Mermaids of the Klein Karoo

Encounters of the mysterious kind

Just outside the little town of De Rust, between the Klein and Groot Karoo, is the famous Meiringspoort (canyon) with its windy river and equally windy road cutting through the gorge. According to legend, the rock pools are home to a beautiful dark-haired mermaid. She is said to be the manifestation of a sinister water spirit who would lure passersby, grab them as they approached and drag them to a watery grave, just like the spirits of the Eseljagtspoort outside Oudtshoorn. The story of the Eseljagtspoort water spirits was reputedly related by an old Bushman to a local farmer in 1875.

This is where ancient Khoi-San rock paintings of what appear to be mermaids can still be seen.

These pictures of ‘fish-tailed humans’ indicate that the legend of the Karoo mermaid has possibly been around for centuries. Interviews with locals found that many people in the area have grown up hearing stories of a “Watermeid” who inhabits places where there is deep water and who was responsible for rain, floods and also droughts. Most people,when asked about her spoke in hushed voices, saying that they were afraid of her and that if angered, she could drag you into the water and drown you.

Interestingly, 250 million years ago the stark, beautiful landscape of the Klein Karoo was submerged underwater. When the oceans receded, they left behind a fertile valley. It has been argued that the ‘fish people’ in the San rock painting rather depict a ritual held by the Shamans involving swallows, which are also associated with rain, and not mermaids. However, many other people point out that the San people were known for directly depicting what they saw and not for interpretive rituals. The Mermaid/Swallow images were also often shown to be holding something, convincing many that they had arms and not wings. Which could mean that these were creatures encountered and recorded by the San Bushmen.

The Meiringspoort floods in 1996 revived the legend of the Mermaid in the area as it was claimed she was swept out to sea, rescued and returned to Oudtshoorn to recuperate. Crowds flocked to see her at the CP Nel Museum, but were disappointed to find a mannequin in her place. A local clairvoyant ‘contacted’ her and discovered her name was Eporia. Perhaps the spirit of a flood victim washed through the desert? Soon water sprites/ spirits and mermaids were being seen everywhere in the Karoo.

Whether her story has been told as an oral tradition to warn children and strangers of the dangers of the deep pools and to stay away, just as mermaids at sea have always been seen as an omen of storms to come; whether she is an integral part of African folklore; or whether her history is indelibly linked to the waters that once covered the now arid Klein Karoo, she is a relic associated with water in an unlikely desert landscape that makes the hint of her presence all the more precious and mysterious.