In August 2003, Adam Yamey and his family enjoyed a long motor trip, an exploration of his South African ancestry, through rural South Africa. Most of the journey was in the Cape, but a couple of days were spent just over the Orannge River in the Free State (formerly the ‘Orange Free State’)…
…The road from Graaff-Reinet to Colesberg passes through the Karoo just missing Middelburg. Along the roadside near Middelburg, there were many people trying to sell fragile looking models, made in wire, of the ubiquitous Karoo windmills we saw along the way.
We ate lunch in Colesburg, which boasts an octagonal church.
We visited the town museum housed in the building that was formerly the Standard Bank. There is a good collection of Anglo-Boer War memorabilia as well as a display of the history of the Griqua people. Upstairs there were two memorial stones, one in Hebrew and the other in English. The latter lists the founder members of Colesberg’s Congregation, dated 1920. As we were to find in many museums in small South African towns, the one in Colesberg had a selection of second-hand books (often as we discovered later with pages missing!) for sale. Under the watchful eye of an official of the Standard Bank we inaugurated use of the newest ATM to be installed in Colesberg. It worked well.
A road from Colesberg runs north across the rolling hills of the Karoo for 60 kilometres to Philippolis (when spoken, emphasis is on the third syllable). Half way along this road we encountered the wide Orange River over which we crossed, entering the (Orange, formerly) Free State. The countryside along this road was dotted with aloes, creaking windmills, sheep and the occasional rather odd-looking cattle known as Boerebeeste.
If Colesberg can be described as a ‘one horse town’, then Philippolis is a ‘one horse village’. It was a village with charm and character. Signposts directed us to the Old Jail House.
Until about 46 years ago this was, in fact, the jail for Philippolis. The army then used it for about 20 years before it became a police post. For two years it remained derelict but largely untouched by vandals as the locals considered the place to be haunted.
Its most recent owner, Harry, bought the jail and has turned it into a bed and breakfast business. He has preserved as many as possible of the jail’s features and guests may spend the night in the cells. The converted warden’s office is very popular with honeymoon couples. We stayed in a large bungalow next door to the jail.
Laurens Van Der Post was born in Philippolis. Following his death in 1996 at the age of 96, a very beautiful memorial to him has been laid out at the edge of the ‘white’ part of the village just near to the edge of the ‘black’ part.
A series of white concrete pillars, representing the various stages of Van Der Post’s ‘journey through life’, overlook a beautiful sunken garden made up with stones and bricks of many textures, all having various symbolic meanings. Adjoining this, there is a small guesthouse that is a very good piece of contemporary architecture. The architect of the whole memorial complex is a South African woman. Jens Friis, a PhD law student at Stellenbosch and travel writer, and his mother Naomi, showed us around.
We explored Philippolis, which is essentially a fine collection of old single-storied houses with stoeps and often adorned with decorative cast-iron work. There is no restaurant in this town, only a café, the Kokkowitz Café, which closed at 7 in the evening. Harry had arranged for us and, it seemed, all of the other guests at the Old Jail House to have dinner at the home of the Friis family, near the Van Der Post memorial. We enjoyed a bottle of very good red wine, which was produced in the Free State.
NEXT MORNING: Harry does not provide breakfast himself, but instead he told us to eat it at the Kokkowitz Café. After a very long wait, we received an excellent fried breakfast. We then walked past the simple flat-roofed house that used to be the residence of Adam Kok (1811-1875), the King of the Griquas, to see the houses that used to be owned by the father of Van Der Post, where the author was born. In Voortrekker Street we visited the Trans Garriep Museum. This museum was icily cold inside. It contains a series of rooms that attempt to reconstruct the kind of house in which white people lived in 19th century Philippolis. There is a small exhibit about the London Missionary Society that set up a mission in the town and also another about the Griqua Kingdom that thrived in the 19th century, and its successful King Adam Kok III.
The Public Library is next door to the museum and is housed in one of the town’s largest buildings. Formerly this was the home of the Jacobsohn family who owned a shop, still standing but now closed, in the town. The Jacobsohns, the last Jewish family living in the area, now live on a farm and have donated their home to the town. A very friendly and informative librarian showed us her library. Most of the books were in Afrikaans, also quite a few in English. There were also books in Southern Sotho, Xhosa, and Tswana (only two books in this language – one appearing to be a manual on woodworking). Philippolis is located in an area where several different kinds of Africans live. Many of the ‘black’ people in the area have some Griqua ancestry.
Behind the library, and only accessible through it, there is a pathway that takes one to the summit of a small hillock in the middle of the town from which a good aerial view of Philippolis can be obtained. The remaining three of Adam Kok’s collection of cannon perch here above the town. As we bade farewell to the librarian her parting words to us were, “Even if we all end up killing each other, South Africa is such an interesting country that no one will ever die of boredom”. Philippolis had a curious hold on us; we left with some sadness.
We were told that we could make a short cut by taking a dirt road to Donkerspoort, near the Garriep Dam (formerly the Verwoerd Dam, a name by which it is still known by local black African farm workers). A thirty-minute ride would, we were assured, save us much time. An hour and a half later we had completed the so-called ‘short cut’. The surface of the dirt road forced us to drive quite slowly. Our progress was further impeded by a series of closed gates across the road that separated fields through which the road passed. At each gate Lopa had to leave the car to allow us through and then to close the gate behind us. As we proceeded, the frequency of these gates increased. Had we taken the long way around, we would have reached the other end of the ‘short-cut’ in 20 minutes!