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The Republic of Swellendam

Text: Yolanda Wessels. Photos: Louis Koen and Annabelle Bradfield. Article from the Experience Overberg Issue 4.

An Overberg town interspersed in history.

Nestled at the foot of the Langeberg Mountains, lies Swellendam, the third oldest magisterial district (after Cape Town and Stellenbosch) in South Africa. It is known for its youngberries, architecture, rich history, beautiful nature scenes and outdoor activities. Today this historical town is a popular place to retire and serves as a retreat for many artists seeking peace and quiet.

Dutch Reformed Church in Voortrek Street. The corner-stone of this building was laid on 25 November 1910. The church with its diversity of architectural styles was officially inaugurated on 10 June 1911 by Prof. C F J Muller

Early travellers and explorers visiting the Cape in the 16th century traded with the Khoi-khoi people who lived on these shores and interior. When the Dutch East India Company established a replenishment station in the Cape in 1652, trade continued as far inland as Swellendam. In 1745, Swellendam, “Colonie in de verre afgeleegene districten”, was established as a settlement and named after Governor Hendrik Swellengrebel and his wife, Helena ten Damme. On 17 October 1795, the Swellendammers expelled their Dutch East India Company magistrate and declared themselves a Republic. Their independence lasted three months. In June 2011, the Swellendam Municipality area, which includes Barrydale, Suurbraak, Malgas, Infanta and Stormsvlei, re- declared itself a Republic. It is difficult to believe that back in 1807 Swellendam consisted of only 18 houses! Today, this historical town offers a wide variety of attractions, accommodation, restaurants and reserves.

Dutch Reformed Church in Voortrek Street. Old Gaol in Swellengrebel Street is second only to the Drostdy, as the oldest and most interesting building in Swellendam

White people who moved to Swellendam came predominantly from the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and England. They brought their slaves and more farmers moved in and built homes. A workshop that made wagons, a leerlooiery (tannery), kuipery (cooper), smidswinkel (smithy) and timmermanswinkel (carpenter shop) arose to support the farmers. By the middle of the 19th century, it was a thriving town serving as a refreshment station. Today it still offers travellers a place of serenity, rest and refreshment on their journey along the East Coast. It is a town steeped in history and home to more than 50 provincial heritage sites, most of them buildings of Cape Dutch architecture. A landdrost was appointed and the necessary offices provided, including a Drostdy and jail cells, a post office and cottages. These buildings, together with a Victorian house and gardens, form the centre of a museum complex at the eastern end of the town. Swellendam grew and thrived as a commercial and administrative town with the residents building some fine houses through the 1800s in the Cape Dutch and later English styles. This culminated in the building of a new Dutch Reformed Church in 1910. It is grandly eclectic with baroque gables, and gothic windows and even an Eastern cupola, showing the influence of the Malay community. Sadly the combination of drought and a fire in the town which destroyed 40 thatched dwellings in 1865 brought an end Swellendam’s ‘Golden Age’.

Swellendam has hundreds of historic buildings, with the grander ones in High Street and the historic area. The Drostdy buildings were erected on the banks of the Koornlands River around 1746, soon after the establishment of the district as a Drostdy. Today it houses the Swellendam Museum. On these Drostdy grounds stands a T-shaped homestead, now used as a restaurant. It is a reconstruction of one of the finest houses in the district, Zandvliet, near Ashton. The Zanddrift house dates back to a probable building date of 1768. The fine homestead had been standing empty for many years and seemed destined to go to ruin when the Drostdy Museum decided to dismantle it and transport it to Swellendam. Rebuilt on a site opposite the Drostdy, it is a very convincing reconstruction.

Capuchin Convent at Kleinrivier outside of town La Belle Alliance, a family run restaurant since 1998 on the bank of the Koomlands River, This historic building was formerly a Masonic lodge with some symbols still visible.

Some other historic buildings include ‘The Oefeningshuis’, 1838, built by Rev. Dr. William Robertson for religious and educational purposes. Nowadays it is used by the Langeberg Hospice as a charity shop. Many of these houses have been restored and some provide B&B accommodation. The Old Boys’ High School was built on land granted to Jacobus Wessel van Dyk in 1818. A likely date for the erection of this building is 1820. The house belonged to several wagon-makers in succession and in 1870 it was bought for use as a school. It currently houses the Olyfkrans College, a school for children with special needs.

Back in 1869 Bishop Gray noticed the coloured congregation did not have a chapel for services and finalised a contract for the building of the St Luke’s Mission Church in 1872. The building was completed in 1874 and is presently used by the Old Apostolic Church for its services.

The Auld House, built in 1802, owned by Joseph Barry and together with Barry House, was the centre of his mercantile business. Buildings representing the heritage centre of the town can be found throughout Swellendam in streets like Drostdy, Hermanus Steyn, and Swellengreble.

Towards the Onderdorp are Schoone Oord, victorianised with balconies and ‘brookie lace’, Rothmann House (JVDS) with a fine Dutch-style gable, 1834, and Mooimanshof. These have been restored and provide B&B accommodation. The Hope Lodge dates back to 1839 with Georgian additions. Outside Swellendam to the west is Klippe Rivier built in the middle 1800s and described by Hans Fransen as “the finest house in the Overberg”. To the east lies Rotterdam, built in 1794, with its unique baroque gable.

Places of interest

There are lots of things to do in Swellendam, be it sport, nature, fine food or history! Places of interest include the Sulina Faerie Sanctuary. This special faerie and angel healing sanctuary provides an ideal family experience. It is situated in a house and the garden reveals scenes of faeries, elves and other mythical beings.

The Continent of Sulina - Swellendam's Faery and Angel healing Sancturay. Breede River outside Swellendam

A visit to the Drostdy Museum Complex is well worth it. Located within a collection of several historical buildings, originally constructed in 1747 by the Dutch East India Company, the museum offers insights into life at that time, including furniture and other exhibits, as well as housing restaurants, coffee shops and art galleries. The buildings contain fine period furniture, pictures, examples of wagon builders’ equipment and a collection of late 18th and early 19th century Cape furniture. There are several houses and gardens to wander through. The Gaol near the museum served as the local prison but today you can stop by for a hot cup of coffee and view the many art-works in the art gallery. Be sure to visit the Kunstehuijs Fine Art Gallery and admire the excellent collection of the best South African art available.

19 Swellengrebel Street, Swellendam Tel +27 (0) 82 514 2905

At the Rain Forest Spa, you can experience tranquillity and relaxation. Experience the soothing and healing hands of the therapists in combination with the restorative and nourishing Rain Biologie product range – packed with antioxidants, omega oils, botanical extracts and active ingredients.

Tel +27 (0)28 514 1737

Be sure to visit Bukkenburg, where David Schlapobersky and Felicity Potter have been making pots together since 1973. They are well known for their wide range of high temperature reduction fired stoneware and porcelain, using their own blends of clay and glazes prepared from local raw materials. Pottery includes porcelain bottles, vases and bowls, cups, saucers and mugs, dinnerware, serving dishes, giant platters, indoor and outdoor containers and water features and tiles.

8 Hermanus Steyn Street, Swellendam Tel +27 (0)28 514 1644

The Swellendam Golf Course is a 9 hole, 72 par course and offers golfers the most amazing views of the countryside. Two Trails horse trails will take you through the beautiful mountain ranges and they cater for all levels of experience.

The Bontebok National Park, part of the Cape Floral Kingdom and now heralded as a world heritage site, is situated 6 km outside of Swellendam. It is home to the rare and beautiful namesake antelope, bontebok, and dedicated to saving it. The Park offers much more for nature lovers, from a diversity of indigenous animal life to over 200 remarkable bird species. Indulge yourself in beautiful scenery, bird-watching, fishing, and a refreshing swimming spot. There are charming picnic spots on the banks of the Breede River.

Tel +27(0)28 514 2735

The Marloth Nature Reserve offers gorgeous examples of local wild flowers and fynbos and the hiking trails alone make it worth the visit. The 81 km Swellendam trail provides a number of stopover huts at regular intervals and there are several day walks.

Tel +27 (0)28 514 1410

Be sure to visit Rasondale Farm Stall and Restaurant, located just off the N2 highway. The farm stall section sells flour, jams, nuts, biltong, etc., while the restaurant makes a great-tasting burger, toasted sandwich or if you like, a sweet treat.

Tel +27 (0)28 512 3383

Swellendam is the largest youngberry growing area in the world and includes farms such as Wildebraam Liqueur Farm, which offers liqueur tasting and a cellar tour. Here youngberries, blackberries and blueberries are grown and during harvest time (November until mid December) you are encouraged to pick your own.

The foot of the Langeberg is home to a number of fruit and dairy farms whilst the drier and flatter region, further inland from the mountain, is predominantly devoted to raising sheep and to grain farming.

Accommodation

Swellendam offers a wide variety of accommodation, from luxury guest houses, bed and breakfast establishments, self-catering cottages, hotels and chalets to caravan and camping facilities.

De Oude Pastorie Guesthouse is a Victorian-style house featuring a spacious and peaceful garden with a tranquil water fountain and swimming pool.

101 Voortrek Street, Swellendam Tel +27 (0)82 334 0977

Cypress Cottage B&B. Here you will enjoy and treasure the experience of country living, hospitality and comfort. This magnificent old guesthouse has a sun splashed garden, abundant bird life and centuries old Oak trees.

3 Voortrek Street, Swellendam Tel +27(0)28 514 3296

A Hilltop Country Retreat is located in the foothills of the Langeberg Mountains, yet close to the town centre, where you get the best of both worlds, 360 degree views and no traffic.

7 Bergsig Avenue Tel +27 (0)28 514 2294

De Companjie Guesthouse and Restaurant is located in a national heritage building dating back to 1832. It offers a luxurious retreat for the sophisticated traveller with a country-kitchen styled restaurant which ensures a wonderful culinary experience; breakfast, lunch, dinner (and everything in between) are served. The old guesthouse used to be part of the old Tuishuise which back in the olden days served as accommodation for the churchgoers and local farmers. The guesthouse offers luxurious accommodation with only three duplex, en suite rooms for a nice private and relaxed stay.

5 Voorstrek Street, Swellendam Cell +27 (0)83 399 0299

Wildebraam Berry Estate is situated on a working berry farm in the Hermitage Valley, just 1.2 km from Swellendam centre. It offers panoramic views of the Langeberg Mountains and is surrounded by horse paddocks and beautiful gardens.

Contact Natalie Cell +27 (0)82 380 2080

Restaurants

Eddie and Jolene Lambrechts celebrate their wedding at the Old Gaol in Swellengrebel Street. It seems their menu was printed just for moments like these. "Around our table people find each other; their hearts are filled with the joy of a homecoming, with hope and with a dream of a better tomorrow. Here we know today's grace is enough because tomorrow will bring its own life. Around our table moments are precious." Swellendam still lives up to its reputation as a refreshment station and there are many restaurants and coffee shops in the town catering for residents and travellers. The Drostdy Restaurant which really offers something different has some fantastic views over the Langeberg Mountains. Meals are made from scratch and where possible only local ingredients are used. They also cater for private functions and special occasions. The Coca Cola memorabilia collection is impressive and well worth a visit. Among others are Field & Fork, De Vagabond, Powell House Restaurant, De Companjie, La Sosta, an Italian restaurant. Woodpecker Restaurant and Pizza Deli, Tredici and The Old Gaol Restaurant. This coffee shop and restaurant serves traditional home-made foods such as good old bobotie, old fashioned chicken pie, Cape curries, Moroccan lamb shanks, black pot surprise, lasagne and oxtail, not to mention the other irresistible dishes. There’s an entertainment area for kids so you can enjoy your lunch while they play. 

A little R&R at The Hilltop Retreat . A visit to Swellendam is not complete without a stop at Tredici

 Competitive fun on the rugby field. Typical farm scene during harvest time.

The people of this Republic are looking forward to welcoming you to their fine community of love, art, music, nature, good food and beauty. Make sure to stop over in Swellendam on your next journey along the East Coast. You may just decide to stay!

For more information contact Swellendam Tourism Tel +27 (0)28 514 2770

More info on the town of Swellendam More info on the Overberg area



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