20 August 2012 by Chris Marais

The Putsonderwater surfer

Putsonderwater is a mythical place in the minds of most South Africans, but in reality it’s also a deserted little railway village in the Northern Cape Kalahari.

Rail-surfing at Putsonderwater Station

When South Africans hear the name ‘Putsonderwater’, it carries the same meaning that others would ascribe to ‘Timbuktu’.

It’s out there. Or is it? It’s far away, man. It’s mythical. Isn’t it?

If you google Putsonderwater, you’ll see how people mock the name:

  • Getting ADSL broadband in Putsonderwater
  • The stockbrokers of Putsonderwater
  • The Putsonderwater Spa
  • Moving to Putsonderwater
  • First prize: one week in Putsonderwater. Second prize: two weeks in Putsonderwater
  • Door-to-door service to Putsonderwater
  • Phoning your grandma in Putsonderwater
  • Pete the Pig Farmer from Putsonderwater
  • The Putsonderwater Spur
  • The Putsonderwater Coal Merchants’ Association

So when I talk about surfing in Putsonderwater, you go, 'Uh huh,' right?

The thing is, I’m here to tell you that Putsonderwater actually exists. Today it’s a deserted little railway siding and a ghost village in the Kalahari, but in 1880 it was a well with sweet water, jealously guarded by one David Ockhuis.

Thirsty trekboer (migrant farmer) families would pass and enquire about David’s put (well) and he would say: 'Ja meneer, ek het ‘n put, maar dit is ‘n put sonder water.' ('Yes sir, I have a well, but it is a well without water.') So the place became Putzonderwater. In later years, the ‘z’ was dropped in favour of the modern spelling.

I always surf the rails at Putsonderwater.

And when I tracked down the last stationmaster of Putsonderwater, Ken Magson, he told me that his beloved Putsonderwater once had such lovely gardens it had won ‘best railway station’ in 1989.

I don’t know why I visit Putsonderwater so often, but I do. There’s some wistful energy left in the old wind pump by the church, the trading store door that hangs off its hinges, and the sturdy but slumping little railway houses where starlings and sparrows have moved in.

And I always surf the disused rails at Putsonderwater. I don’t really know how to surf, so I end up looking like John Belushi trying out a John Travolta move. But that’s cool. Maybe I’ll start the Putsonderwater Point Break Club for Crazy Old Coots and Others. Any takers out there?

Category: Culture & History

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