Hidden Gems

Our regular feature in which we visit some unique, hidden-away and off-the-beaten-track places and experiences you probably didn’t know existed…but which are truly worth a visit.


By Stef Terblanche

Karoo Highlands Route

Truly off the beaten track, hiding deep inside the heart of the Karoo between the three main north-south highways – the N7, N12 and the N1 – lie a string of small towns that make up the Karoo Highlands Route. Those who take the time to turn off the main highways and come here to explore, will find soul-refreshing peace and tranquillity, and a delightful choice of experiences.

Situated in the southern part of the Northern Cape, just north of the Western Cape provincial border, the route passes through the towns of Nieuwoudtville, Calvinia, Williston, Sutherland, Fraserburg, Carnarvon, Loxton and Victoria West. The plateau that makes up the Karoo Highlands is the largest plateau outside of Asia, and a place where humans have been living for 500,000 years. Their presence is richly recorded in ancient San rock art found throughout the region.

Here you can also connect with history going even further back – looking back all of 13-billion years to the very beginnings of our universe through the giant telescope at Sutherland. There is no place that beats this area for gazing at the crystal clear night skies sparkling with billions and billions of stars.  It is also a fossil-rich region where pre-dinosaurs once roamed, and home to the largest variety of succulents found anywhere on earth, with over 9,000 plant species.

It is the Khoi-San people who once roamed here who gave the Karoo its name, derived from the Khoi word ‘karusa’, which means dry and barren thirstland. The area is made up of vast, sandy and rocky planes, covered in shrubs and succulents, with typical Karoo flat-topped hills dotted throughout, as well as occasional mountainous crags and valleys.

Apart from the astronomical observatory with the largest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, Sutherland offers much else to do, like a visit to the museum or the  birth home of the famous poet NP van Wyk Louw, restaurants, hiking in the open veld, learning about medicinal plants used by the Khoi-San, and more. Some 80km outside Carnarvon is the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) which, upon completion will host the world’s biggest radio telescope and is considered to be one of the biggest scientific projects ever launched.

The entire area is also rich in Anglo Boer War history, with British military blockhouses and other battle-site relics found everywhere. Corbelled houses, as built by the trekboere, migrant frontier stock farmers who moved ever deeper inland in the mid-to-late 1700s, are also found here, some serving now as self-catering guest houses. These round houses that look like windowless, whitewashed stone igloos offered excellent protection for trekboer families and their stock from the harsh Karoo climate and from the poisonous arrows of San attackers.

In Calvinia, known for its annual Hantam Meat Festival that takes place around August, you can buy the best succulent Karoo lamb chops you will ever find…at prices that will have city dwellers repeatedly coming back for more. Almost every town here has a museum. In Loxton you will be surprised to find a World War II museum with the largest private collection in South Africa of tanks, armoured cars and other military vehicles and weapons. Of a more peaceful or tranquil inclination are the art galleries and artist’s studios also found in these towns. A highlight is the Williston Winter Festival which is an awesome cultural experience and includes teams of traditional Nama riel dancers who literally and energetically kick up a dust storm to the sound of guitars and concertinas.

The western part of the route, around the towns of Calvinia and Nieuwoudtville, forms part of the annual Namaqualand wildflower spectacle at the end of winter, when the entire barren veld is covered overnight in a kaleidoscope of colourful flowers. In the small town of Loeriesfontein, next to Calvinia, is the Fred Turner Windmill Museum, with one of the biggest collections of farm windmills. In Victoria West a visit to De Oude Pastorie with its beautiful stained-glass windows, the oldest building in town built as an Anglican church in 1869, is well worth a visit. Here you may also hear some of the many stories about local hero, the legendary Springbok rugby player Mannetjies Roux, immortalised in hit songs by singers like David Kramer and Laurika Rauch. There is just simply so much to be enjoyed along the Karoo Highlands Route that one could fill a whole book listing it.

From Boer general to international statesman … visiting the homes where Jan Smuts was born and later lived

He was, among his many exploits and adventures, an innovative Boer general who terrorised the British imperial army. He later commanded South African and British forces and served in the British war cabinets during both World Wars; was a close confidante of Winston Churchill; a founder of the forerunner of the United Nations; and became one of South Africa’s most beloved and respected prime ministers. He was also labelled as one of Cambridge University’s most outstanding students ever. His name was Jan Smuts. Visiting the home where he was born and the one where he spent the last 40 years of his life, both now museums, opens an engrossing window on the life and times of this fascinating man.

The distinguished life of Jan Christiaan Smuts started on the farm Bovenplaats near Riebeek West in the then Cape Colony on May 24, 1870 and ended on September 11, 1950 in his beloved home on his farm Doornkloof, Irene, outside Pretoria. Both homes are today museums open to the public, left exactly as they were during his life, and filled with personal furniture, books, pictures, mementos and more. A visit to both, but especially the one at Doornkloof, Irene, provides an astounding insight into this amazing statesman who chose intellect and simplicity over the trappings of high office and status. In doing so he had much in common with Mahatma Ghandi, who was both his adversary and a friend.  

Smuts only started school at the age of 12, after his elder brother died, as the custom of the day held that only the eldest son received a schooling, while the rest worked on the farm. But he quickly caught up, matriculated within four years, and graduated from Victoria College (later Stellenbosch University), having studied high Dutch, German, ancient Greek, literature, the classics, and Bible studies. He then went on to study law at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge in England.

He was described by one of his tutors, Professor Maitland, a leading figure among English legal historians at the time, as the most brilliant student he had ever met. While studying at Cambridge, the youthful Smuts wrote a book, Walt Whitman: A Study in the Evolution of Personality, which was published only in 1973, long after his death, but which laid the foundation for Smuts’ later wide-ranging philosophy of holism. In 1970, Lord Todd, the Master of Christ’s College, said that in the 500 years of the College’s history, among all its many students, only three had been truly outstanding: John Milton, Charles Darwin and Jan Smuts.

After his studies ended Smuts practiced law in Cape Town, became more and more involved in politics and journalism, then befriended and went to work for Cecil John Rhodes in his De Beers mining company. But Smuts became outraged when his friend, mentor and employer launched the Jameson Raid in 1895–96 with the aim of overthrowing the South African Republic’s (Transvaal) government of Paul Kruger. Smuts left De Beers and became state attorney of Kruger’s government in Pretoria. With the outbreak of the second Anglo Boer War in 1899, Smuts joined the Boer forces to fight against the invading British forces who vastly outnumbered the Boers.

After a year of bitter fighting, with many Boer fighters now captured and their farms and homes destroyed by the ‘scorched earth’ policy of the British commanders, the Boers turned to a guerrilla phase of warfare that lasted almost another two years. The remaining Boer fighters had split up into small, highly mobile commandos that conducted lighting hit-and-run strikes on British forces, their military block houses, supply trains and other targets, seriously disrupting the British war campaign. A commando led by Smuts penetrated as far south as Saldanha Bay on the West coast of the Cape Colony. Of all the Boer guerrilla commanders Smuts became arguably the most legendary, becoming a huge problem for the British imperial forces.

After the war Smuts returned to active politics, serving in the first Union government of Louis Botha, another former Boer general. When World War I started, now fully reconciled to Britain’s control of South Africa, Smuts launched the Union Defence Force and fought German forces in Southwest-Africa (Namibia) and Tanzania, before serving as a general in Lloyd George’s War Cabinet in London. Smuts’ review of the British Air Services led to the creation of today’s Royal Air Force. During World War II Smuts commanded British and South African forces as a Field Marshall of the British army. He served in Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet and became his close confidante and friend. After the war Smuts became instrumental in establishing the League of Nations, a forerunner to the later United Nations. Smuts served as South Africa’s prime minister from 1919 to 1924, and again from 1939 to 1948.

With his political career now over, he retired to his farm Doornfontein, a tranquil place on the outskirts of Pretoria where he spent 40 years of his life. But Smuts also had a ruthless side: he once used air force planes to bomb striking workers who tried to stage a rebellion, and as a Boer commander he ordered the executions of traitors. Initially he was an ardent segregationist, but later renounced his early racial policies, and warned the National Party government of DF Malan, who succeeded him, not to implement apartheid.

On the Bovenplaats section of the original farm Ongegund outside Riebeek West in the Western Cape, stands Smuts House, the cottage where he was born and spent his childhood. In 1975 it was proclaimed a national monument. The cottage, maintained pretty much as it was in Smut’s childhood, now contains among other interesting things an exhibition of photographs of his life. It is open to the public from Tuesdays to Sundays.

Even more fascinating is his Doornkloof home, now called Smuts House Museum. It is a simple wood and iron farmhouse that was built in Britain, shipped to India where it served as an officers’ mess, and then shipped to South Africa where General Smuts bought it for £300. The house also served as a mess for his Boer War foe and scorched earth architect, Lord Kitchener, in Middelburg, Transvaal, during the Anglo Boer War. Smuts renovated it on his farm and later added several rooms. The house is surrounded by the trees and shrubs on which Smuts fed his love of nature and interest in botany.

The hill behind the house is where he went for solitude and meditation. Among the many famous visitors he entertained at his house, was the British Royal Family in 1947, including the current Queen of England. While in Cape Town the Royal Family took the cable car up Table Mountain and were met on top by a spritely 77-year old Smuts who, as an avid hiker, had chosen to rather walk up to the top.

The high-ceilinged rooms still contain all the original furnishings that Smuts and his wife, Ouma Isie brought to it, as well as his study with his vast library of books that includes books on Darwinism, Buddhism and botany, and many relics and mementos on display of his extraordinary career. In a shed outside stands the Cadillac he used when prime minister of South Africa. There is a tea garden for visitors too and a regular market is held on the grounds. The house is open to visitors on weekdays and weekends.

For more information contact: Smuts House, Riebeek West, Tel +27 (0)22 461 8000 or Mobile +27 (0)83 348 2587; and Smuts House Museum, Doornkloof, Irene, at  email info@smutshouse.co.za, or on Tel +27 (0)12 667 1176 or +27 (0)12 667 1659, or contact Gauteng Tourism Authority.

Riebeek Valley… a tale of two towns, two churches and two prime ministers

Just and hour’s drive north of Cape Town lies the fertile Riebeek Valley, home to two intriguing little twin towns with a fascinating history…Riebeek Kasteel and Riebeek West. The two villages, named after the Cape’s founding Dutch commander, Jan van Riebeeck, will charm any visitor with all they have to offer. Capping the story of these two towns is the legendary ‘feud’ between their respective church congregations, and the fact that two South African prime ministers were born here, both leaving an indelible mark on the country’s history, but in very different ways. Today artists, writers, restaurateurs, pub and shop owners, young professionals who commute to Cape Town, alternate life-stylers and computer-based entrepreneurs live here alongside retired farmers.

The two Riebeeks lie snugly at the foot of the Kasteelberg (castle mountain) which, seen from the air, looks like a sharpened stone-age tool left lying in the veld, surrounded by vineyards and wheat fields. The valley was discovered in 1661 by scouts sent out from the Cape Town castle by the first Dutch commander at the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, to explore the interior. In the 1700s people of European descent started settling in the valley, and by the mid-1800s two distinct farming communities were developing here – Riebeek Kasteel at the southern tip of the mountain, and Riebeek West, less than 5km away just over a hill and below the centre of the mountain. Just down the road is their lesser known cousin, the hamlet of Hermon, a popular venue for weddings.

A fascinating part of their history is a ‘feud’ that saw the local Dutch Reformed Church community split in two, forming two congregations and building two churches in the two villages that were walking-distance apart. Before either of the towns had its own congregation, farmers and townsfolk of the valley each Sunday had to make the 20km journey by horse cart and ox wagon to Malmesbury, where a church had been established in 1745, to attend church services. Fed up with this, the Riebeek Kasteel community decided to build their own church in the 1850s, which upset the neighbouring Riebeek West community. But Riebeek Kasteel went ahead anyway and laid the cornerstone of their church in 1855. So in 1858 Riebeek West followed suit and established its own congregation, and that’s how it has been ever since.

Another interesting claim of the valley is that two successive prime ministers of South Africa were born here, both of whom made their historical mark on South Africa but in very different ways, and each leading one of the two main political parties of the day in a fierce contest for power. In 1870 the Boer general, politician, philosopher, international statesman, prime minister, and later field marshal in the British army, General Jan Smuts was born on the farm Bovenplaatz, part of Ongegund, just north of Riebeek West. (See our previous article above.) The house where he was born is still there and is a national museum open to the public.

Just four years later, the other future prime minister, Dr DF Malan, was born at Allesverloren, just south of the town. The farm is now a well-known wine estate and still owned by the Malan family. Malan went on to become the first apartheid prime minister with his National Party having defeated Smuts’ United Party in the 1948 general election.

Set among rolling vineyards and wheat fields in this beautiful, tranquil valley, the twin towns are quite different, each having a unique charm and variety of things to do. In the eclectic mix of little bistros, shops and restaurants of Riebeek Kasteel, visitors can mingle with bohemian types, artists, local shopkeepers, hip young professionals, day-tripping families and local farmers while sampling the locally-produced selection of wine and port, fresh fruit, olives, homemade bakery and jams. More than likely you will get caught up in conversation with one of the shopkeepers or restaurateurs.

Two of the town’s more well-known contemporary residents are journalist, author and political commentator Max du Preez and fellow journalist, author and restaurateur Jacques Pauw who wrote the recent best-seller, The President’s Keepers, an exposé of the infamy that surrounded South Africa’s recently ousted President Jacob Zuma.

Neighbouring Riebeek West appears somewhat quieter, a peaceful, sleepy town with stately old Victorian homes lining the streets running up the hill towards the mountain. Many of the district’s wealthy farmers come here to retire. In both villages the churches that once were the centre of some discontent, are still present. At the church in Riebeek Kasteel, called De Oude Kerk, much of the valley’s history and that of the mid-1800s Voortrekkers can be explored in in what is now the Valley Museum. In the town square stands a red ox erected in 1938 to commemorate The Great Trek.

A place not too be missed in Riebeek Kasteel is the original Royal Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in the country still operating, complete with its rumoured resident ghost. Enjoy a delicious lunch on the shaded backyard patio overlooking the hills covered in vineyards while sipping some local wine. Or pop into any of the many little eateries and drinking holes with names like Bar Bar Black Sheep, Eve’s Eatery & Bar, Mama Cucina, Café Felix and Beans About Coffee. Then do some browsing and shopping at the Wine Kollektive or any of the little shops offering handmade chocolate, biltong, locally made soap, local fashion designs, antique collectables and bric-a-brac. There are also a number of wine farms and wineries for wine tasting in the area.

For more information contact Riebeek Valley Tourism on Tel +27 (0)22 448 1545 or email tourism@riebeekvalley.info.


Vintage tractors, trains & other fabulous machines … rediscover the magic of childhood at Sandstone Estates

Sandstone Estates, a 7,000 hectare farm located in a beautiful corner of the eastern Free State on the border with Lesotho at the foot of the Maluti Mountains, is a place that will bring out the child in every one of us. Here you will find vintage machines of every description and use, from steam trains to tractors and military vehicles, and more.

Sandstone Estates is a large commercial agricultural enterprise close to the town of Ficksburg, which is renowned as the cherry capital of the world. The estate is also home to the Sandstone Heritage Trust, a private preservation initiative – not a museum, but a private collection of vintage machines of every possible description which can also be enjoyed by enthusiasts and members of the public.

The huge collection on the estate now includes a vast collection of steam trains, some of which take visitors on a ride on the 2ft narrow gauge railway running around the estate; military vehicles and aircraft of every description, including a World War II Sherman tank; a vast collection of tractors and other agricultural machines; many vintage stationery machines used in factories and on farms; and many classic and vintage cars, buses and trucks, all immaculately restored to their original running condition. Many of the restored vintage vehicles are in daily use on the estate.

The collection came about when the current and second owner of the farm in its 170-year history found very old working tractors in daily use here when he bought the farm in 1995. Then the Midmar Museum, which was a joint venture between the KwaZulu-Natal Parks Department and the heritage section of the national railways, was dissolved in 1997 and the owner of Sandstone was able to purchase on auction a selection of narrow gauge assets including the railway line.

Sandstone was suddenly the owner of enough components to create a small narrow gauge railway. A track was laid on the estate and one of old NGG16 Garratt steam locomotives was put back to work. And from there the collection just took off, gaining fame among visitors as well as engine buffs all over the world. The 2 ft narrow gauge railway runs from Grootdraai in the south, for some 26 kilometres northwards to the main farm and main depot at Hoekfontein, onwards via Mooihoek to Vailima Sidings/Ficksburg and the a large loop at Vailima Village. Today the collection of 2 ft narrow gauge locomotives and rolling stock is one of the largest in the world.

Work is currently underway on the estate to prepare one of the biggest heritage events in the Southern Hemisphere planned for 4 to 14 April 2019 – the Stars of Sandstone 2019 that will feature the 2-ft Narrow Gauge Railway with over 30 operating locomotives, aircraft from WWII overflying the event and vintage cars, trucks, tractors, traction engines, military vehicles and much more on the ground. There is also a restaurant and many other facilities on the estate.

For more information, go to the Sandstone website at www.sandstone-estates.com/index.php/contact-us or for the Stars of Sandstone 2019 event go to www.starsofsandstone.com/index.php/info-booking/southern-african-residents.