Valley of Death: Ghosts of Kaapse Hoop (Kaapsehoop) and Barberton

The Kaapse Hoop (Kaapsehoop, Kaapsche Hoop, Kaapschehoop) area has been likened to a cape jutting out from the "mainland" of the Drakensberg escarpment into the "sea" of the Lowveld. The name actually means "hope of the Cape", and refers to the hopes of the gold prospectors. A trail from the village leads to spectacular views over the De Kaap valley, sometimes called "The Valley of Death" by the old prospectors. Wild horses roam the area, descendants of animals left behind by British forces during the Anglo-Boer war. The village has given its name to a rare cycad found in the area.

Misty Kaapse Hoop and the surrounding area are the focus of paranormal phenomena. That may be why the area was once called Duiwel's Kantoor (Devil's Office). Stephen Haw of South Africa's Sunday Times recorded some of the stories. One ghost seen in the village is that of a shaky old woman, said to have been an alcoholic who murdered her husband with an axe during a fit of jealous rage. Another elderly woman haunts the porch of the Green Venus, now a pub but once a trading store. The screams of a child crying for help have also been heard in the pub (a mother and child burned to death there in the nineteen-fifties). Fortunately, invisible children have been heard laughing outside, among the nearby rocks. The pub probably has other invisible guests, who are responsible for strange phenomena such as the smashing of crockery when loud music is being played. Phantom gold prospectors are said to haunt the surrounding hills. Look for the triangular road sign warning drivers to beware of "Free Range kids, cats, dogs, frogs and fairies".

In the De Kaap valley itself is the historic mining town of Barberton, home to many colourful characters during the gold rush days. Bryce Courtenay's bestseller The Power of One, based on his childhood experiences in the nineteen-forties and fifties, was largely set here. Outside of the town hall is a statue of Sir Percy Fitzpatrick's heroic dog, Jock of the Bushveld. Jock's Tree, an umbrella acacia under which he liked to rest, is north of the town. I have never heard of anyone seeing Jock's ghost, but it is easy to imagine him sleeping in that atmospheric spot. Jock's grave is actually across the border in Mozambique.

President Paul Kruger once stayed in the historic Phoenix Hotel. There have been alterations since then, and the varying age of different parts of the hotel made the room numbers very confusing when I stayed there in 1993. I gather that the hotel is haunted, but I was not given any specific details. I also made a point of staying at the attractive Impala Hotel. I did not ask whether it is haunted, but it is atmospheric, and there is a frieze showing scenes inspired by Jock of the Bushveld. It was painted in the earlier part of the twentieth century by Genal, a wandering artist and ex-Foreign Legionnaire who walked the length of Africa.

North of Barberton, at Noord-Kaap, is the Bougainvillea Hotel. In the bar is a monochrome frieze by Genal, showing scenes inspired by his journeys. I was shown a more colourful Genal frieze in one of the offices. In the garden is the "Hanging Tree", where horse thieves and claim jumpers are said to have been hanged by lynch mobs. Sometimes, when there is no breeze, the tree shakes violently. When I last saw the tree, it did not look particularly suitable for hanging anyone, but then again it could have changed considerably since the nineteenth century. Alternatively, the "lynching" story may have been invented speculatively, in an attempt to explain the strange phenomena connected with the tree.

I believe that it is the Barberton Provincial Hospital that is haunted by Sister Brown. In life, she did her nursing in the early twentieth century. During a rare break from her work, she was taken on a fatal hunting expedition. She was mauled by a lion, actually one of the least likely ways of dying during a safari. However, her "life's" work continues, and her ethereal existence has not prevented her from physically intervening to save the lives of patients. She is said to wear an old-fashioned grey uniform, but ghosts often appear grey. Her benevolent spirit is a welcome sight, but her feet are invisible - the hospital has been renovated since her death, and the floor raised.

Most of the indigenous inhabitants of the De Kaap valley are of Swazi origin (the area was part of Swaziland until well into the nineteenth century). Barberton is actually linked to Swaziland by an aerial cableway that transports ore from the Havelock Mine. Of course, the folklore of the Swazis could fill volumes, but I shall just mention a couple of legends. Traditionally, both Swazis and Zulus believed that stagnant pools were inhabited by hideous moss-covered monsters called Nyanya-bulembu. Legends connected with these creatures tend to be of the "Beauty and the Beast" or "Frog Prince" type. In Swaziland itself, the waterfall on the Poponyane river is said to be the tears of a maiden whose lover went to kill a leopard on Gobolondo mountain. Sadly, witches turned him into a white flower.

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