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Cradock: Karoo style churches, legends, festivals and spinning windpumps

Cradock: Karoo style churches, legends, festivals and spinning windpumps
The classic old CAT registration that Cradock was famous for. (Photo: Chris Marais)

This little river town in the Eastern Cape Karoo is a tough nut, but it also has a soft heart, a sweet tooth and a deep affection for sport, festivals and parades.

Over more than two centuries, the settlement has survived and seen off the Frontier Wars, the Anglo-Boer Wars and two major floods that devastated many dwellings near the riverside. 

Cradock nestles in a ring of low-lying hills crested with the red winter blooms of Aloe ferox

It began as a frontier supply depot for adventurers, miners and hunters drifting into the vast Karoo plains and beyond.

Today, local life is mainly about the surrounding farmers, a thriving school system and looking after the stream of travellers heading to and from the coast.

Its communities, once divided, mostly live in harmony next to one another. In the centre of Cradock, staying in a cheerful jumble of Karoo-style homes and liquorice allsorts houses, kids of many different backgrounds enjoy the summer evenings together in the streets.

Cradock NG Mother Church, Eastern Cape Karoo

The Cradock NG Mother Church – shades of Trafalgar Square. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The Mother Church

Cradock’s Moederkerk looks just like St Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square, London.

Some call it the Taj Mahal of the Karoo because it was said to have been conceived out of love and built to last. 

The Karoo legend of the Cradock Moederkerk is that the dominee’s wife was English and pining for her home country.

Architect James Gibb designed the church in a Georgian style, and his blueprints were internationally copied.

There was a hint of skandaal in September 1868 as a massive crowd thronged about at the opening ceremony of this exciting new church in Cradock.

The building contractor refused to hand over the keys to the church, claiming he had not been paid in full.

Finally, a group of leading Cradock citizens pledged the shortfall and the keys were made available.

During the Anglo-Boer War, the Moederkerk was used by the British as a lookout. War correspondent Edgar Wallace reports in New Zealand’s Evening Post in October 1901:

“And so the roof of Cradock’s pretty church was garrisoned, and a man in khaki wagged a flag from its steeple, and sober businessmen shut up their shops and ran a ‘pull-through’ through their rifles, and the man who at 9 o’clock was serving out butter, was at 10 o’clock serving out ammunition…”

St Peter’s Anglican Church, Eastern Cape Karoo

St Peter’s Anglican Church – on the walking tour of Cradock. (Photo: by Chris Marais)

St Peter’s Anglican Church

“On Sunday, 5 November 1848 Bishop Robert Gray conducted the first Anglican service in Cradock in the Dutch Reformed Church, which was kindly made available for the occasion.

When Bishop Gray visited Cradock two years later, he called a meeting at which it was decided to build a small church, capable of enlargement, for 700 pounds. St Peter’s Church was completed in 1858. Built of ‘random rubble’ and with a steeply pitched Gothic roof, originally of slate, it cost 1,000 pounds.” – extract from A Literary Walking Tour of Old Cradock, compiled by Brian Wilmot. 

“To save on the electricity bill the frugal churchwardens of St Peter’s saw to it that most of the lights in the chancel and choir area were switched off during the sermon. 

Mr Evans, a Welsh fitter and turner from the Railways, who sang a good bass, could now fall asleep and zizz away quietly like one of his own steam engines whose fires are low.” — extract from Karoo Morning by Guy Butler.

Several family crypts were built underground in the churchyard. In one of them lie the remains of a Danish lion catcher’s son. Toger von Abo, one of the famous ‘Danes of Cradock’, set up cages on the town square for the lions he captured and sent on to Europe. 

Here be gatherings

Some weekends you wake up in an Eastern Cape Karoo town and it feels like the days of Kyalami and the Formula 1 Circus.

The streets hum and thrum to the sound of a hundred motorcycles, more than 50 vintage cars or, in the case of the Karoo Mighty Men Conference outside Middelburg, the arrival of many thousands of males coming to bond and worship together.

MG Club gathering in Market Street, Cradock

MG Club gathering in Market Street. (Photo: Chris Marais)

There’s a full diary of events planned every year along the route and, because nothing beats the thrill of the open road, more and more South African city folk are choosing a Karoo venue for their annual conferences, rallies and general get-togethers.

Whether it’s the Fish River Canoe Marathon in Cradock, a Harley Davidson gathering or an Instagram jam in Graaff-Reinet, a garden festival in Bedford or a celebration of the humble pumpkin in Nieu Bethesda, the region remains a vibrant destination for events throughout the year.

The Eastern Cape Karoo is just a day’s drive on decent roads from the major urban centres of Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth. 

What makes the area perfect for events? There are always enough beds, meals, wide-angle skies, outdoor adventures and welcoming smiles for everyone.

A sense of style

Most Karoo houses were handmade from sunbaked bricks, mud and reeds, and are far more pleasant dwelling spaces than modern constructions.

But one should know a thing or two about local temperature control: to cool the place down in midsummer, it’s best to open the loft doors to release the heat trapped in the attic.

Karoo houses, it turns out, are full of quirks and unexpected secrets. In this dry land with its scorching summers and frozen winters, houses that were crafted more than a hundred years ago with ‘primitive’ materials are often still standing. And they breathe and flex like living things.

In the Karoo, you will still find houses with peach pip floors, sash windows, cross-and-bible doors, broekie lace fretwork and real shutters.

Verandah roofs are distinctively curved into shapes that resemble billowing canvas, in styles called bellcast, bullnose and Regency.

Then there are those distinctive architectural features that Karoo converts learn like a new language: quoins, gables, parapets, cornices, finials, fanlights, breakdance and brandsolders.

“Karoo houses are aesthetically pleasing. They’re good investments, people are nostalgic about them and quite honestly, they’re just nicer houses to live in,” says Eastern Cape architect Peter Whitlock.

Eastern Cape Karoo houses

Karoo-style houses – made of sunbaked bricks, mud and corrugated iron. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The legend of Oom Das 

There’s a busy cluster of spinning mini windpumps on the southern outskirts of Cradock.

Stop and buy one. You will marvel at the craftsmanship and the ingredients that go into the windpumps: silver-painted wire struts, glued bottle tops, parts of spray cans, soft drink tins, coffee tins and window blinds for blades. 

Most of the Cradock toy windpump parts come from the local rubbish dump. 

The crafters sift through the trash until they find the right component, and then they’re off to the hardware store for paint and thinners.

Wind pump crafts, Eastern Cape Karoo

The spinning wheels of the wind pump crafts on display at the southern entrance to Cradock. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Compared to the love, labour and outlay costs of the windpumps, the crafters charge low prices for their products. They earn a few hundred rands in the lean winter months and, come the summer travel season, they make a few hundred more.

While you’re choosing your favourite windpump to take home, ask them about the late Oom Das Mowers. 

They will tell you Oom Das had the strongest teeth in town. He used them as pliers to bend the wire while he fashioned his exquisite windpumps.

You will also find stalls selling these Karoo icons on the outskirts of neighbouring Middelburg.

Cradock graveyard, Eastern Cape Karoo

The Cradock graveyard – Gothically lovely and full of legend. (Photo: Chris Marais)

If ghosts could talk

Should the dead souls of the Cradock Cemetery rise from their graves on a moonlit night and sit down together at a long table by the side of the Great Fish River, it would indeed be a feast of note.

Hosting the spectral supper would be Dr Reginald Koettlitz and his wife, Marie Louise. He died on January 10, 1916, and Mrs Koettlitz expired a scant two hours after him. 

Read the inscription above his plinth:

“An explorer and traveller, surgeon and geologist to Expeditions North Polar and Abyssinia and with Scott to the Antarctic.” Enough said.

To his right would be General Pieter Hendrik Kritzinger, a major Boer warrior who led his British pursuers a devil’s dance through the Karoo Midlands.

To his left would be Harry Edwin Wood, the official Astronomer and Timekeeper for the Union of South Africa. He is also known for his discovery of a comet recorded as ‘1660 Wood’.

Somewhere down there is Peter ‘No-Wine-Please’ Sidey, buried in 1864 with the help of the Cradock Teetotal Society. 

The remainder of the ghostly dinner party would include more than 70 British soldiers, a gaggle of nuns, four Cape Rebels (graves washed away in the 1974 floods) and look, here’s one Harry Potter, far from home, buried in Karoo soil.

Marlene van Nuwenhuys outside the More4Less emporium

Marlene van Nuwenhuys, the doyen of the More4Less emporium. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Treasure hunt

More4Less, not 100 metres west of the Cradock Moederkerk, is the town’s mystery treasure chest.

If you really want to make owner Marlene van Nuwenhuys happy, give her a stuffed attic to rummage through, preferably on an old Karoo farm where the owners are downsizing to their retirement cottage in Port Alfred.

Her shop is a clearing house for Karoo Midlands family history, flowing in and out constantly on a tide of something kitschy, something classic and something you simply have to own.

Electric guitars, jaffle-makers, your granddaddy’s canvas golf bag, stopwatches, letter openers, snuffboxes, newspapers from half a century ago and even a funky little caravan (a snip at fifteen grand) fill the cavernous store. 

“My whole shop is an adventure!” she will tell you, those eyes sparkling with energy and passion.

Marlene and her family have learned the knack of hardly ever letting a bargain slip past their eagle eyes. But they’re not infallible.

“Quite often I’ve priced a book at R10, sold it and then discovered it’s a very valuable edition,” she admits. “But it doesn’t happen a lot these days.”

Cradock people all know: before you rush out and buy something new, go and nose about More4Less first. You always come away with a prize, even if you sell it back to Marlene next week.

Karoo Food Festival, Eastern Cape Karoo

Photographers fooling around during the 2022 Karoo Food Festival in Cradock. (Photo: Chris Marais)

A time to feast

Cradock’s Karoo Food Festival in late autumn is a madhouse of fancy cheeses, dressed lamb, locally grown nuts, unusual pickles, juicy olives, prickly pear syrup and the most delicious honey this side of the Compassberg. 

There will be homemade relishes and jams, some of the best biltong in the Karoo (those are, indeed, fighting words), seasonal fresh fruit and vegetables that taste like they should. 

To wash it all down there will be raspberry juice, ginger beer, local handcrafted ales and solar-roasted java. 

There’s also an honorary Karoo citizen from Wellington who, once the late-night music kicks into high gear, gets us all pickled with his handcrafted upmarket moonshine.

The arts of preserving, cheesemaking, cooking in formidable Aga stoves and feeding large groups with effortless grace may have died out in the cities, but they remain the skills of Karoo women and men of all colours and creeds. 

You can also expect engaging talks presented by the rock star chefs of the Karoo, many of whom are bestselling cookbook authors. 

They give masterclasses, passing on the wisdom of not only their own experiences, but the ways and cultures of many generations past.

All you need do is come hungry.

Olive Schreiner and her husband Cron

Olive Schreiner and her husband Cron along the Great Fish River. (Photo: Amazwi South African Museum of Literature)

The writers and the rocks

Approaching Cradock from the south along the N10, one enters a loose ring of mountains and flat-topped hills that have long fascinated and inspired famous writers associated with Cradock, beginning with Olive Schreiner, author of The Story of an African Farm.

Olive and her husband Samuel Cronwright (Cron) Schreiner lived for a while on a farm called Krantz Plaas. They used to picnic at a favourite spot on the Great Fish River and explore the district.

One day they climbed to the top of nearby Buffelskop and Olive was so entranced by the grand view that she made Cron promise to bury her up there. 

He kept his word and today a lonely sarcophagus stands on Buffelskop, where Olive Schreiner, her husband, their small baby and dog are interred.

Celebrated author Etienne van Heerden also comes from these parts and often makes a pilgrimage “up to Olive”. He is an ardent admirer of her works and enduring legacy of spirit.

The late poet, author and teacher Guy Butler was born in Cradock. His aunt, the local journalist Mary Butler, took him up to Buffelskop when he was a young boy. 

It was Mary Butler who reported thus on Olive’s interment on Buffelskop: “There was not a cloud, and the great panorama stretched away in all its beauty and grandeur.” DM

This is an excerpt from Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. The authors are offering a two-book special of Moving to the Platteland: Life in Small Town South Africa and Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo at only R520, including courier costs in South Africa. For enquiries, contact [email protected]

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