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Karoo Heartland

Robert Hart – Father of Somerset East

Robert Hart – Father of Somerset East

The early history of Somerset East and Glen Avon Farm is tied to the history of Robert Hart.
When Robert Hart stepped off a boat at the Cape of Good Hope in 1795, he was 18 years old, a private in the Argyllshire Highlanders and penniless. Yet this young Scottish lad was destined to play a major role in taming the old Cape colony’s wild eastern flank. After surviving the dangers of being a soldier on the turbulent eastern frontier, he took a short break in England before returning to the Cape Colony in 1807 as a commissioned officer in Colonel Graham’s newly formed Cape Regiment.
By now he was also married to Hannah Tamplin, and the couple settled at the military base that later became Grahamstown. After a while, Robert took over Somerset farm, established in the Zuurveld by the government to supply the army. While there the Harts welcomed the Scottish party of 1820 settlers who ventured inland to the Baviaans River valley. Those were tough times for the Scots, but luckily they had a helpful friend in Robert.
In 1825 Somerset Farm was shut down and the land was set aside for the new town of Somerset East. Left with a small state pension, Robert Hart moved with his family to land he had acquired a short distance away in a fertile valley below the Bosberg. A beautiful place he named Glen Avon.
Through hard work and great insight, he soon made his farm a landmark in the region. He bred top merino sheep, a breed introduced to SA by Colonel Graham, and so contributed greatly to what became an important industry. His orchards produced a fantastic bounty of fruits, especially citrus, and his flood-irrigated fields delivered huge harvests of grain that soon justified a private mill. The machinery for this was shipped out from Scotland and then transported by ox wagon from Algoa Bay over the Zuurberg Pass. The mill could produce two tons of meal a day and soon Robert was grinding all the wheat grown between Pearston, Ann’s Villa and Zwagershoek.
The amazing legacy of Robert Hart, who died in 1867 at the ripe old age of 90, is remarkable because everything has been so well looked after by his direct descendants. Their dedication preserved the old mill and the two homesteads as well as Hart Cottage.
But who and what was Robert Hart?
Robert Hart, II
Birthdate: January 05, 1777
Birthplace: Strathaven, Avondale, Lanarkshire, Scotland (United Kingdom)
Death: September 14, 1867 (90)
Place of Death: ‘Glen Avon’ Farm, Somerset East, Cape Colony, South Africa
Place of Burial: Cape Colony, South Africa
Immediate Family:
Son of James Hart, III and Isabel Hart
Husband of Hannah May Hart
Father of Ann Stretch; Harriet Hart; Susannah Hart; Robert Hart, III; Caroline Hart; Cecilia Hart; Margaretha Birt. Fleischer; Eleanor Evelyn Pringle; Sarah Elizabeth Bowker (Hart); Richard Hart and Lieut. James Hart IV
Brother of Andrew Hart and Grizel Campbell (Hart)
Occupation: Soldier (Captain), Farmer and Businessman
Sylvester the Lion – the Karoo escape artist

Sylvester the Lion – the Karoo escape artist

The Karoo National Park is famous for many wonderful reasons, however in 2015 the most famous reason would be the grand escape of Sylvester the lion.

The story begins during the night of the 4th June 2015 when a 3-year-old lion escaped from the Karoo National Park, triggering a long and arduous chase lasting 24 days. This event had the nation watching and waiting with bated breath and saw the start of a wild goose chase involving many devoted individuals, sniffer dogs and even a couple of helicopters and a microlight.

The first day’s spoor was picked up and it was gathered that Sylvester had more than likely escaped through a gully on the western side of the Park after rain had caused the fence to lift.

By day 3 the media had run with the story and Sylvester was now a nationwide sensation. By now a select team of SANParks’ trackers, Honorary Rangers and various people had “noses” to the ground and were in hot pursuit of their wanderer. By day 12 the action started to increase as the spoor was picked up along the plateau above the Nuweveld Mountains.

Day 15 saw a Gyrocopter and microlight taking off in the hopes of getting an aerial view of Spook. A dog handler and the state vet from Beaufort West, were also brought on-board at this stage. By day 18 the SAPS (South African Police Services) from Fraserburg had joined the search with everyone putting their heart and soul into this great search.

On the 24th day Sylvester had travelled approximately 371km and had been spotted a mere 4 times in the search, killed 27 sheep, 1 kudu and 1 Nguni cow. The start of the capture began about 20km from the Karoo National Park along the steep cliffs of the Nuweveld Mountains. Sylvester was finally darted by Dave Zimmerman, a SANParks’ veterinarian, from within a helicopter. He was then loaded into a sling while the helicopter hovered dangerously close to the edge of the mountain
with blades no more than 2m from the edge – a risky heart-stopping moment for all.

Sylvester was flown back to the Karoo National Park and released into an enclosure for a wellness check. He survived his walkabout in good health and has been fitted with a tracking collar.

The other male lions within the Karoo National Park were making life very difficult for Sylvester, therefore, provoking his intention to roam. When Sylvester managed to escape from the Park again within a matter of months, fearing for his life SANParks made the decision to move Sylvester.  It was then that Gerard De Lange, conservation manager at Kuzuko Lodge, stepped in and offered Sylvester a home on the reserve bordering the Addo Elephant National Park.


As of the end of May 2016, he arrived at his new 15,000 ha home. Sylvester had no trouble making friends and finding love. He quickly bonded with two lionesses in the reserve and formed a coalition with a younger male lion named Fielies. He grew especially close to his favourite lioness, Angel, and in June 2018 she gave birth to two cubs.

Kuzuko’s game drives have almost daily sightings of Sylvester. The infamous escape artist also kills regularly and has seemingly developed quite the appetite for adult eland bulls.


John Sweet Distin – he who erected the first stock fences in South Africa

John Sweet Distin – he who erected the first stock fences in South Africa

The story of SA’s first stock fence

There is a modest white gravestone in the old cemetery of the Eastern Cape town of Middelburg. This is the resting place of John Sweet Distin Esquire, formerly of Tafelberg Hall, a farm with its own distinctive “table mountain” on the outskirts of Middelburg.

Few speak of Distin anymore, but his name is significant to farming in South Africa – he is widely credited with erecting the first stock fences in our country, pioneering a revolution in livestock management. It’s hard to believe there was a time when no one even knew how to erect the stock fences that are now intrinsic to our national landscape.

Distin’s tale of fortune and fences began with a splash when he arrived in South Africa in 1846. He and his parents were returning to England from New Zealand when their ship docked at Algoa Bay. As they departed, the 20-year-old made up his mind to try his luck in South Africa and jumped overboard. Distin joined the British Army for a while, made a bit of cash fighting in the Frontier Wars, and subsequently established his trading business in the Eastern Cape, which financed his love of farming and the purchase of his farm Tafelberg Hall in the mid-1800s.

So firmly did he advocate the need to divide livestock farms into fenced-off stock camps for veld rejuvenation and animal health that, in the 1860s, he put it before parliament. Defeated there, Distin headed back to his farm and set about fencing his own farm. With no local skills available, Distin had to bring in a man from Australia to do it.

At the time, no one wanted to concede that the vast funds required for fencing were a necessity, until overgrazing and disease forced the government’s hand many years later, resulting in the act regulating the erection and maintenance of dividing fences in 1883.

Distin’s first fence, now a national monument, is still standing taught and strong, tethered to the original sneezewood fencing poles at the foot of the table-shaped mountain.

You can’t miss Tafelberg should you find yourself travelling on the road between Middelberg and Cradock. This was the setting for the tale of a remarkable man of energy and enterprise, alternately described as “a most progressive farmer” and “rather eccentric with vivid blue eyes, a red face and a temper to match”.


Source –
By Heather Dugmore |12 April 2010 |


Herbert Hayton Castens – South African only national rugby and cricket captain

Herbert Hayton Castens – South African only national rugby and cricket captain

Did you know that Pearston in the Karoo Heartland is the birthplace of the only person who was captain of both the South African national rugby as well as national cricket team?
Herbert Hayton Castens (23 November 1864 – 18 October 1929) was born in Pearston and went to England where he was educated at Rugby and Oxford, where he studied law and received a Blue at rugby. He also played cricket for Middlesex and South of England. In 1889-90 he played for Western Province, scoring 165 on Christmas Day against Eastern Province.
In 1891 a British rugby side toured South Africa and Castens refereed the first tour match, which was against a combined Cape Town rugby side.  On 30 July, he captained South Africa in their first rugby international, against the British Isles team, played at the Crusader’s Ground in Port Elizabeth which they lost.
In March 1894, the year that the South African Cricket Association was established, Castens captained Western Province to victory in the final of the Currie Cup tournament at Newlands in Cape Town, scoring 61 in an innings victory over Natal. Soon after, a South African cricket tour to England was organised, with Castens appointed as the captain. South Africa played matches against the first-class counties, but no Tests or first-class matches were played.
Castens later moved to Southern Rhodesia, where he worked as an advocate, and was later elected to the National Legislature, and served as secretary to the government for a number of years. He died on 18 October 1929 in Fulham, London, at the age of sixty-four.
Herbert Hayton Castens  

Herbert Hayton Castens and the South African cricket team to England