The Tragedy of Laingsburg.

The Tragedy of Laingsburg.

Part of a twitter feed last week…

Another quick diversion from our India/Nepal saga due to current events… For the last two weeks, the Cape has suffered insane levels of rain, accompanied by high winds. By the end of last week, we’d had enough and decided to make our way home to sunny Gauteng. On leaving Langebaan, this proved to be more of a challenge than anticipated. We drove south, then east, then south again to Hermon – where the real flooding started to become apparent.

Flood waters near Hermon, which had already covered some vineyards…

We turned north to Tulbagh and then south again, as it was too risky to go over passes. In Wolseley, the roads were properly flooded. We drove carefully, making sure we followed in the tracks of the vehicle ahead of us – both to avoid any hidden obstacles and to judge the depth of the water. Had we left much later, I doubt we would have made it through. But we did…

Main road through Wolseley.

We eventually got within striking distance of the N1, only to find the Huguenot tunnel was closed, apparently due to mudslides, rockfalls and power failures. So, we had to take a 170km detour via Robertson, Ashton and Montagu, and eventually reconnect with the N1 just after the Hex River Pass. Whew… It was a bit of a mission, but we got to see places we hadn’t been before by taking the road less travelled. What is a road trip without a bit of adventure, and we will remember this morning for many years to come…

The road less travelled invariably holds more beauty…

Our route on the N1 took us through Laingsburg, and under the circumstances we felt it was relevant to visit the Flood Museum. It is a small museum which is dedicated to the devastating flash flood which destroyed the town, killing 104 people. 

The Laingsburg Flood Museum – with more threatening clouds in the background.

On Saturday, 24 January, and Sunday, 25 January 1981, over 425 mm of rain fell in the Laingsburg area – more than double the area’s average of 175mm. The Buffels River catchment includes the Buffels, Wilgenhout and Baviaans rivers, and on that fateful Sunday they combined to create a raging monster that destroyed two-thirds of Laingsburg, including 184 houses, 22 commercial buildings and the town’s old-age home. 

One of the poignant images on the wall of the museum. This house belonged to Mr PJ du Toit, Swartberg St.

Ten survivors were rescued from the Floriskraal Dam which is 21 km downstream from Laingsburg. The magnitude of the flood was so immense that some of the victim’s bodies were recovered in Mossel Bay, about 200 km away, after being swept over the Floriskraal Dam wall. 72 of the bodies were never recovered. 

Another of the museum’s images shows the church hall flooded almost to the level of the gallery.

Outside help only reached Laingsburg 24 hours later, during the course of Monday, because all the bridges were impassable. 

Another of the exhibitions in the museum is the Wolfaardt Collection of Africana and memorabilia, which tells the story of the Great Trek and the Anglo-Boer War. Pictured here are “dolosse” which are knuckle bones used as ‘oxen’ to pull the wagon (jawbone) – a ‘toy’ made by children on the Great Trek.

If you’re there at the right time of the day, keep an eye out (or ask at the museum) for Tannie Poppie and her legendary Roosterkoek, located close to the museum. We were just too late in the day!

The museum is a sobering experience, and reading the various accounts detailed on the walls made my heart ache. There is a palpable feeling of pain and loss, and yet also of camaraderie and the resilience of the human spirit. In 2008 and 2014 the Buffels River flooded again, but the damage was inconsequential compared to the 1981 flood… this time.

Whilst researching this article, I came across the concept of “Dark Tourism” – which is defined as “tourism that involves travelling to places associated with death and suffering”. Destinations considered dark tourism sites could include museums, cemeteries, slums, concentration camps, war scenarios, or other places of tragedy. It’s a new term for me, and I’m not entirely sure I like the term “dark”. In visiting this particular museum, there was a feeling of quiet respect, of honouring the dead and celebrating the survivors. 

This mist dictated headlights on, speeds of only 80 km/h and extreme caution when overtaking.

We spent the night in Beaufort West and left before sunrise the next day for Johannesburg. This part of the drive was also somewhat unusual, in that we experienced mist so thick that at times you could barely see further than one vehicle ahead – for hours. Whilst you expect mist such as this in areas of Mpumalanga, this in the Karoo was another first for me. Seldom a boring moment on a road trip…

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team


Flood Museum Laingsburg
Tourism Complex, Meiring St, Laingsburg, 6900

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