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The Story-time Town

Text and pictures: Chris Marais. Article from the February 2014 issue of Country Life Magazine.

Somerset East is pure history, in the form of heroes, warriors, rogues and vagabonds going back to the early settler days

Another glorious Somerset East sunset over the bar at the Angler and Antelope Guesthouse, a former Roman Catholic church.If you possess a sturdy vehicle and a love of vast mountain views, I suggest you try the Cradock-Somerset East route via the dusty and daunting Swaershoek Pass. My old bakkie and I have dug ourselves deep into the winter snows here in times gone by, only to be rescued by friendly locals with better traction and road sense than the likes of me.

But as you traverse the valley and slopes of the Swaershoek, let your mind travel back a century or so, to the days of the Anglo-Boer War (South African War), when General Pieter Hendrik Kritzinger ruled the roost in these parts. He was one of General de Wet’s top fighters, and led a number of successful raids into the old Cape Colony.

By all accounts. General Kritzinger was quite the gentleman. When raiding your farm, he would politely seek out your slaughter stock, taking no more than he and his men needed for the pot. Others would simply decimate your herds without a second thought. And according to the late Guy Butler, the general also had a ‘soft spot for Rooinekke and a gently patronising air towards their sons, particularly those who liked the veld’.

 Paulet Street in Somerset east's most historic and scenic avenue. The larje white house with the green and white balcony is the Walter Battiss Art Museum

I mention Kritzinger because he lived out his last years in the Swaershoek, on a farm deep in these kloofs. This is a fantastic place of barking baboons, honeycombs, stark rock formations and bright red winter aloes. And as you crest the Swaershoek Pass and look to the plains of the south, you will see what General Kritzinger and his mounted men saw  as they descended the heights on yet another raid into British-held territory. This road leads you down past the Little Fish River and into Somerset East, which indeed still bears the sign of the British Empire.

Ros Turner runs tourism matters for the local tourism organisation, Blue Crane Tourism. She is Australian-born, but you wouldn’t think so, to hear her passion for this part of the world. “I’d rather die an exciting death in Africa than live a boring life in Australia,” she once told me over a glass of wine. Would that every country town in South Africa had a Ros Turner, I say.

The glorious winding Swaershoek Pass drops into classic eastern Karoo farmland between Cradock and Somerset East. One of the portraits of Walter Battiss at the museum that honours him. Note the jersey full of holes. The front entrance of the Old Pastorie Museum.

Her office is in the Walter Battiss Art Museum. What a coup for Somerset East. I think, every time I stroll about the permanent exhibition of the King of Fook Island’s work. I used to think old Walter was cuckoo, and that his art wasn’t worth the time of day. I’ve grown up a bit since then. I just love the guy’s stuff.

One of the beautiful pen and ink sketches of life in Somerset East by Walter Battiss.Battiss once told writer Jill Johnson, ‘We lived in Somerset East – a small but very beautiful little town at the foot of a mountain. That is what made it beautiful, the mountain, always green, with a waterfall three hundred feet high – unusual for the Karoo’.

There was a time, back in the 1950s, when that ‘green mountain’ called the Boschberg was the refuge of a rather inventive thief called John Kepe. He lived in a cave and stashed all the goods he stole in another cave nearby – in which he also slaughtered and sliced up the sheep he stole. No one knew what he looked like, so, in the time-honoured manner of a true Karoo vagabond, he would often join search parties that were looking for him. Eventually. Kepe was branded a murderer after the death of a shepherd he encountered up there on the Boschberg. He was finally captured and hanged in Pretoria.

I remember once attending a dramatic reconstruction of Kepe’s life somewhere in Somerset East. A local mountain guide called Karen dressed up as Kepe and somebody’s garage had been re-modelled into his cave. Thank God there was lots of Old Brown Sherry and whisky to go around, to help us imagine things properly. Supper in ‘Kepe’s Cave’ was pumpkin soup and sheep ribs – in keeping with the theme of the evening.

As I recall, it all turned out to be quite jolly. “I do love sheep ribs,”’ Ros told someone. “If only one could remove the ribs without having to kill the sheep.” Not only does Ros Turner fancy a sheep rib, she’s also a dab hand at judging sheep shearing and wool classing. We went with her to Glen Avon Farm not far from Somerset East, where the Browns were busy shearing their angora goats.

The sheep and goats of Glen Avon are sheared in a beautiful old shed that was once a British officers' mess during the Anglo-Boer War. On the way to KokskraaL.a hotel for cows? The NG Mother Church is in the middle of Somerset East's financial heart.

While she was mucking in at the fleece table, Ros told me about the time she was a judge at the world shearing champs in Bloemfontein. “I remember the Basque entrants belonging to the Societe de la Deshabille les Mouton – the Society for the Undressing of the Sheep,” she said.

The Harts and their descendants, the Browns, have had Glen Avon for nearly 200 years. The shearing shed was once a British officers’ mess, and the old mill once ground corn for everyone in the district.

The eastern Karoo around Somerset East is a land of aloes, which come into their own during winter. There is little to beat the beauty of a historic Eastern Cape Karoo farm like Glen Avon.

The original farm owner, Robert Hart, lies in a Gothic crypt below the main graveyard on Glen Avon. It was he who established Somerset Farm (where the town stands today) and supplied both the British military and 1820 Settlers with much-needed produce and local farming advice.

Alan Hobson at the Angler and Antelope Guesthouse, where dinners are taken and whisky is drunk in a deconsecrated old church.If you drive out a bit on the N10, there’s a turn-off to Kokskraal somewhere between Cookhouse and Daggaboersnek – don’t ask. You pass the Mooimelk Koei Hotel (again, don’t ask) and then you get to Kokskraal, where Liza Troskie runs a thriving craft project with a group of farm workers’ wives. Kokskraal is where the extravagant explorer Francois le Vaillant first met the Xhosas in the late 18th century. They were busy battling the Tambookies at the time. To this end the Xhosas sorely wanted the iron that Le Vaillant had stored in his caravan, but he gave them beads and tobacco instead.

Kokskraal is also where Le Vaillant decided to terminate his first journey (wisely, as it turned out, because all the in-fighting in the area at the time did not make it very tourist friendly) and travel back to the Great Fish River.

I still search this area from time to time for a place called Keesfontein, thus named by Le Vaillant in honour of his baboon companion called Kees. Le Vaillant’s ‘travels with Kees’ is a story for another day. Suffice to say, this chatty chacma had the daffy Frenchman securely twirled around his hairy little finger.

There's wildlife aplenty on the fabulous game farms in the area.Also on the Somerset East-Cookhouse road is Fairworld, where the Van Aardt family farms with sheep that produce award-winning fine wool. If you like a sheep, you must visit Fairworld and stroll about their wool museum. They used to breed horses until the Brits stole all their stock during the only war anyone really mentions around here. So they simply swopped to sheep in 1913, with massive success.

If you’ve driven down the N10 to Port Elizabeth, you’d have passed the Slagtersnek memorial plinth on your left. The events of the short-lived Slagtersnek Rebellion in 1815 were a major trigger for the Great Trek that followed. The Boers packed their wagons, took a long last look at their former British masters and headed off into the hinterland. And if this historic event is of interest, then you should detour off to the Somerset East museum complex, where the original wooden beam used to hang the five rebels is on display.

But the past is the past, as totally fascinating as is Somerset East’s history. And the future is the Boschberg Tourism Hub, a low-slung complex of restaurants, conference centre, galleries and craft shops at the foot of the legendary mountain that looms over the heritage town.

One of the bright lights of the tourism hub is Nicky Dilima, who runs the mountain biking enterprise here. Working with more than 100 youngsters from the local community, he is teaching them mountain biking skills.

Annabelle and Alan Hobson show the allure of flyfishing in Somerset East The Biltong Festival is held every year in Somerset East's icy mid-winter.

A real asset to Somerset East, the hub ofters up to 250 permanent jobs and links the town with a planned eco-estate on its outskirts. It also has a centre where damaged horses are rehabilitated and made available for rides into the mountains. And if anyone feels like a quick how-to in flyfishing, expert angler Alan Hobson will take you to the little dam in front of the restaurant and give you some casting lessons.

There’s always something – old or new – coming out of Somerset East…

Where to eat, stay and play

Somerset EastHave a Bite

  • For light meals, cakes and coffees, visit the Le Vaillant Restaurant at the Boschberg Hub (042 243 3775), the Nursery Tea Garden on Hare Street (042 243 1714) or The Coffee Shop on Nojoli Street (042 243 0407).
  • For a pub/restaurant experience, visit the Somerset on Main (042 243 1925), The Other Place (079 523 5525) or Steyn’s Kafee (042 243 0140).

Settle in for the Night

  • Angler & Antelope Guesthouse (4-star) now also has a self-cater cottage for families. 082 375 4720, website
  • Somerset House epitomises the graceful architecture and hospitality of the town (4-star). 042 243 1819, email.
  • Glen Avon offers a classic farmstay in lovely old cottages not far from town. 042 243 3628 or website.
  • There is more beautiful farm accommodation at Wilton Guest Farm 083 379 9231
  • Archer Accommodation offers 3-star self-catering in town. 042 243 2794

Get Out and About

  • To plan your trips and accommodation (and to encounter the lovely Walter Battiss Art Museum), contact tourism officer Ros Turner on 042 243 1448, email
  • Oddly enough for a Karoo town, this is a wonderful place for fishermen. Alan Hobson can take you to flyfish for trout or yellowfish or teach you how. 042 243 3440, 082 375 4720 email website.
  • Visit the Old Pastorie Museum to see how people lived centuries ago. 042 243 2079
  • Find some fascinating African jewellery and fine beaded items at Kokskraal 042 247 2500, website.
  • If you’re interested in sheep and shearing, Fairworld Fine Wool Museum is open to the public on request. 042 247 1723, 073 257 8048
  • At the Boschberg Hub, you can have a light meal, coffee or cake, go birdwatching, hiking, look at crafts (including sophisticated paper mache and leatherwork), or go mountain biking. 042 243 3729
  • Encounter wildlife (including elephants and buffalo) at Kuzuko, close to Somerset East. They offer 4-star accommodation. 042 235 1037, website.

 

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