A Paradox of the Plains

The Yeomanry Hotel at Deelfontein

It’s only a lonely little railway siding like so many on the plains of the Great Karoo. What makes Deelfontein eerily different, however, are its buildings. They have an old-world air of elegance and appear to have been designed to reflect the glories of the British Empire.  Not many tourists take this route, but Wally and I discovered this spot as we drove along a road less travelled between Richmond and De Aar.  Suddenly, as we reached a level crossing saw these intriguing buildings lurking like a ghostly mirage across the way from a forlorn railway station.   There they stood a sad, silent, dusty, dilapidated and a decaying paradox to the two pristine cemeteries further down the road.  The spot demanded a closer look, so we stopped and spent many more hours than we’d intended, rambling through the ruins and investigating the graves.   Deelfontein has a haunting quality and it called us back again and again, but sadly each time we visited the buildings had sunk further into decline.

Despite their pompous air of Queen and Empire, the buildings came too late to share in that glorious chapter of history.  The hotel was built after the Anglo-Boer War in the hopes that it would house visitors to wished to pay their respects to departed loved ones.  The plan was not really successful and The Yeomanry Hotel was never as popular as the owners had hoped. Local farmers say there was many an evening when they heard the haunting sounds of Joseph Adamstein’s violin creeping across the plains to greet the coming night.  Then they knew the old man was lonely and once again had no visitors at his hotel.

On our first visit little windows with ornate gold lettering still announced “Canteen”, “Bar”, “Entrance”, “Dining Room” and so on, but on subsequent trips these had vanished or been smashed.  I have never been able to understand what drives people to vandalise abandoned buildings and smash every window in sight.

A mouldering wall enclosed a whisper of an old-time garden, shaded by palm trees and a massive arch with “Yeomanry” and “1901” on its facade indicated the entrance.  Inside in the one-time lounge and dining room area were the remains of once stunning murals painted by a roving artist.  Many did such work for the price of a bed and a few meals.   But this was only what the eye could see – the once magnificent buildings had been torn apart to create sheep kraals and cattle pens.

Deelfontein in its day was the largest surgical and convalescent hospital set up by the British during the Anglo-Boer War.   It had a first class team of doctors and nurses and one of the first mobile X-ray units used in a military situation was set up here as well as an ophthalmic unit.   Basically a tent hospital Deelfontein was far ahead of its time.   Wally and I discovered this long forgotten spot was a rich fountain of stories.   Its creator was Elias Adamstein, a Lithuanian Jew and a pioneer of the ostrich industry had hopes of it becoming a second Matjiesfontein.  His dream was never realised because the road and the rail followed different routes northwards.     We unearthed stories of bravery, courage, true friendships and undying love which spanned over half a century, but those are other tales!

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