Experience the Northern Cape, South Africa

There are rows of giant grassy lollipops on telephone pole sticks lining the dusty R383 on the road to Putsonderwater Station, between the Northern Cape towns of Kenhardt and Marydale.

Birdwatchers will immediately recognise these strange arrays as the enormous nests of sociable weaver colonies, the largest bird constructions in the world. Despite their shaggy appearance, each one is carefully built up by the ceaseless efforts of hundreds of the tiny, nondescript birds. 

As many as 300 sociable weavers will live in a structure weighing a ton or more, and every day, each bird will bring back grass stalks to add to the nest. 

1  Putsonderwater Weavers
The R383 to Putsonderwater, lined by the ‘lollipop’ nests of thousands of social weaver birds. Photo by Chris Marais.

After the ‘giant lollipops’, you come to what is left of Putsonderwater Station and the little village that once flourished alongside it.

2  Putsonderwater Village
The remains of Putsonderwater Village, once a thriving country community. Photo by Chris Marais.

In the South African mythology, the name Putsonderwater ranks alongside exotics like Shangri-La, Xanadu, Timbuktu, Camelot, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Dodge City, Mandalay, and the Irrawaddy River. Some exist today. Some exist no more. Some never existed at all. Many people use the name of Putsonderwater when referring to impossibly far-off destinations, without realising the settlement was once very much alive.

3  Putsonderwater Station
The train does not stop at Putsonderwater Station any more. Photo by Chris Marais.

Up until the early 1990s, Putsonderwater was a notable stop on the railway route between Cape Town and Windhoek, capital city of Namibia. A general dealer, hotel, police station, post office, school and inter-denominational church all thrived here. 

In the late 1980s, Putsonderwater won the coveted Lady Duncan Trophy for best country railway station in South Africa. Former station-master Ken Magson remembered the gardens as being particularly beautiful.

“The winters were deliciously cold. The summers were dry and hot. I lived there with my wife and two sons, who went to boarding school in Marydale, about 36 km away,” he said. “Visitors used to come to the station and remark on what an oasis it was. You didn’t laugh at Putsonderwater in my day.”

4  Putsonderwater House
This typical Karoo house with large veranda space still stands at Putsonderwater. Photo by Chris Marais.

According to local legend, the origin of the name ‘Putsonderwater’ harks back to the early 1880s and an old farmer called David Ockhuis. He came to live at this spot and dug a well with his two sons, Hans and Gert. They found a good vein of water and were well set. But the problem lay in the streams of trekboers (seasonal graziers) who were moving all over South Africa during that unsettled era.

5  Putsonderwater Well
The well at Putsonderwater, which used to feed its villagers and passing steam trains. Photo by Chris Marias.

In such a dry land, a water source would be a great attraction to nomads passing through. Ockhuis, not having a title to the land, was afraid that if everyone found out about the water, he would lose his farm. So every time a trekboer arrived and asked about the well, 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.

6  Putsonderwater Church
The old inter-denominational church at Putsonderwater. Photo by Chris Marais.