Sybrandus Adema visits a Northern Cape town filled with memories and eerie spaces.
The R383 from Kenhardt to Marydale is much like the landscape — smacked into a flat, grey object by the glaring midday rays, yet beautifully contoured in the soft light of dawn and dusk. With no traffic or roadkill to bring the wandering eye back on track, it is only an occasional road sign, Afd Pad No 3035, and the officiously misspelt Pitzonderwater that refocuses one on the object of the journey. Many think Putsonderwater (“well without water”) simply exists in copywriters’ heads and comedians’ repertoires.
Huge, hut-like sociable weavers’ nests perch dangerously on telephone poles, a lone old bakkie rusts another day away and a wind pump or two wave occasionally when whacked by wind gusts. They are the welcoming committee of the dead dorpie, a village that barely was and now is not at all. Except for the railway line, the gleaming tracks of which attest to its continual use — the only vein that still pulses.
Less than 30 derelict houses, an empty school and a burnt-out station building lure one eerily to inspect more closely. In the cool, empty spaces created by the thick walls, wooden floors and high ceilings there is little left of former lives, loves, hopes and dreams — and even the undated graffiti provides no insight into what happened to the place. Nature has taken root through broken windows and roofs, with red soil in a bedroom and a tree growing probably where a bed once rested.
Birds nest in an electricity box, and a discarded shoe and old implements lie scattered in the overgrown gardens — one with a huge, ancient vine grasping on to a wire fence.
The pretty interdenominational church — built in 1957 and placed outside the village — as well as a huge sheep kraal with dipping facilities, attest to a time when money and community did exist, a time when the trains stopped to pick up cattle for urban, carnivorous markets.
“It was a very good place,” says Piet Titus (62), a former railway worker, who now lives in Marydale, as do many other former Putsonderwater inhabitants. “It was woelig (lively) — we made sure it was.”
Although he grew up at the nearby Koegrabie siding, he worked and lived in Putsonderwater in the 1980s and 1990s, experiencing first-hand how the village bled out. “All the houses were inhabited, the daily passenger trains and buses running between De Aar and Upington stopped in our village,” he says.
Eight people worked at the railway station, looking after the water pumps, the potable water supply and a generator that ensured that at least a part of the village had electricity. The station’s extensive gardens boasted a wishing well, rocky footpaths and roses — and won the Duncan trophy for the most beautiful station garden in 1989.
Cattle, tarred poles, cement and mealies came and went through the station. A nearby mine produced the marble-like feldspar, which was then washed and loaded at Putsonderwater before some of it ended up in Taiwan to be used to make Buddhist statues.
“The winters were cold, cold,” says Titus. “We picked up little pieces of coal at the station and used it with any wood we could find to keep warm …” he says, the exotic-sounding flora names rolling of his tongue: “…. witgatboom, driedoringbos and haakensteek.”
Summers were hot, especially in the corrugated-iron houses. “That is one of my fondest memories: sleeping on the stoep, under the stars and moon. For that I would love to return to the village; its relaxing, clean atmosphere.”
Titus laughs when ghosts are mentioned: “Sometimes people felt a cold shiver running down their spine, but that was just pockets of cold air that cut through the area’s heat,” he says. “I don’t believe in ghosts.” Recently he drove past the village: “I felt terribly lonely, because it is so desolate now.”
First recurring droughts brought the cattle trade to an end and then the passenger trains stopped running. Slowly the police station and post office followed the hotel and general dealership, closing down as people left the village — never to return. The station, the heart of the village, stopped beating around the turn of the century when the few passing freight trains no longer had any need to stop.
But the primary school kept going for quite a while, mainly owing to the efforts of Ena Hough (now 69), who worked there from 1994 to 2004. “Before, the textbooks, the drinking water, everything, came by train,” she says. “Later on trucks replaced them.”
The remaining inhabitants did piece work, hunting jackal or working on the farms, while their children went to school. “We had big fêtes at the school with neighbouring farms donating a sheep or two. We even created a soccer field and netball court; I chalked the lines myself, my husband welded the posts.” A mobile clinic and mobile library made their way to Putsonderwater, a feeding scheme was introduced. Yet fewer people saw any reason to stay on.
She fondly remembers the sounds made by the birds, horses and sheep, the snakes at the school and once a cornered porcupine in her long-drop toilet. “We still had the old shared phone-lines, the nommer-asseblief. It was four short pips for the school.”
In the end, the school, where each learner had planted and cared for his or her own tree, came to a stop. And so, too, did the village. “I went on pension and nobody applied for the position,” says Hough, regretfully. “There was no water, no electricity, no housing and no one was prepared to commute from Marydale as I had done.”
As a last act of hope, she had the school painted and put up signs in the windows requesting people not to break the glass. “By that time vandals had damaged so much of the village; at the hotel the doors and stained glass windows and the floors had already been taken out.”
She says people were sad to leave, many wanted to “stay just one more night” in their beloved houses. But her biggest reward and legacy was that some of her learners completed matric, despite all the challenges they faced. When asked to describe the village’s atmosphere, she hesitates.
“How can I put it? It was old-fashioned, unspoilt … with down-to-earth people. It was amazing.”
But now all that seems long ago, because Putsonderwater has become Putsondermense, a well without people. As the town fades away, only the memories remain … and a few serene Buddhas in far-flung countries who understand nothing is permanent.
When the town was still known as Klippan, a tenant farmer — known by various names, but whose true identity has evaporated over time — dug a well in the 1800s.
Every time a thirsty trekboer arrived and asked about the well, he told the passerby: “Ja meneer, ek het ‘n put, maar dis ‘n put sonder water.” (“Yes sir, I have a well, but it’s a well without water.”)
The name stuck and the land was later split into two. The one farm was called Putzonderwater (with the Dutch “z”) and the other Middelka.
The railway siding was named Putsonderwater (with the Afrikaans “s”) and the town was apparently first called Krombegin (Skewed Beginning). At some stage John Connan owned the farm: his two daughters married the two general dealers, Francis Bayly and Jan de Villiers.
Now his great-grandson, Michael Loubser, owns Putzonderwater farm, as well as the last remaining furnished house, dating back to the original Connan family.
Loubser still farms Dorper sheep and is the proud owner of old photos and memorabilia of Putsonderwater.
A few beautiful San rock engravings can be seen in the area.
Bartho Smit wrote the play Putsonderwater in 1962, but it could not be performed in South Africa because of its political message. In 1978 it won the Hertzog Prize for Literature.
How to get there:
Putsonderwater’s GPS coordinates are S29°13″, E21°52″ and it’s located on the R383. The village can be reached from Marydale (on Prieska-Upington N10) or Kenhardt (on Brandvlei-Upington R27).
Various bed and breakfast options are available at Prieska, Groblershoop and Kenhardt.