A VISIT TO SWELLENDAM
Organiser Juletha Zietsman and special guide Braam van Zyl of RSA fame.
Zuurbrak, a delightful village with interesting small square houses near Swellendam is a strange place no longer. Thanks to Maggie Jantjies, who runs the Publicity Office, we were soon all the wiser about its character and learnt that, on occasions, the original Kakoen name Xairn, meaning Paradise, is still used - saw it on some jam labels. The story goes that when the London Missionary Society arrived the locals lived in round huts, but once they had converted to Christianity they rebuild their houses into a square with a neat gable - and we saw a few through the mist and the rain. Of course, today there is a the Dutch Reformed Church on the town’s square and the Anglican Church of typical 19th Century design built in 1837 after the freedom of the slaves.
Braam van Zyl, our raconteur, a broadcaster and historian, was our guide. He related the sad saga of a mixed race village living a rural life, changed once the whites were forced out due to the Group Areas Act. The lifestyle of the locals changed due to buying funeral policies and other amenities of modern living. The men began to go to the cities to work, and Zuurbraak became a dormitory village. The houses were dilapidated as they needed so much upkeep. Luckily the Swellendam Trust stepped in and restored the old Church and the Pastorie, but as usual funds are needed as they always are; and Maggie longs for a butchers shop and a bakery to open up again. She told us about the chairs which were made locally. Our planned walk became a slow drive through the village, thanks to the gentle rain.
We drove past Lismore, the old Dutch house of many and varied gables and the first farm to produce its own electricity, and we stood in the shearing shed where the sheep were once shorn with electrically driven hand cutters. Joseph Barry and Nephews, general merchants, were the great entrepreneurs of this area in the mid-Victorian era when wool was king. But they fell on hard times due to a slump and over-speculation and also the sinking of their coaster, The Kadie, in 1864, but what they built they built to last. They left their stamp on Lismore, Auld House in Swellendam, the old warehouse and also left their name in the village of Barrydale nearby. They left a legacy of many stalwart descendants that have enriched the Overberg.
We drove on in procession past a monument which for a brief moment was the boundary of the DEIC, over the national road. There was a gem of an old Cape Dutch house, thanks to the Fraser-Jones family; a restored and loved Rotterdam. Our guide here was the owner, Andrew Fraser-Jones. This most historic house of the Overberg was a loan farm belonging to JA Horak between 1749 and 1766. It was then granted to H van Vollenhoven in 1783. The house, with a holbol gable dating from 1794 was built by the Landdrost Antonie Faure, who owned 29 slaves and horses, sheep and cattle. The house has had many owners in its long history, including Dr Joseph Mackrill, the botanist who wrote a treatise on yellow fever and was the first to introduce the buchu plant to Europe. Next came the Holtzhusen family and a Captain Buchanan of the Madras army who renamed the farm, `The Vale of Endric’. When the Steyns lived there an exact daily diary was kept in clear detail. After the De Vos family owned the place for a couple of generations it fell into disrepair, but thanks to the Fraser-Jones family who rescued the property in 1983 it was restored and is a delight to visit. We also heard about Jan Andries Auge, Governor Ryk Tulbagh’s master gardener who had retired to the Gamtoos Valley only to be left destitute when Xhosas invaded the Cape in 1799. He was rescued by the kindly Faure and spent his last years on Rotterdam.
We had our lunch, an excellent soup and bread, in the new wing which blends in very well with the old house, tastefully prepared by Anneke Fraser-Jones. Then it was off to visit the third oldest bridge in South Africa – all stout pillars but alas nothing to ride on. It’s called the `sugar’ bridge because the builders discovered that plaster of paris mixed with sugar is harder than without. But what all this has to do with those stout stone pillars we saw is a genuine scientific mystery.
We went back to Swellendam and wandered around the environs of Auld House soaking in atmosphere. That evening we spent with Braam van Zyl and enjoyed his hospitality and a bring and braai. Taffy and David gave us a look back at the sixties with pictures of their wedding, still in black and white, which happened right here in Swellendam in 1962.
Sunday was too wet for our Swellendam walkabout. The visit to Malgas had to be cancelled due to the state of the roads and the pont was also out of operation. So we contented ourselves with a tour of the Drostdy Museum and enjoyed our tour guide, Jomien Havenga. Afterwards at the Museum Coffee house we had such vast slices of carrot cake and melk tart that we departed lunchless after an excellent outing. Many thanks to Juletha who went down to Swellendam and checked the whole route with Braam van Zyl.