Place of the Long Grass – On the Great Escarpment of Mpumalanga, Lydenburg has a history and magic that pervades the town and its surroundings…
Words and Pictures: Sue Adams
Imagine a young boy, Ludwig von Bezing, growing up exploring the secluded river valleys and kloofs of this mountainous region in Mpumalanga. One day in 1957, he finds strange pottery heads quite unlike anything he has seen before. Over the years he re-visits this site and adds seven of these heads and masks to his collection of curiosities.
Many years later he mentions these masks to fellow students of archaeology at the University of Cape Town. And so begins an investigation into one of South Africa’s enduring and fascinating archaeological mysteries.
The Lydenburg Heads have caused much debate and controversy but have since been carbon dated to about 490 AD. As such they are the earliest known Iron Age artwork south of the Equator, possibly used in cultural rituals such as initiation rites. When I went to visit the replicas in the Lydenburg Museum in Lydenburg, it gave me shivers to realise that more than 2 000 years ago a civilisation existed in these mountains that could create such beautiful artwork.
But the mysteries and history do not stop there. All my life I have driven casually past outcrops of rocks and stones on these hillsides unaware of the array of rock engravings that surround the town of Lydenburg. The name means ‘Place of Suffering’ (from the Dutch lyden) but Lydenburgers are quick to point out that the town is where suffering ended – not began. Now, its new name of Mashishing means Place of the Long Grass.
Local resident, Marius Brits, who describes himself as an amateur archaeologist, showed me these stylised engravings. “It seems to me that some of these engravings show settlement patterns, while others are strikingly similar to geometric engravings in other parts of the world,” says Marius. “I love the mysteries that surround the engravings but much more research needs to be done to be really sure by who or why these engravings were made.”
This was the area of the Pedi and the Bakoni people, who built stone settlements in interesting patterns with long stone roadways through the hills. The Bakoni were not a homogenous tribe but were made up of various peoples who came here to carry out a pastoral existence.
They seem to have traded with passing explorers and adventurers until the Difaqane, the reign of terror in Natal (1818-1835) that rippled outwards and started a forced migration that affected the Bakoni people. The stone settlements were abandoned and the long grasses of this area took over again.
JP Celliers, the archaeologist at the Lydenburg Museum, which is found at the entrance to Gustav Klingbiel Nature Reserve, knows the area well. Get him onto a topic he loves and he’ll make it come alive. “I spend most of my time looking for interesting sites out on the hills, creating another historical walking tour or assessing old buildings,” says JP. “We need to preserve the history around Lydenburg.”
Into this area in the 1840s came the Voortrekkers led by Andries Potgieter who established Ohrigstad. This was found to be a hotbed of malaria and the settlers soon moved to the cooler area of Lydenburg in 1850. Back then, wars continued, with fighting over land, gold and transport routes. The Boers found themselves under fire from the Bapedi, and when the British arrived they were under attack first from the Bapedi and later the Boers, and so the conflict continued.
Lydenburg was on the important transport route to Delagoa Bay (now Maputo Bay, Mozambique), with the first wagons arriving in 1874. Gold was discovered in 1873 and the Lydenburg goldfields were proclaimed. The First Anglo-Boer War broke out between Britain and the Transvaal Republic in 1880 followed by the Second Anglo-Boer War in 1889.
If you visit Pieter and Melitza Krügel on their farm, Die Ou Werf, just outside town it will seem like very little has changed since the days of the Voortrekkers and the Boers. Born and bred in the area, Pieter was brought to this farm by ox wagon at two years of age. His mother’s only possession was an old yellow cupboard in which she kept Andrews Liver Salts for his father when he wasn’t feeling well. It still stands on their stoep today.
Pieter has always loved old things and visiting their farm is like visiting a farm museum. Every item they own has a story and they are renowned in the area for looking after all these precious items. This is a real peek into Voortrekker yesteryear.
Pieter’s father was a carpenter who restored the old Pilgrim’s Rest Hotel. “I remember playing on the veranda of the hotel when old Mrs Guest was throwing out things. I sat and played Jan Pierewiet on the old piano and asked her if I could have the piano. She gave it to me and it was the first thing I ever owned,” says Pieter.
We walk past an old wagon wheel and beautifully restored horse carts to visit the Friesian horses Pieter and Melitza now breed. Not only do they do everything on the farm themselves but Pieter is an artist of note and Melitza has a herb nursery. Pieter is commissioned to paint from across the world and Melitza is renowned for her knowledge of herbs – culinary, cosmetic and medicinal. Their son also has a nursery on the farm and specialises in bonsai and indigenous trees.
Michelle Boshoff is the editor of Lydenburg’s local newspaper, the Highlands Panorama News, and is a descendant of one of the founding families of Lydenburg. Her mother’s great-grandfather was a Johannes Coetser who was clever enough to avoid farming in the heat of the Ohrigstad area and chose the coolth of what is now Lydenburg instead. Indeed his farm was annexed by the Voortrekkers to found the town.
Lydenburg might seem a sleepy little hollow now but do the Historical Day Walk and you’ll realise that 100 years ago it was buzzing. Begin your walk at the tiny Voortrekker School, the oldest existing building in town built in 1851, and then wander across the road to the Voortrekker Church built a year later.
The Dutch Reformed Church was the first church in town but five Catholic nuns arrived in 1893 to found the Roman Catholic Loreto Convent. As you arrive in Lydenburg by car, a mere four hours from Gauteng, think of the poor nuns who took six weeks by ox wagon to arrive there from Pretoria, dealing with heavy rains and floods. We think it’s tough when we get a flat tyre.
I popped into Loreto Convent (now called Wenakker) and was met by Cassius Smith, the deputy director. He explained that when the platinum mines began closing in the area, the demand for convent schooling declined and the Catholic Church decided to close Loreto. In 1969, it was taken over by Wenakker, an organisation that caters for 250 intellectually disabled adults. As he showed me around the beautiful building, Cassius said, “I think the nuns would have been very happy with how the building is used today,” and I’m inclined to agree.
Charlene and Ernest Coetzee are relatively new to Lydenburg but everyone describes Charlene not just as a breath of fresh air but a whirlwind. “We run Aqua Terra Guest House on the river and I just love seeing the cows come down to drink,” she says. “When the world seems mad this is my sanity.” Charlene is the tourism liaison for Lydenburg Mashishing Business Chamber and is passionate about making Lydenburg more attractive and interesting to people passing through. When I spoke to her she was abuzzwith news of a microlight trip she had just taken over Lydenburg.
No longer are ox wagons rolling though town, laden with goods destined for the port at Delagoa Bay (now Maputo Bay), nor does it see the likes of Jock and Percy Fitzpatrick riding into town, or gold miners popping in to the local brewery to spend their earnings. But it’s become a Mecca of another kind – tourists flock here for some of the best fly fishing in the country and hiking, bird watching and archaeology are major attractions.
As I drive out of Lydenburg heading north to the bushveld, massive clouds line the tops of the mountains and I can’t get over the sheer beauty of this town, its brooding hills and the secrets hidden in the long grass.
The Lydenburg Heads
- The original seven heads are in the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town.
- Specularite, a glistening hematite rock often used in ancient rituals, was placed on strategic parts of the heads and would shimmer in the light.
- Only two of the clay heads are large enough to possibly fit on a small child’s head. The others are half that size and may have been used mounted on sticks.
- They have been compared to heads found in the Nok culture in Nigeria but nothing similar has been found in South Africa.
- Wizards Corner Bookshop in the Jock Centre, where you can also ask Marius Brits about the rock engravings, and get a Lydenburg Historical Day Walk brochure.
- The Powder Magazine, built by the British after the Sekhukhune War using the old stones from Fort Mary that are engraved with the names of British soldiers.
- Limonanis, a mail-order house shipped here from Sweden in the 1890s as a wedding gift for German-born Francis Behnke, who started the first brewery in Lydenburg.
- If you love antiques and history, visit Die Ou Werf to chat to Pieter and Melitza Krügel.
- Microlight over Lydenburg – it’s spectacular.
- There’s great flyfishing in the area. Contact Stonecutter’s Lodge for the hotspots.
Don’t expect fine dining in the town but there’s a selection of eateries with great atmosphere, such as quirky Jam Jar Lounge and its cosy nooks and crannies, and Die Juffauens Koffiewinkel in an old red double-decker bus. Play croquet on the lawn or climb to the top of the bus and have coffee and cake there. Café Crust owner André du Preez focuses on fresh and homemade and on Fridays he bakes delicious breads (try the sweet potato and rosemary).
Where to Sleep
- Find a good choice at www.sa-venues.com
- Aqua Terra Guest House has a farm feel and is on the river. Charlene and Ernest make you feel welcome immediately and can tell you what to do and see in town. It’s also a great stopover en route to Kruger National Park.