The road to Hogsback

In August 2003, the middle of winter in South Africa, we made a long tour around the Cape Province, visiting small places that figured in the history of my family’s sojourn (beginning 1849) in South Africa. Here is an account of our journey to Hogsback in the Eastern Cape. The writer JRR Tolkien is supposed to have been inspired by the landscape near Hogsback, but not all are agreed on this. The author was born in South Africa (in Bloemfontein), but left the country aged less than three years.

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Between Barkly East and Dordrecht

We sped on from Barkly East to Dordrecht. It was at Dordrecht in 1884 that my great grand uncle Sigmund Seligmann with his partner, another Jewish gentleman, Moss Vallentine opened their first business, a retail store. Later, he opened a general store in Barkly East, where his nephew, my mother’s father, became the town’s only Jewish Mayor.

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Dordrecht Museum

Dordrecht, a smallish place, still has several nineteenth century buildings including one with an elegant arcade supported by cast-iron pillars that serves as a museum. Andre Coetzee, the museum’s curator, pointed out an old shop opposite the museum that he believed had originally been Seligmann’s.  He seemed very certain that this was the building, but he could not show me any evidence to confirm this.

The rain and snow continued to shoot past us, propelled by a fierce wind. Between Dordrecht and Queenstown, we crossed a plain that was quite different to anywhere we had been so far. The plain was quite literally dotted with thousands of ‘black’ peoples’ dwellings, some with rondavels as out-houses. There were few fences. People and animals wandered across the road. The countryside was much less manicured than any other inhabited places we had so far visited in the Cape. Derelict cars were frequently seen. We were in Chris Hani District that includes the town of Queenstown and was under the Apartheid regime part of one of the so-called ‘Homelands’. 

Queenstown is not an attractive town but has a lively buzz and good shops. A sign in the town centre advised motorists to pay for parking at a “mobile parking meter”. This meter turned out to be a person who hangs around the parking area carrying a machine on which he or she records your arrival and departure times and based on these determines how large a parking fee needed to be collected. We found a wonderful spice shop run by a Pakistani man. He had a special table on which he can make spice mixtures to order and, also, had ready-made mixtures including one, very strong in flavour apparently, called “Mother-in-law Masala”. We visited a large branch of Woolworths as many people had commended this chain store to us. We were disappointed: it was like Marks and Spencer’s used to be in the UK many years ago.

We drove via Whittlesea to the tiny village of Seymour. A road marked incorrectly on our map as “narrow but with tarmac, not for four-wheel drive vehicles alone”, led from Seymour up the side of a mountain to Hogsback. This road proved to be the worst surface that I have ever driven on. Compared to it, Joubert’s Pass (near Lady Grey), was a motorway. It got progressively worse as we painfully slowly approached Hogsback.

The road had everything against it and us. There were potholes, and deep furrows where streams of water had eroded the gravel. Bare rock showed through the road and made steps that had to be carefully negotiated. Worst of all were large rounded boulders, which were difficult to drive around as the narrow road was bounded either by ditches or by walls of rock. We were lucky that we neither capsized the car nor grounded it, nor damaged the sump or some other vulnerable part of its under surface. Navigating around or across some of these dangerous obstacles reminded me of performing a particularly difficult surgical dental extraction. Just as I had to take care not to damage a hidden nerve or blood vessel during an extraction, I had to drive to avoid injuring some important part beneath the car. Had we broken down on this deserted, barely frequented road, we would have been in big trouble. There was no mobile ‘phone coverage in the area. Hair raising to say the least: I still shudder when I remember this journey. Later, a cousin in Cape Town told me that when he had used this road, he had grounded his vehicle and thereby damaged its fuel line. Things improved at the end of the road. We were amused to see a road sign at the Hogsback end of this road that advised “Road not recommended for caravans.”

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A view from Hogsback

We found our accommodation: a collection of cottages called The Edge. The name refers to the position of the cottages which is at the very edge of the summit of the Hogsback ridge over which can be seen a view of the coastal plain over a thousand feet below. Our cottage was large but unheated except for a small, inadequate fireplace poorly located in one corner of the cottage remote from the bedrooms. We ate an excellent curry made by Dion and Shane who own a restaurant near our cottage. All night the snow fell, and the wind howled.

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A church in Hogsback

The pencil and the peas

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I spent three years working on the experimental aspects of my PhD topic at University College London (‘UCL’) in a laboratory in the Physiology Department. Throughout that time there were always one or two other PhD students working in the same room. ‘Wink’, our supervisor’s wife, was a chemist. She often worked alongside us. Generally, the atmosphere in the laboratory was very congenial.

We were joined by a new PhD student sometime during my second year in the lab. Fortunately, I cannot recall her name, but let’s call her ‘June’.

One morning, June asked me whether she could borrow a pencil from me. As pencils were few and far between in our lab, I said to her: “Make sure you give it back, please.” To which she answered in an unfriendly tone: “Don’t be so Jewish.”

Now, it so happens that I am born Jewish. Although I am the least observant (in religious terms) Jewish person you are ever likely to meet, I am not happy when the word ‘Jewish’ or ‘Jew’ is used pejoratively. Wink must have seen my face flush, because she said to June: “That was unnecessary.”

Although it was almost innocuous, the pencil incident made me wary of June.

Some month’s later, Wink and her husband invited all their PhD students to be their guests at the annual Physiological Society Dinner, which was being held at UCL. I was seated beside Wink and opposite June. When the main course arrived, there were green peas on our plates. I do not like these small round spheres at all.

June noticed me pushing them aside on my plate, and said: “Is your religion also against peas? I must remember that when I invite you around to my place for dinner.” Feeling my face warming, I said to June: “Even if you were to beg me to come to eat at your place, I would have no hesitation in refusing.” Hearing that, June’s face turned bright red. She stood up and without saying anything, left the dining hall. Wink turned to me, and whispered: “Well said, Adam.”

June abandoned her PhD and our lab not long after this dinner.

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Now, many years later, I am still sensitive about anti-Semitic remarks, but also deeply curious as to why European people make them, often when they have had little or no contact with Jewish people. In India, which I visit often, although there have never been many Jewish people there, there is barely, if any, prejudice against them. Often Indian people extol the virtues of Jewish people.

Prison cells across the Orange

Z 1 Karoo

The Karoo near Colesberg

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’)…

Z 2 Colesberg

Octagonal church, Colesberg

…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.

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Typical windmills seen in the Karoo and the Free State

We ate lunch in Colesburg, which boasts an octagonal church.

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Jewish inscription, Colesberg museum

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.

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Orange River

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. 

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Philippolis

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.

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Old Jail, Philippolis

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.

Z 6 Jail cells

Cells in the Old Jail, Philippolis

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.

Z 13 LVDP born here

Birth place of Laurens Van der Post, Philippolis

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.

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Z 8 LVDP

This picture and the one above it were taken at the Van Der Post Memorial in Philippolis

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. 

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House with a stoep, Philippolis

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. 

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View from Adam Kok’s fortress, Philippolis

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.

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Colonnaded house belong to the Jacobsohn family, Philippolis

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.

Z 10 Voortrekker Str

Library on Vootrekker Str, Philippolis

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! 

She found a strange object…

Barkly East (Barkly Oos in Afrikaans), South Africa 2003:

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The museum curator met us. She gave me a list of the eleven Jews who had been buried in Barkly East’s cemetery. She told us that although Edelsteins was a smaller store, that it acted as a rival to Seligmann’s store. Mrs. Van Wyk related that the last Jewish family to live in Barkly East was the Bortz family. Lazer Bortz had come out of Russia to South Africa with his sister (? Or wife) and both had been employees of Seligmann’s before Lazer set up his own business, as a fuel (i.e. oil and coal) supplier. The business still exists, with new owners, under its original name of “L. Bortz” but the family has long left the town. They went to Bloemfontein. Lazer had a son. The curator used to teach him when he still lived in the town. She then asked for our assistance.

Long after the Bortz family had left Barkly East she noticed something attached their house – she prized it off the wall in order to keep it safe from vandals. She did not know what it was.

It was a mezuzah*, complete with its prayer scroll.

[ * These are always mounted on the right hand side of entrance doors in traditional Jewish homes]