This is the title story of my most recent urban legends collection, "The Ghost that Closed Down the Town: The Story of the Haunting of South Africa" (Penguin,2006):
Somewhere in the far reaches of the eastern extremes of Mpumalanga province, near the Swaziland border in a region where traffic lights and rush hour are concepts from a foreign land, lies a small town called Amsterdam. By day, it is a bustling little village, with farmers, businessmen, and civil servants going about their unchanging routines year after year; by night, the town comes to a near standstill, with only the occasional passing car or pedestrian, and maybe lights in the windows of the small houses, betraying signs of life.
But one night a week even these vestiges of humanity disappear.
At six o’ clock on a Saturday night, as dusk falls, the streets empty entirely. The cars are parked in their garages, the heavy curtains are drawn, and darkness descends along with a deathly hush.
And then, without a sound, a horse enters the main road, mounted by a grimly silent horseman. Not even the sound of hooves on the tar can be heard. As the soundless horse passes the houses and the shops and the municipal offices, the rider looks neither to the left nor the right, but stares ahead, as if transfixed by a destination that cannot be evaded.
If anyone were watching, they would realise the horseman is a soldier, dressed in a uniform that has not been seen in battle for almost a century. A uniform of the Boer army that went into battle against the English in a time when this town could not be called a town.
And then the horse would move off the main road, and it would seem to start playing tricks on the onlooker’s eyes, because it would pass through a bush without trampling it, and through a tree without bending it. That’s when it becomes obvious that the horse and rider do not exist in this world. The brave – or foolish – onlooker might then follow the apparition, until it would turn towards the old graveyard, the one behind the modern show-grounds, where soldiers of forgotten wars are buried.
And then the horse and rider would disappear. The horse to whatever ghostly pastures long dead animals are led, and the rider back into the grave from which he emerges once a week.
It would be Sunday morning before the people of the town would dare venture out once more, with the sun in the sky and the church beckoning them to more holy and wholesome pursuits. And none of them will so much as whisper an admission that they had shut themselves in their homes the previous night; and they would all scoff at the notion that a ghost had closed down their town.
Many people tell this tale in the province that used to be part of the Eastern Transvaal, and even more people believe the story.
But none of these people live in Amsterdam itself. There, many have never even heard of it, let alone believed it or seen this ghost. Or any other ghost. Oom Jaap van Oudtshoorn, who has lived in the town since 1937, tells of an old German immigrant who used to ride up and down the main road on a horse, decades after cars had chased all other horses off the road. But he was very much alive, wore no uniform, and merely moved somewhere else one day 20 or 30 years ago. Oom Mias du Plessis, who has lived in Amsterdam for 31 years and is said by anyone you ask in Amsterdam to be the man who knows anything there is to know about the town, is quite adamant on this matter:
“People tell a lot of stories, but those who tell ghost stories about Amsterdam have heard the story somewhere else, or they made it up. There was never a ghost in Amsterdam. I once heard ghost story about an old soldier in the graveyard other side the show-grounds, but that was just a story.”
The truth is, there never was a ghost that closed down Amsterdam. And the story is never told in Amsterdam itself, but rather by people who may have visited the area, heard a ghost story elsewhere, and then associated the two in their minds, and finally also in their recounting of the tale.
Julia Beukes, a down-to-earth personnel officer who could easily qualify as Mpumalanga’s unofficial historian, has been collecting stories like this for years from her geographical vantage point of Belfast, a town on the road to Amsterdam.
“That story is an old story. It is like an urban legend. There’s a similar story in Dullstroom, where everyone is supposed to close up by a certain time and it would happen at a specific time every evening. Just as soon as the shops have closed, between five and six, if you’re still outside and you come to this corner, you see this woman walking around. She looks terrible, as if she’s tormented, like a mad person.
“Eventually electricity would go off and the lights would go off and everybody had problems with their television sets and things like that. She had that sort of influence.”
In Julie’s version of the Ghost of Amsterdam, the rider is either headless or seriously injured and making his way to the graveyard to die. He also has an effect on electricity, with lights going out and the like.
“He’s either in soldier’s uniform or in the typical clothing of a Boer soldier. It varies. At first I thought he was murdered, but in the most recent story I heard that some people said he was definitely wounded, as he had been shot in the war. Some said he was headless.”
The more we hear told about it, the more obvious it becomes that the ghost that closed down a town is a classic example of the ghostly folklore that has evolved over the centuries in South Africa and that attaches itself to likely sounding locations, people and events.