Where the Cape lion once roamed

Once long ago, it was just a pleasant spot on the Karoo plains where travellers paused to rest and refresh. Thought to have first been named Bitter Water by road builders Thomas and Andrew Geddes Bain, it was one of the few outspans on the long route north with drinkable water. So it soon became the choice stop of adventurers, explorers, missionaries, settlers, "trekboere" (migrant farmers) and even outlaws. They all camped near a grove of indigenous sweet thorn trees where the Leeu and Gamka rivers meet. It was cool and there was grazing. But it was far from idyllic. Constant watch had to be kept for wild animals and roaming bands of /Xam San, also in search of food and water.


Known as Bitter Water because of its hydrogenous, brack or "kruid" water, it was officially named Fraserburg Road when the railway line arrived there. Fraserburg had petitioned for the line in 1856, but was too late. Rail engineer W Brounger had already planned the route along the old "Wapad" or Wagon Route. When the rail came in 1879, stone station buildings, railway single quarters and an hotel were built. The final shift in the naming game came in 1950 when Leeu Gamka was adopted. The names of both rivers, the Leeu and the Gamka, mean "lion".

The bitter, flat-tasting water is caused by seepage of salts, mineral and trace elements into underground sources. The water also has an unpleasant sulphurous odour and is unsuitable for stock. Yet, these minerals and trace elements have led to Leeu Gamka now producing what is claimed to be the best lucerne available in South Africa. First introduced in 1870 as a feed for ostriches, lucerne is now grown under irrigation.


Hendrik Swellengrebel, son of a Dutch Governor, returned to Holland with his father, but love for the mountains and plains of the "African hinterland" lured him back. He commissioned Schumacher, an artist, to paint the Karoo so that friends in Europe could also enjoy its beauty. Governor Baron Joachim van Plettenberg and his party camped at Leeu Gamka en route to Colesberg, as did John Barrow, Governor MacCartney's secretary. Barrow mentioned being stunned by the dry bed of the Gamka. He had never seen "such a broad river with absolutely no water." Yet, in 1830, Andrew Steadman reports "a terrible storm, raging river and flood" at the same spot. Magistrate Maynier, who fled Graaff Reinet's disgruntled farmers, paused here, and so did Governor Willem Jansens, who with his aide, Paravincini de Capelli, was on an official visit to Abraham de Klerk in Beaufort West.


Early travellers often wrote of lions. In 1776 Swellengrebel reported finding the body of a /Xam San woman mauled to death here by a lion. By 1803 German explorer Heinrich Lichtenstein mentions three lion species and the Cape lion as "most magnificent". George Thompson camped here in 1823 on his way to Beaufort and mentions having to build a huge fire "to keep off lions which infest this path." On his way through here in 1839, the old Quaker gospel preacher and explorer, James Backhouse, also took precautions against lions.


The Cape lion is now extinct. The last one is thought to have been shot at Leeu Gamka by explorer Robert Gordon in 1842. A specimen is on display in the Natural History section of the Cape Town Museum. The Cape Lion was smaller and slighter than the common African lion and had a fuller, darker mane. In recent years a species similar to the Cape Lion was found in a zoo in Ethopia.


The history of Leeu Gamka starts with the earliest farmers who moved into this area of the Karoo, known as the Koup. It is flat and barren and was not highly thought of as farm land. Grazing was poor and not easy to find, the rivers were mostly dry and underground water was brack, with a consequent lack of good drinking water. Eventually some farmers applied for land and were taken aback when the Dutch Government was not keen to allocate farms between the Gamka and Dwyka rivers. They wanted to preserve what little grazing there was for "trekboere and cattle speculators." So settlement of the area was slow.

The first man to settle at what is now Leeu Gamka was Andries Stephanus Botes. He arrived in 1833 and acquired the farm Blaau Draay, today called Danskraal. Botes was a descendant of "trekboere" who had moved north in the late 1700s. He came from an area between present-day Beaufort West and Merweville.


Soon after Botes had established himself, others arrived and a field cornet was appointed. He commissioned the land surveyor, C G Osche, to peg out farms in the Kruidfontein area while encouraging more farmers to settle there . Attractive offers were made and soon other families moved in. Among these were the Bothmas, Krugers and le Rouxs. They were followed by the Hattings, Luttigs, Viviers, and Swanepoels. By 1838, the farm Ratelfontein was granted to Johannes Stephanus Marais, while Stephanus A A Marais had acquired Blaaukrantz and J F Lotriet Vlakkraal. By 1841 Uitkyk, once an important stop on the post coach route, Spreeufontein, where gold would be discovered and Veldmansrivier had also been allocated.


A Hollander, H A L Hamelberg, on his way through the area to Bloemfontein, in 1856, reported that this area was reasonably well populated. Hamelberg mentioned difficulties with finding stabling and fodder for his animals as the Karoo was in the grips of an extremely severe drought.

He eventually found both fodder and stabling on Uitkyk "which catered for the post coaches, passenger carriers and transport wagons travelling between Cape Town and Beaufort West." Hamelberg states that the road from Uitkyk to Letjiesbos was in a dreadful state, full of holes, huge rocks and stones. Bodies of animals, which had starved to death, lay along the road side.

The journey, according to him was tiring and stressful to his companions and their horses. Many other travellers that year, including Robert Grey, the Bishop of Cape Town and his wife, Sophie, wrote of these dreadful drought conditions on roads through the Great Karoo.


Farming rights for the now well-known farm Antjesfontein, was granted by the Government in 1868. But Bitter Water remained Crown Land and continued to be used as an outspan. As more and more farmers moved into the area, so the problems with the /Xam San increased. Game began to move northwards and hunting for the /Xam San became scarce. They simply supplemented their needs by stealing stock. Today several farm names bear testimony to the struggle between settlers, /Xam San and outlaws. There are, for example, Boesmanskop, Skietleegte and Uitkyk, which according to some sources had a koppie that was used as a look-out. Commandos in pursuit of indigenous tribesmen and outlaws climbed this koppie to see if they could spot tracks or signs of smoke from camp fires.


The discovery of diamonds at Hopetown in 1867 and at Kimberley in 1868, benefited Leeu Gamka as traffic on the road increased vastly. Hoards of fortune hunters camped at Bitter Water as the diamond rush and diamond fever gripped locals and foreigners.


By 1878 James van der Bijl had established a general dealer's store at Kruidfontein, a farm on the outskirts of Leeu Gamka. He served the swelling flow on the road, but his store also meant much to local farmers who no longer had to travel great distances for provisions.

The first rail accident happened just after the line opened. A locomotive and several coaches rounding a bend at speed near Luttig Station was derailed. No one was hurt, but the inconvenience was considerable. Passengers had to walk back to Leeu Gamka in blazing heat. There they were faced with delays waiting for horse-drawn transport to take them further. This accident also delayed the rail's construction to Beaufort West. Farmers were horrified as problems with the "navvies" increased. They were the British, Scottish and Irish labourers brought to South Africa to lay the rail. They were a wild bunch of men who stole liquor from pedlars and terrorised farmers's wives and daughters.


The discovery of gold in the Transvaal in 1886 brought a fresh rush of fortune hunters to Leeu Gamka's small railway station. Many important men of the day strutted along the platform stretching their legs. They included President Paul Kruger, Cecil John Rhodes, President Jan Brand of the Orange Free State, President Marthinus Theunis Steyn of the Transvaal and Lord Alfred Milner.

In 1880, a telegraph line was laid alongside the railway line and communications with the outside world improved. Late in the 1880s, a road was built to join up with the Fraserburg road, and at the same time the Oukloof Pass, between Leeu Gamka and Fraserburg was completed.

Excitement spread through the village like a veld fire when gold was discovered only about 60 km away at Prince Albert in 1889 . Leeu Gamka blossomed as diggers rushed to Klein Waterval and Spreeufontein. A small town, Gilbertsville, mushroomed up nearby, but vanished almost as quickly. Several local farmers registered claims and many are held to this day, but no gold was ever found.


The settlement's first church and school were built in 1896. And, in 1898, Gert Maxwell Coetzee hired a morgen of ground from the Prince Albert Divisional Council to build a small wood and iron hotel near the old Bitter Water outspan spot. The hotel opened a year before the country was plunged into war. The village then saw a constant stream of soldiers moving northwards.


When the Anglo Boer War broke out in 1899, troop trains and wounded soldiers almost immediately began passing through Leeu Gamka. The hotel and the railwaymen's single quarters, the picturesque little stone cottages still standing next to the railway line, were used as a hospital and convalescent wing.

The first Australian to die in the war, and the man who was also the tallest soldier in the British Army, is buried near the station. He was Private Schultz, of the 3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards, and he stood almost 7ft tall. He was a favourite at Royal functions, but obviously also an easy target for the Boers. He and Private J Lynn, of the first Scots Guards, were wounded at the Battle of Belmont on November 23, 1899. They share a grave and headstone erected by their comrades It bears the inscription "and there was no more war." Sgt P Fallon, 3rd Battalion Royal Lancaster Regiment, who was accidentally killed at Luttig on November 2, 1901, is buried nearby.

In 1901, the British forces built a blockhouse on the banks of the Leeu River. Its purpose was to Guard the railway line and the bridge over the river. The ruins of this stone blockhouse can still be seen. Over the years its roof, ladders, floors and door have vanished.


After the dust of conflict had settled and the peace was signed, the little town slowly began to grow. However, when houses were planned near the hotel in 1903, owner Gert Maxwell Coetzee would allow no such thing. He refused to have dwellings encroaching on the morgen of ground granted to him. So all houses in Leeu Gamka had to be built on the other side of the railway line, a planning peculiarity that puzzles tourists to this day.


In 1910, there was a little shop directly opposite the hotel. The old road from Kruidfontein to Fraserburg passed between the shop and the hotel. In time, the Kruidfontein road fell into disuse, however, traffic on the Cape-to-Cairo route ensured the hotel prosperity. But it badly needed a lounge. So the owner at the time simply put a roof across the disused road, laid a floor and brought in some furniture. The lounge is still used, but all trace of the road has vanished. Bennie Frank bought the hotel from Coetzee in 1918, and ran it until 1936. In 1925, he was granted a licence for a bottle store. Until then all liquor had to be purchased from the local police station. A splendid table and good liquor attracted ever-more patrons, and the business thrived.


In January, l936, Frank sold out to a Mr van der Westhuizen, at which stage it was still the only retail business and hotel in the area. Within short, Van der Westhuizen also opened a cafe. He then sold to a relative, P D F van der Westhuizen, and he was granted the first hotel liquor licence in this part of the Karoo. The village prospered, and soon van der Westhuizen opened a garage. Atlantic, Shell and Caltex petrol was available at nine pence a gallon from hand pumps. Then disaster struck. In 1943, the national road was moved to its present position. It was just too far from the hotel, and because motorists were then forced to turn off and cross the railway lines, they simply sped past. And Leeu Gamka slowly subsided into obscurity.


There are some buildings of architectural interest in the village. Among these are the dressed stone railway buildings, the tiny post office, the original Dutch Reformed Church and the Dutch Reformed Mission Church on the opposite side of the N1. The Leeu Gamka Hotel, built in 1898 and revamped in 1910, has a collection of tavernalia and other bar items, including early cooldrink samples. Also on display are old farming implements, sewing machines and lamps, as well as a fossilised elephant tusk found in the Gamka River bed in 1938. It is thought to be about 900 years old.


Towards the end of the last century, a young English lass was sent to Kruidfontein as a governess. She was lonely and at times bored. Her family regularly posted her the London Illustrated News. She loved it and wrote a letter to the editor telling him she read it from cover to cover - sometimes more than once - since it was all she ever got to read. He published the letter and within short people from the furthest outposts of the British Empire posted her reading material. The railway made a special shed available to her so that she could store her books and magazines.