Pushing Up Daisies
By Marion Whitehead
Few flower tourists realise Vanrhynsdorp was a hotbed of resistance during the Anglo–Boer War – or that those long-dead soldiers are still providing the best show in town.
The campsite on the edge of Vanrhynsdorp was packed full of flower tourists, all of them hunting for spring splendours in this arid corner of the Knersvlakte. Some were simply stopping over on their way up north, while others used it as a central point for exploring the area, from the bulb-rich Bokkeveld around Nieuwoudtville in the east to the daisy-decked West Coast. As I tucked into a meal at the ZAR Restaurant at the camp, I had to chuckle to myself: The best flowers I had seen on this trip were hiding in the graveyard next door.
I went there to take a photo of the Anglo–Boer War graves for a friend, with the help of Oom Christo Paulsen, a retired tax-law lecturer turned local fundi, whose one-month stint helping out in the information office somehow led to him hanging around for about 16 years before he decided to retire from that job too.
He said this sleepy little dorpie on the Troe-Troe River, at the foot of the majestic Matsikamma Mountains, was the last town in Boer hands during the final stages of the Anglo–Boer War over a century ago, when guerrilla soldiers refused to give up and ran rings around the British troops.
I was surprised at the profusion of flowers in the cemetery, a carpet so thick even on the pathways that finding a spot to step on without crushing the gorgeous blooms was almost impossible. And it was the best variety show on the flower route: Drifts of blue lachenalias, or viooltjies, as numerous as all the daisies littering the roadsides in other places, serenaded the British soldiers of old who had given their lives ‘for king and country’, according to the memorial stone. ‘The lachenalias usually tend to grow bigger, though this year, the rains weren’t so good,’ apologised Christo on their behalf.
Distinctive gorteria, nicknamed beetle daisies for the three black markings on their petals, and cheerful Namaqualand daisies needed no invitation to ambush the Boer memorial, which is right next to the British one. ‘The Boers and the Brits fought each other, now they’ve lain side by side for over 100 years,’ commented Christo wryly. ‘The dead can’t do anything.’
But the real finds were with the fallen Cape rebels, who were buried without headstones. ‘It was to protect their families from being harassed and punished by the British,’ said Christo. Between these mounds were seldom-seen ferraria, spreading out their curly petals in praise of the men’s courage and growing in an abundance I hadn’t seen before, even in the West Coast National Park. Massonia poked out spiny blooms defiantly from between flat leaves, a bit like the men who had joined the intrepid commandos invading the Cape.
The soldiers were buried quite a long distance from home. General Jan Smuts and his men had made their way across the Orange River in the dead of night in September 1901, in the Herschel district. Their strategy was to create a diversion that would hopefully distract the British forces from the Transvaal and Free State. They divided into three large groups that only reunited after their long ride through the Cape at Urionskraal, a farmstead outside of Vanrhynsdorp. ‘Smuts came down the Koue Bokkeveld Mountains at Kobee,’ said Christo. There must have been a lot of backslapping and handshaking as they discussed their successes – and sorrow over the men lost on the way.
We drove south along the road to Gifberg Pass, so that we could get a view of Windhoek farm, site of a skirmish where many of the soldiers buried in the Vanrhynsdorp cemetery had fallen. Purple vygies greeted us in the wide bowl embraced by the Gifberg Mountains. ‘Commandant Ben Bouwer hid out in the mountains, watching where the sentries were posted and so getting to know their routine,’ pointed out Christo. ‘Another skirmish took place at Aties, a farm in a hollow on the other side of the N7 where the British had a fort.’
We turned in towards a back road that links up with the Urionskraal road – also a favourite of cyclists out for a spin –and found yellow was the in colour: Skaapbos and vivid perdebos bloomed gaily where commandos had once ridden.
Vanrhynsdorp was occupied by the commandos a number of times during the war. As a result, the local museum and info centre has a room devoted to these events. ‘It was difficult for the people here. Many of them had family among the commandos, but they were also British subjects, so their loyalties were divided,’ explained Christo.
Manie Maritz and his commandos broke into the magistrate’s office and helped themselves to the cash. ‘Maritz told everyone he bought the Tommies drinks too, but others say that was a liegstorie,’ said Christo, while showing me the damage still visible to this day on the door frame where they jemmied the lock.
The building was also a residence and when Smuts arrived, he stayed in what is now Christo’s house and was one of the highlights on Vanrhynsdorp’s Centenary War Route. ‘Smuts wrote his reports in what is now my dining room,’ said Christo.
The town jail has undergone quite the transformation since Eduard and Monica Cornelissen turned it into a tourist attraction. Die Ou Tronk is now filled with vintage farm tools, artworks, curious succulent plants – and ghosts, if you get locked in after dark. ‘When Veldkornet Myburgh and the OFS commando took Vanrhynsdorp, they locked the prison warder up in his own jail with two of his policemen,’ chuckled Eduard.
When the town changed hands, the Boers were put behind bars. The flowers, however, bloom each spring, regardless of who is in charge.
Other floriferous Anglo-Boer War sites
• The commandos besieged the strategic copper mine at Okiep near Springbok and used the mission village of Concordia as their headquarters. In spring, the daisies carpeting the countryside invade the two dorps’ roadsides in equal measure.
• Villagers at the remote mission town of Leliefontein, beyond Kamiesberg Pass outside Kamieskroon, were massacred in 1902 by Boer leader Manie Maritz’s commandos for being British sympathisers. Fellow Boer leaders who visited later were appalled at the brutality of the attack. The settlement is named after the abundant arum lilies here.
• Englishman’s Grave, beyond Pakhuis Pass outside Clanwilliam, famous for its annual wildflower show, is the last resting place of a British soldier killed by a Boer sniper and was reputed to be the military casualty of the war closest to Cape Town.
GOOD TO KNOW
Clanwilliam, Vanrhynsdorp, Kamieskroon and Springbok are on the N7 north of Cape Town. Use the towns as a base and take the back roads to see the best flowers.
Tourism info, 027 201 3371 www.namaquawestcoast.com
The West Coast Flower hotline, 072 938 8186
*Marion Whitehead is the author of Visitors Guide: Flower Route (MapStudio)
Source: AA Traveller