- Northern Cape
Norval's Pont is a small village in the Northern Cape province of South Africa and lies approx 40 km east-north-east of Colesberg and 43 km west-north-west of Venterstad, just below the Gariep Dam, on the southern bank of the Orange River.
The village got its name from an enterprising Scotsman who constructed a ferry here in 1848.
Open a reference work on any of three South African or “Boer” Wars and a simple glance through the index will show a surprising number of entries for the apparently insignificant hamlet of Norval’s Pont, established at the very edge of the old Cape Colony on the banks of the River Orange. Victorian reformer Emily Hobhouse wrote in warm tones about her two visits there and, as some may know, an elegant stone in Canterbury Cathedral records the name Norval’s Pont carefully chiselled out in marble and stone.
For the famed “Vecht Generaal”, Christiaan de Wet, it was a place to ponder thoughts of what might have been; for Lord Harry Smith it was a strategic stop over where he could plant melons for his beautiful Spanish wife’s breakfast prior to punishing Pretorious at the Battle of Boomplatz; South Africa’s greatest industrialist, Sammy Marx first sold pins, thimbles and silks as a humble pedlar there; and it was, for the majority of the Great Trekkers, a welcome oasis to safely rest their spans of twenty oxen each on their arduous journey North, in their quest for a promised land away from British Imperial Dominion.
Norval’s Pont’s recorded history began on the 15th March 1835 when a certain Hollander Petrus Brits sought to carve out some farmland in the Bo or Upper Karoo (“The Thirst”). Described as middling ground with a weak spring, he named the farm Dapperfontein and was given title to it by Sir Benjamin D’Urban the then Governor of the Cape Colony. It is said that the farm extended 3394 morgen and 396 square Rhineland roods with a quit rent of a pound a year. The rule at the time was that if the quit rent was paid and the pioneer could stay on the farm, and survive frequent attacks from raiding Basutho tribesmen, the land was his after five years. And it seems that Mijnheer Brits, despite the privations of the time, laid out his farm sufficiently well as to then sell Dapperfontein off, when his five years were up, to a doughty Glaswegian named John Norval who had recently arrived from Scotland along with his two brothers.
Curiously to us now, the Norvals were comb makers - not an obvious employment skill for what is, after all, a large and hilly tract of the Southern Kalahari Desert. But in fact, as home to the fabulous leopard and berg tortoises, it was a comb maker’s paradise, offering a limitless supply of the finest raw material known anywhere. Then, these industrious Scots struck on another money-making idea: with all these morgen of land to rear sheep on – to go into the millinery business and they very quickly became renowned for something all the other farmers were keen to buy: broad brimmed felt hats.
Just about that time, rising tensions in the Cape between Boer and Brit led to Lord Harry Smith’s military adventures beyond the Orange River, and he chose Dapperfontein’s low-lying banks from which to cross with his small army. With the river in full seasonal flood it was not to be forded and he had the novel idea of floating his men across on inflatable rubber boats. Old John Norval quickly saw how these could be used to his profit and possibly the first “army surplus” pont in history came into being - ferrying travellers across the river by means of native oarsmen. Un-vulcanised rubber only lasts a short time under the hot Karoo sun and the first pont rotted away within a few months - but not before John and his sons had established a thriving business. A new wooden pont was constructed and, with the Great Trek fully under way, it was designed to take a Trek Boer, his ox wagon and all his chattels safely over the swirling waters for a pound a time – no small sum in those days – and Norval’s Pont became the favoured river crossing for the thousands of trekkers who were to follow.
The wooden pont soon wore out but the Norvals had become so well off from the ferry business that they abandoned hat and comb making completely and had a wonderful new pont built with a cable mechanism to guide it, bought and shipped all the way from Stamford Bridge in England. They named it after their home town in Scotland: “The Glasgow”. It was so efficient and so popular that Norval’s Pont became the main crossing for everyone heading from the Cape to the new Orange Free State’s capital of Bloemfontein and beyond. In the 1840s a small bar with over-night accommodation was built by one of John’s sons, becoming known far and wide as “The Glasgow Pont Hotel”, and from then on the farm grew into the most important village on the river.
It was not long, however, before Victorian progress was to catch up and, by the 1880s, the railway arrived, along with a scheme to span the 500-yard breadth of the river with a new bridge for the steam locomotives that would ply on across the virgin veld and thus supplant the ox wagon transport business. The pont still functioned but its heydays were past. Norval’s Pont became Norval’s Pont Bridge Station and the Norval family went back to farming and running the hotel, while the railway took over nearly all the cross river traffic, bar a few Cape and Bullock Carts that were unable to negotiate the nearby Alleman’s Drift.
With the promise first of diamonds, and then gold, drawing thousands from the far corners of the globe, Norval’s Pont saw people of every kind trained across its bridge – then the longest in Africa – until one fateful day in June 1899 when a single person stepped out of a carriage and onto the station platform to consider the short 100 mile journey he had yet to make. He lit a cigar and drank a cool glass of ale, ordered from the Glasgow Pont Hotel bar, and watched the railmen adorn his locomotive with crossed Union Jacks: British Viceroy Lord Milner had stopped en-route to that turning point in South African and British history: The Bloemfontein Conference.
As old Oom (Uncle) Paul Kruger, President of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republik, sat immovable as a block of granite and Lord Milner simmered in the unaccustomed heat of the Raad Zaal, the clouds of war gathered and darkened over the whole sub-continent. Whispers began rumblings of disquiet along the Orange. Locomotive Foreman Baker at Norval’s Pont Station telegraphed nervously about how “the Dutch farmers on the Free State side are openly stating that if hostilities break out they will cross the bridge and shoot every Englishman they can lay hands on.” And it was only a few short weeks later when, in a lightning move, Generals De la Rey and De Wet launched one of the very the actions of the Great Boer War by invading Norval’s Pont, laying planks on the bridge’s rails to roll their munitions and men across, onto Dapperfontein farm, and declaring the village as a new addition to the Orange Free State. No shots were fired but Susannah Norval was quick to have the under floor of her family’s shearing shed dug out to hide her precious linen, lest it should be commandeered for bandages.
For the next three years Norval’s Pont became a veritable bee hive of building activity: first, De Wet threw up Schantzes and Sangars (stone redoubts) from which, he hoped, to ambush “Bobs” Roberts, Methuen, French and Clements as they rushed across the Orange to relieve Kimberley. But it was a hope dashed when a fellow Boer commander blew up the Norval’s Pont Bridge in a panicky retreat from the Colesberg actions diverting, to De Wet’s fury, Bob’s relief column further West, to cross under much lesser fire at Orange River Station Bridge.
Later, with Bobs installed in Bloemfontein, Kitchener nervously eyed the Imperial Army’s reliance on the thin strip of rail that supplied them from Norval’s Pont and ordered it reinforced where, even today, countless small hill forts and redoubts can still be seen perched above the rail line, especially concentrated around the Orange River crossing at “The Pont” where a fine stone fortress still sights its loopholes at an enemy that never returned.
As the War dragged on, from the pitched field battles to the skilled guerrilla tactics of De la Rey and De Wet, refugees on both sides fled from their farms, others forcibly removed to deny the Kommandos any sustenance, and the population of Norval’s Pont swelled from a few villagers and rail men to several thousands: POW’s, Brits, Boers, Army Engineer Corps, Imperial Commissariat of Supply and, of course, “The boots, boots, boots” as Kipling recorded, “marching across Africa. Boots, boots, boots, marching to Pretoria” of poor old Tommy Atkins. The numbers of those flying South were only matched by those hapless Tommies trudging North-ward, and an ochre cloud of Karoo dust hung in the air above the village for months on end.
Today a few Cosmos bloom at the edge of a patch of sparse veld beside the village, seeded all those years ago from the fodder of French’s Cavalry mounts, where a solemn memorial stands to the innocents whose last resting place was Norval’s Pont. With Brit and Boer refugee families so concentrated, measles and whooping cough cut a swathe through the children of the burgeoning Norval’s Pont camp as if by the Reaper’s scythe. Rachel Norval (8) and “Baba” Botha (newly born and never named) are but two of the 360 children who lie beneath the Karoo sands and stones. Emily Hobbhouse wept and gritted her resolve to change a world where such tragedies could occur.
A mile or so away, close to the river and in the shadow of the meccano-like spans of the railway bridge, Tommy Atkins found a cool spot to lay his fallen comrades to rest: “a corner of some foreign field that shall be forever England” where the middling ground of Dapperfontein meets the timeless waters of the Orange. With military bearing, each grave was laid out in ranks to face the rising sun and carefully decorated with blancoed pebbles to give them dignity. How well had old Petrus Brits named his early pioneer farm: Dapperfontein. The Brave Fountain.
Norval’s Pont today seems changed completely yet changed not at all. The old limestone block built station still stands, although now a few villagers’ goats browse under the stinkwood tree where once proud Milner sipped his beer on the platform. The railhead was abandoned when a newer line was laid a half mile away to serve the construction a few miles upstream of the mighty Hendrik Verwoerd Dam (now the Lake Gariep). The charming old world Glasgow Pont Hotel is still serving trans-Orange travellers with potjekos and brandy and the iron railway bridge – that bone of contention in De Wet’s schemes - now carries motor traffic alongside a slightly newer railway one. The redoubts and Observation Posts still stand, hardly crumbled, atop the Karoo kopjes, and observe no more. In the grounds of Norval’s Pont Concentration Camp faded whitewashed stones still mark the lines of tents and “streets” and bully-beef tins, preserved in the Karoo’s thirsty air, lie scattered in their thousands around rocks that still bear the marks of Oupa’s kindling axe blade. Any visitor who has eyes to see can still sense and feel that this is, indeed, one of history’s crossroads: where our forebears from the four corners of the Earth travelled in hope and anticipation; in excitement and fear and, sadly, in despair and desperation: Norval's Pont, the tarnished jewel of the Bo Karoo at he cross roads of history.
Article courtesy of Rod Mann, owner of the 'Pont 2005-2010
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