Middelburg, Eastern Cape – Centuries ago, a man fled Denmark after throwing his brother out of a window. Afraid of being charged with murder, he made his way to the Cape Colony and settled on a farm where he carved a message on the rocks. “The year 1780 April. This farm was founded by Andries Gottlieb Schoonbeeck from Denmark. Locusts like sand.”
Known as the Schoonbeesklip, this casual etching from the past is located north of Middelburg; and what Schoonbeeck did not know is that his brother did not die in that plunge from the window.
It is snippets of information like this which fascinate modern-day tourists and, thankfully, plagues of locusts no longer descend in black clouds across the land.
Rialize Hayes, of the Middelburg Tourism Office, seemed as busy as a locust, but she took time out to tell me about her home town, mentioning their delight at the increasing number of tourists from KwaZulu-Natal.
It could be said I, too, have some ties with both Middelburg and Cradock, as my grandmother was born on a farm between the two towns. But enough of the family history…
Like many of our country towns, Middelburg came into being in 1852, as a church town. Roads from Colesberg, Steynsburg, Cradock, Graaff-Reinet and Richmond converge here from all directions, like spokes into the hub of a wheel.
It is the half-way point between Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth, while the R56 begins here and heads eastward as far as Pietermaritzburg. So it is not difficult to see why it was given the name Middelburg.
Approaching from the south from Graaff-Reinet, over the dramatic Lootsberg Pass, makes for a scenic arrival, especially in winter when the pass is often closed due to heavy snowfalls.
Visitors to the town can burnish their history shields… stories and places of interest abound. Completed in 1862, the Gereformeerde Kerk is the oldest church building of this community in the country. Declared a national monument in 1979, it is still in use.
The charming Anglican Church has old ivy creeping over stone, while the separate, wooden bell tower is unusual.
The children at the Karel Theron Primary School attend classes in a magnificent Victorian building which, founded in 1880 by a Mr David Wilcocks, began life on a different site where the magistrate’s offices are today. In 1908, the school moved to its current elegant premises. The school grew from having just two teachers to being the biggest primary school in the Cape Province. It was declared a national monument in 1992.
Not all parents could afford such a fine education, so The Poor School was opened in 1898. In 1982, it became the Cultural History Museum, a small mine of fascinating memorabilia. There’s information pertaining to the Anglo-Boer War, as well as figures who had their roots set in the soil of this town: such as Afrikaans poet GA Watermeyer; author Hilda Postma; war hero Bob Southey, DFC, who flew the first Harvard to South Africa; scientist John Adcocks of Veld types of South Africa fame; and aviation artist Tino Vorster.
Another famous South African author married in Middelburg, so the town proudly claims its links with Olive Schreiner.
The market square was the outspan where the Dutch Reformed Church, Gereformeerde Kerk, Methodist Church and Town Hall all originated. Today it is known as the Mayor’s Garden, in which can be seen an old water pump, the Burger Monument, a colourful steam roller, and the Wall of Remembrance.
Queen Victoria gave the water pump to the town in 1887 on her Golden Jubilee. The Burger Monument was erected in 1929 to honour the memory of 19 local burghers who fell during the Anglo-Boer War; the Wall of Remembrance honours those who fell during the two World Wars, and the Namibian bush war.
Opposite market square, flags flutter resplendantly around the Hotel Middelburg, which is typical of the kind of overnight stop which once awaited travellers in every major town.
A short drive out on the Richmond Road takes the visitor to the well-preserved Chair Monument, shaded by a Karoo bush, in memory of Kommandants Lötter and Wolfaardt who were executed during the Anglo-Boer War.
As to the Groenfontein Agricultural Institute and College, in 1781 a Hendrik van der Walt made his living on this piece of land, as a loan farmer. During the Anglo-Boer War the British bought Groenfontein, turning it into a military base. Between 1903 and 1910, some 12 000-15 000 British soldiers were stationed here (after the war a large peacekeeping force was based here). They erected a pump station, while the wood and corrugated iron officers’ mess – still standing – was eventually declared a National Monument.
In 1910 the Government of the Union of South Africa bought Groenfontein back, turning it into an agricultural school and experimental farm.
The scenery is typical Karoo, with flat-topped mountains, scrub, endless vistas, heat mirages and biting winds in winter. Travel along the R56, and you cannot fail to notice Koffiebus and Teebus (coffee caddy and tea caddy) mountains. Nearby is Mile Dam, built during the Depression, when such projects helped provide labour for the many without jobs.
The graveyard of the first inhabitants of Driefontein (the farm on which Middelburg was founded) can be seen, as can the house where the first prison warden stayed. A monument in memory of the Middelburg Three freedom fighters is at the entrance to KwaNonzame township.
One of the most fascinating places to visit is an extraordinary grave. In the cemetery, Persie the sheep rests between a Mr and Mrs Joubert. Childless, the elderly couple doted on him, raising him in their home, and he even has his own fine headstone.
The goats had knocked down Mrs Joubert’s headstone, but Rialize phoned her husband, and he and another strong young man arrived to lift it back into place. This is typical of the respect, and going the extra mile, often encountered in a small town.
Contact Middelburg Tourism 049 842 2188. – Sunday Tribune