Head the short distance east to Philippolis from the N1 between Cape Town and Johannesburg, and step back in time to an era of missionaries, a short-lived Griqua state, the rise of the Free State Boer republic and a tragic war. The oldest settlement in the Free State, it was the home of the Adam Kok Griqua leadership dynasty, and the birthplace of the famous Sir Laurens Jan van der Post, Afrikaner intellectual, author, close friend of Prince Charles and godfather of Prince William.
Today it is a fascinating weekend retreat and a good place to stop over when next you travel the N1. To take it all in though, you should stay longer. At the same time you can sleep in the old jail, eat some of the best Karoo lamb chops and drink a unique locally-brewed beer.
Located 23km northeast of the Orange River, the border between the Northern Cape and Free State provinces, and 56km from Colesberg on the N1, the small town of Philippolis was founded in 1823 by the London Missionary Society’s Dr John Philip as a mission station for the local Khoi population. Not only is it the oldest town in the Free State, but it also boasts the most historical monuments in the province after Bloemfontein and Bethlehem. This latter fact testifies to its rich and fascinating history.
In 1825, a sub-group of the Griquas known as the Bergenaars, broke away from the main group living north of the Orange River in the Northern Cape and received permission from Dr Philip to settle at the mission at Philippolis. The group was led by Adam Kok II, grandson of Adam Kok I, founder of the Griqua nation. A year later Sir Richard Bourke, governor at the Cape Colony, confirmed Kok as the Paramount Chief of the Philippolis Griquas and that same year the missionary James Clarke gave written title of the mission station and its grounds to Kok and his Griqua group. This encompassed the entire area between the Orange and Riet Rivers to north of the future Bethanie and east of the future Bethulie.
Here they created a Griqua state, set up a government and legislature, built homes, a school and several successive churches, the last of which later served as the first Dutch Reformed Church after Boers descended from European settlers started settling here. By now the Boer republic of the Orange Free State had been established and an uneasy relationship developed with the Griquas being a state within a state. Conflicts arose over land claims between the Griquas, the Free State and the British government at the Cape. So, in 1861, Adam Kok III, who in 1837 had succeeded his father after his death, and his Griquas sold their last land here to the Orange Free State government for R8,000 and moved to Griqualand East, today part of KwaZulu-Natal.
Although the people and their state have long vanished from the area, their footprints remain in the form of many typical little Griqua homes among other things. Also surviving is what is thought to be the erstwhile home of Adam Kok III with walls that are 650mm thick. Travellers like J. Backhouse and H.A.L. Hamelberg who visited Philippolis around 1839, remarked that Kok’s house was by far the nicest and sturdiest of all the Griqua houses lining the single long street that then still made up the entire town.
Kok’s Griquas also left behind two of the three naval cannon presented to them by the Cape colonial government in the 1840s that are still in working condition and stand on a small hill overlooking the town. Each year in April, during the town’s annual Witblits Festival, these guns are still fired. It is believed the guns may have been used in the wars between the Griquas, the Boers and the Basotho.
The town’s museum also houses an interesting display around three themes: Dr Philip and the London Missionary Society’s presence in the area; the era of the Koks and their Griqua followers; and Emily Hobhouse, an English woman who strove to improve the conditions for the Boer women and children held in British concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer War and who, after the war, established a spinning and weaving school for women in Philippolis in 1905. Hobhouse is buried at the Women’s Memorial in Bloemfontein.
In the museum the inside of a house as it was in the time of Adam Kok, has been recreated. Behind the town’s museum, and below the hill with the two naval canon, is a Griqua kraal with restored Griqua huts, and in the museum’s backyard one can view a scarce horse mill and stable. Also in the museum’s backyard is an original stookketel or distilling kettle salvaged from the district and used by the museum to make its own Witblits (very strong spirits).
During the final year of the 1800s the tragedy of war came to this district, as it did all over the two Boer republics when the British sought control over them. Men and boys from the district joined the local Boer commando and bravely fought the British that greatly outnumbered them. Later many of their women and children would die in British concentration camps, and their farms torched to the ground on the orders of Lord Kitchener, commander of the British forces.
A major battle occurred some 55km north of Philippolis at Jagersfontein, where British forces wwere attacked by a republican Boer force led by Gen. J.B.M. Hertzog, a future prime minister of the later Union of South Africa. A former Philippolis magistrate, William Gostling, was appointed superintendent of the Springfontein concentration camp east of Philippolis. To the south, at Norvals Pont, was another concentration camp. It was in these camps, among others, that Emily Hobhouse won the hearts of South Africans with her good work, and which is honoured in the museum in Philippolis.
It was also at Zandrift, near Philippolis, that Gen. Christiaan de Wet, who commanded the Free State forces, invaded the Cape Colony for the second time. And just outside the town is Tomkins Koppie (hill), named after the commanding officer of the British troops that occupied Philippolis during the Anglo Boer War. Tomkins and his men were cornered on the koppie for several days without food or water by the Boer forces.
In the final year of the war the bittereinder commandos led by Gen. Jan Smuts, future prime minister of South Africa, would also pass this way on their way to attack the British in the Cape. With Smuts was a young officer named Deneys Reitz, son of a former president of the Free State who would later serve in both World Wars with Smuts and become a South African cabinet minister in the Smuts government. In his post-war book, Commando – A Boer Journal of the Boer War, considered one of the best books ever written about the war, Reitz gives a haunting account of the desertion and ruin his commando encountered in Fauresmith, a town neighbouring Philippolis 66km away.
One would imagine that a similar fate might have befallen Philippolis during the war. Nonetheless, today it is a happy, bustling little town of which its citizens are immensely proud and offers much for travellers to enjoy. Today the town has a population of some 7,500, about double the Griqua population that once lived here.
The town cemetery is considered one of the most interesting in the Free State, with graves of Griquas, English and Boer soldiers, prominent Jewish citizens, and even a Free State president, all telling their own stories. The old jail in the town on Justisie Street has been converted to a privately-owned guesthouse, using cell blocks and other buildings for guest accommodation. Or you can stay in a renovated Griqua cottage at Starry Nights Karoo Cottages, another national monument. A visit to the Kruithuis (powder house) built in 1870, with walls 48cm thick, is also worthwhile.
When entering the town from the north, visitors will find the Laurens van der Post Memorial Centre, which commemorates the life of this famous native of Philippolis – Afrikaner intellectual, author, adviser to the British government, close friend of Prince Charles, and godfather of Prince William. The centre is one of the town’s many national monuments. The Dutch Reformed Church standing on the site of the old Griqua church is a national monument too.
Tiger Canyons lies near Philippolis on the Van der Kloof Dam, established by John Varty, renowned wildlife filmmaker and conservationist, as an experiment to create a free-ranging, self-sustaining tiger population outside Asia. Also a short distance outside Philippolis on the road to Colesberg lies Waterkloof, a ghost town. A shop there sells the locally brewed Karoo Ale which is made with Karoobossie and Kapokbossie, two Karoo plants said to be the reason why Karoo lambs has such a great taste! Philippolis most certainly is a town for all seasons, tastes and experiences, and many, many interesting stories.
- Philippolis Tourist Information: Phone +27 (0)84 805 0145, +27 (0)82 89 24680, +27 (0)82 892 4680, +27 (0)51 773 0063 or +27 (0)51 773 0063;
- Van Der Post Memorial Centre and Guesthouse: Phone +27 (0)73 157 1212;
- Groenhuis Guest House: Phone +27 (0)83-290-4269, website www.philippolis.co.za;
- Transgariep Museum: Phone +27 (0)51 773 0216