Ever wonder how an adventure starts? This particular one into the unknown began with two old media colleagues having coffee on a stoep somewhere in Johannesburg. Once the initial pleasantries were over, they sat down in comfortable silence until the photographer asked a random question, “What’s in Putsonderwater?”
Nobody knew. “Is it even a place?” Stoep tranquillity over, the duo typed away furiously on their phones, hunting for information from the almighty Google on this elusive little settlement in the Northern Cape. Turned out there wasn’t that much, but for two tales of how Putsonderwater got its name.
One of them involves a reclusive farmer by the name of David Ockhuis, who dug a well (put) on the farm that eventually was called Putsonderwater. Unfortunately, old David had dug this well in the middle of the easiest route between Cape Town and wherever the trekboere were off to in the 1880s.
Not ideal if you’re an unsociable chap, which probably led to David becoming gatvol of people asking to ‘borrow’ a cup
of water from the only known well in the district. According to folklore, David eventually just lied to thirsty travellers, telling them the put was dry. It was a well without water. A put sonder water, in Afrikaans.
It’s a likeable explanation, and we could imagine an old hermit sitting on the stoep, watching sunrise over a strong cup of tea, only to be rudely interrupted by a bunch of Capetonians looking for a drink. Everyone loves a loveable rogue and David Ockhuis fits the mould.
A famous name
But the other tale makes more sense than that of an acerbic loner refusing his fellow countrymen a drink. In the days of the Great Trek, ox-wagon wheels were lubricated with tar, which also protected them from all the dust. The tar was kept in a bucket underneath the wagon and, when things got flooded, the bucket would often dip beneath the waterline.
The bucket was called a puts. And this one was a puts onder water. A bucket under water. Couple this with a region prone to flash floods and you have a believable, yet not as endearing, explanation for the name. We still don’t know which version to believe, but it doesn’t seem to matter, not even to the people in close vicinity to Putsonderwater, who we meet after deciding to get on the road and discover this place for ourselves.
Which is why we find ourselves barrelling into Upington, where our host was actually born in Putsonderwater and, when asked which version is true, simply responds that she’s never thought to ask where the name comes from. Perhaps that’s part of the charm. What we do know is why Putsonderwater eventually grew from a farm to an actual dot on the map.
Back before Henry Ford made cars affordable, the main form of transport was rail, and the quickest route from Cape Town to what was then South West Africa was via the Northern Cape. The main source of power was steam, which meant trains had to stop often to replenish their water tanks. And since Putsonderwater had a well with plenty of the stuff, it was a logical place to erect a station. (In fact, when it comes to this part of the history, there is mention of David Ockhuis.
Rotting and broken
According to various sources, Ockhuis’ land was taken from him and given to a Scottish shopkeeper called Peter Connan).
In any case, Putsonderwater served as a stopover for steam locomotives, which eventually led to some growth in the area.
A hotel was erected, as was a general dealer. And, for many years, the Putsonderwater train station won the award for having the neatest garden of all the train stations in South Africa. Quite an accomplishment. (Suppose the modern equivalent is an award for the mall with the nicest parking lot).
Are these gardens still around, we wonder? Perhaps we’ll even find an adorable coffee shop with friendly local farmers on hand to tell stories of the town. The surrounding area certainly seems able to accommodate a quiet weekend escape,
where city folk can unwind while ogling the beautiful landscape.
Er, no. Nobody lives in Putsonderwater. According to the last census (2011), Putsonderwater was home to four families. These days it houses one person and only sporadically. Trains occasionally use the route and, as the line, therefore, needs inspection, such inspector uses one room in the only house that barely resembles anything liveable.
To be honest, we’ve never encountered such devastation. We’ve seen some ghost towns, but the cruelty of time just landed a bit harder in Putsonderwater. Perhaps because it once won awards for being pretty.
While walking through what little is left of the hotel, I can’t help but paint an imaginary picture of what it used to be like. The wooden floors remain intact in some places, but rotted away in most. Fireplaces still wear the tell-tale sign of many fires over many years, and I can’t help wondering how many tales were shared while sitting around the glowing embers.
Possibility for resurrection?
It’s a beautiful piece of history, left to rot in the unforgiving desert, but we look past the decay and notice the brighter side of Mother Nature slowly reclaiming what is hers. Human dwellers have gone and the houses are decrepit, but the dassies seem more than happy with the luxurious accommodation left behind. A closer look even reveals bats living in what’s left of the ceilings, waiting for sunset so they can go out and play.
The station’s shrubbery is slowly working its way through the foundations, and a once-beautiful garden with shallow ponds is now hard to spot. In fact we only see its entirety once we send up the drone to take photographs.
Oddly, the newest structure in Putsonderwater is the put itself. The building materials are far too modern to be the original, and it’s probably just a celebratory well erected years ago to give visitors something to look at. Sadly, it’s now used
as a trash can, and the only thing in it related to liquid is a Fanta can.
I suppose Putsonderwater could be resurrected in some form, but it’s just too far out of the way and there’s no real reason to go there anymore. Even if you happen to be in the area, and want to see it for yourself, there’s just not enough there to keep you busy.
The dilapidated buildings are dangerous to explore and, other than the train tracks, there’s little else. (Mind you, you could take a selfie next to the famous Putsonderwater sign).
It probably won’t exist in ten years
But our visit there is not in vain. Photographer Cornel van Heerden has been moaning for ages about shooting a long-exposure somewhere without any pollution, so we wait it out to see if there’s any stargazing. A good move, as the stars that follow sunset are epic. It’s the perfect spot, and we only see three cars in 15 minutes close to tjailatyd, so I doubt anyone will care if we set up a wild camp next to the road.
At the current rate of deterioration, Putsonderwater probably won’t exist in ten years, and what little is left will collapse once a few of those famous flash floods have gone about their business. The iconic Putsonderwater signs will (hopefully) be claimed by a museum, and what little building material still useable loaded onto a bakkie and transported elsewhere.
It’s sad that generations to come won’t even know of Putsonderwater’s existence. Heck, around 50 years from now young
folk most likely will be looking back and laughing at the foolishness of using combustion for propulsion. But at least they’ll have these photographs, as proof that there once was a put, and even though it was without water, it did have inside it a Fanta can.
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