Northern Cape: Investigating !Han=ami and Crossing the Orange

An index of the Northern Cape series appears at the first post.

July 4, 2016

When Independence Day dawned, we had a quick breakfast and swiftly loaded our luggage into the car. Today we would travel to the northernmost hosting on our vacation: Keimoes! We decided to start, though, with a visit to the Calvinia Museum, since it had not been open the day before.


This museum has some serious star power!

The Museum is easy to find, just north of the center of town, though we had somehow missed it on our Sunday morning stroll. The building had served as a synagogue at its founding in 1920. In 1973, though, it completed its transition to be the museum serving this community. It is currently the second-largest museum in the Northern Cape, after the one at Kimberly. The curator, Memci van Wyk, was very enthusiastic, and she explained not only the layout of the museum but also the designs she was holding in her mind for its future. She is working toward her multimedia degree at the University of South Africa (UNISA), and she has planned some cool music events for the venue.

My first question addressed the town’s name: after which Calvin was the town named? She answered that the settlement had been named “!Han=ami” for the first years of its existence. The name derives from a San word for a flower that was used to make poison. The town was formally incorporated in 1904 at the end of the Anglo-Boer Wars under the name Calvinia, celebrating John Calvin, a major figure of the reformation. Many settlers of South Africa felt strong ties to the doctrine of predestination.


I am glad to see these as art rather than strewn on the sidewalks!

Given the museum’s origins in the Jewish community, the exhibits include a fair number of exhibits from that group. The curator related that many of the fragile blue and white cloths in the center of the main chamber had been rescued from storage in Sea Point, a prominently Jewish area of Cape Town, for display here in Calvinia. The main chamber also houses artifacts from the Anglo-Boer War itself. One curious display focused on some cane art that might be confused for wicker until one looks closely; the subunits from which the larger structures are built are caltrops or “jacks,” designed to jam into the feet of foot soldiers or cavalry.


Who are we to judge, when some of us make art from cremation ashes?

When I first saw the display of this mourning jewelry, I was confused.  Why was this jewelry floppy?  Why was it appropriate for mourning?  Then the curator explained that the Victorians sometimes made jewelry from hair, sometimes from the deceased!


Hero or villain? This British Spy paid the ultimate price.

The museum gives a place of prominence to Abraham Esau, a member of the Cape Coloured population. The Anglo-Boer Wars included more than just members of the white population. Abraham Esau took the part of the British in the wars, and he was murdered by angry Boers. His grave site, just west of Calvinia, has been repeatedly disturbed by white youths. Multiple head stones for his grave can be found in the museum.

Many implements of frontier life, from hand woodplanes to an ox-drawn grain mill, are in the room to the north of the main building. Heading to the south will instead show you a room showcasing the clothing that would be fashionable in the Victorian era. I particularly enjoyed the case of black formal wear for elderly women, but finery could also be seen, such as a hand-made silk vest. Continuing to the adjoining building brings one to a display case of San artifacts, such as rattle-bracelets for ritual trance dancing, instruments such as a mouth harp, and ritual objects such as a shaman’s model bow and arrow. The same room reveals the semi-precious stones of the Northern Cape, such as tiger’s eye, a considerable number of display cases given over to varieties and uses of sheep, and authentic wagons from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Two adjoining houses, currently under renovation, hold antiques from hospital and dental care and from educational institutions, respectively. Of course, the museum can continue outside, as well! The Calvinia museum features a locomotive and coal car, moved into the town center by bulldozer. They are surrounded by a pretty cottage garden.


This train was received by the city in December of 1977. It must have been hot work to move it here.

From the museum, our course lay north! We steered onto the R27 highway. It had led us from the N7 to Calvinia, and now it continued slightly to the east before turning north for the long drive to the Orange River. I must report that the scenery along this stretch is humble. Buttes rising from the plain gave way to rolling plains to simply flat veld. When a ridge appeared in front of us, we anticipated the pass for many miles before we reached the crest, perhaps a hundred meters higher. On the far side, we saw miles and miles of bloody Northern Cape before us. The wind seemed to be playing a game with us for the whole drive.


The author exemplifies “headwind.”

One feature in particular drew my eye, though. The line of electrical wires to the east of the highway was punctuated with poles at regular intervals. I was surprised to see what appeared to be thatch in the poles. Didn’t people realize that was a fire risk? Upon closer inspection, though, I realized the thatch was haphazardly built, ranging up to two meters per pole, and multiple birds were popping out of holes in the thatch for short looping flights. What I had seen were, in fact, bird apartment houses. For some stretches of the highway, almost half of the poles featured these nests. In large trees more distant from the highway, massive constructions could be glimpsed, ranging up to five meters in size. Eventually we saw an elongated bird nest in a power pole that stood three or four meters in height.


These birds know how to make a lasting thatch!

The Northern Cape also features some trees that are well adapted to the dry conditions. “Quiver trees” seem to come from a different world. The name comes from their use by the San to make quivers (since the branches are frequently hollow).  They have distinctive trunks that look almost like papier mâché, and they seem to have branches that are very similar in length, so they can have an almost spherical bough. The leaves themselves look almost like those of an aloe vera.

Soon enough, we reached Kenhardt. This wasn’t our destination, but it was the first town of significant size that we saw on our northern trek. At the very least, the town featured a gas station! The signs of civilization (such as wine farms) continued as we pushed to the north. Suddenly, we came upon a striking sight. We crossed four bridges. The first three were for the Orange River 3, Orange River 2, and Orange River 1 (in this river valley, the river splits to different channels), and the fourth was for the Friardale River. For people in the United States, it might seem entirely unremarkable that a highway bridge crosses a large river; I grew up in Kansas City, so crossing the Missouri River (or the Mississippi in St. Louis) was a reasonably common occurrence. In South Africa, though, crossing a major river is hardly an everyday occurrence. The rivers of the Western Cape, such as the Liesbeeck and the Salt River, have been directed into canals. The major rivers retaining their natural forms are the Orange and Fish Rivers, quite some distance from Cape Town.


This panoramic photo of the Orange River, facing east from the R27 bridge, spans six portrait images from my EOS-M2’s prime lens.

After arriving in Keimoes, our stop for the next few days, we stopped at a local hotel to acquire some tourist information, but their information manager was out on a break. We retrieved a copy of the “Toerisme bylaag tot die Gemsbok,” (tourism supplement to the Gemsbok) a color newspaper offered each season of the year covering tourist sites throughout the Northern Cape. I enjoyed a cream soda ice cream float. I could tell it was genuine cream soda because of the deep green color! We drove past a church erected at the close of World War II, and we enjoyed the classic water wheel at the center of town. We stopped by the Spar grocery to acquire some lamb and a 5L jug of drinking water.

Then we headed in for the night at our self-catering lodge, the Overlook. True to its name, the lodge is at the top of a ridge above the town of Keimoes. I must imagine that in summer the grapevine fields to a great distance would be verdant and lush. This winter, though, the green stripes across our view marked the location of rivers we had crossed.

The Overlook features three lodges, each for a couple. The outdoor patio is treated to the view I showed above. The living space includes beds and a table along with a compact kitchen and refrigerator, along with a bathroom behind a half-wall. This would be our home for the next four days!


Yes, modern construction in South African can also use thatch roofing.


5 thoughts on “Northern Cape: Investigating !Han=ami and Crossing the Orange

  1. Pingback: Northern Cape: Climbing the Highveld | Picking Up The Tabb

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  3. Pingback: Enjoy 28 landscapes in South Africa on your desktop! | Picking Up The Tabb

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