I don’t know why it is, but mountains seem to attract strange, eccentric yet colourful characters, people who opt out of society to make for the wild mountain areas.

The Drakensberg has had its fair share of these people. There was de Baath, part-owner of Couch and de Baath’s farm and store at Ntabamhlope, which later grew into the White Mountain Inn. de Baath was a remittance man, alleged to be the illegitimate son of Kind Edward VII and the Duchess de Baath. There was Hodgsen, ‘Old Man of the Berg’ they used to call him. And there was William Chalmers.

willy chalmers at moegestap

William Chalmers, bushy-bearded and twinkled-eyed, had a varied and colourful life. When he left school, around about 1918, he took to the roads and became a tramp, ‘because’, he says, ‘I didn’t much like the idea of working for a living.’ He never accepted lifts, he foot-slogged steadily through the whole of South Africa, Zimbabwe and South-West Africa. Two years he spent in the Kalahari Desert where, he says, he tried to find himself. Instead he found Bushman paintings, which fascinated him. The turning point in his life came in 1929 when he met the Rev Ned Paterson. Paterson was an accomplished artist and he persuaded Chalmers to try his hand at painting. Chalmers proved an apt pupil and soon he had an occupation which engrossed all his attention and enabled him to make a bit of money.

But the wanderlust was deep in his blood and soon he took to the roads again. He remembered the Bushman paintings of the Kalahari, and his footsteps turned to the Drakensberg Mountains. Then he heard of a girl in the Royal Natal National Park area of the Drakensberg who, he was told, could tell him all he wanted to know about Bushman Paintings. Running out of provisions one day he walked the 25km over the Sungubala Pass, near the present Cavern Resort, and came across the girl, Doreen Coventry. Doreen’s father, Walter Coventry, was the first lessee and Warden of the (later) Royal Natal National Park, and when Chalmers met him he was living in retirement with his wife and daughter Doreen just below The Cavern.

Neither Doreen nor her father were particularly impressed with the bushy-bearded man with the huge pack on his back, but Mrs Coventry took to him and soon Chalmers was installed in their home, and (yes, you guessed right!) it wasn’t long before he and Doreen were married. For several years they lived with the Coventrys, William painting and sculpting and learning all he could about the Drakensberg Bushman paintings. Mrs Coventry built a studio for him on the farm, which gave him all he wished for, and arranged Africans to model for him.

But still the wanderlust remained and for weeks at a time he would wander off into the blue, tramping the Drakensberg mountain sides and living in caves. One day in the early 1950’s he decided on his masterpiece. Deep in one of the forests behind the farm-house was a huge, flat-faced rock. It fascinated William. He would make it his own! ‘This rock seized me,’ he told a journalist friend of mine, ‘For 14 months I didn’t know myself. I saw what had to be done immediately, and I began to work with a spirit that has never possessed me with any of my other works. My chisels were old files my father-in-law gave me. I merely sharpened the ends. ‘As I changed the rock, so it changed me. Doreen brought my meals to me. I couldn’t leave that rock. On bright moonlight nights I would carry on chipping the rock where chiselling and detail were not needed. ‘Often I fell and slept next to the rock after working 18 hours on it, only to rise with the sun and begin another day of carving.’ It took him 14 months.

The result: The spirit of the Woods, a huge reclining figure of a girl (the face could well be that of Doreen herself), 9m long by 2,5m high, lying of her left side. A huge wing outlined on the rock framed the sculpture. Fourteen months! And it is still unfinished. Today, you may still see The Spirit of the Woods sleeping peacefully in her mountain home. In a hundred years – in a thousand years – she will still be there, for the sculpture weighs 45 tons.

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7 thoughts on “Spirit of the Woods

  1. So nice to read about the Cavern. And about uncle Willy He was my great uncle on my father’s side of the family.

    1. Thanks, Janey.
      So pleased you enjoyed the read. We have a lovely collection of his work here at The Cavern.
      Best wishes,

  2. I know “the Spirit of the Forest” well, as, as a young boy whose mother was working at the Cavern, I tramped all over the berg with Willy frequently sitting with him as he chipped away at the “Spirit” If one studies the rocks around the carving one will find a small relief portrait of a bearded man that Willy had done. Willy swore that this was Augustus John but I always thought it was a self portrait.

    There is another large carving of a naked woman alongside the road to Sungubala in a gulley. Irreverently referred to as the “Pawpaw” woman for obvious reasons.

    I also knew Willy when he was living in Hillbrow and can tell many a tale of Willy and his cronies antics at the old East African Cafe which was their hangout. My memory slips a bit now and then but I’m sure I met Herman Charles Bosman there once.

    We also went on a Bushman Painting discovery trips frequently sleeping over in a cave on the slopes of Hlolela which Willy called Mafika Bawe. Here we found San scraping tools and a very important find. These were paintings of Bushmen disguised as ostriches by putting a ostrich head onto a long stick and approaching the herd in a crouched position to enable a kill. This find was of interest as there was always a thought that there were two strains of Bushmen, the plains ones and the mountain ones, where this tended to suggest that there was only one strain, the plains ones who had been driven up into the mountains by the settlement of the flat areas.

    Rest in Peace Willy, you were a good friend.

    note. I still have a large mask that Willy carved.

  3. Dear Alex & Dawn

    Many, many thanks! So many wonderful memories and lovely holidays in this valley. I have sent your message on to our folks…. maybe it’s time for them to visit your again in NZ!

    With much love from the mountains,

    Megan & all the Cavernites

  4. Hi- I was looking through your website and came across this description of how the Spirit of the Woods was created.
    I have heard many stories of it’s origins but never this one and find it fascinating.
    My fond memories of the Cavern date back to about 1945, when I was about 13 and we continued to visit the Cavern right up to the time we came to live in New Zealand in 1991- indeed the Holiday of Many Happy Returns!
    We will probably never be able to get back to South Africa at our age but often talk about the good times we used to have there when talking to friends here.
    Keep it all going- it was a great refreshing place and we will always remember everything about it.
    Best wishes to everyone!
    Alex and Dawn Yuille

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