The coast of the Eastern Cape from the Storms River to Algoa Bay is a botanical and scenic meeting ground of several distinct formations. The winter rainfall area of the Western Cape merges with the area of summer rainfall. In the south of this region there is an overlap of the characteristic plant life of the Western Cape and this is gradually replaced by the most southerly stretch of savannah which dominates so much of the eastern side of the continent of Africa extending as far as the frontiers of Ethiopia.
Awareness of approaching change comes as the mountains alongside the coastline all the way up from Cape Town start to disappear. The weather becomes warmer and at the crossing of the Gamtoos River we start to see the dense bush ahead consisting of acacia thorn trees and a rich growth of aloes. The aloe flower in many colours and the gorgeous, exotic looking, crane flowers which have become the area’s true floral emblem.
With this first stretch of savannah the wildlife also changes and the scene becomes more ‘African’ rather than that of the Mediterranean world of the Western Cape.
From Algoa Bay to the mouth of the Great Fish River and inland for 300 kilometers up the wild and vast valley of the Fish river is known to many as the ‘Great Frontier’. Many influences contributed to the history of this frontier area and it is a hard land which is beautiful in the rainy seasons, but heart breaking during droughts. A chain of good seasons is inevitably broken by one or two years during which the sky forgets how to rain and the hopes of man wither with the vegetation. Only the strong have survived in such a setting and the weaklings have long vanished from the scene.
In 1820 more than 4000 British people landed on the beach in Algoa Bay and were guided inland to farmland. There they soon came into bitter conflict with the tribes moving south and the people who survived sank their emotional roots deep into the soil of this frontier land. They paid for their land with blood and tears and their descendants became some of the bravest and most patriotic of all the people of Southern Africa.
For many seasons of war and turmoil the Great Fish River marked the frontier between primitive Africa and Western civilization and the Great Fish River was the frontier of these two worlds to cross it was to journey into the unknown. The name of the Ciskei (‘south of the Kei River’) was given to the area between the Keiskamma and the Kei by Europeans to distinguish it from the Transkei (‘north of the Kei River).
The Ciskei is open with grass covered plains and a mass of mountains in the centre covered in a dense growth of forest and bush. In the past these ranges such as the Amatole, Winterberg, Katberg and Hogsback provided the Xhosa people with natural strongholds and today many fascinating drives lead into the mountains. The scenery is stunning and the area rich in history, legends and wildlife.
Adelaide - In the days of the frontier wars a military post was created on the banks of the Koonap River and named Adelaide after the wife of England’s King William IV. The Winterberg mountains overlook the town which has grown up on the site of the old fort. The area produces wool, citrus and grain. The town museums houses exhibits which tell the story of the settlers including mid 19th century English and Dutch furniture, glass, silverware and ceramics.
Alice - A mission for the Xhosa people living in the valley of the Tyume River was established in November 1824 by the Glasgow Missionary Society. It was twice abandoned and re-established and eventually the town of Alice grew as a commercial and farming centre close to the mission. The town was named after Princess Alice the daughter of Queen Victoria. The University College of Fort Hare was established in 1916.
The town has an attractive central square and is a busy trading centre as the district produces wool, mohair, citrus, tobacco, timber, livestock and milk.
Aliwal North - On the south side of the Orange River, close to an ancient fording place, two thermal springs surface at 34 degrees. From early times these springs were credited with curative properties and were visited by people with ailments such as rheumatism, arthritis, lumbago and neuralgia. The combination of ford and springs attracted people to the area and in 1848 when the governor of the Cape Sir Harry Smith was passed through he was asked by the settlers to found a town.
The town was established the following year and named in commemoration of Sir Harry’s victory over the Sikhs at Aliwal in India in 1846. The ‘North’ was added to the name because it was intended that Mossel Bay would be renamed Aliwal. The town is pleasantly situated on the south bank of the Orange River. A large watermill was built on the river and trees were planted to shade the streets. A garden was created in honour of Sir Harry’s wife named Juana Square Garden.
Bathurst - On the road from Grahamstown to Port Alfred lies Bathurst which was founded in 1820 and named after Lord Bathurst who was the colonial secretary. Bathurst has of the smallest municipalities in South Africa and is known for its many trees, huge wild figs and brilliantly flowering trees.
The Anglican St. John’s Church was built in 1837 and is a historical monument today. It was used as a refuge before it was completed and in 1834 it was attacked. Women and children sheltering in the church loaded guns for the men who held off an army of warriors until relief arrived from Grahamstown. The church was reduced to ruin.
One of the first settlers in Bathurst was Thomas Hartley and in 1821 he built a forge and The Pig and Whistle. It was burned down, looted and re-stocked but this inn, The Pig and Whistle, still survives. The Wesleyan chapel in Bathurst, also a historical monument, withstood the siege of 1846 and the attack in 1825.
Bathurst is a convenient starting place for a drive to the horseshoe bend of the Kowie River which is an astonishing example of a meandering river. The banks are densely covered with trees and beautiful flowering plants. Two kilometers from Bathurst is a vantage point known as Thornridge and from there a Colonel Jacob Cuyler directed the 1820 settlers to their future homes. In 1968 a toposcope was built around a beacon erected in 1859. This toposcope has 57 bronze plates around it indicating where parties of settlers were allocated farms. From here the whole coastline of the great fronteir is visible. Bathurst is regarded as the pineapple metropolis of Southern Africa. It was here that the first pineapples in the Eastern Cape were cultivated.
Baviaanskloof - The actual Baviaanskloof (‘cleft of the baboons’) is a 150 kiometres of ravine through which runs a remarkable scenic road. From Patensie the road climbs a succession of three mountain passes and then penetrates a mass of mountains and deep valleys and emerges onto the Karoo. This is an unforgettable drive and requires a full day to complete the journey.
Bedford - The thickly wooded Kagaberg overlooks a rich cattle, sheep and horse breeding district of Bedford. The centre for the area is the town of Bedford founded in 1854 and named after the Duke of Bedford and a friend of Sir Andries Stockenström who owned the farm on which it was started.
Burgersdorp - The mountains of the Stormberg range have taken their name from the violent thunderstorms which sweep the area during summer and the snow storms of winter. A church was founded here in 1846 and the town named Burgersdorp in honour of the family who owned the land on which it was established. Burgersdorp is the administrative and trading centre for the wool and livestock farming in the area. Burgersdorp has a well-preserved Anglo-Boer War blockhouse known as the Brandwag (‘sentry’), built by the British.
Cradock – Was named Sir and is sometimes known as the ‘capital of the Midlands’ and lies in a broad part of the upper valley. It has rich soil and plenty of water with a warm climate and this makes it a very rich lucerne, fruit and dairy farming region. Supplementary water is also fed to the valley from the Orange River by means of a tunnel 82 kilometers long which is the longest irrigation tunnel in the world. The town is an important railway centre on the main line from Port Elizabeth to the north.
The town’s Dutch Reformed Church is a replica of St. Martin’s in the Fields church London and was completed in 1867. Other attractions are the Van Riebeeck Karoo Garden and Egg Rock, a large egg-shaped dolerite rock just outside the town. The Mountain Zebra National Park is 24 kilometers away.
Cathcart - This pleasant rural centre was named after Sir George Cathcart, governor of the Cape from 1852 to 1854 which was originally a military stronghold. It is a notable place for gliding as the hill slopes provide excellent launching sites and the thermal air currents permit extensive soaring. There are several dams in the area and are stocked with bass.
Dordrecht – Was founded in 1856 and named after Dordrecht in Holland and is the centre for sheep farming in the area. Dordrecht Kloof is a beauty spot nearby the town and it has rock shelters containing Bushman paintings. Dordrecht is very cold in winter and experiences heavy snow falls.
Fort Beaufort - On the banks of the Kat River is Fort Beaufort which is the centre of the citrus farming area. The town originated in 1823 as a military stronghold and was named after the Duke of Beaufort. The fort still stands and on 7 January 1851 it withstood a full-scale assault by Xhosa warriors.
The mess house of the officers of the garrison is used as a museum displaying guns, military uniforms and badges.
From Fort Beaufort the road known as the Queen’s Road crosses the Great Fish River Valley to Grahamstown. This road was completed in 1842 and provided the British with quick access to the troubled frontier.
Graaff-Reinet – Sometimes known as the ‘gem of the Karoo’ Graaff-Reinet is one of the most atmospheric and intriguing small towns in South Africa. The town was founded in 1786 by Governor Cornelius Jacob van de Graaff whose wife’s maiden name was Cornelia Reinet. The first settlers who arrived there were a rugged crowd and there were many scandals involving shootings, rustlings and various other outrages. The government hoped that by establishing a town with a minister and some tax laws order would be maintained. A church, a revenue office and a gaol were built on a site in a huge ‘U’ bend of the Sundays River but the hopes were only partly fulfilled. In 1795 the inhabitants of Graaff-Reinet drove the representatives of government away and declared an independent republic with Graaff-Reinet its capital. The ‘republic’ was overthrown by the British a year later.
The town lies in a setting of rocky hills with the Valley of Desolation to the west and overlooking the town the prominent landmark of Spandau Kop. Reinet House was built in 1805 as a parsonage is now a national monument and was the home of the Reverend Andrew Murray. The house is a museum today containing weapons, clothes, furniture and wagons. In the garden of the museum grows the largest living grape vine in the world which was planted in 1870. It covers 124 square meters and has a girth of 2, 38 meters and is 1, 5 meters high.
In 1821 the Dutch Reformed Missionary Church was bought and restored by the Rembrandt Tobacco Company who donated it to the municipality. It is now called the Hester Rupert Art Museum after and it displays a large collection of contemporary South African art.
To the north of Graaff-Reinet stands an old powder magazine which was built in 1831 on Magazine Hill. It was built to contain gunpowder for blasting and firearms for the protection of its workers against wild animals and tribesmen. The magazine has been restored and is now a historical monument displaying arms, ammunition and old explosive devices. A statue of Andries Pretorius stands on the Middelburg Road and was built in memory of the Great Trek of the 1830s when he and Gert Maritz led hundreds of families from the district.
Grahamstown - The city of Grahamstown has been given many picturesque names as the ‘City of Saints’, because there are more than 40 places of worship here, the ‘Sleepy Hollow’, because it lies in a warm hollow in the hills; ‘City of Schools’, because of the large concentration of schools and Rhodes University and the ‘Settler City’, because its history is so much part of the settler story.
Back in the 1820s the town market place was a busy trading centre. Ivory and skins, ostrich feathers, aromatic gums and cattle were all bartered for beads, blankets, copper and European produce. It was the one place where warriors and soldiers encountered each other without reaching for weapons. As many as 2000 wagons lumbered into the town on market days. Many of the settlers, disillusioned by their land allocations in poor farming situations, moved to the town and resumed their original trades as millers, wheelwrights, wagon-makers, gunsmiths and mechanics.
Grahamstown at this time was the second largest town in Southern Africa. Wandering through its streets today reveals to the visitor many buildings surviving from the city’s earliest days. Among these are the old gaol and the drostdy (residence of the magistrate) built by Piet Retief and the gateway of the drostdy is now the entrance to Rhodes University. The first school was opened in 1814. Today the Grahamstown schools are among the biggest and best in South Africa. The school and university life in Grahamstown so dominates the modern city that during the vacation periods the streets are often empty and quiet.
In 1853 Grahamstown became a city because of the residing Anglican bishop and the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George with its handsome, 45,75 meter spire, which dominates the centre of Grahamstown. In the 1860s the botanical garden was laid out and the famous Albany Museum founded. The Eastern Districts’ Supreme Court established in 1864 and a full parliamentary session was held in Grahamstown instead of Cape Town. There was even talk of making Grahamstown the capital of the Cape Colony because of its central position.
The Grahamstown Botanical Garden covers 60 hectares and is classified as a wild flower reserve as well as a general botanical garden. It has an old English garden of the type found in Britain at the time of the departure of the settlers. The gardens even have a romantic ghost, the wife of the dashing colonel Harry Smith who was later knighted and made governor of the Cape. A Spanish beauty, the Lady Juana, is said still to wander through this lovely garden leaving behind her a trace of a Spanish perfume.
On Gunfire Hill, overlooking the city, is the 1820 Settlers’ Memorial Museum. It is a cultural history museum and a National Monument.
The Thomas Baines Nature Reserve covers 1000 hectares and provides a protected home for wild animals indigenous to the area. The reserve is at Howison’s Poort, 13 kilometers along the main road to Port Elizabeth.
Hogsback - This resort in the heart of the Amatole Mountains is near Fort Mitchell which was a border outpost dating from around 1850. Close by is Gaika’s Kop where Bushman witchdoctors once lived and the name Gaika’s Kop comes from the renowned Xhosa chief, Gaika.
The Hogsback Mountain is 1937 meters high and overlooks a handsome forest where many species of European plants and fruits grow as well as a profusion of wild berries. Several hotels have been built at a nearby mountain resort known as Arminel which can be reached by the spectacular Mitchell’s Pass. Paths have been laid out through the forest and breathtaking views greet the climber after an easy hike to the top of the peaks. A rough road leads from Hogsback to the Amatole Basin.
King William’s Town - The town was laid out on the site of the mission station which was built in 1826. From 1850 to 1853 King William’s Town was the headquarters for eight regiments of troops and several buildings remain from these early days. The town was named in honour of the King William IV and remained a British garrison headquarters until 1914.
The military reserve is now occupied by the industrial school and in the town are two buildings from this period, the town hall, which contains a theatre and a building now housing the Kaffrarian Museum, founded in 1884. The museum contains what is probably the most comprehensive collection of African mammals in the world amounting to more than 25 000 specimens. Also in the town is the South African Missionary Museum which is housed in a renovated church and it exhibits pictures, photographs and documents concerned with the history of missions. King William’s Town is particularly lovely in spring, when the blue and mauve jacarandas complement the bright colours of many other types of flowering trees which line the streets.
Maclear - The town of Maclear was named after Sir Thomas Maclear who was official astronomer at the Cape of Good Hope from 1833 to 1879 and lies beneath the cliffs of the Drakensberg. It is a sheep farming district and dairy products are also produced in the area. From Maclear a gravel road climbs directly over the Drakensberg by means of the highest road pass in South Africa called Naudé’s Nek and reaches an altitude of 2 623 meters and is often blocked by snow in winter.
Middelburg - In 1852 it was decided to establish a town midway between Cradock and Colesberg on the road to the north. The town lies in a circle formed by Graaff-Reinet, Cradock, Steynsburg, Colesberg and Richmond, and so was named Middelburg. It is the centre of a sheep farming area and has the Grootfontein College of Agriculture on its outskirts.
Mountain Zebra National Park - The mountain zebra, (Equus zebra zebra), is still on the endangered list as one of the rarest mammals in the world. It is the smallest of the zebras standing only a little more than a meter high. It has brilliant stripes and this is one of the reasons it was hunted so much. In the early days it was found in many of the mountain ranges of the Cape but unfortunately its numbers were steadily reduced until there were fewer than one hundred. Same Old, Same Old !!
In 1938 the Mountain Zebra National Park was created to provide them with a permanent sanctuary. The park comprises 6 520 hectares on the high slopes of the Bankberg Range only 24 kilometers from Cradock. There are panoramic views from the heights to the north, the east and the west. The landscape is dominated by flat-topped hillocks and these are classic examples of the koppies of South Africa.
The mountain zebras now number more than 250 and living with them are several other species of wild animals that are indigenous to the Karoo. The vegetation is typical of the Karoo, with such trees as the karee, acacia, wild olive, kiepersol, and white stinkwood growing in the valleys.
Gravel roads lead to various parts of the park. As there are no predatory animals, walking and riding is allowed, and horses are available for hire. The homestead of the original farm has been converted into a museum containing domestic items used in the farmhouses over former years. Well done again SAN Parks !!!
Port Alfred - One of the many problems faced by the 1820 Settlers was poor accessibility to the outside world and the mouth of Kowie river seemed to be the answer because width and depth which would allow the entrance of fair sized sailing ships.
In 1821 the first coasters entered the river and this was the start of Port Alfred which was first known as Port Frances after the daughter-in-law of Lord Charles Somerset but in 1860 it was renamed in honour of Prince Alfred who was then visiting South Africa at the time.
For many years there were attempts develop the port Alfred and many ships visited but the river mouth was difficult to enter and several of these ships were wrecked. Today, the mouth of the Kowie is a holiday resort. Small craft can be seen meandering inland through a spectacular wooded valley. The beaches at the mouth are sandy and safe for swimming.
The town’s Cock’s Castle was built in 1840 by William Cock who was much involved in the early attempt to develop a port. More than 1800 different types of sea-shells have been collected on the beaches. Shells such as the perlemoen, phasignella, nautilus and turbonilla are often found on the glorious beaches.
Queenstown - The principal town in the Cape midlands was founded in 1853 and named in honour of Queen Victoria and a condition of its establishment was that its inhabitants had to be responsible for its defence against the hostile tribes in the vicinity of the town.
It was laid out around a hexagonal centre and from this point the defenders could direct fire down the six radiating thoroughfares. It was not necessary to use the fort and nowadays the Hexagon is a coloured fountain with a lovely garden.
The town was built on the banks of the Komani River and is a busy farming and educational centre. It has a dry and bracing climate. A nature reserve on the slopes of Madeira Mountain has a scenic drive yielding superb views of the town and countryside. Numerous game animals have free range in this reserve, and it is also noted for its aloes, cycads and various acacia species.
Somerset East - In 1855 Lord Charles Somerset founded a farm below the handsome range of the Bosberg (‘bushy mountains’). The purpose was principally to produce horse fodder for the cavalry garrisoning the frontier areas. The farm had deep soil and plenty of water. A village was laid out on the site of the farm in 1825 and today has grown into a town with pretty rose gardens. The original farmhouse is a museum of local history and there is a 25 kilometer mountain drive and many attractive walks to beauty spots in the ravines and forests.
Stutterheim - In 1837 soldiers disbanded from the British German Legion which had fought during the Sixth Frontier War (1835) settled on the forest-covered slopes of the Kologha Mountains. They founded a town which they named after their commander General Richard von Stutterheim. Today the town is a prosperous and busy centre for forestry, citrus, sheep, dairy and beef production. The Kabousie River is popular for boating, fishing and swimming where waterfalls and wild flowers are numerous.
Tarkastad - A centre for sheep farming and the terminus of the branch railway to Queenstown, Tarkastad is on a plain to the north of the Winterberg range. The name Tarkastad comes from the Xhosa language and means ‘an area of many birds’.
Van Stadens Pass - Van Stadens River has scoured a deep gorge into the landscape and this gorge is crossed at Van Stadens Pass the longest concrete arch bridge in South Africa. The bridge is 125 meters high and 350 meters long and rests on a concrete arch 25 meters wide.
The four-lane road across the bridge is 125 meters above the floor of the gorge and the old road which crosses the gorge at the bottom is still in use. On the east side of the gorge is a beautiful wild flower reserve and a bird sanctuary.