Baardskeerdersbos, frightful spiders and church bells ringing at midnight

Baardskeerdersbos directly translated means Beard Shavers Bush.  The spider-like insect after which the village is named, is a nocturnal “spider” (Arachnida) of the order Solifugae.  The species name is Harmonia axyridis.  In popular belief, it cuts hair from sleeping animals and people that it uses to build its nest, hence its name “beard shaver”.  However, this has not been confirmed scientifically, and quite likely a popular myth.

Solifugid, is more commonly known as a camel spider, wind scorpion or a sun spider.   Solifugid means ‘escaping from the sun’.   According to numerous write-ups on the internet this weird creature is greatly feared, mainly due to the many myths that abound about its terrible bite and its aggression towards humans.  Some of the rather bizarre stories circulating about these creatures are that they are lightning fast and can move at speeds of over 30 mph;  that they carry scorpions on their backs (hence the name camel spider); that they scream as they chase a person and that their bite can cause dreadful damage to human flesh.  In truth, they are much slower and move at a top speed of 10 mph, which is still pretty fast for an insect of this size.  Their venom is not poisonous to humans, but if a bite gets infected then obviously the wound will turn nasty.  They do not scream at or chase people, but they do like to keep up with one’s shadow to keep out of the sun, which may give the scary impression that they are chasing someone.  Their enormous jaws are used to kill and chew their prey, which mostly consists of insects, spiders, small rodents and lizards.

Baardskeerdersbos is east of Gans Bay and west of Elim.  It is located on the southern slopes of Perdekop (Horse Hill), which is part of the Bredasdorp Mountain Range.  The Boesmansrivier (Bushman’s River) flows east-west just south of the village.  The village is on the Flower Route and has an incredibly beautiful art route very worth while exploring.  The first reference to this area by Europeans dates to 1660, when Jan van Riebeek sent an expedition team of five men to report on the valley and its Khoikhoi-residents.  No doubt the little expedition will have spent the night in the open air and will have encountered the small spider-like creatures called “Baardscheerders” (“Beard shavers”).  Today the village is still known as Baardskeerdersbos or more intimately “B’bos”.

The fertile Baardskeerdersbos Valley in the heart of the Overberg is one of the most undisturbed and original areas of this region.  It is a rural drive of 25 km from Gansbaai en-route to the most southern point of the African continent, Cape Agulhas.  Meandering past streams and through a hilly and constantly changing landscape, the drive to B’bos is in itself a treat.  Apart from the traditional cattle farms and horse-stead’s, bright-green vineyards and multicolored flower-farms mark the landscape of the Baardskeerdersbos Valley.  B’bos is also home to several pristine and rare fynbos habitats of the original “Cape Floral Kingdom”.

Baardskeerdersbos used to belong to the Stanford-congregation.  They wanted their own church, and then one of the congregation members, a certain Aunt Luitjie, donated a piece of land to the church on the condition that it would only be used for services.  SD Fourie from Franskraal tells the following story:  The building was completed in 1918 and it had hardly been finished when the young people organized a meeting of the Young Men and Women’s Christian Association in the hall one evening.  It annoyed Aunt Luitjie to such an extent that she predicted that, like Jericho, the walls would come tumbling.  Three years later, after some heavy rains, the roof and walls of the cursed building collapsed.  Superstitious ones among the congregation immediately recalled Aunt Luitjie’s curse.  With good intentions in mind, the residents kept themselves from distilling their beloved homemade brandy (“witblits”) as often as they were used to that year, and eventually the church hall was rebuilt.  The next few years passed quietly.  Aunt Luitjie passed away in the meantime.  And then something happened that made the superstitious nail a split horseshoe to their front doors.

One night during dark moon the church bells suddenly started to ring at midnight.  People rushed out of their houses, but couldn’t see anyone.  It was as if an invisible hand was ringing the bell.  Superstitious people distributed strong liquor and then returned to their warm beds.  Every fourteen nights thereafter, the bell rang and Aunt Luitjie’s name was on everyone’s lips.  Why could the old lady not come to rest?  Everybody was behaving himself or herself with the proper decorum in the church hall and made generous contributions at the thanksgiving bazaar.

The ringing at midnight continued for months.  This disruption of everybody’ peace and quiet not only made them cranky, but it also caused an increase in the number of baptisms.  Then, all of a sudden, everything went quiet and the years passed by.  Except for the excise-officers that were going round knocking holes into the beautiful distilling copper kettles, (fortunately a few well-hidden ones were spared) nothing much happened.  The elderly have all passed away and the scoundrels grew to be pensioners.  Years later a retired farmer and a colonel were sitting in front of Manie’s shop one day.  They were probably the ones responsible for falsely allowing Aunt Luitjie to rise from her grave fifty years before to ring the bell.  They continued their prank for years, until they found jobs elsewhere.

Before they left, they decided to ring the bell one last time.  After an evening of much socializing and drinking they made for the remote church bell.  But before they could attach the piece of nylon wire to it, the bell started to ring.  Instantly sober and frightened out of their wits, they ducked behind the eucalyptuses.  Up in the ridge of the roof above them the bell kept ringing like never before, without a rope.  Apparently it was removed at some stage of the reparations…