Richmond: tales from a book-crazy town

Posted on 7 March 2024

From dark revenge comedies to Gothic psychic pet yarns and stories of renewal and hope, fabulous tales abound in the Northern Cape village of Richmond. Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit dropped in to hear a few stories you won’t necessarily read in any book. Even if it is a book-crazy town.

An armed robbery at one of their upmarket guest houses in Gauteng and a property ad for an old hotel drove Lionel Millard and Aubrey Williams into the welcoming arms of Richmond.

The fading Masonic Hotel was transformed into The Richmond Karoo Small Hotel and all was going according to plan when Covid came along and iced tourism, hitting them like a financial sledgehammer. 

‘But it was a blessing,’ said Aubrey. ‘We both had hospitality burnout and there was no money left anyway. However, we had a plan for another business.’

Aubrey’s granny had taught him to sew. He started small, with a little Empisal sewing machine on a piece of Masonite in their kitchen, their dog Sir Knuckles always at his side on a cushion.

Soon they found a quilting machine, then a domestic overlocker, and began producing an ever-expanding range of wool duvets from the now-closed hotel. While Aubrey and his team make the duvets with freshly carded Merino wool, Lionel does the dispatching and client services of their blossoming business, aptly called Karoo Creations. 

Stories like these – upbeat with a novel twist – are rife in the small towns of the Karoo. And they seem especially abundant, especially twisted, in Richmond, a Northern Cape settlement just off the N1 highway, infamous for its speeding fines and known to a fringe few for its annual BookBedonnerd literary festival.

There’s no end, either, to the town’s rather more twisted tales. Stories infused with a macabre sense of justice, a slight sting in the tail. 

Like the ones that start with the familiar refrain, “There once was a guy from Richmond…”.

For example: There once was a guy from Richmond who was owed money by another guy in nearby Hanover. So he simply went up there and welded the Hanover guy’s workshop shut.

‘The same man’s wife had an affair, so he hired a bulldozer from the municipality and just drove over their house,’ someone chimed in, fetching another bottle of Merlot and turning up the volume of the French café music that was playing.

These are not isolated incidents, evidently.

Gothic lead in the pencil 

Founded on 11 October 1843, Richmond took its name from the Duke of Richmond, father-in-law of Sir Peregrine Maitland, then-governor of the Cape.

These days, it’s a typical Karoo town with about 10 000 souls. It services the local farming community and, because of its proximity to the Great North Road, also does duty as a traveller’s oasis.

One of those stopovers is the leafy courtyard of Richmond Café & Rooms.

This venue, an elegant and ever-evolving spot at the top end of Loop Street, is where yarns are spun, and travellers settle in behind a glass of red wine while soaking up some of the finest Karoo stories you’ve ever heard.

On any given evening, someone will be telling a tale. Perhaps it’ll be café owner Nicol Grobler, a gifted raconteur. Or one of the mischievous youngsters of the Dam Duik Mafia, a with-it collective whose members invade local farmers’ dams in the summer, shuck their clobber and chill for hours at a stretch.

‘Don’t take our photo!’ one member of the little gang yelled at us, defending their incognito status. ‘We’ll send you our logo!’ 

Sigh. Kids these days. Everything’s a brand.

John Donaldson and his faithful mixed grill of a dog with the Queen Anne front chassis – the aptly-named Potlood (pencil) – finally turned up after another day of renovating one of his old Victorian-era houses. Although he’s always on about moving to a flat in Montenegro or someplace equally vampiric, John really lives in the bloodstream of Richmond.

He might have been late to the party, but John – aka Mr Bookshop – arrived with a story to tell, and promptly let rip with one of his more Gothic yarns.

Some years ago, he told us, while he and a buddy were driving down a dirt road in the vicinity of  Nieu-Bethesda, Potlood hopped up from the back seat and nipped him sharply on the left shoulder.

Shocked to his core, John pulled his old sedan over and stopped. Just then, a large herd of kudu crossed the road in a rush, right in front of the vehicle.

‘If Potlood hadn’t bitten me, we would have been finished off by the kudu,’ he said.

They drove on in shocked and sober silence. Not 30 minutes later, Potlood bit him again. John stopped the car. Another herd of kudu crossed. 

In time, John returned the favour. One day they went for a ramble around Richmond and ventured into a pit bull’s territory. The gate was open and Potlood went looking for love in all the wrong places.

‘I plucked him from the jaws of death just in time,’ says John.

He came to Potlood’s rescue once more. They were out in the veld, and Potlood stood on a gin trap normally used for jackals and lynx. John released the doughty dog before any serious damage could occur.

Simply ‘boek bedonnerd’

Mr Bookshop – so-called because he owns the respected Richmond Book and Prints –  isn’t the only bibliophile in town. Canadian-born Joburg vet Peter Baker bought some property in the town in 2002 and went on to set up the BookBedonnerd Festival with a KZN varsity lecturer named Darryl David. Richmond was then established as an international book town.

Over the years, that festival, which rolls out over the better part of a week in October, has brought some great writers to speak in Richmond. 

At the end of each festival, the duo swear blindly they will never do another one. But somehow it stumbles on, from summer to summer. Each year disaster looms and they pull it off and people love it.

There is something incredibly appealing about sitting in an old library, listening to storytellers from far away. Different wordsmiths appear every hour. Writers engage a clutch of bibliophiles and spill the beans on how their latest creation came to be. And suddenly, everyone in the room is caught up in the wild magic of making a book.

There’s another kind of book-making magic happening in Richmond, too. To find it, we headed down Loop Street to the town’s slick contemporary gallery, Modern Art Projects South Africa (Mapsa). The first time we visited, we were a little gobsmacked at the stuff on display: collections of nightsoil buckets; elegantly assembled potato bags; rusty metal jackets caught on barbed wire; signs saying “Where the Landscape Begins” and “As Far as the Eye Can Touch’; a seriously long shopping trolley; draadkarretjies (toy wire cars); a big dog on a wooden stand; a gravestone; bones and rakes and desolate black and white photographs; a child’s mattress with a springbok horn springing out of each spring; and images of shattered lawn furniture on the roadside.

The brains and passion behind this astonishing modern gallery is Harrie Siertsema, the pancake mogul of Graskop, and Tshwane-born Berlin-based artist and curator Abrie Fourie.

In later years we discovered a huge wall of handmade bricks bearing the etchings of hundreds of words. English? Afrikaans? Here’s the kicker: they work for both languages. Different meaning, different contexts for the same word.

The title of this piece is Word Woes. English: sadness in words. Afrikaans: go (become) crazy. It’s the intellectual property of acclaimed South African artist Willem Boshoff, who used locally crafted alphabet bricks in the building of this unique wall, bearing words like stout, angel, hoed, burger, loot, telling, brood, prop and velvet. This wall has become a bit of a “selfie spot”, presumably  for Instagrammers passing through Richmond.

And then, in the gallery and all about town, etched in brick (and also displayed on the windscreen of a classic old Chevrolet bakkie) were the words: “Werk, Vrek of Trek.” (Work, die or move.) The order of the words varies, and we could carry on analysing their general meaning until the last bottle of red wine has gone to meet its maker.

In an annex of the Mapsa gallery, we found Mongezi Ncombo and a team of women creating and binding books. Mongezi and three others were chosen as Nando’s Creative Exchange artists of 2021. 

Mongezi was born in Mthatha, where he was schooled all his life. He is the son of a motor mechanic in the government garages who later became a fireman at the Mthatha Airport. 

‘My mother and father were very creative. They made toys out of wire hangers and pliers. They were so nice, the big boys stole them.’

It is the custom of children in Mthatha to use the fine clay found in the area to make small figurines. 

‘People made clay cattle. I made dogs. They just got bigger and bigger. Then my dad showed me how to mould things better. He was a natural artist.’

He has run courses here, teaching lino-cut techniques in the airy workshop on the main road where we found Elizabeth Jonas, Felicity Pieterse, Tiema Williams and Jessica Olifant busy binding books.

These have blank pages but are works of art in themselves, created using Japanese paper craft techniques and covered in recycled flour, maize and sugar bags. 

A diamond in the spookhuis

Besides the expected equestrian tack, the Richmond Horse Museum is packed with those lovely mannequins from long ago wearing lacy Victorian-era dresses, a full-sized wagon, a preserved Karoo kitchen, a display bedroom and some wooden prosthetics that raise the eyebrow. 

They once belonged to a man called Doel Kok, who was wounded in a skirmish during the Anglo-Boer War on a bridge over the Ongers River here in town. His right arm had to be amputated, and a local craftsman made him a spiffing hand, complete with moveable finger joints.

But Doel Kok must have felt ill at ease with his fancy new appendage because he soon ditched it and opted for a metal hook in its place. 

The info sheet on the wall adds: “The hook served its purpose and he was respected by all.”

Curator Johan Tolken is not a man who scares easily, but don’t ask him to spend a night in the museum. 

‘There’s a ghost here, I’m convinced of it. I once saw a boy in a pale shirt here, and he walked right through a wall. One time, he came up and kicked me in the leg but he doesn’t bother me anymore.’

Johan has given up straightening the various mounted images on the walls. One of the demised residents seems to object to any rearranging.

‘As I move the picture frame, something always pokes me, hard, in the back.’

Although Johan will happily take you on a sunset ghost tour of Richmond, he dreads the nights when the Horse Museum alarm goes off, as he’s the one who has to come up and reset it.

‘It’s usually a spider scuttling across one of the sensors, but I must check anyway,’ he says. ‘I charge in at top speed, hit the switch, swivel around immediately and run straight out the front door.’

One door down, in the same building complex, is Johan’s personal museum.

Witness the weird stuff that can wash up in a small Karoo town: discarded church pews with decades-old bubblegum still stuck to the undersides; cans of classic celluloid movies like Heidi, National Velvet and Little Women; a box full of empty bottles from Richmond’s old Lekker Mineral Cooldrink Company; an ancient switchboard, which he operated for a short while in 2008; LPs in piles of vinyl and a valve-driven radio that can still catch the Radio Sonder Grense station ‘when the wind blows just right’.

There’s a whale vertebra, flensing knife and harpoon on display. What? Johan shakes his head in a “don’t know” gesture. Speculation: perhaps a retired whaler came to live in Richmond a century ago for the fresh air and the lamb chops. If there is no back story, just provide your own.

Stuck on the wall is a cutting from Detective Magazine on the murder case that put the town quite dubiously on the map in the first half of the 20th century.

A scant block or two from here, a young man called Petrus Hauptfleisch killed his mother in 1925. He protested his innocence all the way to the gallows.

Johan does not sit on his hands in Richmond. Apart from being a local municipal opposition councillor, a museum curator and a ghost-tour guide, he is also a Saturday morning DJ who entertains the upper section of Loop Street with nostalgic tunes from his stoep.

‘How about some Neil Diamond?’ he suggested.

Karoo story, international flavour

There are more stories in Richmond’s outlying reaches, too, we discovered. Karoo Padstal, 18km north of town, is a newish project of the Groblers – Nicol and Klaradyn – who wanted to create an out-of-town farm stall in the same vein of classy as their Richmond Café & Rooms.

They’ve achieved just that and it has become a central source for regional products. If you make something authentic from the Karoo, this is your shop window. If you’re motoring down or up the N1, this is your oasis of coffee, upmarket edibles and all manner of Karoo goods. 

There’s even a world-class chef in the kitchen.

Chester Graham, an old hand at whipping up three-course feasts for 6 000 guests, has a CV longer than your arm: Sun City, the Mount Nelson, various Marriott hotels and even a stint in Kuwait are but some of his career highlights so far.

‘When lockdown arrived, I was in corporate catering and that business just died,’ he said. ‘By chance, I met the Groblers, was offered a job and here I am. I love life in Richmond. The other day, I even drove a tractor!’

Trip planner

Do this

Down Loop Street, the massive Modern Art Projects South Africa (Mapsa) gallery is also where a team of Richmond community women produce works of art in book form, using Japanese paper craft techniques to bind pages into books, covered in recycled flour, maize and sugar bags. If it seems closed, call George Willemse on 073 436 4413. The Bookbinders are right next door.

Richmond Horse Museum, one of only two horse museums in the world, is open on most days. Donations welcome 

072 629 0742 (curator Johan Tolken), [email protected]

When in a bookish town, buy a book. Some of the best can be found in John Donaldson’s Richmond Books and Prints

081 270 8827, [email protected]

Vetmuis Plaaskombuis on Loop Street is part restaurant, part home industries store, and part gift shop. Open weekdays from 8am to 8pm. On Saturdays, it closes at 2pm.

082 380 1196, facebook: Vetmuis Plaaskombuis

Len and Pat Rundle have you covered for a dop or if you’re hungry. Have a drink at the Saddle Bar or a meal at Pat’s Kitchen. 053 693 0142 or 073 406 4643

Author Ian Smit runs Richmond Info alongside a fascinating antique shop. 082 797 2018, [email protected] Facebook: Richmond Trading Post

Visit the Karoo Padstal on the N1 between Richmond and Hanover for stunning Karoo goodies and a great meal. Weekdays 8am–5pm, half days on Saturday. 081 219 2860, Facebook: Karoo Padstal

The Richmond area boasts some of the best Karoo lamb in the country. Richmond Meats & Deli is just off the N1. 076 473 9573 or 053 693 0037, Facebook: RichmondMeatsDeli.

Order a luxurious sheep or alpaca wool duvet or see how it is made at Karoo Creations. 053 012 5011 or  076 886 0262,

Stay here

Seisoen Karoo Retreat

Packed with evidence of a designer’s eye and overflowing with impeccable taste, this old stone house has been immaculately refurbished as a beautiful boutique guesthouse – the kind of surprise no one expects to find in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere.

060 381 8753

Facebook: Seisoen-Karoo-Retreat 

The Richmond Café and Rooms has three stylish and private en suite rooms. The decor is quirky, creative and artistic with a few thoughtful touches thrown in for good measure.

079 755 8285 The-Richmond-Cafe-and-Rooms

Karoo Manor is right next to Pat’s Kitchen and the bar with saddle seating. It has four en suite rooms. They are clean and spacious and the food is excellent.

053 693 0142 or 073 406 4643 

Bloemhof Karoo Farmstay is a short drive from Richmond and was the last home of heart surgeon Dr Chris Barnard. Full of special guest house touches and rich farm history.

082 449 7700

Three Birds Country House offers self-catering family-sized (4) accommodation. Not much to look at from the road, it is absolutely incredible on the inside with large rooms, comfortable beds and glorious bathrooms. 

079 529 5660,

A version of this article originally appeared in the October 2022 print issue of Getaway

Words and pictures by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit

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