An ancient outcrop that dates back 440 million years is treasured as the Jewel of Hermanus
Words and Pictures: David Shreeve
In the days when one of the Western Cape’s favourite seaside settlements boasted the unwieldy name of Hermanuspietersfontein, an extraordinary geographical feature of the village was a distinctive hill simply named Klip Kop (mound or hillock of rocks).
It was only after the death of one William Hoy (who became Sir William), and because he is buried at the top of this distinctive hill (at his own request), that it became known unoffically but throughout the town as Hoy’s Koppie.
Hoy was, and still is, considered a hero in Hermanus. Born in Scotland, he came out to South Africa to join the railways in 1902. A remarkably able and meticulous organiser, he controlled the movement of supplies to the British troops during the Anglo-Boer War, for which he received his knighthood. Post-war, he rose rapidly up the promotion ladder, finally becoming the youngest general manager of South African Railways at age 27. (The fact that he married the boss’s daughter might also have helped).
A madly keen fisherman, his favourite holiday spot was Hermanus, which he visited often. He is credited with recognising that the natural charm of this small coastal resort would be ruined if it was made more accessible to weekenders, so he persistently blocked requests for a rail link from the main line at Bot River to the village.
To this day, locals love to point out that Hermanus has a designated site for a station (clearly marked with typical SAR signage), but no railway lines anywhere near it. Later there was an even more compelling reason to name the hill after him. After William’s death in 1930, his wife Gertrude kept her husband’s wish to be buried on top of Klip Kop, although how she went about obtaining official permission to bury William outside a designated burial ground is a mystery.
Gertrude returned to Britain, and died there, but her remains were brought back to Hermanus and buried beside her husband’s at the summit of the koppie. Certainly no one seems to begrudge them this posthumous honour, nor has anyone ever challenged the hill’s name.
A remarkable aspect of the koppie is that it lies on a north/south axis, with some of its fynbos growing only on the east slope and others only on the west. In 2008, a fierce fire fanned by gale-force winds raged over the hill but, far from being disastrous, it destroyed most of the alien plants, and many indigenous species, whose seeds need fire to kickstart germination, thrived.
To the delight of local botanists and nature lovers, a huge variety of flowers flourished: watsonias and gladioli, poprosies (Hermannia rudis), romuleas and yellow and purple Hesperantha radiata. No one can really explain how the resident population of dassies (hyrax) survived the blaze, but they can be seen every day, sunning themselves on the rocks with a noticeably proprietorial demeanour.
One of the reasons for building a wooden walkway on the northern slopes was to prevent precious bulbs and young plants being trampled, and to make it more difficult for those with itchy fingers to dig up these wild species. Of course it also gave visitors easy access to the koppie.
On the southern side, an extended car park leads to an impressive flight of stone steps. Both access points lead to contour paths that circumnavigate the koppie, and lead to the Hoy graves at the top, 75 metres above the sea.
Improving accessibility and mobility on Hoy’s Koppie has been undertaken by the Cliff Path Management Group, a band of volunteers originally formed to maintain and improve the famous pathway along the top of the Hermanus cliffs. It was probably a natural extension for them to take responsibility for Hoy’s Koppie as well – to arrange the widening and surfacing of the koppie’s paths to allow easier access for tourists of all ages. Future plans include the introduction of guided tours of the koppie during which visitors can learn more about the indigenous and endemic plants, the rock types and the history of this fascinating outcrop.
Geologists estimate the age of the koppie at about 440 million years. They explain it was originally part of the mainland. Before the shoreline receded, it was formed by the cutting action of waves which, over the centuries, wore away the softer material and left behind the harder quartzitic sandstone.
Somewhat unique in the area, this must have inevitably attracted the attention of the original inhabitants, who made use of it in one way or another. One’s thoughts go immediately to the Khoi, the San or the Kung people (previously grouped together as Bushmen), but there are no rock paintings to bear this out, despite there being a very substantial cave on the western side of the koppie. Archaeological inspections of the cave reveal that the early inhabitants derived most of their food from the sea, suggesting they were likely to be early Strandlopers.
The somewhat controversial historian Dr Cyril Hromnik puts forward a fascinating hypothesis that the original inhabitants here were a people he calls the Quena or Otentottu. An Afro-Asian people, their ancestors were ancient Indian gold miners who sailed here from the east well before the birth of Christ. Hromnik hypothesises that they interbred with the local Kung people who inhabited scattered areas of this part of the world.
His theory is that these people with their ancient Indian heritage (who came to be referred to as Hottentots) used Hoy’s Koppie for religious purposes and bases this on the rock structures he observed on the hillock. These, he claims, are similar to primitive rock structures he has studied in southern India. He backs up his theories with some intriguing concepts, conjectures and conclusions but has had little success in convincing other historians that they ask for further investigation.
Two official archaeological excavations of the cave have been carried out, in 1925 and in 1935, and both established that the people who made use of the cave and the koppie, probably during the Middle Stone Age, were not avid hunters, little being found there in the way of animal bones.
The abundance of shells suggests they existed mainly on seafood. In addition, many fossils of non-edible sea life were also uncovered, which indicates that the cave was probably created by wave action – difficult to visualise today, with the sea now dozens of metres lower and at the base of steep cliffs many hundreds of metres away. Archaeological investigations are continuing so the interior of the cave is off-limits to the public, but it is fascinating to stand at the wooden fence and imagine ancient people living in it.
Next time you happen to be in Hermanus, the koppie is well worth a visit. The views of Walker Bay are breathtaking, especially from the summit which is not the most demanding climb. On the walk there are fascinating rock formations, as well as mongooses and a number of interesting birds. For those who are botanically inclined, a plant field guide should not be forgotten. It’s also a great viewpoint for picking out many of the prominent landmarks of Hermanus and, during whale season, spotting a southern right whale or two is as good as guaranteed.
No wonder locals call it the Jewel.