Kameel is the second stop in my #10SouthAfricanTowns campaign, for which I’m visiting ten small towns across South Africa in 2020.
Kameel means “Camel” in Afrikaans. The original farm there is called “Kameel Bult”, which roughly means “Camel Hill”, and I assume the town got its name from the farm.
This might make sense if there were a hill in the area, but there isn’t. This land, in the far reaches of South Africa’s North West province, is flat as can be. The sky is huge.
Kameel Bult could also mean “Camel’s Hump”. The name could be a reference to the ubiquitous camel thorn trees in the area, or maybe to the mounted police who used to ride camels in this part of the country. No one knows for sure.
Like Val, Kameel is technically a hamlet, not a town. It has about 30 residents, two B&Bs, a general store, a bottle store (liquor store), a co-op (hardware store) with petrol pumps, and a post office. (The post office is just a few post boxes in the general store.)
Kameel has more maize silos than people.
I visited Kameel for three days and stayed at the Kameel Rust & Vrede B&B. (Rust & Vrede means “Rest & Peace” in Afrikaans.) The B&B has a couple of regular rooms, an en-suite cabin, two (soon to be three) converted camper vans — or “campovans” — with outdoor ablution facilities, and a campground. There is also a glorious swimming pool, which I believe was converted from an old windmill water pump.
Patrick Fincham and Hercules Fourie are Rust & Vrede’s proprietors. Patrick grew up in Kameel (more on that later) and Hercules is from Christiana, two hours to the south. Patrick and Hercules met five or six years ago while working at a mill in the nearby town of Delareyville. A couple of years later they gave up their day jobs to live in Kameel full time and run the B&B. They also run the general store/post office/bottle store, which they call “the Kameel Mall”.
Hercules and Patrick are excellent cooks. I can especially vouch for their bacon rolls, chicken pie, bobotie, malva pudding, and homemade beetroot chutney.
I’m describing my accommodation in detail because the most important thing to know about Kameel is it’s a perfect stop-over for travelers en route to Upington (or anywhere else in the top half of Northern Cape province), Namibia, or the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Kameel is four hours from Joburg and 25 minutes off the N14 highway, which connects Joburg to Namibia and South Africa’s west coast.
Kameel is a much nicer place to stay than Vryburg, the nearest large-ish town (having once stayed in Vryburg, I can state this with authority). Also Patrick and Hercules are two of the most charming and quirky B&B hosts I’ve ever come across.
There is a second charming B&B in Kameel, owned by Sandra and Hennie Cronje. Sandra, it turns out, is Patrick’s older sister, and Sandra and Patrick have two more brothers who also still live in Kameel. This is where the story gets confusing and interesting. But let me back up a bit.
The History of Kameel
Sandra is the family historian. Here’s a condensed version of what she told me:
In the 1890s, Sandra’s great-grandfather Fincham bought a farm on the salt pans in a town called Stella. He started a salt-trading business, digging up blocks of salt and transporting them via donkey cart to the railway line, 20 kilometers east.
There was no station at first — just a little platform where Mr. Fincham’s workers loaded the salt onto the train. The platform eventually grew into a corrugated iron building, then a wooden building. By the 1940s it was a legit railway station with a few small railroad houses and stationmaster’s house around it.
By this time the Fincham family was living on the Kameel Bult farm. The railway station became the Kameel station. Thus, the hamlet of Kameel was born.
Like lots of small-town train stations, the Kameel station closed in the late 20th century after the explosion of road transport. Sadly, the station was demolished in the 1980s.
In 1999 Sandra’s parents bought the surviving railroad houses, including the stationmaster’s house, which the government had put up for sale. Sandra’s parents lived in that house at the end of their lives.
Sandra’s oldest brother Julian inherited most of the Fincham family land and he stayed in Kameel, where he remains today with his wife, Magda, and about 1,000 farm animals.
Another brother, Gerald-Cecil, also stayed in Kameel to farm. Patrick left and eventually returned, as already explained. Another brother lives in Bloemfontein.
Meanwhile, Sandra left Kameel as a teenager. She went away to school and married Hennie, an airforce man, whose assignments led them all over South Africa. While living in Pretoria, Sandra and Hennie rented out a room during the 1995 Rugby World Cup and discovered they had a talent for hospitality.
On impulse, while traveling through the Free State on holiday, Sandra and Hennie bought a 150-year-old house in the town of Harrismith.
“We bought the house without seeing the inside,” Sandra told me. “When we stepped through the front door, the floor collapsed.”
Slowly but surely, with Hennie’s building experience and Sandra’s sharp design sense, they transformed the old Harrismith house into a B&B and named it “De Oude Huize” — the Old House. De Oude Huize was a great success. Then one day, a year or two ago, a couple from Joburg showed up and made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Sandra and Hennie sold up in Harrismith and came home to Kameel, where they set to work transforming the old stationmaster’s house (which Sandra inherited from her parents) into a “new” De Oude Huize. They built themselves a new house just next door, and rent out the smaller railroad houses to long-term tenants. They call the whole little complex “Huise tussen Treine “, or “Houses Between Trains”.
And now we have come full-circle: I found Sandra on Twitter, she invited me to Kameel, and that is how I found myself in Patrick and Hercules’ swimming pool last weekend.
My Time in Kameel
Within 30 minutes of my arrival in Kameel I was squeezed into a tiny elevator, climbing slowly to the top of a 40-meter-tall maize silo.
An hour after that, to my great joy, I was careening down the road in a donkey cart. The cart very nearly toppled over but I didn’t care.
I had a few chats with other characters around Kameel, but only realized after I got home that I didn’t get to know very many people outside of the Fincham/Cronje clan. Hopefully I’ll get back before the year is over to rectify that.
I ate tons of delicious food, tramped through many fields, took pictures of curious ostriches who wanted to peck my shiny phone screen, rode standing up on the back of a bakkie, had lunch in a camel thorn grove, gazed at salt pans and regal cows, and dined under the trees with 30 of Sandra and Hennie’s closest friends and family members, some of whom came from as far away as Potchefstroom for the occasion.
As Patrick always says: “You drink Kameel’s water, you always come back to Kameel.” I am sure this will be true for me.
My next #10SouthAfricanTowns visit is happening at the end of March. If you can’t wait until then for more small-town content, please subscribe to my Patreon page where I’m posting lots of extra stories, photos, and audio clips.