Prinsloo’s Kloof.
Duly impressed, he settled on a price for the farm and returned with his wife and staff to begin their new life. On their first night, they were disturbed by a commotion in the stable, with their horses trampling and squealing and ‘a wild scream’. On investigation, Goodrick could find nothing unusual but thereafter a pattern arose of peaceful nights followed by similar disturbances.
Once, Goodrick ran out with his large brindle dog, Tao, and two herdsmen, and observed ‘a figure pass through the open doorway… and swiftly glide away to the hillside. The dark figure was clad in broad-brimmed Boer hat and quaintly cut old-fashioned suit’.
Goodrick’s ghostly encounters peaked on January 15, 1862, when a sweltering day culminated in a massive storm. Cupido, an old Khoikhoi servant, asked to sleep in the kitchen. Around midnight they heard ‘strange confused noises, shrieks and shouts’ and Cupido advised Goodrick to secure the house. ‘The ghosts of Jan Prinsloo, who was slain here years ago, and his murderers, are coming up the Kloof’, Cupido told him. They heard shouting and the rattling of hooves coming up the valley and sweeping past the house towards the stone kraal, followed by the loud report of a gun.
The Goodricks and Cupido ran towards the kraal, where they found their horses huddled in a corner and the apparition of a tall, stout Boer clutching a smooth-bore elephant gun, and six fleeing, half-naked Khoikhois armed with assegais and knives. When the Boer stumbled, the ghostly Khoikhois attacked him, dismembered him and smeared themselves with blood. The noises ceased and the spirits vanished.
Not surprisingly, Goodrick packed up and left the farm, but not before pressing Cupido for an explanation. Cupido told him that he had been sworn to silence on the ghosts by the Van der Meulens, who needed to sell the farm. Cupido’s own father had been a servant under Jan Prinsloo, whom he described as a lawless renegade, cruel to his staff.
Prinsloo went too far when he punished two of the Khoikhois’ wives and a child for absconding to visit relatives. He made their husbands tie them to trees before he flogged them and shot them. All his Khoikhois fled the farm and went to the Bushveld country between the Sundays River and the Great Fish River, where they joined the combined forces of Xhosa and Khoikhois to plunder Boer farms.
This insurrection moved to the Langkloof, where Prinsloo had teamed up with other Boers to trek out of the disturbed district, and was reconnoitring in a poort 15 miles from his farm when they were attacked. All the Boers were slain except for Prinsloo, whose seven servants – mounted on stolen horses – chased him back to his own kraal where he was overpowered and killed. The house was looted and the Khoikhois rejoined their band, later dying when the insurrection was crushed.
Cupido told Goodrick that many Boers had tried to live on the farm but always left in a hurry. Asked why the ghost often appeared in the stables, frightening the horses, Cupido said Prinsloo ‘had the finest stud in the Colony and… they say that Jan’s ghost is still just as fond as ever of his favourites… the horses don’t care about it, they seem just as scared at him’.
Legend in hand, Ronel and I took the Assegaaibos/Suuranys turn-off on the R62 – just 2,5km east of Kareedouw – and climbed 7km to the summit of the Suuranys Mountains. Proteas and pincushions fringed the steep roadside, which flattened into a pastoral valley. Keeping left, we passed Zuuranys farm and descended to the Kouga River causeway, 17km from the R62 turn-off. “This is where we camped as children,” said Ronel, indicating a series of pools lined with reeds and white river sand.
At 18km we passed the turn-off to Baviaanskloof Lodge and continued north. Somebody had placed the bleached skull of a klipspringer on an aloe – setting the mood. Again a plateau, then the sign for Brandekraal – now just a portion of Prinsloo’s original Brandekraal farm, which included today’s Vaalfontein, Portion 119 (Jammerfontein) and Rietfontein.
Keeping right we continued until we dropped into a beautiful, steep, sharply winding pass – the infamous Moordenaars Kloof. We could see it ended in a transecting valley dwarfed by shadowy cliffs. Finally, 25km from the R62 turn-off, we reached the foot of the Moordenaars Kloof, where a sharp turn-off to the right took us to the area of Jan Prinsloo’s original farmstead on Jammerfontein.
The ruins are scattered under dense bush – finding them would require a local’s assistance – but it lies close to the river and 1km from the start of this road. A further 500m along are the graves of British soldiers killed during the Anglo-Boer War. It is a rugged landscape with caverns, cliffs and narrow valleys. The progeny of Prinsloo’s horses, turned wild, are no longer to be found. In fact, it is beautifully pristine and wild, edged by a clear stream worthy of any riverside picnic.
Leaving the pass we spotted the Spookklippe or Guardians of the Kloof – two pillars of stone rumoured to have been female slaves who turned away from the sight of Prinsloo’s execution. When they finally stole a look at the spectacle, they were turned to stone.
Summiting the pass, we encountered an elderly labourer called Kerneels Engelbrecht. Shy at first, he warmed to Ronel’sexchange and finally admitted that he had heard of the spookstorie (ghost story). “They say he will roam these parts until Judgement Day,” he said in Afrikaans. He said the ghost could be lured by placing two silver sewing needles over each other in the form of a cross. But you could not look directly at the spirit, you had to hold up a mirror and look for the ghost in its reflection.
At Ragelsrivier Guest Farm, Eric Botha had a different take on the naming of Moordenaars Kloof. “The old timers here say Moordenaars Kloof actually got its name from the technical difficulty of driving ox wagons on the sharp turns of the pass,” said Eric. “The oxen did not want to pull so close to the edge and the driver had to moor (old Dutch word for ‘overwork’ – hence Moordenaars Kloof) the agterosse (rear oxen) with whips.”
I think I’ll go with the former.
Looking for somewhere to eat and sleep? Take a look at Claire Fulton’s helpful guide to Moordenaars Kloof.
Words and Photography Claire Fulton