Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Yellow-billed kite

This was published on August 30, 2003, in Leisure, under the heading, “Stunning vistas in Settler country”.

IT was literally the high point of a weekend visit to Bathurst last summer.

Friends who put us up at the Drostdy, the oldest residence in the village, had given us no prior warning.

Generously, they had simply packed a hamper of evening snacks and drinks, and off we set.

As the sun sank slowly in the west, we drove through the gates of the Waters Meeting Nature Reserve, a few kilometres outside the historic Settler hamlet.

The terrain at Bathurst is gently undulating, the abundant trees and hedges somehow concealing most of the homesteads which comprise this mysterious retreat, about 12km inland from Port Alfred.

Indeed, when you think Bathurst, you have to think Port Alfred as well.

We arrived in Port Alfred from Port Elizabeth on a blustery day, the wind sandblasting our car as we took in the view at the Kowie River mouth.

After a quick stop at the local tourist information office (characterised by superb and friendly service), we popped in to the Coelacanth Brewery to see how the area’s local brew, Old Four Legs, is made. The brewery is housed in an early building on the riverside – and is clearly a treasured asset in this thirsty part of the country.

Once in Bathurst, it was time to get acquainted with the village’s major attraction – its 1820 Settler heritage.

I’m one of those South Africans who happens to have developed a passion for our colonial history. There is something rather admirable about the stoicism of the approximately 5000 British settlers who arrived by sailing ship in Algoa Bay in 1820 – and were then dispatched to “the frontier”.

A taste of their ordeal can be imagined from the tall standing stone on the west bank of the Kowie in Port Alfred. It was here, a plaque tells you, that the settlers crossed the river. How? one might ask. The river is deep and fairly wide, for many years having been used as a working harbour. Black-and-white 19th century photographs in the tourism office show large sailing ships moored along its banks. Perhaps the settlers’ wagons (hired from the Boers) were ferried across. Whatever the mechanics for crossing the river, this would have been but one part of an arduous 160km-odd journey through rugged bushveld.

Exploring the Toposcope at Bathurst, which was made from the stones of original Settler homes.

Once in Bathurst, they were taken to a high point where the Toposcope memorial has been erected – and shown to their demarcated parts of the Albany district, ironically called “locations”, where they had to start a new life from scratch. A visit to the Toposcope can be an emotional pilgrimage – even if your ancestors weren’t among those on the ships. There is a 360-degree panoramic view of the rolling hills of the area. And on the low circular wall (built with stones from original settler houses) are affixed 57 plaques indicating which party settled where, who their leaders were, which ship they came on, and where they hailed from. (NOTE: Some plaques were subsequently stolen for their bronze and plans were set in motion to replace the remainder with less valuable replicas.)

On another hilltop, beside a long-gone earth fort, we encountered a stone building, erected in 1821, which served as the gunpowder magazine for the garrison. It is uncannily similar in design and construction to the magazine inside the walls of Fort Frederick (1799) in Port Elizabeth.

Another popular place of pilgrimage, particularly among those doing genealogical research, is the 1834 to 1837 St John’s Church, the oldest unaltered Anglican church in South Africa. The building regularly served as a refuge during the Frontier Wars.

Outside is a tall marble cenotaph on which are listed the names of all the settlers who died in those wars.

The weathered surfaces of the 19th century gravestones in the surrounding cemetery contain some interesting stories within their epitaphs. They are also emblematic of the virtual permanent state of hostility at the time. One, from the 1840s, notes that the young man was “treacherously killed by kaffirs during a time of peace”. Which, I suppose, was far worse than being treacherously killed during a time of war. Also bearing testimony to the ongoing security problems the early settlers faced are the many gun slits to be found in the older buildings. The bedroom we stayed in at the Drostdy had two such recesses, which have since been closed off with slivers of glass. These now provide display areas for ceramic pottery, tiles and coloured bottles.

The stone-built pub/restaurant at the Protea Hotel Bathurst at Summerhill (famous for its massive pineapple), besides its wonderful woodwork also features these gun slits, or loopholes.

But the charming Xhosa men working in the pub – once an 1825 barn – on the day we visited are ample proof that those days of inter-racial conflict are thankfully over. All are on the same side, and tourism is the goose that now lays the golden egg.

Tourism, and pineapples. When in Bathurst, buy pineapple juice. Bottled or canned by the local co-op, it is to die for.

But if you really want to get into the laid-back Bathurst way of life, then order a couple of pints of Old Four Legs from the pub inside the legendary Pig and Whistle Hotel, the oldest licensed inn in South Africa, which was built in 1831, with accommodation added in 1852. Then take your drinks out onto the shady stoep, and watch the world go by. You may even spot one of the village’s many reputed eccentrics.

If not, then just visit a couple of its little businesses, from the corner shop, to various book-shops, bric-a-brac stores and nurseries. We also got to meet a few locals when we visited a small farmers’ market, which is a regular feature on Sunday mornings. Items on sale included goats’ cheeses, crafts, home-made marmalades and garden produce.

And so on our last evening we headed through the nature reserve gates and pulled up next to a wooden camp table on the side of the gravel road. We were ushered to a nearby observation deck.

And then we were gobsmacked.

The view of the Kowie River at the Waters Meet Nature Reserve near Bathurst.

Stretched out way below us was a long and magnificent valley sheltering a horseshoe bend of the Kowie River, its surface shining silver amidst the thick indigenous valley forest. More of a hairpin than a horseshoe, this is but one of the many meanders of this amazing river as it snakes its way seaward.

The salt water finally becomes fresh at about this point, hence the name of the reserve.

Jackal buzzard

As we gazed out in wonder, we heard the distinctive call of an African fish eagle, while other raptors seen gliding on the thermals included yellow-billed kites and jackal buzzards.

All in all, it was a perfect way to end a delightful weekend.

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