The plight of Beaufort West has touched the nation. The town is in the grips of the worst drought in 130 years and has no water. Most travellers of the busy N1 highway are answering pleas made by journalists like David Biggs (Tavern of the Seas, Cape Argus) and Amoré Bekker of Radio RSC who have appealed to all who pass through to bring “a bottle for Beaufort.” Locals say the reaction has been heart-warming. Even Bonnievale has reacted and this little town today dispatching tankers carrying 200 000 litres of water for the struggling Beaufort Westers.
The first drought in the recorded history of Beaufort West ended in 1823. However, 1827 was also a particularly dry year and hundreds of animals died. Then things went better for a while, but drought struck again from 1856 – 1859 and this three-year drought said the newspapers was “of a dimension never before experienced.” The farming community was crippled. There was no fodder and fountains began to dry up. Game died in the hundreds.
Then there was a year’s reprieve, but drought struck again in 1861. For a decade and a half things were fine, but a different problem arose in 1872, and 1875 – extraordinary high falls of snow took their toll of stock. By 1876 a new drought started and lasted until 1878. In the first year Nelspoort, a little hamlet 40 km north of Beaufort West, received only 25 mm (one inch) of rain. Beaufort West farmers culled their lambs to save the ewes, but despite this lost over two thirds of their livestock.
Drought struck Beaufort West again in 1901 at the height of the Anglo-Boer War and the crisis was made worse by the British Army setting up a camp in this village. In drought ravaged conditions (between 1901 and 1902) locals had to contend with supporting the thousands of British soldiers and their horses. There was little fresh drinking water and the horses trampled what little grazing existed on the veld. By 1903 it was so dry that 300 blue gum trees in a plantation at the end of Donkin Street died. Relief came, then severe snow in 1912 and another extreme drought.
Beaufort West was hit by severe drought at the outbreak of the First World War and this one lasted until 1916. A decade of relief followed, but 1926 was again exceptionally dry – only a 63mm (2,47 inches) of rain fell. Locals said this was barely enough to settle the dust. The drought lasted for two years and in that time killed most fruit trees, quince and pomegranate hedges. Rain came. A world wide depression followed and another drought (stories of drought at this time appear in Rose’s Round-up) Heavy snow fell again in 1933 – this fall was so intense that sheep were able to walk from one farm to another as the fences were buried. Farmers considered 1934 to be “a good year” and in 1937 they said “really good rains fell.” Then there was more drought, more rain and more snow. The cycle rolled on across the decades to peaking at this severe drought.
The Karoo is a harsh country and will always be, but severest conditions bring people together and Beaufort West will be eternally grateful to all who have opened their hearts to them in this time of woe.