The wonderings and wanderings of Dakin and Company

The Start of a Story

[Personal Essay]

Once upon a time there was a farm in the southern round of Africa. This farm lay in a dusty stretch that became known as the Platteland because of its flat horizon. At first this region was overlooked by settlers and pioneers—Voortrekkers—because it didn’t have a bustling port or a roaring river or the promise of gold. It was inland, plain, boring. Eventually, though, government officials of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek drew lines across hand-sketched maps and sliced the land into sellable pieces. Then weary representatives reluctantly traveled from Pretoria and spiked a number of sharp metal stakes into the soil. It took them five days on horseback to get there. They carved out farms from the endless savannah and christened them with names like Graslaagte and Zoetmelkvallei and Rietfontein¹. During the frequent droughts that swept the region, these names became airless jokes. During wet years, however, the farms bloomed into their namesakes and were attractive alternatives to the fevered and overpopulated Witwatersrand, where Johannesburg was being built with bricks of newly-discovered gold and mortar made from the rot of chewing tobacco. 

This particular farm, Klipbankfontein, was a vast and beautiful 7,000 morgen. Its name came from the rocks that cropped out over its many embankments and the fountain spring that was the source of the Harts River.

There was once a man named Hendrik Adriaan Greeff. He was a Commandant—a proud title—and came from an upstanding family. In the mid-1600s, one and a half centuries before he was born, the Greeffs arrived at the Cape of Good Hope from Europe. They arrived in the flotilla of ships that brought the second wave of vryburghers—free citizens—into a new life. Hendrik, like his father and grandfather and great-grandfather, was a pioneer with a leather-necked spirit. He was also an adventurer who, unlike them, wasn’t content with repeating his family’s story in the Cape Colony of the British. There, the oil-painted history of Cape Town shows an unending battle between the Rooinekke—red necks, British—and the Boers—farmers, Dutch. These fights-to-the-death were for control of the outpost that refreshed trade ships on their sails from and to the dreary Old World, carrying ochre-colored spices and copper-threaded textiles from the new East Indies.

The Commandant married the sweet, plain Susanna Redelinghuys and soon they had two daughers. In 1857, shortly before his thirtieth birthday he trekked his young family over the sleeping-dragon-like Drakensberg mountains, across the beating hot escarpment and into the interior, the new republic. On his way into this new life, the Commandant started a thriving business building rafts and ferrying other fortune-seeking Voortrekkers across the mighty Vaal River and into the Transvaal. This three-year stopover made him a decent pile of money, a pattern of entrepreneurship he would repeat many times. He became a wealthy man who loved big game hunting, and an experienced campaigner who front-manned expeditions into the untamed, formidable regions of Beuchuanaland.

One day Hendrik, Susanna and their now-three daughters were returning from another successful hunt. He was on his muscular, sweating horse while they huddled together in one of two ox wagons. In the other, his bounty: Freshly-killed buck and elephant carcasses buzzing with flies, ivory tusks, preserved meat, skins and ostrich feathers. Around them, following them, were a herd of cattle and more than several servants, some of them trusted and on horseback.

Hendrik was famous for never traveling along the same route twice. He said doing so prevented him from getting to know the land properly. It was a particularly hot and dry day when they clanked over the rocky knolls of the Platteland.

All of their water was finished.

The Commandant outspanned the oxen and set the wagons and tents in a circular camp—a laager. Then he walked over to a nearby grove of trees. His family had become desperate with thirst and his horses and servants were weak without water. He felt the weight of the sun’s heat on his head and deep within his shoulders. He wiped his brow with a dirty handkerchief, fell to his knees in desperation and prayed:

Liewe Here Onse God, gee ons asseblief water.”

Almost immediately he heard a voice telling him that he would find water inside the tree in front of him. He hesitated, doubting what he had heard. The voice repeated:

You will find water if you look inside the tree right in front of you. Do you not have faith?”

He stood up and walked over to the tree. He noticed that its solid trunk had split into two main branches, about four feet above where its green roots penetrated the brown ground. And when he looked into the split truck, he discovered a hollow that extended deep into the tree’s base. It was full of water. Enough water for his family, all their servants and for all of the animals.

Dis ‘n wonder²!” the Commandant cried, through deep-breathed relief, as he reached into the tree’s base and washed his face with the cool, clear water.

A sign from God that he was on fertile ground and should settle right there. Something he did with the same urgency and dedication he’s had all his life.

Nobody ever mentioned, in the many successful years since then, that there were at least 18 springs within a 25-kilometer radius of the miracle tree his family baptized the Wonderboom. The miracle, then, is that they didn’tfind water sooner because water sources surrounded the tree and their laager.

Instead, for years afterwards, his great and great-great and great-great-great grandchildren have told the story of how Grootoupa Hendrik struck water, which answered a prayer, produced a miracle and moved him to buy land for the formation of a new town. He named the town Lichtenburg, Place of Light.

And once he did that he surveyed the region for “the most beautiful piece of land around.” That was when he found and bought Klipbankfontein, his abundant Mecca, 8 kilometers—half a day’s ride—outside the new dorp.

The Commandant loved Klipbankfontein with a tight-lipped intensity. He loved hunting the wild buck that roamed across its fawn horizon and farming the patches of clay-red soil that weren’t rock-ridden. As with his larger expeditions, he always took new routes across its veld, getting to know every outcrop and hollow, each concentration of trees and the endless, tall, straw grass that swayed in the wind: Beige and broken by the frost during winter, and budding and green if the long summer months produced rain.

Although he wouldn’t admit it as freely as he did his love for his farm, he also loved his family. He provided for them in abundance, holding a deep desire that his kin would continue to live and thrive in this flat, dusty place after he died. Susanna raised their twelve offspring with determined grit and obedience in the house he built in Klipbankfontein’s greenest corner. Together they buried three of those children, either stillborn or dead before their first birthday. He stood by, dry-eyed, while Susanna wept openly and grew shorter with each loss.


¹ Grassy Dale and Sweet Milk Valley and Reed Fountain.

² Afrikaans: Miracle.

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