Sensational reports told of a “white tribe” hidden away in a valley close to Geluksberg in the Drakensberg. Garth Johnstone hit the road to find out more.
What was I doing here, up on the edge of the Eastern Free State, driving across a rather agricultural dirt road in the rain, I asked. As my bakkie pitched into yet another deep pothole and gave a loud ka-klunk, I first grimaced and then smiled when I thought about freedom and the open road.
Inspired by an article in the Country Life magazine, I had latched on to a story of an alleged “White Tribe” – an isolated community of farmers living for more than 100 years in a hidden valley near Geluksberg in the Drakensberg.
Sensational headlines… damaging innuendo
Researching the story, I was on my way to meet a local historian who drove me around the area and told me what he knew about the matter. The Hidden Valley exists … the white tribe, not so much. A combination of local gossip and shallow reporting had drawn conclusions worthy of sensational headlines, leaving the farming community to deal with the damaging innuendo.
On a wet late summer’s day I had headed to Swinburne, cut inland across a funky dirt road to a sign post to Geluksberg where I met farmer, writer and historian Leon Strachan.
Leon, a third generation farmer and businessman in the area (of Scottish and Afrikaans ancestry), has written nine books, mostly about military actions that took place in the Harrismith area, but also covering local curiosities and folk stories, along the lines of Bosman’s Oom Schalk Lourens or the At the Fireside books. He is a deep reservoir of local knowledge.
Leon took me through the topography of the area, which is crucial to this story. He explained how over millions of years, wind, water and temperature had carved out a deep valley, deeper and longer than the other kloofs and gorges in the area. This would become known as the Hidden Valley.
Today farmers and subsistence dwellers still live in the valley and on its edges, but it’s what took place in the late 19th century and the news reports that followed later that made the legend.
It was deep within the Hidden Valley
The trouble began when the orphan Pieter de Heer, who had left Rotterdam in the Netherlands seeking opportunities to establish himself, arrived in Durban after a few years in Argentina.
To cut a long story short, De Heer eventually put together enough capital to buy livestock and the basics to start a farm. He applied for and received State land at a reduced rate and bought a piece deep within the Hidden Valley. De Heer named it Jacob’s Ladder.
According to Strachan, there were a number of factors why De Heer and his family became the subject matter of gossip and later fodder for journos looking for a story. They were the only farmers to set up deep in the valley, secluded, unlike the rest who farmed more on the rim, with greater access to the wider world. De Heer had married and produced a number of children. With first aid skills he had learnt on board a ship he helped deliver the babies himself. Then there was the fact that their original home had no finesse and was a rudimentary stone and mud structure.
But most damning, although having no reason to be linked to inbreeding, his three daughters married three men from another family (unrelated to the De Heers). This was perhaps due to convenience and opportunity, rather than anything sinister. Remember they were more than 10km from Swinburne, deep in a rural valley that was difficult to access.
The way Strachan tells it, De Heer the patriarch was certainly eccentric but neither a recluse nor backward.
Anyway, the nub is that in 1948 and 1966 damaging articles leaked out about this “hidden” community, creating the myth of the white tribe, with scandalous stories about inbreeding and backward children. Most damaging, according to Strachan, was a piece in 2004 stating that the “Lost Valley people were completely cut off for about 100 years until they were discovered by a Rand Daily Mail journalist in 1966”.
Not true, says Strachan – De Heer and his family regularly went to Swinburne to use the facilities there and to do business. Some of the children went to school. De Heer himself had earlier taught in South Africa as a way to raise money. Over time a new, far more habitable home was built.
Somewhere, in among what was written about this family and their neighbours, was the difference between fact and fiction. All this stuff about the “White Tribe” and “Lost Valley people” is shrouded in myth and storytelling, embellished over the years. Today people in the valley continue to farm livestock or eke out a subsistence lifestyle.
If you ever wander that way, the view from the escarpment down into the valley and the nearby town of Geluksberg in KwaZulu-Natal is well worth the trek.
• Leon Strachan’s fascinating book (written in Afrikaans), Bergburgers – which discusses the Hidden Valley in detail and includes newspaper articles and photographs – is available from the author: firstname.lastname@example.org
– By Garth Johnstone