In a vague and unstructured search for the legend of Scotty Smith, Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit end up on a true Kalahari farm where the story gets even better…
Pictures: Chris Marais
In the 90-odd years since the death of Scotty Smith from Spanish flu, people are still trying to deconstruct the life of this Kalahari brigand. Was he just a mad horse thief, acting out his Scottish Border ancestry? Was he a true Robin Hood, blessed by lonely widows and cursed by rich men from Vryburg to Hotazel and beyond? Was he a ruthless Bushman hunter and a criminal to be caught and hanged? The jury’s still out. Suffice to say, however, that Scotty Smith was a very, very naughty boy.
One time, a detective cornered Scotty, arrested him and cuffed him. Within hours, Scotty slipped his handcuffs, overpowered the lawman, shackled him and dropped him off at the Kimberley jail. He was such a good con artist that the cops in Kimberley believed the hapless detective to be Scotty Smith himself.
So I said to Jules, let’s go and have a look at Scotty Smith country, that quadrant marked by Upington, Van Zylsrus, Vryburg and Kimberley. The drive from Cradock to Upington would take sane people a day. We spent nearly a week getting there. Professional meanderers, us.
At the little verandah cafe next to the Pick n Pay Centre in a booming Upington, we met up with our travelling co-conspirators, Dirk and Sonja van Rensburg. They’re also a bit meander-ish, so when I proposed a Kalahari jaunt Dirk suggested we spend some time at Boomskraap, his family farm in the centre of Scotty’s old neighbourhood.
“We’ve got the biggest windpump in South Africa,” he said, and carried on and on about the area. At “biggest windpump” he had me hooked. “OK, what’s the address?”
We headed out in convoy on the Olifantsfontein road. At a road sign that simply read ‘D3323’, we turned north on dirt. Bob Marley was on the old tape deck singing about his government house in Trench Town, sociable weaver nests on telephone posts were flying past the window, the veld was all ash-blonde with waving Bushman grass and there was a distinct honk coming from the back seat. Jules swivelled around and investigated.
“Milk spilt in the cooler bag and it’s gone sour.”
“Turf the cooler bag.”
“No, it cost good money. We’ll keep it.”
Jules’s packrat instincts were nothing compared to those of the farmer who lived on the land we were now passing. His farmstead was like a scrap metal yard, a Hotel California for chickens in the middle of nowhere. According to our spies in the Jimny in front of us, the farmer’s quite famous for riding a bakkie to death, parking it under the nearest tree and getting a lift into town, where he would buy a brand new vehicle. And so on. His many chickens have the finest coops in the Kalahari.
Scotty Smith was quite good at flying the coop himself, normally on the back of another man’s horse. The story goes that when he was working for the British in the Anglo-Boer War, Lord Kitchener sent for Scotty to brief him on a spying mission in the Free State. He had just returned from patrol, and his horse was just this side of exhaustion.
Kitchener vaguely told Scotty to “take one of my horses” and go off. Scotty didn’t need a second invitation, and helped himself to Lord Kitchener’s best horse, which was tethered outside the Big Chief’s tent, kitted out with fancy saddle, bridle and all.
His Free State foray was successful and Lord Kitchener never again brought up the subject of his beloved horse. Scotty took it as reward for work well done.
“Aah, here’s the turn-off to Boomskraap,” Jules announced, breaking my reverie. Our Isuzu was suddenly in soft red Kalahari sand, and the wheels were spinning until I suddenly remembered the difflock. And there, in the distance, stood the famous windpump. Its vanes were so big they had to be knitted together with wire. It stood still, nose bound to double tail on which the words Southern and Cross were painted. The Boomskraap windpump. Wow.
Dirk’s stepmother, Charlotte, emerged from an enormous tiled stoep to greet us and, within minutes, had us ensconced in a cool room away from the murderous heat outside, sipping on cordials.
That night, as we supped on a delicious meal of cold meats and salad, we could hear the windpump creaking outside. And then Dirk told us all about his childhood here, and life in the ‘Duinebos Hotel’.
“I grew up here, in a reed house with a hot corrugated iron roof and a floor made of red clay, cattle dung and termite mounds. We called it the Duinebos (dune bush) Hotel. For six months, while the borehole teams were looking for water on the farm, whatever water we drank had to be brought in by a Ford bakkie over non-existent roads. At night, I would bath in the water the borehole men had used to temper the drill bit of the bore.”
When they finally hit water at a depth of 300 metres, they celebrated in true Kalahari style. All the neighbouring farmers gathered on Boomskraap, and there was much drinking of strong liquor. Then the boring machine was started up, and they would all dance in the blue diesel smoke, and drink of the new water.
“Eventually, the guys would throw each other in the puddles. They called it ‘testing the water’”. Then they installed the giant 25 foot (8 metre) diameter Southern Cross, because it needed to do a giant job of bringing up water from a great depth. That windpump was their guardian and saviour until piped water arrived.
And although the water was brackish, Dirk grew to love it. This is a thing that happens with natives of the Kalahari and Karoo. They get so addicted to their brackish water that when you serve them coffee made with normal tap water, they drink it with a pinch of salt.
Which is also what you need for a good Scotty Smith story. Again, the story goes that when the constables arrived at Scotty’s home (wherever he was living at the time) he would tell them he was just about to hold a “house service” with his servants, which he conducted in a Bushman language. So as the cops stood by unwittingly, he would instruct his workers to hide all the contraband on the property. And then he would bless them – in a Bushman tongue.
Dirk’s dad passed away in 2012, and Charlotte has been running Boomskraap since then. A woman running a hard Kalahari farm on her own is no easy task.
By all accounts, a guy like Scotty Smith would have been a godsend to a lonely and hard-pressed Kalahari widow. One time, the story goes, a widow sheltered Scotty during the Anglo-Boer War and kept mum when a Brit patrol passed. As a reward, Scotty gave her his own horse, five pounds and a diamond. He left her farm on foot, quite sure he would be riding another man’s mount by sunset.
At dawn the next morning, I awoke with the Kalahari crosswinds howling outside, and the giant windpump had taken on a noisy life of its own.
“I lived my youth by the droning of that windpump,” said Dirk at breakfast. “Sometimes the wind would make it sound like an aeroplane propeller.”
We had a lazy day on the farm and gathered in the late afternoon for a photo session on some nearby dunes. The light was better than a holiday by the sea. We had gathered some true Kalahari props for a styled-up shoot: ostrich eggs, porcupine quills, weaver’s nest, camelthorn pods and an old tortoise shell. But the wind came up and the shoot was a bust so we drank a couple of bottles of red wine in the sunset instead. And then, when the light was just right, we used the grand old farm Land Cruiser, battered and beautiful, as our sundown photo prop.
The next morning, as we prepared to leave Boomskraap, we asked Charlotte what she was going to do with the rest of her day.
“I have to gather up 300 dorpers and take them to market,” she said. We saluted her and drove to Upington, where I went in search of Scotty Smith’s grave.
On the way, we realised we had been here before, many years ago. Boomskraap borders on the exclusive Tswalu Kalahari private game reserve, Nicky and Strilli Oppenheimer’s fantastic spread. Jules had ridden horses that could have been the great-great-great-grandchildren of Scotty Smith’s string of stolen mounts.
Eventually, I pitched at the main cemetery and got myself totally lost. Where, I asked the smoking gardener, was the grave of Scotty Smith? There, he said, languidly pointing at a lone stone.
The robber’s grave looked quite smart and ordinary. I was expecting something a little more Gothic, but I guess the legendary giant windpump of Boomskraap was the real treasure of the trip. In the words of Mick and Keith, the Rolling Stones’ Glimmer Twins:
You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you’ll find, you get what you need. . .