A historic walk around Graaff-Reinet

History buffs totally love Graaff-Reinet, what with it being the oldest town in the Eastern Cape (fourth oldest in South Africa) with about 220 listed historical buildings.  Best of all, you can see just about all the best ones on a relatively short walk around town.  And obviously, that is what we did otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it.  
We parked our car in front of the Graaff-Reinet Tourism office, grabbed a map from the friendly staff in the office and set off up the road towards the church with our first stop being Auty Ira’s Antique shop and the oldest cake in South Africa.  Next up is the imposing Groot Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church) at the top of the main road.  The church was built between 1886 and 1887 with the design based on the lines of Salisbury Cathedral in England.  Stone to build the church was obtained locally.  The church seats 1,250 people and has a steeple of just over 45 meters high.  An interesting feature of the church is that it has a chimney, not something you see every day.

The next stop right behind the Groot Kerk is the Victoria Hall and War Memorial.  The Victoria Hall is the “new” Graaff-Reinet town hall and was built in 1910.
In front of the Town Hall in the Mayor’s Garden stands the “Victory Peace Angel”, a war memorial erected after the First World War to honour the gallant Graaff-Reinet men who had lost their lives in the war.

Graaff-Reinet boasts a number of very good museums representing the town’s history, most of them housed in historic Cape Dutch buildings.  These museums include the Urquhart House Museum (built somewhere between 1806 and 1821), Old Library Museum (built in the mid 1800’s) and the Old Residency Museum (built somewhere between 1819 to 1831) and were all along the circle route we walked through town.
Because we had the KidZ with us and didn’t want to end up with two bored whiny teenagers, we decided to only go to Graaff-Reinet’s flagship museum, Reinet House.  The museum building used to be the Dutch Reformed Church parsonage and was built in 1812.  The typical Cape Dutch H-style building was home over the years to Rev Andrew Murray and his son Charles until his death in 1904 before it became a boarding establishment for girls wishing to train as teachers and renamed Reinet House.

   The museum was established in the 1950’s and houses a fine array of period furniture and kitchen utensils, a doll collection, medical and dental collection, haberdashery and clothing collection, wagon and transport collection as well as a blacksmith collection.  The Mill House with a working water wheel was under restoration when we were there so unfortunately I couldn’t show the KidZ how it works.  In the back garden of the museum is an old Black Acorn vine that was planted in 1870 by Charles Murray. A big piece of it had to be cut away some time ago due to fungal rot but the plant still survives.

The last stretch of our walk took us up Parsonage Street past the John Rupert Little Theatre (originally the church of the London Missionary Society) and to the Drostdy Hotel on the main road.  The hotel is located in what used to be the office and residence of the local landdrost/magistrate.  The building was built in 1804 and first became a hotel as early as 1878.  These days the Drostdy Hotel is a five-star hotel with accommodation in the adjacent Stretch’s Court.  
By now the KidZ had enough of walking although we literally only walked around one big block and it was time to head to the car that was now just down the road again.  Walking around Graaff-Reinet and visiting all these magnificent historic buildings one is grateful that there are still people out there that care for the history and heritage of towns like this.

Celebrating Youth Day

Youth Day is celebrated in South Africa on 16 June.  It commemorates the Soweto uprising of 1976 which took place in response to multiple issues with the Bantu Education Act and the government edict in 1974 that Afrikaans be used as medium of instruction for certain subjects in black schools.  Police opened fire on the protesting students and it was then when photographer Sam Nzima took the iconic picture of the dying 12 year old Hector Pieterson being carried away by another student while his sister ran next to them.

The Bethulie Concentration Camp cemetery – a sad part of our history

Bethulie in the southern Free State is one of those places not many people pass through as it’s not really on any of the main thoroughfares going south (or north, depending how you look at it).  On my last trip up to Johannesburg I deviated off the normal route to see what this town on the banks of the Orange River is all about.  One of the things I found out was that Bethulie was the site of one of the most notorious concentration camps of the Anglo Boer War of 1899 to 1902.  I was shocked by the size of the Concentration Camp Cemetery Memorial and even more so when I saw all the names on the remembrance wall.
It turns out that even the English called the Bethulie camp “the hell camp” because of the shocking conditions Boer men, women and children were being held in.  The ravages of disease, starvation and extreme temperatures, enhanced by the bad administration of the camp, meant that the camp saw a death toll of 1 737 prisoners among its population of about 5 000 over the 13 months it existed between April 1901 and the end of the war in May 1902.  At one stage about 30 people a day was buried in the camp.  Truly shocking and it literally had me speechless as I stood reading the info around the memorial.  
The original camp and cemetery was located much closer to the river back in the days but all the graves were relocated to this position when the Gariep Dam (called the Hendrik Verwoerd Dam back then) was constructed in the 1960’s.

At the top end of the cemetery is an enclosed area containing all the original hand-carved sandstone headstones which were removed from the old cemetery.  They’ve all been set into three walls and having a closer look at the information on them you suddenly realise how many children were among those who had dies in the camp.  Unfortunately the gate was locked tight so I couldn’t get a closer look at all of them,
I drove away deeply touched.  The Anglo Boer War was such a significant event in the history of South Africa and yet so many of us never get to visit sites like this because it’s often off the beaten track.  So next time you’re on the main drag down to the beach fro your summer holidays, why not set a day aside and take some of the back roads.  You will come away the better for it.

Who was Louw Wepener and why does he have a monument in the Free State?

How are you going to explore, discover new places and see interesting things if you don’t road trip and venture off the beaten track?  A little detour past Bethulie in the southern Free State while heading north had me cross the second longest bridge in South Africa, take a walk through the Bethulie Concentration Camp Cemetery and learn who Louw Wepener was.  To be honest, I probably would have totally missed the Louw Wepener Monument a few hundred meters off the road if there wasn’t a Geocache located there.
So who was Louw Wepener and why does he have a monument?  Lourens Jacobus (Louw) Wepener was bron in Graaff-Reinet in 1812 and was a war hero.  As a Cape burgher, while farming in Somerset East and then Aliwal North, Wepener distinguished himself through his military ability and fearlessness during the frontier wars of 1835, 1846 and 1851.  In 1862 he moved to the farm Constantia outside Bethulie and threw his lot in with the Orange Free State.  On the outbreak of the Second Basuto War in 1865 he became commandant – in – chief of the southern commandos.  As the Boers advanced they were eventually encamped at the foot of Thaba Bosigo, Moshesh’s stronghold.
Wepener and 400 volunteers decided to take the mountain by storm with Wepener, in the lead, dying a hero’s death at about sunset near the summit of the mountain.  Legend has it that his heroism made such an impression on the Basutos that they roasted and ate his heart, believing that by doing so they would acquire some of his bravery.

Louw Wepener’s bones were later buried on his farm outside Bethulie on the site where the monument stands today.  The town of Wepener near the Lesotho border was also named after him.  I hopped onto the wall next to his bust after retrieving the Geocache and had a quick chat with Oom Louw while signing the logsheet.  He truly was a heroic man if you read his whole history and that of the attack on Thaba Bosigo.  The other thing that got my attention is the fact that this monument is located on a farm, in the middle of nowhere, but with close ties to Wepener plus the monument is a simple stone structure with a bust.  Perhaps a lesson to those wanting to put up monuments for struggle heroes.  Monuments don’t have to be anything more than this, located in a place with no links to the person or cost millions of rands.  Just saying. 

A historic water trough in Mowbray

I often wonder if people really realise how many historic places and objects there are around our cities and towns.  I’m not only referring to the big and well known historic attractions but rather to smaller ones many people probably drive past without even a second look.  One of these I discovered in the Cape Town suburb of Mowbray while on my way to a meeting.  I was following my GPS to a Geocache that was on my way and it took me to this historic water fountain with trough on a traffic island.  This fountain was manufactured by Walter Macfarlane & Co of Glasgow and presented to Mowbray by the SPCA in 1899.  These days the fountain is no more and the trough has a little garden in it.

Madiba gazing over Bloem

Naval Hill in Bloemfontein has always been a beacon in the Free State capitol and known for the magnificent views of the surrounding city.  In 2012 an eight meter tall bronze sculpture, made by the same sculptor as the one standing in Mandela Square in Sandton, was revealed.  Last year during the #MeetSouthAfrica bloggers trip before Indaba, the one group spent a night in Bloem and visited Naval Hill at sunset.  The pictures they posted were stunning.  I also got to spend a night in Bloem on my way to Jozi earlier in the year and wanted to do the same.  Unfortunately it was cloudy which meant the sunset wasn’t going to be as spectacular and I decided not to stick around, but sharing the view with Madiba was still special.     

The Settlers Family in Grahamstown

Grahamstown has two monuments to the 1820 British Settlers on top of Gun Fire Hill overlooking the town.  The most prominent is the Settlers Monument building, heart of the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, with its huge auditorium.  I prefer the second one a few hundred meters away from the building a lot more.  It depicts a British Settler family as they arrived on our shores.  When I look at it I can actually hear the little girl ask her mother if this is their new home now.  Standing there looking at the monument I wondered how many people would be able to give me a correct answer if I had to ask them what year the 1820 British Settlers arrived in Algoa Bay…

Remembering the Slagtersnek hangings

If you are flying along in a northerly direction through the Karoo Heartland on the N10, the main drag between Port Elizabeth and Cradock, do slow down a bit after you pass the first turnoff to Somerset East and keep a look out on the right hand side of the road for a cenotaph like monument.  Once spotted, do pull over and have a look as this is a very significant spot in the early history of the area.
I’m not going to relate the whole story here, but you can go and read the whole article about Slachter’s Nek on the Somerset East website.  In short, the story is about a violent Boer uprising in the area late in 1815.  After most of those involved either surrendered or were arrested, they were charged and either cleared, imprisoned or banished.  Five were sentenced to death by public hanging at Van Aardtspos on 9 March 1816.  The hangman never realised that there were five to be hanged so old rope was used.  Four of the five ropes broke and Landdrost Jacob Culyer (of the Uitenhage district) ordered that they be hanged a second time, this time one by one.  The monument contains the names of the five that was hanged as well as the Bezuidenhout brothers, who were whole reason the uprising started. 
Another interesting link to Slagternek can be found in the Somerset East Museum in town.  The original beam that was used for the hanging is on display in one of the upstairs rooms.  After the hanging the beam was used as a support beam in a farmer’s pigsty where it was found in the late 1940’s and taken to the Voortrekker Monument.  In 1989 it landed up in the Cape Town Historical Museum before it was eventually returned to Somerset East.  

Unusual monuments

At the end of August I took a road trip to Johannesburg and on my travels discovered two slightly unusual monuments.  Discovered by the way, as there were Geocaches hidden close to both.
The first one was a monument just outside of Middelburg in the Eastern Cape.  The stone monument has a picture of a chair on it and the sign says “Stoel Monument” (Chair Monument).  So what is the story behind the Stoel Monument?  There’s a long and a short so I will keep to the short.  During the Anglo Boer War Commandant J. C. Lotter was well known for his daring hit and run tactics employed against the British forces.  Lotter and most of his commando were caught near Graaff-Reinet.  Lotter stood accused of “murder, marauding and disgraceful conduct of a cruel nature” and was charged with human rights violations and war crimes.  He was found guilty and sent to Middleburg where he was sentenced to death.  At the spot where the monument stands is where he was tied to a chair and shot.  Get it? Tied to a chair and shot = chair monument to remember him.   

The second unusual monument I got to visit on the trip was the Bles Bridges Monument outside Bloemhof in North West Province.  Bles Bridges was a much beloved and very popular Afrikaans singer who died in 2000 in a car accident on this spot just outside Bloemhof.  The local business chamber decided to put up a monument to remember him by and there you have it, a monument that looks like a grave stone with a guitar on it.