It’s always been the small town you drive past as you head out of Joburg towards Durban and never have time to visit. SUE ADAMS stops to explore.
Just off the N3 about 40 kilometres south-east of Joburg, at the foot of the Suikerbosrand mountains, Heidelberg has a protected setting up against the ridges of the Witwatersrand, with the Blesbokspruit running through the town and rolling highveld all around it. For HJ Ueckermann it was the ideal spot for setting up a trading store in 1862, and so began the town of Heidelberg that he named after his beloved hometown in Germany.
The first thing I notice when I drive in at sunrise are the trees and well-watered gardens surrounding many of the pretty Victorian houses that drip wisteria and roses. Like most country towns, the tall spire of the church leads me in, this time to the Klipkerk, a building of great beauty.
Built of sandstone in 1890, it’s a beacon for passing travellers. But there’s quite some acrimony behind the church’s early history. It initially belonged to the United Church (Nederduits Hervormde Kerk and Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk), but a breakaway by the Hervormde community saw them also wanting ownership of the church. The rift was eventually settled in the Supreme Court, where it was ruled that the Klipkerk would go to what was still called the United Church, and the rectory to the Hervormde Kerk.
Then there’re the many versions of why the Klipkerk clock tower collapsed in 1909, but as intriguing as many of them were, investigations later discovered that it was all because of bad workmanship and three days of incessant rain.
An early morning cruise around a small town can give you a real feel for the place. Further up the hill, another old stone building that glows in the sun was once the jail. But the real treasure is a woman digging in the jail grounds. “Welcome, excuse the outfit but I am digging a hole for a tree-planting ceremony,” says Esté Galloway.
Before I know it she opens up and shows me around what’s now the Old Jail, built in 1888. We move from the men’s section to the officers quarters, to the stables and then to the women’s section. Remains of old showers, bucket latrines and thick stone walls tell the story of tough times, but now some of the rooms are converted into a Defence Force Signallers Museum and a MOTH (Memorable Order of the Tin Hats) Hall.
“Someone has to step up and rescue special places like this,” Esté says, when I ask why she became involved. “This is our heritage and we need to look after it.” Esté is secretary of the Heidelberg Heritage Association that is working hard to have the jail declared a heritage site. (I later discover Esté has another passion, for AC Cobra sports cars.)
Evert Pretorius, the Old Bill (leader) of the MOTHS Suikerbosrand Shellhole, arrives to give me a tour. “When the MOTHS first got involved in this place in 1983 it was a mess,” he says. “There were people living inside and the grass was growing higher than the windows. We’ve fixed it up and the MOTHS do quite a bit of fundraising for people in the town.”
X marks the spot that Esté proudly shows me, a bullet hole in the back stone wall of the jail. Here, Salman van As, a field cornet with the Heidelberg Commando in the Anglo-Boer War, was executed. Stories differ as to what actually happened, but it’s alleged that an English soldier called Captain Miers approached a Boer commando with a white flag hoping to convince them to surrender.
Van As shot him and was imprisoned for this after peace was signed. It seems the court case was rather cavalier and Van As was found guilty and was shot against the wall at the jail. A few years later the British military admitted to Van As’ father that the court case was irregular and unfair. They offered compensation. “But that was blood money and it was refused,” explains Esté who, like me, loves all the stories that surround these places.
Old feuds can last a long time and the Kloof Cemetery up against the mountain on the edge of town holds many sad stories. Dusty graves set among ubiquitous cypress trees and old oaks tell of great hardship in those early years. There’s a special section of steel crosses for British soldiers who died for King and Empire during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902. Graves of people who died from enteric fever and drowning lie alongside those of Boer women and children, who lost their lives in the concentration camps of that same war.
But exploring dusty graveyards and old stone jails is thirsty work, which is why I discover that not all of the treasures in Heidelberg are old and historical. Diamante en Goud is a one-stop-shop where you can arrive in the morning and easily stay for the day.
I am served loose-leaf tea in a teapot with a silver tea strainer, and a selection of cakes. All terribly civilised. Chickens cluck underfoot in the courtyard and shopping includes antique furniture, old-fashioned sweets, clothes, gifts and leather goods. But the name of the shop is really what the main industry is about – jewellery is made to order by six goldsmiths working on site in view of visitors.
Heidelbergers are proud of their heritage and, from chatting to locals, it seems that many have returned to live here. “My wife, Wena, was a prophet of her own future,” Dirk Kotze tells me, when I pop in to their pretty antique shop and home, Ancient Days.
“As a child she would walk past this old house, built in 1903 for the magistrate, and tell her friends that she would live in it one day. We returned here with our four children, and bought the house and renovated it.” Now the Kotzes sell antiques and bric-a-brac, and serve me coffee and cake on their veranda.
Ambidextrous artist, Elsa Cloete, has also chosen to spend most of her life in Heidelberg, with a few minor relocations in between. “Only I know what the right and left hands are doing and I mark my left-handed work,” she says with a smile, in her tiny studio at home. Elsa sells her art online to clients world-wide.
Sybrand van der Spuy is a true fourth-generation Heidelberger and “part-time historian”. His grandfathers fought on opposite sides in the Anglo-Boer War and at the end of the war his British grandfather chose to stay in the area and became the head of police in Heidelberg.
Sybrand knows every inch of the town and chatting to him is much like taking a virtual tour. “My father was the snooker champion of the Heidelberg Club, and only men were allowed in,” he tells me, as he sifts through his old photographs. “In those days there were 29 pubs in town.”
He describes how his father was friendly with the well-known Afrikaans poet AG Visser who lived here all his life.” Sybrand has a passion for stories and tells me that Visser’s house was a museum but that it is not being looked after. “All its life Heidelberg has had strife and politics” he says. The town began as a trading store but served as the capital of the Boer’s Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR), later known as the Transvaal Republic, before being annexed by Britain during the Anglo-Boer War.
I do love a railway station, and find the town’s grand old station, built of stone in 1895. Sadly it was closed in 1961. Anton Rupert opened it as a Transport Museum in 1975 and it remained so until 2004. At the moment it’s closed but, if you’re with someone in the know like Esté, you might be able to have a look inside. Bouwer Wiesmar is a tour guide with big plans to re-open the station as a museum, with one of the old steam locomotives still on site.
One of the grander houses, De Rust, owned by the Bezuidenhouts (of Bez Valley, Johannesburg fame), lies just outside Heidelberg on the road to Vereeniging. Frederick Bezuidenhout arrived in Heidelberg from the Netherlands in 1858, later moving to Johannesburg and buying up farms like Doornfontein and Turffontein (now the familiar names of suburbs in Joburg).
Frederick and his wife built their beautiful home here in 1906, importing most of the furniture and building materials from Europe – such as tiles from Italy, Oregon pine from America and steel rails from Glasgow, Scotland. Descendant and present owner, Philip Minaar, proudly shows me around, pointing out each fitting and item in this grand old house. He loves sharing his family story, and his wife, Christie, runs a guest house in the outbuildings.
Having tried a couple of the delicious coffee shops in town, I want to know what else there is in the way of food. “This town is the home of the pork sausage,” declares Esté. Eskort Limited began pork production in Escourt in Natal in 1917 and a new factory began production in Heidelberg in 1956. What we take for granted, like the country’s first vacuum-packed sliced bacon was sold here in 1959.
Eskort has a factory shop and butchery in Heidelberg which is renowned among travellers, who drive the N3 from Gauteng to Durban, but always stop off at this shop.
Esté suggests we visit the cheese-making Hyde family of Hydeaway Farm, a few kilometres outside Heidelberg. This is a family affair explains Rain, one of the Hyde daughters, as she greets me surrounded by cows at the gate.
Her sister Firn does all the artificial insemination of the cows while ex-lawyer and mother, Dinki, runs the dairy operation, and husband Jon is the cheese maker who also works in IT. They make a range of flavoured gouda as well as a Boerenkaas, and know each cow by name.
The more time I spend in this town the more I realise how much there is to see and how many stories there are. You can do a whistle-stop drive-through but then you would miss the warm heart of Heidelberg, which is its people. And you might miss Esté taking her Cobra for a quick spin.