A battlefields tour through the Eastern Cape reveals more than pretty landscapes; it’s rich in blood-soaked history too.
In Dordrecht, visit the churchyard to see the monuments commemorating executed Cape Rebels. These so-called rebels were Boer citizens of the British Cape colony who chose to fight against the British during the South African War of 1899-1902.
The town was first held by the Boers then taken by the British in January 1900. The capture of the Boer laager there in March 1900 was the last action in the Northern Cape before the Boers withdrew to the Free State.
In Aliwal North, the concentration camp memorial is heartrending. This is the place where more than 700 Boers, mostly women and children, died during the war. A Madonna-like stone statue of a mother stands in front of a child’s coffin, in front of that is an open, small grave and an unmarked mound of earth.
A fascinating monument celebrating the Afrikaans language may be seen in the Burgersdorp town square; the oak trees in the square were planted at the birth of the Great Trek.
Mountain Zebra Park
But if the echoes of the past are, by this time, a bit too loud, stay overnight in the Mountain Zebra Park near Cradock. Rich in birdlife, the game viewing is superb. There are walking trails and game drives to enjoy.
On your way out through Cradock call in on Olive Schreiner’s old house which is now a library and museum. From there the scenic Swaershoek Pass leads to Somerset East. There are Saddler horses, African hunting dogs and Angora goats on the way. This is lovely country.
This town actively promotes tourism to the area and the tourist info centre is very helpful. In the Old Vicarage (now a museum) there is an excellent display on the Slachter’s Nek affair and the actual beam on which the 5 rebels were hanged.
In Addo Elephant Park there is a hidden gem of a campsite that offers no drinking water and no electricity. Named Imvubu (Hippo), it is situated on the banks of the river, beautifully secluded and very under-utilized. Perfect for self-sufficient campers, it provides loos and a primitive water heating system in the shower entailing a little paraffin burner under a water pipe.
From the camp, follow a sign indicating ‘4 X 4 trail. Experienced drivers only.’
It is a most spectacular route, among rocky cliff faces and over towering rock walls and then between impenetrable green walls of thorn trees and scrub. At one stage it leads along a rocky stream bed between two mountains. It was used during the Boer war by both sides, as the British attempted to round up the Boer commandos invading the Cape.
It is well worth visiting some of the old fortifications built during the many Frontier Wars in the Eastern Cape.
is situated on a hill just outside Grahamstown. It was built during 1835/6 as part of the Cape Colony’s military defences. The emotive settler statue and the fort itself bring to mind the complexities of this area in the 19th century when Xhosa, British, Dutch and Khoikhoi jostled together, making uneasy alliances one with the other and trusting no-one. In the midst of it all were the missionaries who suffered great hardships, were generally unpopular and used by all groups for their own ends.
From there the wide road soars east between scrub-covered mountains, past dams and through valleys to afford glimpses, through fissures in the hills, of the Great Fish River. This was the earliest frontier boundary between Xhosa and British.
Turn off the tar onto a dirt track to a loop in the river and Trompetter’s Drift. In 1855 a fort was built, overlooking the drift. The barracks and parade ground now form part of a farmhouse and the original, fortified tower has been beautifully incorporated into the modern homestead.
The owners pointed us to a memorial stone not far from their home, commemorating Dick King’s famous ride from Durban to Grahamstown in 1842, to relieve the siege of Durban. He covered 977 kilometres, crossing 122 crocodile-infested rivers, in only ten days.
In nearby Peddie are the remains of the old watchtower and barracks that housed the British garrison. Built in 1835, the post was intended to guard a settlement of loyal Christian Xhosa (Mfengu) who had been relocated in the neutral territory between the Fish and Keiskamma Rivers, to form a buffer against warlike Xhosa further east. It was besieged by Xhosa in 1846.
Close to the town of Alice a dirt track leads to Fort Cox, one of a string of British frontier forts put up after brutal attacks on British settlers by the Xhosa in 1834. Built by a force of 80 Khoikhoi soldiers, many of whom were ambushed and killed during its construction, the fort was abandoned in 1836 but rebuilt ten years later. All that remains now are a few blocks of masonry and a plaque to those who lost their lives in the vicinity. It is a lonely place and I sensed I could feel the threat of violence long past, in the surrounding bush-clad valleys and looming headlands.
Fort Beaufort is a town that grew from a blockhouse built by the British on the Kat River in 1822, to check the spread of Xhosa tribes along the foothills of the Amatola Mountains. It was named Fort Beaufort in honour of Lord Charles Somerset’s family. There is a historical museum and a Martello Tower, where distant conflicts of bygone days are remembered.
South Africa has much more than scenic beauty; there is a rich past to our Rainbow Nation just waiting to be explored.