Walking the dusty streets of Leydsdorp today, it looks like a ghost town sinking back into the lush Limpopo bushveld. But Leydsdorp was once the centre of a short-lived gold boom before politics and the dreaded blackwater fever (malaria) closed it down. Nevertheless, the legends of Leydsdorp live on ...

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According to legend, Leydsdorp was declared a city for a day – by Boer President Paul Kruger.

Just off the R71 from Tzaneen in Limpopo province, at the town of Gravelotte, there’s a turn-off to a place called Leydsdorp.

A gentle dirt track leads to what was briefly a gold-boom town that mirrored Mpumalanga’s Pilgrim’s Rest for legend and raucousness.

In the mid-1880s there was a gold rush to the Murchison Range. All the usual gold-rush suspects arrived, people who had been everywhere from Kalgoorlie to the Klondike.

In 1890, a ‘small town with a big cemetery’ was established and named after the state secretary of the old Transvaal. Malaria (then called blackwater fever) took most lives; lions and barroom brawls accounted for most of the rest of the names in the graveyard.

One day a popular local chap called Sandy died. The miners built him a coffin out of beer cases, ensconced him in it and told a couple of labourers to take it to the cemetery while they had drinks in memory of their friend.

When they arrived and lifted the coffin up to carry it to the burial plot, they discovered that it was very light: the bottom had broken out of the makeshift coffin and Sandy’s corpse was nowhere to be found.

They found his body at the side of the road, took him back to the pub and stuck him ‘back in his box’ while they had a few more drinks to discuss the incident. By then it was too late in the day to bury him – the mosquitoes were already massing over at the graveyard.

Characters called Mica Bill, Paraffin Joe, Brandy Smith and The Heavenly Twins mined claims called the Old Birthday, the Flying Dutchman, Antelope and Blue Jacket.

More than 3 000 miners and opportunists gathered in Leydsdorp during its heyday, where no fewer than eight bars slaked their thirst.

Accommodation was hard to find: two miners burrowed into a giant anthill and set up home – they even built a kitchen down there with a stove and a chimney.

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