In support of the efforts currently underway to document the history of the Royal Observatory a lot of historic material has been made available in digitized form by Auke Slotegraaf. While attempting to work my way through this formidable volume of information I came across the following in Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope, 1875 (iii).
“The “meridian mark” referred to in Table III, is on an undulation immediately to the east of the mountain called Blaauw Berg, and is situated some 13 miles north of the Observatory. It is a pillar built up to serve as a permanent meridian mark for the 10 feet Dolland’s Transit. The transit instrument is about 512 feet west of the meridian of the Transit-circle. The azimuth of the mark from the meridian of the Transit-circle, assumed in the determination of the azimuthal errors given in Table III, has been 2’ 40” west. It would appear that the assumed azimuth is too great by about 1”.3, and that the true azimuth of the mark is nearly 2’ 38”.7 west. The azimuthal errors derived from the position of the mark have not been used in the reductions, except for the approximate determinations of the clock error for time-ball purposes. The mark can only be well seen near noon on rather cloudy days; on bright, clear days it can only be observed soon after sunrise and near the time of sunset. The value of the mark as an indication of changes in the position of the Transit-circle, is not so great as it would be were observations possible at any hour of the day.”
So where was this meridian marker? After several e-mails between Auke Slotegraaf, Dr Ian Glass and I, it soon became clear that this specific object had not been seen by any members of the astronomical fraternity for many, many years. Ian produced correspondence dating back to 2012, in which a Mr. Seymour Currie, verified that that the object was in fact on his farm. The correspondence was conducted via the staff of Cape Nature at the Blaauwberg Nature Conservancy, and no mention was made of the farm’s name. Not knowing the farm’s name becomes a crucial point as the story develops.
I sent an e-mail to Mr. Currie who promptly phoned back. He had no objections to us coming to view, measure and photograph the meridian mark and he agreed to phone back again with instructions on how to get to his farm and an evaluation of how difficult it would be for us to get right up to the meridian mark. By Saturday morning, the 05th of December I had heard nothing from Mr. Currie and all telephone calls were answered by the dreaded voice message, “The subscriber you have dialled is not available ……”.
On the 05th a party consisting of Auke Slotegraaf, Chris Vermeulen, Dr. Ian Glass, Chris de Coning, Johan Brink, Kechil Kirkham, Dirk Rossouw and I, assembled at the Observatory. We were confident that, thanks to previous efforts by Ian and the help of Google Earth, we had the position pinned down and it looked as if there were useable access roads, but we were all anxious to hear from Mr. Currie.
The first task though, was to get up onto the roof of the Observatory building and try and see the meridian mark from there. Unfortunately the Eucalyptus trees that had been planted over the years successfully cut of, not only any possible view of the marker, but of the entire Blaauwberg. I had still not been unable to raise Mr. Curry on the phone so we decided to go with Google Earth and Google Maps and the coordinates of the marker. The route seemed pretty straight forward but Dirk several times expressed concern that we were venturing well of the beaten track and he had prior experience of the fact that Google did not take cognisance of fences and assorted farm gates in out of the way areas like this. In the absence of any communication from Mr. Currie we had little choice but to set off, guided by Google.
One section of the party, Auke, Kechil and Johan would stay behind and find a spot near the bird hide, at the northern extremity of the Observatory property, from which they hoped to observe the other section’s arrival at the marker. Chris dC had to first make a delivery and would join us later guided by Google. Chris V and Ian took the lead followed by myself and behind me Dirk. Somewhere on the N1 I lost sight of Dirk behind me but it turned out he had made a detour into Century City to refuel. I also lost sight of Chris V and Ian ahead of me but I had the Google turnoff from the N7, Frankdale Road, memorized so I was confident I would not get lost. I found the turnoff and after 1.3 km the tarred surface gave way to a track which became progressively worse, slowing me down to walking pace for long stretches. About 4.2 km from the N7, Zonnekus Road links up with Frankdale Road at a T-junction. There is a large, imposing, locked gate and, much to my surprise, parked on the other side of the gate were Chris V and Ian. While I was explaining to them how to get to where I was, Dirk pitched up, on my side of the gate. Chris V and Ian headed back to the N7 and Dirk and I waited. While we were waiting Chris dC arrived, also on the wrong side of the gate! More explanations and he also retraced his steps. After Chris V, Ian and Chris dC joined us Dirk once more voiced his concern that, although we were headed in the right direction, we might run into the Blaauwberg Nature Conservancy fences before reaching our target. Our cell phone signal had faded on us shortly after leaving the N7, so we were unable to update Google maps or try Mr. Curry again.
Off we went once again with Chris V and Ian in the lead, followed by Chris dC, then myself with Dirk bringing up the rear. Just over three km after leaving the gate, we encountered the gate and game fence of the Blaauwberg Nature Conservancy, as predicted by Dirk. Ian and I walked along the fence for quite a way trying to find higher ground on order to get a better view of the area where we thought the marker was and eventually we thought we had it. Unfortunately it was a case of so near and yet so far. After some debate we decided to call it a day and head home. I had to refuel as I did not have enough to get me home to Brackenfell and Chris dC very kindly offered to follow me to the filling station in Killarney in case I ran out of fuel completely. So we said our goodbyes and off we went.
After filling up in Killarney I parked the car and had a sandwich while going over the day’s events and checking that Mr. Currie had not tried to contact me. The more I thought about the day’s events the more I felt that Dirk had been right after all and we should have tackled this expedition from a farm called Blaauwberg on the northern slopes of the mountain. By now everyone else was well on their way back home or back to the Observatory, so I set of on my own. On the farm Blaauwberg I found that the owner was none other than Mr. Curry! It turned out that he and Willem Steenkamp had been very busy out in the veldt that morning planning the Battle of Blaauwberg Commemoration scheduled for the 09th January 2016.
After coffee we set off to the marker. Mr Curry and his wife took a quad-bike and I followed in their 4×4 all the way up to the marker, accompanied by their two magnificent Ridgebacks, racing along with the vehicles. The first kilometre after one leaves the farmyard is fine and can be attempted in any vehicle but the next just over one kilometre is uphill, sandy and riddled with mole tunnels. I would not venture up there in anything but a 4×4 vehicle.
Anyway, there the marker was and, after my hosts departed, I set about measuring and photographing. Both tasks were complicated by the fact that three sides of the marker were overgrown with very thorny bushes reaching almost to chest height. A section, which I think was added at a much later date than the original construction, has come off the top of the marker. The reason I think it is a later addition is that the cement looks quite different from that used in the construction of the marker and also, the removal does not seem in any way to have damaged the top of the marker. The marker is not, as stated in the reference at the end of this post, 14 feet (that’s over four m) high.
Mr Curry reports that up to about 10 years ago the military actually come round once a year and cleared away the brush around the marker but that no longer happens, as I can testify. It was not only the surrounding bush that made photography difficult but also the fact that the sun was fairly low in the west, which caused all sorts of complications with shadows. After finishing up I drove back to the homestead, reluctantly handed back the 4×4, said my goodbyes and headed home.
The Curries say that during military exercises with helicopters, it appears as if they fly to a point directly over the marker and then change course. Perhaps somebody could investigate this because it would be interesting to know if the marker is in fact used as a beacon, why and since when.
Dr Glass has also tracked down two more references to the meridian marker which seem to pinpoint its construction to August 1841. The references are to be found in Verification and Extension of La Caille’s Arc of Meridian at the Cape Of Good Hope by Sir Thomas Maclear. Vol 1, Published by order of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, 1866.
Page 403: “Having obtained permission on the 10th of August, 1841, from the trustees of Dirk Gysbert Kotze, to erect a pillar on the Blaauwberg estate, on a hill south-west of his dwelling house, in the meridian of the transit room of the Royal Observatory, a party was told off for this service shortly after the return from the measurement of the Base. The pillar is a truncated pyramid 14 feet high, constructed of stone and lime masonry, cased with Roman cement.
By observation of the consecutive transits of circumpolar stars in the winter season made with the 10-feet transit instrument, the azimuth of the centre of the pillar is 179° 59’.57”, reckoning from the south round by the west; and by triangulation its distance is 68415 feet, or nearly 13 miles north of the transit instrument.”
Page 444: “The position of the pillar is on the undulation, immediately to the east of the mountain named Blaauw Berg, distant nearly 13 miles north from the Royal Observatory. The pillar was built to serve as a permanent meridian mark for the 10-feet transit instrument; also for obtaining the azimuths, by direct angular measurement of the trigonometric points, that are visible from the Observatory.”
The search for the foundations of old buildings at the SAAO begins
Friday 03 July 2015.
The first thing to do was to set up our table and chairs and lay out all the equipment at the southern end of the row of Moonwatch Pillars (MWP’s). The next thing was to sit down and go through all the documentation Auke had meticulously prepared, comparing plans dating from Sir David Gill’s 1911 document right up to the 2009 survey, as well as several aerial photographs. Auke’s first objective was to find whatever remained of the Franklin Adams Observatory (FAO), dating back to 1903.
Structures on the maps and photographs that could be easily identified were the MWP’s and also the Moonwatch Hut (MWH), situated west of pillars seven, eight and nine (counting from the Southern end). On an undated aerial photograph the Cape Centre Dome was situated to the West of this hut. The Cape Centre Dome will be referred to as the Ron Atkins Observatory (RAO) in this and other documentation. Further west of the RAO, on the same photo, there appeared to be two smaller structures, which Auke had simply identified as F1 and F2. The FAO lay west of F1 and F2, about the same distance away as the RAO was from the MWH. The FAO appears on Gill’s 1911 map, on a 1932 survey map and again on a 1937 aerial photograph but disappears after that. The RAO, on the other hand, does not feature on any of these documents, but shows up on the undated aerial photo, which Auke thinks was taken after 1957 based on the fact that it shows the MWP’s. The FAO, however, no longer appears on this specific photograph.
We decided to first do some work on the RAO as part of the circular foundation was still visible. The centre point of the RAO was 17m directly west of MWP seven. After some spade and broom work we had the greater portion of the circular foundation of the observatory uncovered as well as a substantial section of the floor. In the middle we found a large keyhole shaped structure that had very probably been the base of the telescope pier. In the wider section of the keyhole were three short pieces of rusty metal reinforcing rods still embedded in the concrete and the stub of one that had snapped off level with the floor. The wider end of this keyhole feature seems to contain more stone and rubble then the narrow end and the entire keyhole area is separated by a gap of 25 to 35 mm from the actual floor of the RAO. This gap was probably intended to isolate the keyhole section from any vibrations cause by walking on the floor of the RAO. Just outside the eastern edge of the outer wall (closest to the MWH) we found two cables that must have supplied electricity to the RAO. At this point we broke for lunch.
After lunch we tackled the problem of locating the FAO. From the maps and photographs we worked out that the middle of the northern pier in the FAO should be situated 25 m west of MWP seven, in other words, just eight metres west of the RAO. We measured off the distance and marked the spot. To our right, as we faced the RAO, lay a section of a concrete beam which we thought might represent part of the support for the roll-off roof. The beam is 30 x 30 cm and roughly 2 m in length; smooth on three sides and very rough on the fourth with bits of stone embedded in the concrete on that side. Careful excavation around the beam revealed nothing that could possibly be interpreted as part of a building’s foundations.
Time was running out so we decided to dig an exploratory trench running from a point, which we were convinced was outside the eastern wall of the RAO, directly across the area in a westerly direction. In theory, this trench should intersect with at least two of the original walls. The theory proved to be incorrect. We were certain that our position was correct so the empty trench left us with two possibilities.
The FAO-site is situated below the 100 year flood line and this area has been subjected to a considerable infilling over the years in an effort to raise it higher above the adjacent Liesbeeck River. It is, therefore, quite feasible that the remains of the building are buried a lot deeper than we have been digging. The second possibility is that the remains of the building were dug up and used as landfill closer to the river.
More digging will hopefully give us some answers, but our time had run out and Auke and I had to pack up and go if we intended beating the dreaded Friday afternoon traffic on the N2 and N1 respectively.
If you want to read about the work done after this post go to
Field trip with Dr Juri van den Heever and the honours students from the Department of Botany & Zoology at the University of Stellenbosch. 17 – 22 March 2014
This is a diary of the six day event with lots of pictures to illustrate the text. I must first give some background about the tour and its origins to put all readers in the picture. Juri van den Heever, the architect of the tour, moved from the South African Museum to the Department of Zoology at Stellenbosch in 1987. In 1988 he took the first of these tours as part of the Honours course and has been taking them ever since. I had been with the Department of Biochemistry at Stellenbosch University since 1985 and, as Juri and I had been at school together, we were able to renew our friendship when he came to Stellenbosch. This led to him asking me if I would like to participate in the tours and fill in on the Biochemistry of plants as well as some other aspects. The tour provides the students with information on Geology, Vertebrate anatomy, Palaeontology, Plants and plant usage, Insects, Birds, Ecology of the areas visited, History, Culture, Geography, Astronomy and, last but not least, the opportunity to participate in discussions on science in general and the philosophy of science and being a scientist.
So, from around 1994 or so, we have been in this together, although I skipped one or two due to pressure of work at Biochemistry or some other immovable commitment. Over the years we have also taken members of the public, high school learners and fellow colleagues at the University on these tours, whenever there have been seats open in the vehicles. These “outsiders” have very often made valuable contributions to the range and depth of the topics touched on during the tour. One interesting feature of these trips over the years has been the large number of our University colleagues who have annually committed themselves very enthusiastically to participate in the next trip only to pull out at the last minute. This year we had 14 students from the Department of Botany and Zoology and one member of the public, Peter Müller, a retired Wood Technologist.
Monday 17th March
Just after 06:30 on Monday the 17th of March, Lynnette dropped me off at the University’s vehicle park where Juri was already inspecting the two Toyotas and completing the paperwork. We hooked on the two trailers and shortly before 07:00 we were parked outside the Department and the students could begin to load their gear, the supplies and other equipment for the week. Shortly after 07:00 Juri gave the first briefing and then we embarked and headed out of Stellenbosch toward the West Coast Fossil Park near Langebaanweg. Our route took us through Malmesbury, which has a tepid, sulphur chloride spring that once attracted many ailing Capetonians to a Sanatorium that was built there. A shopping centre now covers the site.
After turning off the N7 onto the R45, our route took us across the undulating hills of weathered Malmesbury shale that form the wheat fields of the Swartland (Black Land), These were once covered in Renosterbos (Elytropappus rhinocerotis), which is the signature plant on weathered shale and mudstone throughout our area. Its dark colouring, when seen from a distance, was probably the origin of the name Swartland. Once past the Moorreesburg turnoff, the countryside gradually changed to alluvial sand covered in restios interspersed with small and medium sized shrubs. Just after the small settlement of Koperfontein we passed the brand new 66 MW Hopefield wind farm owned by Umoya Energy. The farm became operational in February 2014 and develops sufficient energy to power 70 000 low-income homes or 29 000 medium-income homes, when the wind blows. Go here to read a short article on this wind farm.
The R45 bypasses the town of Hopefield, a fact which has turned the town into a virtual ghost town. Between Hopefield and the Air Force Base at Langebaanweg, the markers of the pipeline bringing water to the West Coast from Voëlvlei dam can be seen at intervals on one’s right and, shortly after Langebaanweg, we turned off the R45 into the Park. The Park was originally a Chemfos phosphate mine, but after the closure of the mine in 1993, it was declared a National Monument Site in 1996. The Park, now covering about 700ha, was officially launched in 1998. It is currently under the control of the Iziko Museums of Cape Town, and is managed by Pippa Haarhoff. It has recently been declared a National Heritage Site. The following site gives more information on the Park. The fossils date back about 5.2 million years to the late Miocene/early Pliocene era. Go here for more information on this exceptional area. After some refreshments at the visitors centre we got back into the vehicles and followed the guide, Wendy Wentzel, down to the dig site.
The dig site is in the old ‘E’ Quarry area and displays an astounding array of fossils. Wendy ran us through an informative description of the various animals found at the site, the conditions thought to have existed when the animals died and the methods used to uncover the fossils. The majority of the bones visible seem to be those of the short-necked giraffe or Sivathere but there is evidence of wales, seals, various elephants and different sabre toothed cats as well. The only bear south of the Sahara was also found at the Park in the smaller dig site adjacent to the larger one visited by the general public. Shark teeth found here are evidence for the existence of a behemoth that would have dwarfed the infamous cinematic Jaws. After the talk we moved outside to the sorting trays where everyone had a go at finding the fossil remains of the smaller animals such as mice, frogs and moles. Then back to the vehicles to return to the visitors centre for a quick bite to eat, something to drink and a visit to the essential amenities before departing on the next leg of our journey.
We retraced or route past Hopefield and shortly after Koperfontein we turned left to Moorreesburg. On that stretch of road we had an excellent view of the ancient termite mounds or “heuweltjies” that give the fields such a lumpy appearance. These mounds were already alluded to by the 18th century Astronomer and Geodesist, Nicolas-Louis De La Caille. Go here to read the section in Dr. Ian Glass’s book on De la Caille. For a more recent and scientific coverage of the topic you can go here to read an article published by the Department of Soil Science at the University of Stellenbosch. We passed through Moorreesburg which considers itself the “heart” of the Swartland wheat industry and actually boasts a wheat industry museum, one of only three in the world.
We then headed for the twin towns of Riebeek West and Riebeek Kasteel. Just outside the former we passed the cement factory of PPC (Pretoria Portland Cement) where one can visit the restored house in which General Jan Christian Smuts was born. Smuts, educated at the Victoria College, later the University of Stellenbosch, and Christ’s College at Cambridge University, went on to become State Attorney of the Transvaal Republic, a successful general in the Anglo-South African War and eventually Prime minister of South Africa. Daniel Francois Malan, the first Prime Minister to actively apply the basic principles of institutionalized apartheid after the 1948 elections, was also born in Riebeek West. These two towns lie on the slopes of the Kasteelberg. From these two towns one has a sweeping view of the Northward tending arm Cape Fold Mountains from the Limietberg behind Wellington through the Winterhoek west of Tulbagh and on into the Cederberg where the peak of Cederberg Sneeukop can just be made out.
We left Kasteelberg behind, crossed the Berg River and just after passing the hamlet of Hermon, we turned left on the R46. Our route took us past the blockhouse that once guarded the railway line during the Anglo-South African war and then Voëlvlei dam, one of the major sources of water for Cape Town and the West Coast before passing into Nuwekloof through which the Little Berg River exits on its way to join the Berg River several kilometers beyond the village of Gouda. In 1739 the head and right hand of the infamous Estiénne Barbier were placed in this area after his execution as a gruesome warning to anyone contemplating an uprising against the VOC. In Nuwekloof one can still see the dry stone wall supporting Andrew Bain’s road which was in use for more than a hundred years until it was replaced by the present road in 1968. The road then passes into the Land of Wavern, south of Tulbagh and heads up the valley of the Little Berg river with the Witzenberg rising on the left and, on the right, the Elandsberg which is replaced by the Watervalsberg once one has crossed the watershed at Artois. It then swings to the left, passing North of Wolesely and shortly afterward entering Michell’s Pass.
In Michell’s Pass we stopped on the only section of Andrew Bain’s road that has been preserved. Out came the tables and food and, while a light lunch was enjoyed, Juri spoke at length about Bain, the founding of the town of Ceres and the true origins of the town’s name as well as the tremendous importance of the pass at the time it was constructed. After lunch we packed up before inspecting the impressive dry stone walls of the old road and then drove the last bit of the pass into Ceres where we filled up with fuel and everyone had an opportunity to visit a small supermarket. Our next stop was the pharmacy to so that Benjamin could buy medication for the Otitis Media he had developed. We finally left Ceres heading for Eselfontein, the farm of Gideon and Janine Malherbe where we would look for fossils in a quarry and spend the night in their Ecocamp. Driving out to the farm the road ran across extensive beds of Bokkeveld sediments with the Skurweberg’s younger sandstone layers sloping down under them from our right. In the distance on our left were the cliffs of Gydoberg and the Waboomsberg rising high above the northern edge of the Ceres valley.
We spent time in the quarry giving everyone the opportunity to experience the thrill of finding a fossil. That special feeling when you crack open the rock and see it, knowing you are not only the first human but the only human to ever have seen the creature that has been entombed in the sediment for several hundred million years. Many shell imprints were found from a variety of families as well as several fragments of trilobites. The prize find of the afternoon was Benjamin’s trilobite. Fairly late in the afternoon we packed up and drove up the fairly rigged road to the Ecocamp where we unpacked and set about preparing supper. Benjamin and Dale did their first of several stints at the fire on the trip, grilling the chicken to perfection. Benjamin’s approach is that he would rather cook every evening than wash dishes. Juri, Claire and Sheree’s potato salad went down very well too. Unforeseen problems with the water supply meant that we all had to wash in the adjacent mountain stream. There was very little interest in astronomy as most people were pretty tired after the long day but, nevertheless, the Moon, just one day past full moon, rising behind the pine forest made quite a spectacular site.
Tuesday 18th March
At 07:00 Juri started the day by getting everybody up and moving in the direction of breakfast after which we packed up, packed everything into the vehicles and the trailers and set off on the first leg of day two. This entailed a short drive in the direction of Lakenvlei dam, then past Matroosberg to Okkie Geldenhuys’s farm Matjiesrivier, where we collected our annual allocation of peaches. With the sandstone of the Cape fold mountains behind us, but still standing on Bokkeveld sediments, the view to the north of the farm gave us our first view of the Witteberg sediments.
Shortly after leaving the farm we picked up the R46 again and headed East toward the N1 and our first fossil stop of the day near the game farm Aquila. On the way there we passed Verkeerdevlei, the original water supply for Touws River and a forlorn looking Dakota aircraft parked amongst some scraggy looking pines in a military training area. About 300m before reaching Aquila, we pulled over and got out to look for Zoophycos, one of the few fossils one finds readily in the Witteberg sediments. After finding some examples and making sure everyone knew what it looked like we departed. As we drove away, we had a good view of Aquila’s huge automated solar energy installation that produces 60 kW of electricity by means of a Concentrator Photovoltaic system. The area around the solar panels also houses the lion rehabilitation pens as a deterrent to would be thieves. This system forms part of an eventual 50 MW installation currently under construction. Go here to read more about this exciting installation.
Our next stop was Touws River for acquiring refreshments and use of the amenities and then we were off again headed for the Logan Cemetery on the N1. Although the mountains around us were all Witteberg deposits, we were soon driving on the frist of the Ecca deposits and about 10 km north of the town the first patch of Dwyka tillite, a glacial deposit, appeared to the left of the road. Also fairly abundant along the N1 was the yellowish Kraalbos (Galena Africana), a pioneer shrub that takes over in disturbed or overgrazed areas. It can, however, proliferate to the point where it suppresses the regrowth of other plants. As we progressed in the direction of Matjiesfontein, we saw more and more Dwyka tillite on either side of the road and the Witteberg Mountains to the south also became more and more prominent. When parked at the Logan cemetery one can see good examples of Ecca, Witteberg and Dwyka.
On the way to Sutherland we took note of the various sizes of the drop-stones in the cuttings through the Dwyka tillite and also pointed out the various outcrops of the Whitehill Formation, a distinctive stratigraphic unit near the base of the Ecca group and stressed its importance as a repository of Mesosaurus, fish and insect fossils from the early Permian. As we progressed northward we crossed the Collingham Formation, a section of volcanic ash and eventually arrived amongst the Beaufort or Karoo sediments which were deposited on land by huge meandering rivers in a gigantic basin that stretched right across the present day South Africa. At a deep cutting about one km after crossing the Tanqua River, we stopped to look at the exposed mudstone and sandstone beds so typical of the Karoo sediments and also to explain to the students how the early Karoo Basin was filled in.
In Sutherland we visited Mr Eddie Marais, who in his youth had the privilege of collecting with Dr L. D. Boonstra. Mr Marais has a collection of artefacts that Juri used to explain to the students what they could expect in the field the following day and how to distinguish between calciferous nodules and actual bone. He also took the opportunity to discuss the development of the Karoo fauna and explained the gradual transition of true reptiles to mammal-like reptiles and later to true mammals which could be observed in the fossil record of the Karoo sediments. After enjoying the refreshments graciously supplied by Mrs Marais, we left to refuel the vehicles.
On our way to Fraserburg we passed the SAAO site where SALT and all the other South African telescopes are situated. On arrival at Fraserburg, we unloaded and Karin showed us to our rooms and as soon as the children in the hostel had left the dining hall, we moved into the kitchen to prepare supper. The end result of the kitchen team was a delicious pasta dish. After supper there was some astronomy discussion with various members of the group and most of the group went to bed in preparation for a long day on Wednesday.
Wednesday 19th March
We were in the dining room shortly after eight to have breakfast and then we set off for the local museum which is housed in the old Pastorie of the Dutch Reformed Church. The very friendly person in charge of the museum, Don Pedro Malan welcomed us at the museum and Juri set about giving a detailed explanation of the fossils on display. His explanation also covered the development of the various groups of animals that had been present in the Karoo basin during the period when it was filling up. After his talk everyone had the opportunity to look more closely at the fossil display and look around the museum in general before we set of to Droogvoetsfontein, where we met up with Mr Pieter Conradie. We all piled onto and into his pickup for a trip into the veld and then back to our vehicles which Juri and I then drove to the next stop while Pieter ferried the students there. Juri and I then rejoined the crowd on the pickup for the trip to where he had found a fossil, or at least bits of a fossil. As with many of the fossils in the Karoo lying exposed on the surface the elements take their toll and this one had not fared any better. All that was left, were a few scraps of nondescript bone not worth collecting and the surroundings also suggested that these had probably washed in from elsewhere in any case. Back on the pickup and back to the vehicles for a short drive before we dispersed in all directions to look for the elusive fossils. After about two hours I had found some pieces of rib bone and others had found another badly weathered fossil on the slope of a hill.
Back to the vehicles and off we went to Pieter’s farm, Dagbreek, where we prepared a light lunch in the shade of a tree. The new-born lambs were an immediate hit with the students. After lunch we set off again, but this time with Pieter on his motorcycle leading the way. After an interesting drive, we arrived at the next farm, Onderplaas, disembarked and set off on foot down a riverbed with scattered pools of water and muddy patches amongst the grass to trap the unwary. What was left of this fossil was still firmly embedded in the rock, but most of it had been worn away by the perennial flooding of the river. Disappointed we trudged back to the farmyard, said our goodbyes and set off for our next contact, also Pieter Conradie, the son of the first Pieter Conradie. He and his wife Marisa were waiting at the appointed place with their three lively children and our prickly pears. Pieter excitedly led us up a hill to look at his fossil, which unfortunately turned out to be a collection of calciferous nodules; his disappointment was quite tangible.
Our group did a quick recce, found nothing and then set off after Pieter Jnr for refreshments at his farm Middelfontein a few kilometres down the road. Refreshments, in addition to cool drinks, consisted of chilled prickly pears, ice cream and various delicious liqueurs to be used as toppings. I, for one, made an absolute pig of myself with the prickly pears and ate 50 of them! After some small talk with the Pieter and his wife and their three cats, we said goodbye and headed back to Fraserberg, anxious to get there before the shops closed as the beer supply was running low. We rounded the day off with a congenial braai, once again executed by Dale and Benjamin in a masterly fashion. We did some astronomy too for those who were interested and then went to bed.
Thursday 20th March
Today is the autumn equinox when the sun is exactly over the equator on its way north and the day and night should be the same length. It also signals the start of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere and spring in the Northern Hemisphere. These facts did not really seem to impress anyone, so I didn’t push the matter. Anyway, we were packed up and finished with breakfast shortly after eight – at least most of us were! Then we set out on the Williston road to the palaeosurface on the farm Gansefontein. It is very sad to see the systematic deterioration of this site when we visit it every year. All Coenie De Beer’s efforts since he took a month’s unpaid leave from the Geological Survey in Pretoria 25 years ago and came down here on his motorcycle to map and measure the then freshly exposed surface, have been in vein. Well, not quite in vain, because an insurance company donated money to put a fence around the site and put up a notice board. What is really needed is a building to cover the existing site and money to uncover more of the surface around the existing site, but as things stand now, the non-preservation of this site is actually a disgrace for South Africa.
After the visit to the Palaeosurface we made a quick stop for biltong and dried sausage and then set off down the R356 toward the Theekloof Pass and our next destination. Theekloof Pass is potentially one of the most spectacular passes, if not in the country, then most certainly in the Western Cape Province. After the obligatory stop for photos half way down, we continued our descent into the lower regions of the Karoo. The pass also affords one an unprecedented view of the layered nature of the Karoo sediments with their alternating sandstone and mudstone layers, broken by dolerite sills and dykes in many places. Upon arrival at Rooiheuwel, the farm of Flip and Marge Vivier, we were enthusiastically welcomed by the Jack Russels and an overzealous Boxer before being taken inside for a welcome cool drink. Once that was done, we set off to look at a fossil on a neighbouring farm, which was “just around the corner”. Those of you who do not know the Karoo, should beware as this phrase could mean anything from 15 to, as we have experienced, 40 or more kilometres.
When we finally stopped and disembarked, Flip indicated that the fossil was “just over there”, pointing at a fairly distant hill on the other side of a dry riverbed, so of we went, The fossil was also a disappointment. Almost definitely a Pareiasaurus, but apparently lying on its left side with the tail, pelvic girdle, right limbs and ribs all missing. The head was very probably also no longer there, so we decided to leave it there to continue its losing battle with time and erosion. Back to the vehicles and to Rooiheuwel for a quick lunch and then a short drive to a place where we could get into the veldt to look for fossils again. Once again no luck, so we drove off to explore for likely fossil sites. One problem on this farm is that the vegetation cover is quite dense and the potential fossil areas are well hidden until you are right on top of them and finding traces of bone would then be doubly difficult too. We returned to the farm, said goodbye and drove to Merweville, our overnight stop. Juri’s vehicle was running low on fuel so he drove quite slowly to conserve what he had, but eventually we got there.
At Huis Mervia, the local school hostel, we unloaded and Juri set off to find the local parson of the Dutch Reformed Church, who had promised the group could go up into the church tower and out onto the catwalk to admire the view. He found him and off they went. In the meantime, the braai-maestros were getting the fire ready for their next culinary tour de force. As an entrée, we had slices of bread from two huge farm loaves baked by Mrs Blom, the hostel matron, and then it was Karoo lamb a la Dale and Benjamin, with onions and butternut wrapped in tin foil and grilled to perfection on the fire. Some astronomy after supper and then most of us turned in for the night.
Friday 21st March
It was a public holiday which we assumed would not affect us, but it eventually did. I went into town to refuel my vehicle, came back and had breakfast before we packed up and left to visit our fossil on Hendrik Botes’s farm Jakhalsfontein, which is spelt oddly as you can see. Juri thinks the fossil might actually be on Vaalleegte and we should really resolve the discrepancy someday. En route we passed the turnoff to the tragic Englishman’s grave, but that story will have to wait. Once on the farm, we unhooked the trailers for the long drive to our fossil dig site where we have been letting successive groups of students systematically excavate, what we hope is a fairly complete Pareiasaurus. It is quite a long walk from where we park the vehicles, but once there, we rotated and some hacked away with hammers while others scoured the area for other fossils. About two hours of hacking away and Juri decided to call it a day and head back to the vehicles. Eventually everyone was back and aboard so we could turn round, drive back, hook up the trailers go to an unoccupied house further down the road and his house is definitely on Jakhalsfontein. We had lunch on the veranda or, as it is called locally, the stoep. During the lunch break, some quinces were picked under Juri’s expert tutelage so we could have stewed quinces and cream for dessert that evening.
After lunch we made a quick stop at the café in Prince Albert Road and an essential pit stop for some members of the group before hitting the N1 and heading south to Laingsburg. This took us out of the Karoo sediments and onto the Ecca which were laid down just offshore in huge estuaries. We arrived at Laingsburg to find the liquor store open, but the supermarket closed so we had beer but no cream and we also needed sour cream for the potjiekos Dale was going to prepare for supper. We checked some of the other obvious possibilities for cream and sour cream, but none produced the goods. So we drove to the sports fields where we were going to spend the night in the clubhouse and, after unloading, I went and investigated one more possible source for the cream and sour cream, but that also turned out to be a dead end. Dale had found ways to improvise his way around the sour cream, but the prospects looked grim for the stewed quinces.
It is a pity the Flood Museum commemorating the disastrous flood of 1981 was closed as I would have liked the students to see it. If you visit Laingsburg pay the museum a visit and then drive down to the railway bridge, get out of your car and stand under the bridge. When you look up consider the fact that, on that fateful day, the water was lapping the rails on top of the bridge before the embankment at the eastern end gave way. Just for a moment consider the entire valley filled to that depth with churning, muddy water. It is a chilling thought I can assure you.
Dale’s potjiekos and rice was excellent. Actually it wasn’t, it was superb! After lots of philosophical discussions, there was some down to earth stuff too, we tidied up and went to bed. As I was having the last conversation with Juri, before we finally went to bed, he remembered that he had forgotten to cook the quinces. I had actually wondered about this after supper, but assumed the lack of cream was to blame.
Saturday 22nd March
While gathering the troops, it turned out that rather than make their own breakfast, everyone was in favour of picking up coffee and whatever from the local Wimpy and heading south as quickly as possible. A few kilometres outside Laingsburg, we crossed into the ancient lake basin again and could clearly see the tell-tale white slopes on either side of the road. Before long we encountered the first of the Dwyka tillite and shortly after that, the Witteberg Mountains came into sight on our left. Just before Touws River we encountered the first of several stop-and-go sections where the National Roads Agency was undertaking extensive road works all the way down to the Hex River Pass. Topping the rise just before the farm Kleinstraat, we had a good view of Aquila’s second solar farm with 1 500 panels, being built by the French firm, Soitec, which was nearing completion. The installation will provide 50 MW (peak DC) power and provide a 36 MW AC output to the local grid. This makes it one of the largest plants of its kind in the world. Go here to read more about the installation about the installation. You can also go to this link for more information.
From this point we were on the Bokkeveld shale again and, as we navigated the Hex Pass and skirted De Doorns and Orchard, we moved further and further into the sandstone layers of the earlier deposits. By the time we exited the Hex River Valley we had left the Bokkeveld behind us and the sandstone layers towered high above our heads. Shortly after leaving the Hex River Valley, we pulled into the De Wet Cooperative Winery where we traditionally stopped to sample their Muscadels and Ports. Just across the road from the winery was an impressive hill of Malmesbury shale lifted upward by the rising magma millions of years ago. As the magma cooled and formed granite, the heat baked the otherwise fairly crumbly shale into a hard metamorphic rock the geologists call Hornfels. This is mined in a quarry on the Worcester side of the hill and produces the blue-grey chips ubiquitously used in road making.
From De Wet we took a back road via Nonna, Overhex and Aan de Doorns to Eilandia and the quarry where we hoped to find more insect fossils and perhaps a fish or too and just maybe a Mesosaurus. At the quarry Juri and I were somewhat concerned by the fact that there had been considerable excavation since our last visit, and access to the specific section that usually produced the insects, was quite precarious; in fact rather dangerous. Apart from Juri having a rather nasty fall, it all went well. We came away with several Notocaris imprints, a fantastic leaf imprint thanks to Robyn and section of Mesosaurus backbone courtesy of Nombuso. A snap vote before we left decided against stopping for lunch so we would head straight back to Stellenbosch. One got the distinct impression that the students felt it was a case of “Home James, and don’t spare the horses”.
I stopped to take photos of the clearly visible termite mounds on the slope of a hill that we passed. Our route took us past Brandvlei dam and then through Rawsonville and Du Toit’s Kloof Pass where Juri elected to avoid the Huguenot Tunnel and drive over the pass, which is the route to take if you want to enjoy a spectacular view. After unloading at the Department and saying all the goodbyes I went and dropped off the trailer and then delivered the vehicle to the vehicle park, where Lynnette was already waiting. We stowed all my gear away and then went back to the Department to pick up Lona, who also lives in Brackenfell and had asked if we could give her a lift home.
All that was left for me to do, was to work through all 500 photos that I had taken and write this report. The report writing was seriously disrupted by the need to complete our application for a National Science Week grant from the NRF via SAASTA.
I matriculated at Charley Hofmeyr High School in Ceres and something that has puzzled me for many years is the inability, or possibly unwillingness, of the townsfolk in general, Wikipedia, and the tourism industry in the town to get the story about the origin of the town’s name right. I should possibly not be surprised as the incorrect derivation of the name is also alluded to in the otherwise very reputable publication, New Dictionary of South African Place Names, by Peter E. Draper (2004), published by Jonathan Ball. The matter of the town’s name has been addressed before now by Dr Jurie van den Heever and Mr Jerry Levine, but it keeps raising its misinformed head, so I am going to attempt once more to set the record straight.
It is, in fact, quite correct to say that generally the name Ceres has its origin in the classic mythology and it’s pantheon of deities. The town of Ceres in the Western Cape was, however, definitely not named in honour of the Roman fertility goddess, but rather after a town in Scotland of the same name and that town was, in all probability, not even named in honour of the particular female deity! Allow me to elaborate on why it is very, very unlikely that the local town of Ceres was named after the lady in question and, to do this I will make extensive use of the excellent material researched by Dr Jurie van den Heever and Mr Jerry Levine as well as my own research.
At the time of the founding of the town of Ceres, two of the prominent people involved with roads and in particular the construction of Michell’s Pass were Andrew Geddes Bain (the well-known road builder and, more specifically the builder of Michell’s pass in 1848) and Charles Davidson Bell (Surveyor General of the Cape at that time). Bain and Bell both hailed from Scotland which would have given them a common bond. Bain was born in Thurso, in the far north, in May 1797 while Bell hailed form Crail, further to the south, where he was born on October the 22nd 1813. It is important to note that Crail is about 9 km from the Scottish town of Ceres, which was renowned in Roman times for producing Durham wheat of such a high quality, that it was reserved for the tables of the Caesar and other Roman nobility. The wheat connection is particularly important as the area around the new town of Ceres was, at that time, also known for the production of high quality wheat. It is, however, distinctly possible that the Scottish Ceres might not in fact have been named after the Roman deity at all. The Latin word Syrs means marshland and this might be the origin of the town’s name because the men of the village played a prominent part at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, when the English knights in their heavy armour and chargers became bogged down in the marshes (“Discovering Fife” by Raymond Lamont Brown, John Donald Publishers Ltd., 1992). The marsh connection is, as we shall see later, also of interest concerning the South African town of Ceres. In Gaelic Sair means “west” and very probably referred to the fact that Ceres lay to the west of St. Andrews.
The name of Ceres in Scotland is somewhat of a mystery and I quote from a source on the town. “There is much argument as to the origin of the name “Ceres”. Was it a survival of the Roman invasion because of being identical with the name of the “Goddess of Harvest”? However, the spelling was not always the same. Before the 17th century it was “Seres”, whilst the oldest known form is “Syres”. St. Cyrus, to whom the Church there was dedicated, is also given credit for the name. Another suggestion is the Latin word “syrs”, which means marshy ground near a running stream. There is also the possibility that the name is derived from that of the “Syras” family.” The Syras-family connection seems, in recent years, to have been largely discounted.
However, back to Ceres in South Africa and a further point to take note of, which clearly points to the involvement of Bain in particular in the founding of Ceres, is the fact that the first six streets of Ceres were named after six prominent members of the Royal Society, i.e. Charles Lyell (Geologist), William Buckland (Cleric, Geologist & Palaeontologist), Gideon Mantell (Obstetrician, Geologist & Palaeontologist), Sir Roderick Murchison (Geologist), Sir Richard Owen (Biologist, Comparative Anatomist & Palaeontologist who first used the term “Dinosauria”) and John Phillips (Geologist). Mantell became Voortrekker in 1938 and Buckland was renamed Van Riebeek in 1952. Misspelling turned Phillip into Phillips, which did not spare Lyell or the original Mantell either. These names appear on all the early maps of the town as well as the title deeds of the first erven sold and traded in the town. It is a generally accepted fact that Bain was the founder of Geology and Palaeontology in South Africa and, more specifically, that it was Lyell’s epoch making work Elements of Geology that brought this about. According to Bain himself he read it and was “smitten”. As the names of the first streets in Ceres were all famous British scientists (Geologists, Anatomists or Palaeontologists) of that period, it does not require extensive mental gymnastics to deduce that Bain was almost certainly the only person who would have been sufficiently aware of their existence (and importance) to have given their names to the streets of the new town. Bell might, admittedly, also have had some knowledge of these erudite scholars. It should be noted that Murchison Street originally appears as Ure Street and was later changed to Murchison (date uncertain). Andrew Ure was a Scottish doctor, scholar, chemist and member of the Royal Society; in other words fitting company for the other academics after whom streets were named.
Ceres was at the heart of a very conservative, Dutch Reformed, (and very probably fundamentalist) religious community and one has to have serious doubts whether they would have accepted Ceres as the name of the new town if it had been put forward as the name of a heathen goddess. Add to this the fact that the level of education of the farming community was, at best, very elementary (almost certainly not including classic Greek or Roman mythology) and it becomes far more plausible that they would have accepted the explanation that the town was being named after a town in Scotland, also famous for producing high quality wheat and associated indirectly with Bain and Bell who would have been well known to them. Bain was thoroughly acquainted with the fundamentalist religious tendencies of the farming communities in South Africa as he had lived in Graaff-Reinet and travelled extensively in the interior, so he would have cautioned Bell and the Colonial Secretary, Montague about this. The names of the streets in the new town also leave one with the distinct impression that the community was probably not consulted or, if at all, only in the most cursory fashion, as these six gentlemen were at that time, turning Bishop Usher’s Bible based calculation of 6 000 years for the age of the earth on its head. This knowledge would not have gone down well with the local church elders! Also, take into consideration the tendency of the British government to name towns in South Africa after government officials, military figures or members of the aristocracy and one cannot but come to the conclusion that a very good argument must have been put forward for the name Ceres. The mere fact that she was the Roman goddess of Fertility would not have sufficed.
A somewhat tenuous connection between Ceres in Scotland and Ceres in South Africa can possibly be drawn from the fact that there was apparently an extensive marsh between Ceres and the present day Prince Alfred’s Hamlet, bordered by the Dwars River and the Skurweberg. This marsh was later (according to local oral history) the source of a very loud explosion that mystified the locals, but could possibly have been caused by spontaneous ignition of “marsh gas” i.e. methane. This explosion apparently opened up a channel which subsequently drained the marsh into the Dwars River. This specific aspect has, as yet, not been properly researched.
Is there documentary proof for my argument against the South African Ceres’s name having originated with the Roman Goddess, Ceres? I firmly believe there is and offer the following to support my conviction.
The commonly stated (and accepted) fact is that the town was founded and named in 1854 by Jan Hendrik Munnik the father of the late Senator G.G. Munnik. This I claim is highly debatable in view, not only of the arguments presented thus far, but also on the grounds of the following compelling reasons. Michell’s Pass was completed in 1848 and it seems strange that it would take six years to establish a village on what was already, by all accounts, a busy main route to the North. It did in fact not take six years, because on April 25th 1849 a report of the Central Road Board, written by the secretary Willem de Smidt, states that immediately after the opening of Michell’s Pass, about 1800 acres of unappropriated Crown Lands in the Warm Bokkeveld at the eastern entrance of the Pass, and well supplied with spring water, were laid out as the site of a village, on which is bestowed the name of “Ceres”. The proposed village of Ceres was announced in the Government Gazette 2268 of 17 May 1849 and the sale of the first land in the village took place in Tulbagh on the July the 21st 1849. Sixteen of these erven were registered in the Surveyor General’s & Deeds Offices in Cape Town on October the 29th 1849. It should be noted that all of these later erven lay to the west of the Dwarsrivier. These indisputable facts are in my view sufficient to negate all claims by Mr Munnik to having founded and named the town in 1854.
The Government Surveyor H.W. Marriot, writes on January 10th 1849 to Charles Bell the Surveyor General: “I hope to start in the morning for Ceres the plan of which I hope to send you in a few days.” Mariott’s original drawing 1712 of the town he laid out has disappeared but a replacement 1712ff is available for examination. The names of the streets, as mentioned earlier, may be verified on that plan.
Jan Hendrik Munnik was without doubt an important landowner in the district but how did this come about and, more importantly when. The farm Riet Valley (later Rietvalley) was granted to George Sebastian Wolfaardt on March 8th 1832 and the major portion of this farm was sold from his estate to Johannes Cornelis Goosen on March 1st 1851. Two portions of the farm remained and one (Erf 1183) was sold jointly to Hendrik Lodewyk de Lange Vos and Jan Hendrik Munnik and the other (Erf 1017) to Hendrik Lodewyk de Lange Vos on October 10th 1856. The first of these two properties, Erf 1183, was divided into 10 erven of different sizes which were sold on December 16th 1856. On February 2nd 1857 another three erven from Erf 1183 were sold to Jan Hendrik Munnik from the joint estate. All these erven lay to the east of the Dwarsrivier. All of this points to Mr Munnik’s participation well after the founding of the town.
In summary then, there is ample evidence to show that it is highly unlikely that Ceres was named directly in association with the Roman goddess in question. It is far, far more likely that the connection is an indirect one and that the name was given in association with the town of that name in Scotland, because of the connection with wheat, Bain and Bell. The information in italics in a previous paragraph on the Scottish Ceres makes a direct link to the Roman goddess even more unlikely. The possibility of a link with the town of the same name in Scotland is further strengthened by the connection between Bain, the names of the first six streets and the association of these persons with Bain’s strong interest in Geology and Palaeontology. The existence of the marsh and the link with the Latin Syrs is probably of less importance, but should not be entirely overlooked.
Most of this research was carried out by an associate and close friend of mine, Dr. J.A. van den Heever, a palaeontologist, and Mr. Jerry Levine a practising geologist in Johannesburg. Both of these gentleman hail from Ceres. Mr. Levine’s father, Mr Jockey Levine, used to own the now non-existent Grand Hotel and Dr van den Heever’s mother owned the also now non-existent bakery.
The first official publication of the Cape Astronomical Association was the Circular, published semi-annually between 1918 and 1921. In 1922, the Astronomical Society of South Africa was formed and it published the Journal,which appeared in four volumes between 1923 and 1939.
During the Second World War, to fill the gap left by the Journal, the Cape Centre published monthly circulars. The first appeared in 1940 April, and the last in 1942 November. In the same year, these became the Monthly Notes of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa, although somewhat changed in format and content, that we know today as MNASSA. Go here to read more about ASSA and mnassa.