For grand architecture and good yarns the old Dutch Reformed churches of the Karoo are hard to beat, says Christ Marais.
I’m presently a lapsed Anglican who once attended a Dutch Reformed Church service in a dusky Mpumalanga coal town so I could sit next to a certain farmer’s daughter. I was nearly charged with
Attempted Kafoefeling and never saw that girl again. But now that I’ve begun my middle-aged meanderings through the vast Karoo, I’ve developed a keen eye and a deep appreciation for the exterior aesthetics of a Dutch Reformed church, locally referred to as Nederduits Gereformeerde or, in short, NG kerk. You can’t mistake them. They’re the ones – mostly built in the 1800s – that look like impregnable sandstone fortresses, all dollied up with follies and faux buttresses and beautifully carved wooden doors. And they mostly come with fascinating backgrounds.
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Mother churches of the Karoo
Here in my home town of Cradock, I go walking just as the morning sun hits the top of the steeple of the moederkerk, which looks very much like St Martins In The Field in Trafalgar Square, London – albeit a rather cleaner version. And, just like its Limey counterpart, it seems to loom over all its neighbouring buildings like a grande dame. I like to call it the Taj Mahal of the Karoo because it was built out of love and it was built to last.
The Karoo Legend of the Cradock moederkerk is that the dominee’s wife was English and pining for her home country. This influenced the church leaders into choosing a design that paid homage to the genius of Sir Christopher Wren, which the Cradock moederkerk does with its Corinthian portico, clock and Gothic steeple.
There was a hint of skandaal in September 1868 when a massive crowd gathered for the opening ceremony. The building contractor refused to hand over the keys, claiming he had not been paid in full. Finally, after an hour’s delay and some heated words, a group of Cradock’s leading citizens pledged to make good the shortfall and the keys became available.
A labour of love
In Graaff-Reinet, the Victorian Gothic Grootkerk looms – like its sister in Cradock – over all. A local farmer donated all the stone for this marvellous church, even cutting and preparing the blocks himself. One of the interesting design elements is a series of small crowned heads carved into the stone. Interestingly, the Graaff-Reinet church cost £18 000 – just over half the cost of the Cradock church.
If you ever find yourself heading north on the N12 from Klaarstroom to Beaufort West, hook a left to a place called Seekoegat. There you’ll find the ruins of a grand old hotel and a little NG kerk which is very proud of its organ, donated by none other than Cecil John Rhodes himself. They still hold special weddings there, and the occasional bazaar where everyone swaps melkterts and has a good old country time.
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Home of the springboks
Now head due east to the dusty little village of Rietbron, for one major reason: to see the only church steeple in the country that sports a springbokkie. Normally, as you know, there’s a rooster on
top. The kerk in Koffiefontein up on the Horizon Route in the Western Free State boasts a fish – because a long-gone dominee was a keen angler. But mostly it’s roosters. Except for Rietbron, where the land is flat and Antidorcas marsupialis (the noble springbok) rules.
Right on time
Up in Hanover on the N1 it’s obligatory to climb to the top of the Trappieskoppie if you seriously want to view the Karoo in all its vastness. Lower your gaze to the town and you’ll see the fine old NG kerk, where three young Boers were buried after being executed by a British firing squad during the Anglo-Boer War for allegedly sabotaging a train.
One of the things I love about the Karoo is that most of the church clocks keep time. In Richmond’s case it’s all thanks to one Ockert Botha, a former Blue Train driver and a repairman of note. A lady from the local old age home begged him to fix the clock’s chimes because she couldn’t sleep without them. So he did.
“I went up there and found the gears just needed some oiling,” he told Country Life back in 2006. “And I had to fix the hammer that strikes the bell.” Ouma Eileen was so chuffed that she offered him R20 just before she died, which was 22 days short of her 100th birthday.
Back in the 19th century, the Dutch Reformed churches were built with verve and style. And, it seems, there was no shortage of stone. You had Gothic, you had Wren and, in the case of the moederkerk in Somerset East, you had a Dutch Renaissance tower rising from a thatched nave on the eastern facade. Other churches, like the one in Ladismith in the Klein Karoo, were quickly outgrown by swelling congregations. Ladismith’s elegant moederkerk became a storage depot for farm implements and then the publicity office for the town.
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Down an exciting dirt road off the R62 lies the village of Vanwyksdorp, a church settlement with an awesome moederkerk and a small population of residents. Since its heyday, Vanwyksdorp has slumped into a timeless reverie and is currently popular with tourists wanting to do the same thing.
Back in the Karoo Heartland, the NG kerk in the village of Pearston stands on the edge of the Plains of Camdeboo. Before it was built back in the mid-1800s, church services here were held
outdoors under a giant pear tree. Knowing a little about Karoo pears in the height of summer I can only imagine it must have been like dodging baby coconuts under that tree. So when the superb white church was finally built, one assumes there was much relief in the congregation. The open air is lovely, but not so marvellous when you’re being bombed by vrot pears…
Strange but true
Seven facts about the churches of the Karoo…
- The NG kerk in Philippolis is most famous for its pulpit, which was carved from wild olive and put together using no nails, screws or bolts.
- Before the NG kerk came into being in Colesberg, this Northern Cape town was more famous for its gunrunners, horse thieves and rum-runners.
- In the mid-1800s the faithful of Victoria West filled the NG kerk on Sundays but for the rest of the week had their minds focused on the diamond strikes of the hinterland.
- Like nearly all Karoo towns, Prieska was founded by the local NG congregation. The name ‘Prieska’ is an old Koranna word for ‘place of the lost nanny goat’.
- The establishment of Hofmeyr’s famous ‘Pienk Kerk’ was due to the efforts of one Daniel Marais. In fact the town was initially called Maraisburg, but there was another Maraisburg so it became Hofmeyr after one of the initial champions of the Afrikaans language.
- The NG kerk in Prince Albert is in the shape of a Greek cross.
- The stone and timber used to build Nieu-Bethesda’s NG kerk was sourced locally and the lighting system still runs on gas.
Words and Photographykaroospace.co.za Chris Marais
This story first appeared in SA Country Life in August 2008.
In other lives, I was a night shift reporter for the Rand Daily Mail newspaper in Johannesburg, an investigative writer for the saucy Scope Magazine and then chief editor of a lifestyle and travel monthly called Living Africa. All these legendary publications have had their day and, for the past 12 years, I’ve been a Karoo specialist working with my wife Julienne du Toit. The semi-desert, the lovely offbeat folk who live here and the vast night skies are my home now. I’ve been a freelance photo-journo for SA Country Life since dinosaur days.