Oudtshoorn on foot

Index for the Oudtshoorn series:

September 18, 2019

Jeremy van Wyk is always ready to tell the story of Oudtshoorn; he has been recording oral histories for the area for several years. I first learned about him from the tourist information center in the city, and I decided to start my first full day in Oudtshoorn with his “Velskoen Shuffle” Central Business District Heritage Walk. We agreed to meet at 8:30 AM.

We wandered down to the Pick N Pay first to grab some water bottles, and then Jeremy was off to the races! He started his monologue very early in the region’s history, noting that the third war of dispossession and resistance / Frontier War (British vs. Trekboers vs. Khoikhoi vs. Xhosa, 1799-1803) had come quite close to where we were standing, with a front on the Kammanassie River just east of Oudtshoorn. At that time white settlers and accompanying people of mixed race began occupying the Klein Karoo in greater numbers as the Xhosa began expanding west.

The “Velskoen” in the title of Mr. van Wyk’s tours relates to a particular type of hardy walking shoe manufactured in this area, separated from the southern coast of South Africa by the Outeniqua Mountains. The area frequently went by the name “Veldschoendorp” until the growing town at its heart was named “Oudtshoorn” in 1847. A magistrate of George had married the granddaughter of Pieter Baron van Reede van Oudtshoorn and wanted to honor the noble who had moved to the Cape in 1741; the baron had been named governor of the Cape in 1792, though he died while returning to South Africa to take this post. The Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town stands on lands granted to Baron van Outdshoorn in 1743. The main street leading north from Oudtshoorn’s city centre was named “Baron van Reede” in his memory, as well.

The C.P. Nel Museum, originally a high school, dominates the chief intersection of the city.

During the first decades of the 20th century, Oudtshoorn had a major building boom. The town neighbored two quarries that produced sandstone, so this yellow-brown rock was dominant in the permanent buildings erected during that time. Builders would occasionally knock out a foundation for a building with some delay for completing the project because their services were needed for several projects at once. Sadly, their use of inferior sandstone for some key buildings’ foundations has led to stability problems. This material is sometimes called “brown sugar” because it dissolves to grainy sand as the decades pile up. In any case, many of the historic buildings from the golden age of Oudtshoorn have been replaced by more contemporary construction techniques from the 1970s and later, so one needs a leap of imagination to envision how the town would appear back when.

The 1930s expansion of the Queen’s Hotel completely masked its original sandstone appearance.

The golden age of Oudtshoorn coincided with a sharp rise in the trade of ostrich feathers for ladies’ hats at the start of the 20th century. The golden age fell away at the end of this fashion around 1914; the rise of the motor car and the commencement of World War I altered consumption patterns worldwide. I will have much more to say about the distinctive “Feather Palaces” that resulted in a later post. In the aftermath of the Ostrich Feather Boom, Oudtshoorn was cast back on its local resources. Some resourceful farmers returned to growing tobacco.

The Oudtshoorn district was probably the first part of South Africa to grow tobacco, which was planted there as early as 1845, before the town existed. When an Agricultural Society was formed in 1859 the amount of tobacco sold that year was more than 100,000 kg. There was no marketing organisation, and very indifferent transportation, so the farmers used to turn the tobacco leaves into rolls which they took on “togt” [“tour” or “expedition”] as far as the Free State and Transvaal, and sold as chewing and pipe tobacco.

The Little Karoo, by Jose Burman, p. 108

The crop grew to some prominence until other nations in the area, notably Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) began growing tobacco in greater volume. A sign embedded in the sidewalk in the commercial district shows that spitting chewing tobacco on the ground had become a hygenic problem on the city streets, especially with the long, blooming dresses that were popular at the time.

Since coming to South Africa in 2015, I have developed an abiding love for ostrich meat. We have to be somewhat sparing in purchasing this food, however, because it is one of the premium meats at our Woolworth’s grocery store. Jeremy related, however, that when he was growing up, eating ostrich was considered a sign of poverty! Oh, how times change.

Jeremy related an entertaining story about the friendly competition between the NG Church (Dutch Reformed Community) and the Anglican Church. In the 19th century, these two groups were locked in competition to see who could erect a permanent building first for the emerging city. The NG Church ordered roof buttresses from England that were shipped by ox wagon over the mountains from George, but they were discovered to be the wrong size upon their arrival. Thus the first pictures of the church lack its roof. The Anglicans opted for a different strategy and thus were able to complete their cathedral earlier, in 1863. Jeremy and I wandered around the NG Church grounds for a few moments. He pointed to a monument erected to commemorate the centenary of the Great Trek, with unusual shapes atop it. The church had removed stalactites from the roof of the nearby Cango Caves to stand atop the monument. These surely took more than a millennium to develop, since their growth rate is around 13 mm for a hundred years.

The NG Moederkerk in morning sunlight, with monument at right

The NG Church has an interesting complex of buildings nearby. The Drill Hall stands just to the northeast, still bearing its foundation stone, laid by Cecil Rhodes in 1892. His name has come into disrepute in recent protests at the University of Cape Town. As we approached the church wall, Jeremy noted that the church had sought to clean up the exterior for a celebration. The contractor, however, had painted the outside of its sandstone buttresses with latex paint to cover some of the age damage on this porous stone. The result has been that water damage to the underlying stone has greatly increased, and the structural integrity may drop considerably over the next couple of decades without expensive remediation.

The neighborhood also features a few small residences sometimes called “Communion houses.” Because the Oudtshoorn district featured a large number of farms, some families would travel long distances by wagon into town for special church services (Communion or nagmaal). Acquiring small town houses near the church made these visits more convenient. The residence of the NG Church minister is also quite close to the church. Its use of woodwork for its veranda rails on two floors makes it look quite distinct from other residences in the city

The minister no longer lives here.

Just around the corner from the church, one can see a sandstone doctor’s office and surgery. I leaned against a well-place oak tree on the opposite site of the road to listen to Jeremy’s discussion, but then he pointed to the tree itself. At the time, people of mixed ancestry or who were black were not allowed to wait on the veranda of the doctor’s office. Instead, they would wait in the shade of the “Doctor Tree” until their names were called by a nurse. The tree under which I was resting had been used for that purpose for a century!

The Methodist and Catholic churches are across the street from each other, but they could hardly look more different!

Jeremy and I saw a few more houses of worship that play a prominent role here. The Methodist church is covered in vines; apparently the church looks entirely different when they are covered with leaves. The current Catholic Cathedral, dating from 1967, is very distinctive, with the look of a flying saucer! Not far away is the city’s Synagogue. I was grateful that a groundskeeper opened its doors for us, though I was wearing my hiking hat rather than a kippah. The rich interior illustrates how important this community has been over time to Oudtshoorn (more on this when we talk Feather Palaces).

The “Englishe Shul” synagogue dates from 1888.

St. Jude’s Anglican Church is a complex of sandstone buildings surrounding a pretty garden . The church itself is the oldest stone building in the city, completed in 1863. Jeremy explained that the building originally featured stained glass windows for the trio of St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. Simons. In 1961, many of the church members were compelled to move to the Bridgeton area under the Apartheid Group Areas Act of the city designated for the “South African Coloured” population (these categories were forced on the population by the Apartheid Population Registration Act). Those members went on to build their own Anglican church. Similarly, many black congregants were compelled to move even further to the Bongolethu township. Jeremy reported that the congregants of St. Jude’s Anglican Church removed the window representing St. Simons to reflect that their congregation had been torn apart.

The Anglican Church won the race for first stone church in town!

To close off our tour, Jeremy brought me to the Grobblears River, which separated the town from the nearest farms (as well as the communities of farm workers) back at the close of the 18th century. The city commissioned a suspension bridge in 1914 to simplify foot traffic. Although the bridge has sometimes featured as a historic landmark to represent the city, it was allowed to dip into a poor state of repair. Though many of the boards on its walkway have been replaced, some of those boards have already begun to degrade. I developed some problems with vertigo in connection with my vestibular migraine diagnosis, so I found walking on the bridge quite problematic. We continued our chat on the ground!

The Grobblears River was previously at a higher water level, but irrigation consumes much of its flow now.

Jeremy offered me a sprig of Helichrysum crispum, or “Khoi bedding.” He explained that this plant was used to clean the air of a dwelling and also for ceremony. To say our farewell, I could cast the plant into the river. I offered my best wishes for Oudsthoorn to continue in health and then let the plant fall into the waters. Our tour was at an end!

6 thoughts on “Oudtshoorn on foot

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