Words: Nicholas Yell
Pictures: Nicholas Yell and supplied
“Remember our chat about ‘Bloubaard’ Swanepoel last night?” asked Nico Hesterman, owner of Bonniedale Holiday Farm near Mossel Bay. “Yes, the grim reaper of Attaquas Kloof – how could I forget!” I replied.
“Well, he’s buried just behind that giant bluegum over there.”
Nico and I were standing about eight kilometres of challenging and steadily rising historic wagon track away from his farmhouse in the aforesaid Attaquas Kloof, which lies between the Outeniqua and Langeberg Mountains and which in ox-wagon days provided an important gateway through the mountains to Oudtshoorn. We’d got here in his 4×4, a veteran Toyota Hilux with raised suspension, double diff locks and all sorts of other off-road accoutrements garnered over Nico’s many years of trail blazing and bundu bashing.
Walking towards the unmarked grave, now buried in the undergrowth, I shivered with the memory of the stories I’d heard. By all accounts, Gerrit Johannes Swanepoel, who farmed on nearby Rietfontein in the mid 1800s, was a sadistic monster. One of his favourite pastimes seems to have been ambushing workmen he’d just paid, taking his money back, and then killing them – often by pushing them over one of the many cliffs in the area.
But it was his penchant for cattle theft (he apparently claimed ownership of any unbranded cattle that wandered onto his farm) that eventually undid him.
An accomplice, Stoffel Viljoen, whom he’d met while serving time for assault on Robben Island, decided to move back to the city and Swanepoel gave him a stray ox in lieu of wages due. Swanepoel told Viljoen to say he was taking the ox to the pound if anyone questioned him about the animal, but he didn’t bank on Vijoen’s seeking the advice of the local field cornet, Pieter Raubenheimer, en route. It is said that Raubenheimer had been waiting years for ‘Bloubaard’ Swanepoel to slip up and now he had the branded evidence he needed to convict him.
But it was the damning testimony of Grietjie Kraaiyenstein, the girlfriend of one of Swanepoel’s labourers, who told how she saw Swanepoel break her boyfriend Jan Willemse’s neck with his bare hands and then slit his throat, that finally sent him to the gallows. It was the last public execution to be held in George, on 28 April 1856, and the townsfolk thronged to the event, probably to ensure that the man who’d become known as the ‘Terror of the Outeniquas’ did actually meet his end.
With the hair still standing up on the back of my neck, we toiled on up the ancient wagon trail towards the ruins of an old English fort. On the way Nico pointed out the remains of a tollhouse where tolls for close to 500 wagons per year were collected in the heyday of Attaquas Kloof Pass (which was declared a National Monument in 1993) in the early 1800s – before the Montagu Pass was built in 1848. The ruins of the small fort, commanding sweeping views of the east, west and south-west approaches, got Nico and I talking about Kitchener’s blockhouse policy during the Anglo-Boer War.
Although Kitchener netted a lot of Boer equipment, supplies, livestock and many of their unofficial ‘quartermasters’ (the wives, families and labourers who’d been left behind on their farms), his large-scale skirmishing efforts, designed to drive the Boers in the field against the line of blockhouses to ensure their capture, proved mostly futile. Under cover of darkness and armed only with a few pairs of wire cutters, the wily Boers crossed the line of fences erected between the blockhouses almost at will – a fact that occasioned General De Wet to derisively dub Kitchener’s programme the ‘blockhead’ policy.
But the ruined fort we were standing in apparently never saw any action during the war and the members of the Mossel Bay town guard who manned it must have been bored out of their minds. Indeed, many blockhouse soldiers were often so short of anything to do that they used to heliograph chess moves to each other, as most of the buildings were in line of sight of one another.
“There’s an old double-storey hotel further down the valley there,” said Nico, pointing north-east from the fort, “but it’s fallen into total disrepair now. Such a pity as it was a thriving hostelry in
We bumped back down the trail, fending off swarms of horseflies as we went. Later we stopped at a lookout point with spectacular views of the farmhouse and the Grootkloof, a deep gorge that is the subject of much local myth and legend. At this point Nico told me about another ‘Outeniqua Terror’ – the Grootkloof’s very own ghost.
“Soon after I moved to the farm, some 16 years ago, I set off up the kloof on a week-long fence-mending expedition with a couple of my labourers. Roughly over there,” said Nico pointing, “I noticed that one worker had become nervous about carrying on up the trail. Eventually he told me it was because there was a bad spirit there, one that could also be sensed by the horses. I managed to coax him around the spot and we carried on up the kloof and I thought little further of the matter. But some time later, when I was riding past the same place, my horse became highly agitated and galloped around the area as fast as it could. After enquiring among the locals I learned that a Khoi chief is buried there and, judged by the reputed hostility of the Attaqua tribe, his spirit probably doesn’t take kindly to having his grave stomped on.”
As a finale to my day of clambering about on the old wagon trail, Nico decided I should see Sunbird Camp, an open-air campsite high up in the mountains. Extreme 4×4 driving ability is required to reach it and as we snatched our way up the impossibly steep, boulder-strewn slope, I felt like a human medicine ball bouncing around inside an erratic mill. But the views from the top were certainly worth the discomfort of being thrown about for a bit. In fact, it’s so peaceful up there that one of Nico’s rally driving friends who died a while ago requested in his will that his ashes be scattered close by. I’m not a bit surprised.