Bushwise Field Guides

Welcome back to the next installment of the History of the Lowveld series. In keeping with the theme, the writer decided to explore the gold mining rush that took place in the 1800’s in the area and decided to pay a visit to the smallest “city” in South Africa known as Leydsdorp.

Chatting to the current proprietor revealed some intriguing and captivating tales that almost felt as if I was being transported back to the past when this town was once a booming centre of activity.

The wild wild west of south Africa would be the only way to describe the history of this once booming gold town, where men and women alike were as wild and tough as the place itself.

First off, Edward Button and James Sutherland found gold in the mountain range close to where the town was to shortly grow overnight which they named after Sir Roderick Murchison, a British geologist, in 1870.

This discovery did not prove lucrative, but in 1888 the renowned prospector French Bob, who had discovered the Pioneer Reef near Barberton, found more gold in the range and this started a rush.

Several mines were opened, thousands of claims were pegged and about 600 prospectors were active in the area.

The centre of excitement was the camp of French Bob.  In 1890 this camp was selected by the government as the site for a town from which to administer the Murchison Range gold-mining fields, after it was proclaimed as the Sellati goldfields by the old president, Paul Kruger in 1889.  The town was named Leydsdorp, after Dr W Leyds, the state secretary.

Leydsdorp grew rapidly into a conglomeration of shacks, pubs, hotels, most notably one opened by a man named Dickenson and the famous pub that is named after him, stores and printing works which published a newspaper, The Leydsdorp Leader, boasted a very big cemetery (mortalities were high, this was the wild wild west after all- malaria, blackwater fever, the heat and lack of comforts together with predation by wild lions being the major causes), a bakery, butchery, a post office, a hospital and a Magistrates office. Transport to and from the town were provided by means of coaches drawn by mules and zebras.

Since this was also one of pres. Paul Kruger’s favourite hunting grounds, he declared Leydsdorp a city to sign government documentation on one of his visits to his house which is still standing to this day, and who knows, may be where the missing Kruger millions are hidden? Legend has it that the original bar counter found in Dickenson’s pub (and which is still in operation today!) has in it a carved map that leads to these Kruger millions mentioned above!!

Apart from the bar counter, underneath it there is an underground cellar that was used as a kind of a mortuary where the deceased were temporarily held until autopsies and burials were completed. Crazy as this may sound, when the writer entered this rock lined chamber down a steep set of stairs, the temperature became decidedly colder and made sense why this practice was done, despite it being in a public place. One can just imagine how the recently departed were “sent off” to their final resting place with many a pitcher of beer, reminisces and mirth by fellow prospectors and ladies of the night that also frequented the establishment.

Among some of the “urban legends or tales” that came out of the chat with the current owner are fascinating: –

One such story is that an old man apparition still to this day appears at his regular seat in the pub, this being believed that ghosts still dwell there, this has been re-inforced by members of the public and staff who have witnessed the old man, who apparently also makes his presence known by clearing his throat or a small cough!

Another such story is of a “ghost” by the name of Stanley, who allegedly runs stark naked past the hotel and pub many a weekend night. I say allegedly since it may be the witnesses are also partaking in consuming vast quantities of hops and barley and have their beer goggles on!

Also, in the nearby vicinity, ninety meters off the road linking Leydsdorp to Gravelotte is a hollowed-out baobab which was fondly known as ‘the Murchison Club’ containing a makeshift counter over which drinks used to be served to thirsty gold-seekers. A dozen or so men could gather at a time inside the tree, and the writer can confirm that it is indeed the case as the Baobab tree is still there and is still being used as a place visited by tourists although the fare is somewhat less of the alcohol variety.

Prospectors were indeed a hardy bunch since carousing all night long and then toiling in the heat of the Lowveld during the day in search of gold has endeared them to myself the writer.

This is the venue on Friday, where we will be having the students, Class of January 2018 Farewell, before they move onto their placements.

Until next time>

Trevor Myburgh