Kanoneiland – a Fascinating Stopover

Outside Upington on the Orange River, Kanoneiland is the largest inhabited inland island in South Africa, and is a fascinating stopover en route to Augrabies or the Kgalagadi…

Words: Ron Swilling

Pictures: Ron Swilling and Supplied

“Never let facts interfere with a good story,” George ‘Hannes’ Engelbrecht answered me, laughing, when I asked about the origin of the name Kanoneiland (Cannon Island). It seemed that everyone I met on this small 14km x 3km, 2 500ha island in the Northern Cape agreed on the imaginative embellishment of the name.

As the story goes, in the late 1800s, during the Second Northern Frontier War, and after a number of skirmishes, the Cape artillery corps drove the Koranas back to their island stronghold with cannon fire. The Koranas retaliated with a cannon fashioned from the woefully inadequate trunk of a quiver tree, loaded with gunpowder and stones. When the smoke cleared, six of the Koranas lay dead.

Canon fire or not, Kanoneiland remained an uninhabited island overgrown with reeds, bisected by waterways and marooned in the middle of the Orange River. That was until 1926, when 52 farmers rowed over to the island and began to redirect the river, creating small channels for irrigation, and clearing and levelling the fertile alluvial soil for cultivation.

“My pa was one of the 52,” Kobus ‘Oom Kobie’ Engelbrecht told me at their house in Bourant, the elevated centre of the island, on a street that looked as if it could be the main road of any of the myriad small country towns in South Africa – a tar road lined with houses and trees, several small shops and a church. Oom Kobie’s wife, Bettie, and their son, George Hannes (named after his grandfather), filled in the gaps in the story.

Each of the farmers was allocated a piece of land of six to eight morgen in size. On the higher ground they built simple houses from straw and clay, walking the ten kilometres or so to the upper side of the island to work every morning, and returning in the evening.

The government sent law enforcement officer Andries Coetzee to instruct the farmers to leave the island, but after several unsuccessful attempts he joined them in their efforts and was soon allocated a plot of his own. The farmers started at the upstream end of the island and slowly moved westwards. “Everything works with gravity here,” Hannes explained. “The sluice system also means that you have to be on good terms with your neighbours because it is your turn to water your land only after your neighbour upstream is done.”

Most of the stories Hannes knew about the development of the island in the early years came from Bettie’s dad, ‘Lang Piet’ Stadtler, who arrived on the island in 1931. Kobie and Bettie had grown up together and attended the same school. They became better acquainted when they worked across the road in the post office cum telephone exchange.

“I worked night shifts as a telephone operator and in the day farmed on land I had leased, and Bettie was the postmistress,” Oom Kobie told me, his eyes sparkling as he recounted their love story. (And she remained the postmistress for 35 years.)

When he decided to marry her, he bought the land, which was on a part of the island called Bakleieiland (Conflict Island), near where she had grown up. I wondered if it was a wise decision to begin a marriage in a place with such an ominous name, but was reassured when I looked at the contented faces of the couple sitting across from me
on the sofa.

“So, what’s it like living on a river island?” I asked. “Baie lekker. You know everyone,” replied Hettie, Kobie’s sister, who had just arrived with a flurry of kisses and hugs. Hannes added, “There’s a real sense of community. If you don’t greet someone at church, they’re going to ask what is wrong.”

And, in the spirit of small-town hospitality, they offered to take me around the island, showing me where it all began on Bo-eiland (Upper Island), the spot where the farmers had built a small dam to channel a section of the river, and the monument in the garden of the NG Kerk dedicated to the first 52 pioneers.

I learnt more about the island from my unofficial guide, Loy Motepe, who graciously took time from her work at African Vineyard, the guest house where I was staying (the only accommodation on the island and home to the Vineyard Wellness Spa), to walk with me past the vineyards and over a small bridge to her father’s house.

Hendrik ‘Oom Hennie’ Swartz had arrived on the island in 1950 as a touleier, to lead a team of mules that ploughed the land. He ended up learning every type of farm work over the years – even after injuring his hand in a threshing machine. At the time, the crops were wheat, beans and corn, with cotton planted some years later. “The only grapes were those grown around the farmhouses,” said Oom Hennie. “Hanepoort in those days.”

But today the main crop is grapes – mostly sultanas for raisins (and some Colombard for wine), while lucerne, pecan nuts and cotton are also cultivated. Grapes, raisins and nuts are exported to Europe, Canada and the Middle East, while the cotton and lucerne is mostly for local consumption, with a small percentage exported to Namibia.

I asked about the name of the island and received the same reaction from Oom Hennie as from others, “Ja, we’ve heard the old story, but we cannot say how true it is.”

Further exploration of the island took me back down the main road to the school, now a nursery school, to look at the symbolic cannon on its grounds, and the remnants of the old pont that serves as a roof above the cannon.

Initially, farmers used rafts to cross to the mainland but these were eventually replaced with a regular ferry service. The nature of the island changed in 1940, when the first bridge was built in the south. Eendrag is still the name of the single-lane bridge that leads to Louisvale, and Manie Conradie is the name of the northern bridge, built in 1954.

A two-way bridge edged by phragmites reeds, it was the one I took from the N14 between Keimoes and Upington. I stopped for some hot chips at Kanoneiland Winkelsentrum, which is also the post office and local butchery, well-known for its tasty home-made boerewors. Owner Tarrie Smith had first arrived on the island in 1989 as a policeman. He met his wife here and liked it so much that he stayed on. He is still called ‘Kaptein’ all these years later.

Tarrie told me that people used to go to him for firearm licences and vehicle registration and clearance certificates, and although Tarrie didn’t have the authority to marry anyone, some people proclaimed that he could divorce them, especially on Saturdays after watching the rugby and having a few drinks.

He shared some local humour. KWV, the Cape-based manufacturer of export-quality wines and brandies, is also known locally as ‘Kanoneiland Water Versagter’ (Kanoneiland Water Softener). And he passed on an island platitude, “Don’t worry boys, if it looks bad over here, can you imagine what it’s like on the other side?”

Last stop before I left the small farming island was across the Eendrag bridge to visit the SA Agricultural Writers’ Northern Cape Farmer of the Year (2015), Piet Karsten. Piet received his award for the the share scheme of growing grapes, alfalfa and vegetables on the farm, which he initiated with 50 local women.

Piet and his late wife, Babsie, started growing grapes on Kanoneiland on six hectares of land in 1968, enlarging his farming over the decades into the Karsten Group. His four children and their spouses are involved in the business, and the company now farms 4 000 hectares around the country and employs about 1 300 people full-time (with seasonal workers averaging between 4 000 and 5 000 people).

I asked him about the prestigious award. “It’s not only for me,” he replied, “it’s about the province and our people here.” Piet believes it’s important to get involved in the communities and the local schools. “If you want to grow, you need to share money, knowledge and yourself. We can only lead by example.” And the name of the island, I couldn’t resist asking, do you know where that comes from? He laughed. “It’s a long story, a fairytale.”

I made my way back over Manie Conradie Bridge and the turn-off to the island. Tractors and bakkies passed me on the street and their occupants waved. Children ran out to greet me. The fascinating story, the kind-hearted people and the unusual experience of exploring a river island kept me company on the long road north.

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