My trip to St Petersburg over Christmas died a slow, agonising death in 2020/21 during the Covid-19 pandemic. A couple of days before Christmas a neighbour mentioned that their guesthouse in Aberdeen was open over Christmas. Well, Aberdeen is in the middle of the Great Karoo and the closest it has ever been to any substantial body of water was when dinosaurs walked the earth. In every sense of the word, it could not be further from St Petersburg.
So the day before Christmas, when most people were baking, drinking or making frantic last-minute trips to the supermarket or mall, I headed north on the N1 towards Beaufort West and then east on the N9 to Aberdeen. I knew nothing about Aberdeen other than a rather random fact that Lawrence Oats, a member of Robert Scott’s ill-fated expedition to claim the South Pole, had been wounded near Aberdeen during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). And that the town once had one of South Africa’s largest private zoos.
I almost missed the town altogether when I missed the rather ambiguous turnoff to Aberdeen. It is a quaint village where be buildings and number of churches suggest an era of relative affluence. Aberdeen’s streets are very wide, so wide that 100 years ago it would not have been too difficult to turn a horse-drawn spider in it. The properties are large, with enough space to grow vegetables and a fruit orchard. Some of the houses have seen better days, but a striking feature of the town is its ostrich palaces—beautiful Victorian houses built during a period when the Karoo grew wealthy on wool and ostrich feathers.
I stumbled on Pagel House in Stockenstroom Street on an evening stroll—the home of the famous Francois ‘Frank’ Wilke, who never lost his childhood love of the circus. Wilke bought Claremont House in the 1940s, one of Aberdeen’s striking ostrich palaces. Wilke was a great admirer of Wilhelm Pagel, the circus master of Pagel Circus and a famous strongman. When Pagel told Wilke that he was planning to shut down Pagel Circus, Wilke bought up all the animals and moved what remained of the circus to Aberdeen. The animals were housed in a zoo on the outskirts of the town, together with his already large collection of animals. It is said that at one stage the zoo had more than 30 lions. In the 1950s he renamed his house, Pagel House after his Pagel passed away.
Like many Karoo towns, Aberdeen also has its share of war stories and war graves. It is difficult to imagine how people managed to wage a war on horseback in this vast landscape. There is a local story about Jack Baxter (1879-1901), who got himself killed by getting lost and wearing a British uniform. Baxter was born in Newcastle in KwaZulu Natal and joined General Liebenberg’s commando in Klerksdorp. In 1901, after standing guard on a farm, he asked a local shepherd for directions back to his commando. The shepherd, took a look at his British uniform and gave him directions to the British camp nearby, where he was captured and courtmartialed for wearing a British uniform.
Lawrence Oates (1880-1912), a member of Robert Scott’s expedition to the South Pole also has an Aberdeen connection. To find out more about this connection, I decided to look up Oates on a website dedicated to the Anglo-Boer War, and was very pleased to come across English newspaper clippings printed in the Essex County Chronicle and the Essex Newsman.
The Oates family home was Gestingthorpe Hall in Essex, which is close to Sudbury in Suffolk. After completing his schooling at Eton, Lawrence Oates joined the 3rd West Yorkshire Regiment in 1898 and was stationed at Curragh in Ireland. In 1900 he was a lieutenant in the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons. They arrived in Cape Town in January 1901 and then travelled to Aberdeen to join Colonel Parson’s column. Two months later, his patrol was caught in an ambush about 12 km from Aberdeen. Outnumbered and running out of ammunition, Captain Fouche of the boer commando demanded they surrender, but Oates refused, supposedly saying, ‘I came here to fight, not to surrender’. His patrol managed to escape but Oates took a bullet in his thigh and had to wait eight hours for an ambulance party to pick him up, and was treated by a medical offer of the 18th Battalion, Imperial Yeomanry. Oats stayed in Aberdeen until he was fit enough to return home. He received a Victoria Cross for bravery.
The Essex newspaper clippings provide some personal details on how soldiers were welcomed when they were sent home to recuperate. The village of Gestingthorpe was decorated with flags. The whole village was invited to a celebratory dinner party where local dignitaries took turn to make speeches. Oates’s mother had the fifth and sixth bells of the St Mary’s church recast and inscribed to commemorate her son’s safe return. Now walking with a pronounced limp, Oates returned to South Africa. In April 1902, a newspaper reported that Oates had to be hospitalised in Heilbron for enteric fever (typhoid). In June 1902, still seriously ill, he was sent home on the steamship Plassy. All six bells of the St Mary’s rang out to welcome him back to Gestingthorpe.
In 1910, while serving in India, Oates decided to join Robert Scott’s expedition to the South Pole and sailed south to meet them in New Zealand. From the onset, he was very critical about the expedition’s leadership and preparedness, and took over the care of the ponies—he also bought extra fodder for them. The expedition had many setbacks and by March 1912 they were starting to run out of supplies. Oats’ war wound and severe frostbite had also crippled him. Oates’ last words were recorded as, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time,’ before walking out into an Arctic blizzard to end his life.