Getaway Magazine March 2000

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Wednesday, 1st March 2000

Uniondale in the Klein Karoo hides a witblits wizard, a hoard of secret remedies and a novel use for steaming cowpats. At every twist and turn Robyn Daly was caught by surprise.

"I can give you good fortune, cure cancer, work a court case or divorce. I can dig into your past and look into murder cases . . . ." Oom Schle said all this matter of factly, as though he were telling me he could read and write.

"I learnt everything from the Bushmen. They have superbrains. Even in their poor lifestyles they were wealthy. They knew where diamonds and gold were hidden, about wild game and about healing."

Healing is what Steve Fourie (otherwise known as Oom Schle) knows best. He's Uniondale's white umshcla or traditional herbalist.

"Here's dassie piss for kidney illnesses and colds. A tortoise shell is for arthritis - you put it in your bathwater." Oom Schle rummaged in his medicine bag, producing one cure after another from the jumble of vials and animal parts.

I watched this curious man as he passed out his remedies. He wore denim shorts, flips flops and a necklace of coral beads, duiker horns, crocodile teeth and lion fangs. If you knew how to interpret his garb, you'd learn the story of his life.

"Ah, this is it." He produced a pebble-like object. "What do you think this is?"

I took the 'stone' from his scabby hand and rolled it between my fingers. It was round, rubbed smooth on one half, and slightly wrinkled on the other. "Tell me."

"It's a fossilised Bushman penis."

Uniondale is full of surprises. It seems, at first, a perfectly ordinary town filled with wholesome people who live in neat little houses surrounded by mowed lawns and flower beds. And then suddenly you discover that nearly everyone has a talisman, an artefact, an odd quirk to their character or a secret from the past.

Take Oom Piet Ackermann for instance. Once a lawyer and deputy sheriff, now he's a member of the tourism council and a spokesperson for the Western Cape region on tourism signage.

To all appearances he's a fine, upstanding member of that ordinary dorp I was talking about but, catch him off guard, and you'll find him hunched over a copper cauldron of sorts, distilling wicked spirits that take your breath away. Oom Piet, if you haven't already guessed, is also Uniondale's witblits wizard.

Tannie Susan van Rensburg runs the neatest tea garden I've ever seen. She welcomes people at any time and believes that even one visitor is better than none at all. After meeting Tannie Susan you're bound to wish to stop for more than just homebaked cream scones, so she'll offer you one of her immaculate self-catering rooms at The Cottages. Who would have thought that The Cottages - all spick and span - was once a greasy fish-and-chips shop? But it's true, nonetheless.

Like the traditional healer, Oom Johannes Loock knows a remedy or two himself. He's one of a number of Uniondale farmers who breed three- and five-gaited show horses. "I look for a horse that can carry a man easily and do it as a pleasure." He's a big man with a big heart so it's no wonder he adds: "A big, beautiful horse, that's what I like."

Getting back to Oom Johannes's remedies: this third generation Uniondaler knows a very special cure - one for cold feet. It comes from his boyhood when he had to walk barefoot to school. "We weren't wealthy and had no shoes so, to take the bite out of the cold, we used to stand in fresh, hot cow-dung. It was so nice when it squelched between your toes."

Dave Cummins also seems an unlikely fellow to have secrets. Together with his wife Trish, he owns The Townhouse. It's a cosy, friendly guesthouse which has more pets than guests - a horde of about 10 dogs and a couple of cats will greet you at the gate. It's not just animals that the Cumminses collect, they do hats too. Dave's Den, which is the in-house pub, is wall-to-wall with peaked caps Dave has been collecting for years. If you stop in the bar, he'll pull out a bottle of Spook Asem made by the witblits wizard, and guaranteed to give you a ghostly breath.

Oh, I could tell you things about Uniondale. Like what's cooking behind those pungent smells that waft from the town's aloe factory or about the six forts from the Anglo-Boer War (Uniondale is the only town in the Southern Cape which was guarded by forts), about the graves of soldiers and about the time when the Boers captured the town's magistrate, locked him in the jail and threw away the key.

If you wanted to know about Groot Boet and Klein Boet Barkhuizen who aren't really brothers (and Klein Boet is actually larger than Groot Boet), I could tell you that too. And about South Africa's shortest telephone pole, biggest watermill, the world's first heart-transplant patient, and a unique strain of Cape Mountain Zebra in the Kammanassie Mountains whose stripes go only halfway round their bellies - yup Uniondale's side of the Klein Karoo is full of surprises.

But no, you can't pressure me into telling you anything more, not even about the ghost which is a touchy subject to the townsfolk. They've been hurt and abused by unfeeling media hype surrounding that story.

I like surprises and, it seems, Uniondalers particularly enjoy surprising visitors, so I'll leave some things for you to discover. Rest assured, Uniondale has more than just a supposedly fossilised Bushman appendage in its bag of tricks to catch you unawares.

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