Ronnie Samuels, receiving his medal for bravery.
The Angel of the Kowie.
In 1906 the proprietor of the Beach House hotel near
the entrance to the harbour of Port Alfred was building an
addition to the guesthouse when his son unearthed a
statuette. Some 17cm high, it was of material that
resembled meerschaum - the proprietor was an ardent
smoker so it was a natural comparison for him to make.
The figure was lifelike and beautifully carved. It was
dressed in a robe and had long flowing hair, he later
reported to the historian Professor George Edward
Cory. In its right arm it held a wreathed shield edged in
blue and emblazoned with a red cross.
Dubbed the Kowie Angel, the figure disappeared for
many years, recently resurfacing in the Albany Museum
Its discovery in 1906 caused quite a stir. Some believed
it had been buried by Portuguese sailors and proved
that the navigator Bartholomew Dias had landed at the
Kowie River in 1488. Most authorities dispute this but
the myth was born. The novelist Ethelreda Lewis used
the legend in her first published novel, The Harp ,
building one of her key characters on the proprietor of
the Beach House (which later became The Cove and is
now the Ferryman's Hotel).
Myth and legend are very much part of the history of Port
Alfred and it is not always easy to untangle the truth in its
But it was a different angel that brought me to Port
Alfred recently, an unlikely angel named Ronnie Samuel.
The proprietor of the Beach House was Johannes
Heindrich Samuel, from Altona, near Hamburg in
Germany, possibly the son of a Danish rabbi. Family
legend has it that one of the family was stepfather to the
Wild West outlaw Jesse James (whose mother was a
Drifted wreckage often ends up in a port, and much of it
is human. Johannes Samuel, born in 1856, jumped ship
in Port Alfred and was naturalized in 1876. He married
Annie Jane Dowse-Smith, had 21 children and became
one of the doyens of the town.
In his footsteps walked one of his sons, Manning, the
idol of the youth of Port Alfred for many years. When
Samuel gave a boy a hiding, the boy's father would give
him a second one too, because he knew he deserved it.
There is a photograph of Manning looking out to sea on
the pier at the mouth of the harbour. His gaze is on the
tide some 400m out, watching the sea build. It is a
treacherous tide, as anyone will know who has read Eric
Turpin's Basket Work Harbour , about the futile attempts
in the 19th century to turn Port Alfred from a ship's
nightmare into a safe haven. Manning Samuel and
others were part of the crew of the lifeboat Maggie long
before the National Sea Rescue Institute came to town.
Unlike his father, Manning had only one son, Ronnie. He
worshipped him and Ronnie reciprocated.
As a kid Ronnie loved the Kowie River. He fished there
a lot. As he got older the sea sang to him. His father
took him fishing at sea in his boat, The Risk. Ronnie
never got further than Standard 8 - he just wanted to fish.
He began training as a welder but never finished
because the fish were biting.
His training stood him in good stead, however. He built
his own boats from plywood: first the Bluefin, then the
Yellowfin, powered by a Seagull 4hp engine, then by a
Johnson 7½hp. Every return to harbour was a hazardous
one. The sea could change within an hour. The boats
made no more than five knots. The waves, treacherously
angled at 15 knots, always threatened to hurl them
against the pier.
But Ronnie had no fear. He loved the sea and the sea
loved him. He he felt he was too close to it for it ever to
Not that he didn't have close shaves. Many times his
boat was swept out to sea by gale force winds. On more
than one occasion he was washed overboard. Once,
famously, in 1961, he and 13 men on the 40-foot Mary
Anne went missing for 32 hours in a gale and were
eventually discovered 50 miles off course by a search
But Ronnie was best known for his rescues. He once
dived in to pluck a child from the bottom of the Buffalo
River in East London. On another occasion he saved
two men in trouble in a boat off Kowie - one of them was
paralysed but he got to shore wheelchair and all.
By 1965, at the age of 30, he had already made at least
30 rescues. He once said to his son Dicky that he had
rescued more people than he had had years of his life.
In 1956 he had two boats entirely manned by coloured
crews. When one day in a strong westerly wind one of
them failed to return, he went to the pier and anxiously
scanned the sea, exactly as his father had done before
him. When the boat finally drew near, it suddenly began
to drift out to sea again. It had run out of fuel.
Ronnie rounded up a relative, Pixie John, a rough man
renowned as a beachcomber, and braved the troubled
sea, taking out a supply of petrol. He swam with a line
between the boats and extricated the stricken craft from
the danger of nearby rocks. When he, too, ran out of fuel
he lashed the boats together and drifted 150km
eastwards, miraculously clearing Riet Point. They were
rescued only the next morning, but Ronnie had
undoubtedly saved his crew.
His most famous exploit came in 1965. A 73-ton fishing
trawler, the Cape St Blaize, ran aground 12km west of
Port Alfred off Glendower Beacon at 10.30pm. There
were 12 men on board. The police immediately called
Heavy seas were running, spray dashed over the stern
and the early morning was cold. "I knew a rope would
have to be used," Ronnie said afterwards. "Unless the
men on board were strong swimmers they would not
have made the swim to the beach. The strong current
would not have taken them to shore but rather along the
Ronnie waded in and shouted to the crew to have a line
ready for him. The crew tied the line to an oil drum and
put it over the side as Ronnie made the hugely difficult
swim out (he claimed he was not a strong swimmer).
Holding grimly onto the drum, he began the swim back,
but the current swept him 90m down the beach. As each
breaker rolled over him he dived to avoid being hit by
the drum. Once he was too slow and the drum slammed
down on his head. His friend Albert Marais waded out to
help since he was by then very weak. The line was
secured and the lucky dozen were plucked from danger.
Half of the wreck can still be seen, a monument to the
bravery of Ronnie Samuel.
He was awarded the Wolraad Woltemade medal for
bravery - amid some confusion, as family legend has it
that he won it twice.
Then he became a hero twice over, disguised, for
some, as a villain.
Ronnie married young and soon had five or six children.
Then he left his wife for a coloured woman. It was the
height of the apartheid era and the police pursued him
relentlessly. Convicted under the Immorality Act, he
spent six months in a Port Elizabeth jail. His pregnant
companion was locked up too. The Supreme Court
overturned the verdict and Samuel had himself
reclassified as coloured.
A straight man who didn't care what people thought of
him, he was well spoken, capable and intelligent. He
knew his birds and he knew the stars, and he would
collect specimens for the Rhodes University
ichthyologists Fishy Smith and his wife, Margaret, or
report to them when he came across an albatross far
out to sea.
He was a quiet, easygoing man who drank little and did
not smoke. He would often intervene in a fight. Once he
shot a man's arm off with his .45. He read cowboy
books, like those of Louis L'Amour, a habit he passed
on to some of his sons.
But it was a hard life. In 1963 he lost two boats, St Peter
and Sea Hawk, within two weeks. He had 17 children by
at least four different women and found it difficult to
support them all. Crews were unreliable so he often took
his family to help him. His last wife, who was
Xhosaspeaking, spent 10 years fishing with him.
He kept his dignity, though, and handed on his instinct
for fearless service to one of his youngest sons,
Richard, who became an ambulance man.
It was probably the hard life of fishing which killed
Ronnie Samuel in the end - his heart gave in in January
1997. By the time of his death, the sea had allowed him
to save more than 40 lives.
Often his catch was small -- he fished by hand line - and
his families would suffer. But when he had a fair catch of
kob, redfish, silvers, geelbek or hake, he would say with
his characteristic wry smile: "Ah, the sun always shines
on the righteous!"
One strange piece of human driftwood presented the
Of Buddhists And .................................
Still's only son had been killed in a plane crash in
Greece a few months before, so he died alone. About
15 people attended his funeral and a few cows leaning
over a nearby fence showed some interest. A poem by
Still was read.
I went to pay my respects to Still since no one else
cared. Three graves away I accidentally came across an
even more fascinating grave.
Actually, Kathy Keeton, was part of the original family of Keetons, who still live and farm in the district. Her ashes are not buried here, but her estate, which was large, so they say, benefited many of her family and friends.Kathy Keeton, who died in 1997, came from a
well known family in the Lombard's Post area. She
made her name overseas as an exotic dancer and was
closely associated with one Bob Guccione, a magazine
publisher, with whom she started Penthouse.
Keeton would slip into Port Alfred frequently, but when
she brought Guccione the local parson refused to marry
Keeton's reputation among at least some residents of
Port Alfred is one of generosity. And she won one of
New York's highest honours, the New York community
service award, for her work among black children in
She started the South African magazine Longevity, but
lived to only 58.
There is a plaque to her on the family grave.
Perhaps her ashes are there, too.
- Tim Couzens
Train trip to tragedy: The story of the Blaauwkrantz bridge disaster
MARGUERITE POLAND follows in the now-still tracks of the
11.10 to Grahamstown, and finds it crowded with ghosts
My guide says the railway station is haunted. A woman
crossed the line without noticing the train. She is still
there, waiting where the sheen of silver-pink rooigras
runs the length of the line. The little railway station is
abandoned now. The slanting shadows of late afternoon
lie across a warm platform, the walls are rough-hewn,
made of the grey stone quarried not far away. Beyond,
the dry euphorbias of the Eastern Cape climb a krans.
Once, a train ran from Port Alfred station every day: the
11.10 to Grahamstown, 68km away. In the early 1900s
the train used to steam up through the valleys towards
Bathurst and Grahamstown taking farmers, farm
workers, holidaymakers and commercial travellers,
especially on stock-fair days, when the atmosphere was
festive and the coaches were full.
It is no longer possible to go on the train. One must walk
the line or take the road that loops and meets, strays
from and returns to it. The railway runs truer than the
road: there are fewer meanderings and distractions. In
the old days, prospective passengers could signal to the
train driver if they wanted to board, running up from a
farmland or waving from the veranda of a homestead for
him to wait. The train drivers were obliging in those
Mr Robinson, driver of the 11.10 on Saturday April 22
1911, was aware of potential passengers as he
steamed along. By the time he reached Martindale, he
had 52 on board.
The line was built in 1883, tracing a wide curve across
the farms of lower Albany, ancient in the history of the
indigenous people long before the first white colonists
settled there in 1820. The names of the small stations
and sidings are testament to the provenance of those
settlers: Hayes, Bathurst, Clumber, Trappe's Valley,
Martindale, Manley Flats, Oak Valley, with the
occasional gesture to other origins: Blaauwkrantz. The
older, Xhosa names for the rivers that cross those grass
and copse-scattered hills are unrecorded in colonial
Blaauwkrantz is the destination of this journey, although
it is not at the end of the track. It is the place of other
It is a late summer morning when my guide, Basil Mills
of the National English Literary Museum in
Grahamstown, and I set out. There is a limpid quality to
the air in this quiet corner of the Eastern Cape, shrikes
calling, proclaiming territory, the blue-black bush
marking out the camps where cattle graze. The hills are
low. There are lands cleared for pineapples and chicory.
Far off, the sea is glimpsed between bushes trailing
orange tecoma, blue here and there with plumbago.
hanging at an angle, a black signpost with white letters,
a farm gate easing itself on old hinges, a fiscal shrike
perched on a post: nxa, nxa, nxa, nxanxadi - hang him
up, hang him up, hang him up!
The first real station is Bathurst. It was once an
important destination thronging with passengers. There
was a fireplace in the waiting room for winter days. Now
khaki weed grows out of the grate. Someone has
scrawled "F**k Off" on a wall. The only sounds are the
old windmill creaking and a dog barking.
From here the line loops out, heading east past the
sidings of Purdonton and Spring Grove to Clumber. A
small white church and school stand on a grassy knoll
among old trees and quiet graves. It is here, from
Clumber station, that Grace Pike would have boarded
the almost full first-class carriage of the 11.10, coifed
for a day in Grahamstown.
Down at the church, her nephew Percy and his wife,
Olive, meet us at the gate. They are gentle people,
proud of their heritage, unpretentious and generous.
They have put aside their morning to show us round.
Their family have farmed here for six generations.
Already the seventh is preparing to take over.
Olive Pike taught alone at the school for 20 years, Sub
A to Std 5. "Her" children are all over the world now. She
takes us into the school, stands poised at the threshold
of her classroom, a ghost of a smile on her face.
Outside the old swings lean in the wind.
In the church the brass lamps glow in filtered sunlight.
Percy Pike laughs. There is no electricity to light them
any more - things have slid back to the time of the
forefathers. Olive plays the small carved organ. She
pumps the pedals, directs the swells, pulls the ivory
We go on to the farmhouse for tea. The garden and veldt
are abundantly green, the best rains in 20 years. We talk
about our families, the interconnections between them,
Grace Pike, who as a young woman took that train from
Clumber 89 years ago. We talk about the farm and the
district: pineapples, trains, droughts, rains, love, loss.
We talk about Saturday April 22 1911.
It is a day which connects us.
Trappe's Valley station is derelict under a pale sky, and
here we are furthest east in the journey. This is frontier
country. Out there, further than the horizon, is the Great
Fish River and Coombs, where the sacred clay pits of
the Xhosa were found.
Basil takes me to a secret place he has been looking
for for months. He tells me of the ghostly horseman at
the tollhouse who frightened some young herd boys
driving their cattle along the road. They fled through a
window and took refuge under the toll keeper's bed, odd
roommates for the night.
The tollhouse is derelict now. An aloe has taken root on
the walls of the upper gable. Beyond the broken walls
we act out a battle scene among a grove of mtsintsi
trees where - legend has it - a besieged farmer had his
hand pinned by a spear to a sneezewood post as he
reached to take a loaded gun. His adversary was his
long defected herdsman.
There is a well in a grove, perfectly preserved. Basil
throws a pebble into the water. The number of
concentric rings he counts will indicate the depth. He
goes down the stone stairs into the gloom. I stand
suddenly frightened. What if he disappears? It is not
who might come by unexpectedly; it is who is there from
long ago that bothers me. If there is little evidence now
of the lives lost in the struggle for ascendancy over the
land and the tracks scored by endless herds of raided
or recovered cattle are long overgrown, there is still a
At Martindale there are people living in the old guard
house. A scarecrow made from an overcoat crucified on
sticks, his head a rusted paint tin turned upside down,
guards a mealie patch. There are neither mealies to
guard nor birds to chase away.
From Martindale the rail swings northwest again. The
country is more broken. Surveying the possible route for
the railway line in the early 1880s, the railway engineer
George Pauling wrote: "A very bad piece of country had
to be crossed and it took some time before it was
decided to cross the worst spot on the route called
Blaauwkrantz, about 21km from Grahamstown, by a
high level bridge."
A very bad piece of country indeed.
At the bottom of the gorge there is a large pool. It is one
of a number of pools scattered randomly throughout the
Eastern Cape where the "People of the River", Abantu
Bomlambo , are thought to reside. In Xhosa cosmology,
the People of the River are believed to live beneath the
water with their crops and cattle. It is they to whom
initiates go when they are called to be diviners and who
may sanction their vocation. Those they approve may be
lured into the depths of a pool to join their society for a
time. Those they reject drown. Libations and gifts for the
Abantu Bomlambo are often floated out into the centre
of the pool in small baskets containing sorghum,
tobacco, pumpkin seeds, white beads, a calabash of
beer or brandy.
Small wonder then that the Blaauwkrantz River, its pools
and gorge registered anxiety in the more sensitive
traveller from the earliest times. There is a sense of
another existence here. This was a place of pilgrimage,
a spirit domain, a place of brooding - long before April
22, long before the railway line was opened on October
It was over the Blaauwkrantz Gorge, situated between
two such pools, that Pauling built the bridge. Designed
and constructed in England, the material for the bridge
was transported from Britain by sea. It was assembled
in 1883 and, when completed, was only 6mm out of
specification: a beautifully calculated feat of
engineering. Built light and strong, suspended web-like
above the chasm, it could withstand the winds that often
sweep down the tunnel between the cliffs.
It no longer exists but, from old photographs, it had an
airy, latticed appearance, vaulting the space between
the kranses guarding the riverbed, the banks of which
were planted at that time with the orange orchards of
Leslie Palmer, owner of Brenthoek farm.
Palmer's descendants, the Claytons, live there still. The
new bridge, built in 1928, sends its shadow out across
their lands. The fence of the clay tennis court is
supported by girders from the 1911 bridge. A ladder,
constructed from the same, leans against the stone wall
of an outhouse. A wonderful tea is spread out in the
living room of the farmhouse. Bunny Clayton and her son
Roger have a feast of anecdotes about Bunny's father's
part in the drama of the day.
On the mantelpiece stands a picture of the old bridge - a
toy-like train, a jaunty puff of smoke above, trundling
across it. Looking at it I have, again, a sense of history
shared. I carry a photo in my head of one of the
passengers. It was taken a day or two before she
boarded the 11.10 for Grahamstown on April 22. She
sits pulling on the oars of a rowing boat on the Kowie
River. She was 17 and her name was Hope Brereton. It
was the last picture taken of her.
Walking down into that gorge there is a feeling - quite
apart from the knowledge of the history that was played
out there - of the aloofness, the detachment of the
landscape. Long before a road or bridge was built, it
has been rumoured, early transport riders used to
approach the place with some trepidation, while
Africans on the journey would insist on waiting a time of
placation before descending the slope. Bunny and
Roger say the local farm workers avoid the place after
In the benign afternoon, women singing as they harvest
bright red peppers on the banks, it is a peaceful place. I
sit with my companions on a rock and reconstruct a
scene in my mind. The voices of the sombre bulbuls
recede. The bridge is no longer a skeleton against the
sky but the elegant and well-oiled iron road to
Grahamstown, punctuated by thriving little stations.
On April 22 1911, the train left on time. Behind the
engine was a coal tender followed by five trucks of
stone, quarried near Port Alfred, for the completion of
the Grahamstown cathedral. A fifth truck carried a loose
cargo of pineapples, that crop of lower Albany that
spikes the lands with pale sage coloured leaves against
mulberry earth. Four passenger coaches and a guard's
van were coupled behind this, the black passengers
crammed together in the last coach, en route to
stock-fair day in Grahamstown.
Walking tentatively onto the bridge, unable to glance
down through the rotten steelwork at the dizzying depths
below, I wonder what Robinson, the train driver, was
thinking at the moment that his engine ran out onto the
girders. Did he have his eyes fixed on the cutting at the
other side? Was his mind wandering pleasantly
Two-thirds of the way across there was a sudden lifting
and lightening of the load. The sound of metal, the flump
of steel on steel, smoke and dust rising. The fourth truck
had come uncoupled. One can only guess at Robinson's
horror, at the moment of turning his head, at seeing the
fourth truck rail-jump, fall on its side, the grind of steel as
the passenger carriages and guard's van plummeted
into space, the roof of one detaching, the last coach in
which the black passengers were travelling,
somersaulting once before it hit the rocks more than
60m below. The roof of a carriage spiralled down,
providing a safer landing place for a passenger, a
lampholder caught in the girders, a man's coat fluttered
on a spar.
The aftershock must have echoed up and down that
gorge, stunning Leslie Palmer in his lands with his
labourers, one of whom, at the moment of the accident,
had called out, "It is falling! It is falling!"
The appalled driver, knowing there was nothing he could
do to help, hurtled his engine, coal tender and two trucks
towards Grahamstown, whistle shrieking.
The stationmaster of Grahamstown was out on the
platform. With what dread must he have heard the
long-approaching shriek of the whistle, seen the smoke,
then the engine and truck without the coaches or the
guard's van, the distraught driver stumbling from the
It was not the bridge that had failed. The weight of the
stone had not broken it.
Some engineering experts said it was the age of the
dog spikes and the repair of the rails, rotten sleepers,
the vintage rolling stock too heavily laden. The
stationmaster of Bathurst believed it was the shifting of
the pineapples as the train took a curve, causing a
stone truck ahead to jump the rails and overturn,
obstructing the path of the following carriages so that
they concertina, derailed and fell.
Some said it was other forces: the Blaauwkrantz is not a
gorge to challenge.
Within an hour a relief train had reached the sight with
three doctors, nurses and medical equipment. Among
the first Grahamstown residents to arrive at the scene
were a group of clergymen representing every
denomination. And among them was the Rev William
Brereton, Hope's father. For him, the descent into the
gorge must have been the most appalling journey of his
life. And the longest.
Hopie Brereton did not survive. Her father carried her
body from the gorge.
Grace Pike of Clumber did. But in the fall, the 22 pins
with which she had arranged her hair so meticulously
had pierced her head and had to be extracted one by
There is the well-known story of the miraculous escape
of little Hazel Smith, who, with her sister Dorothy and
threeyear-old brother Willie, had been catapulted from
the train window as it fell. Hazel was caught in the
girders. Her sister Dorothy clung to the side of the
bridge for some time. Then, unable to hold on, she fell.
Baby Willie, whom Hazel had by the hand as he dangled
precariously above the chasm, struggled violently. He
too fell to the gorge below. Dorothy survived. Willie lived
only a day.
The newspaper reports from the time are full of the
language of drama, stories of bravery and courage.
Absent from all of them is any description of the black
passengers killed in the accident, except for mention of
a woman whom rescue workers tried to free for many
hours, only to die as she was taken up the gorge.
The absence from the press reports of the story of that
carriageful of passengers is reflected in a scrawled
aside taken from an unpublished letter: "An African
woman being taken from Kowie Mental to Fort England
was later found to be sane! So much for shock
treatment!" A strange little silence hovers around these
Altogether, 29 passengers died. Twenty-three were
injured. At the time, the Blaauwkrantz Bridge disaster
was the worst accident South Africa had witnessed.
Evening comes and we laugh and talk in the Claytons'
living room. "Oh yes, there is a ghost . . ." says Bunny,
pointing up the stairwell. She does not seem
uncomfortable. She has been here for too long to be
disturbed by an interloper.
Outside, the workers have gone home and the bright
green and red of the pepper land is in deep shadow.
Beyond, the Blaauwkrantz Bridge seems ghostlike.
That day I had stood aloft in the wind on the bridge's
precarious rails, seen far below the travellers' cairns that
mark the path into the ravine and which passers-by
honour with a stone, a thought or a prayer: Camagu,
mandisoloko ndihamba ekukhanyeni, ndingaze
ndihlelwe bububi (I must always walk in the light so that
no evil may befall me).
I say the words myself and I remember my
great-grandfather on his desperate journey down that
rocky gorge; I remember, too, his 17-year-old daughter,
Hope Brereton, whose name, whose face, whose tilt of
the head, reflects three generations down in my own
daughter. It has been a moving pilgrimage.
NEW TRACKS: Peppers are now harvested below
the new Blaauwkrantz
bridge. Pictures: B Mills
OLD HAUNTS: The Trappe's Valley station; .
Picture : B. Mills
Basil and the spirit well; .
Picture : Marguerite
and the pineapple fields of
lower Albany. Picture :
wait for more! the ghosts of Wesley Hill and others...............
mail us if you know of any stories we have left out?