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Rhodes: The ups and downs of a frontier town

Rhodes: The ups and downs of a frontier town

The annual meeting of the Rhodes Sporting Club was in full swing. It had kicked off the previous day with horse races and an evening of entertainment to raise funds for the school piano. Day two was devoted to athletics. Competition was stiff, especially for the high jump. On the field, earnest-faced competitors stretched and flexed their muscles, each intent on setting a new record.

One by one the jumpers cleared the bar, or knocked it down. Then Mr Opperman of Dunley Farm stepped up to take his turn. He took a deep breath, bent down and unscrewed his wooden leg. ‘He started at some distance, and to the amazement of all hopped over the rope as light as a feather, doing the five foot four inches as neatly as possible, descending safe, steady and sound,’ recounted the Barkly East Reporter. ‘Truly, he deserved his prize.’

And so a new record was chalked up, one which should remain unbeaten. The feat became the talk of the town, eclipsing another hot topic; the elopement of ‘Mr J _ and Mrs de W_’. According to the newspaper, the ‘bold step was happily frustrated in the bud’ when Mr de W _ discovered his wife was missing and, with ‘several valiant mounted men, galloped in hot pursuit of the ill-fated pair and ran them down.’ ‘Moral No. 1,’ the correspondent wrote, ‘Don’t elope. No 2: Don’t elope with a couple of hours’ grace; No 3: Don’t elope in a (horse) trap.’ Although it’s hard to imagine what other transport was available to elopers in Rhodes at the end of the 19th century.

Still, it’s sound advice, even today. Rhodes, tucked between mountains including Ben Macdhui, the highest point in South Africa, is as remote as ever. Depending on which route an eloping pair chose, they could find themselves being run down by a posse of men ‘with energy worthy of a better cause.’ For instance, unless they drove a 4×4 and the weather was fine, Bastervoetpad Pass would be a mistake.

The steep and winding roads of Rhodes

rhodes, eastern cape, south africa

Steep, winding and best driven in a 4 x 4, Bastervoetpad Pass is often shrouded in mist. On a clear day, though, the views are exceptional.

Named after a splinter group of Basters (Griquas) who carved the path when they trekked with ox wagons across the Drakensberg to the Ugie area in 1862, Bastervoetpad Pass is an unforgiving, little-used (not surprisingly), steep and winding dirt track. With its highest point about 2 300 metres above sea level, the views on a good day are sublime. Although if thick mist descends, as happened to us, you’re lucky to see the edge of the road, let alone the precipitous drop‑offs. So you pick your way along, slower than any trap. Luckily, we weren’t eloping.

Another route, also dirt, is via Naudé’s Nek. At 2 700 metres, it’s the highest pass in South Africa. Probably the windiest too, judging by the many buckled signs (denoting hairpin bends) that lie at the side of the road, or down in a valley. Originally a footpath over the Drakensberg, and thus not recommended for elopers, it was called Lehana’s Pass until David and Gabriel Naudé moulded it into a proper road between 1890 and 1911. This opened up new possibilities for the isolated farming communities of the region. Towns like Kokstad, formerly about as accessible as the moon, were at last within reach. Indeed, the easier access was one of the selling points for the newly-proclaimed town of Rhodes.

Being ‘five hours from Barkly East, and on the highway to Maclear, Mount Fletcher and Kokstad, the new town will form the neucleus (sic) of a large and prosperous Business Centre,’ claimed a September 1891 notice for an ‘Important Sale of Erven in the Township of Rhodes at Tintern’.

The origins of Rhodes

rhodes. eastern cape, south africa

In its heyday, Rhodes boasted several stores. Today, there is just this one.

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The 274 plots were donated by the owner of Tintern farm, Jim Vorster – an ancestor of erstwhile prime minister B.J. Vorster – on condition that 100 were sold on the first day and that the town was named after Cecil John Rhodes.

The conditions being met, the elements of a vibrant community were soon in place: sports clubs, church bazaars, schools, shops, fraudsters, stock theft, committees, rumours of war, accidents, dances, weddings, elopements, funerals – all faithfully reported on by the stringer for the Barkly East Reporter. Of a lightning strike to a hut where chickens and a worker slept, he wrote, ‘The fowls got killed but the worker, of course, got off scot-free.’

By 1945 Rhodes boasted several shops, two or three hotels, a garage, an impressive Herbert Baker-designed school with 120 pupils, many of them boarders, and 160 permanent residents.

Today, there are about 25, including children – none of whom attend the old school. That closed down in 1978 as there were simply not enough pupils.

A holiday town

Hanna Reeders, rhodes, south africa

With the old sandstone school forming the backdrop, Hanna Reeders signs a copy of her book on the history of Rhodes.

“Rhodes is a holiday town now,” says Hanna Reeders, who has lived there all her life. “We were such a lively community when I was a child. But everything’s deurmekaar now. Permanent residents are becoming fewer and we badly need more people to keep the town alive.”

If anyone’s keeping Rhodes alive, it’s Hanna. She spent seven years sifting through government and church records, town board minutes and the archives of the Barkly East Reporter to compile a history of Rhodes to mark the town’s centenary. That book, 100 Rhodes, 1891-1991 (ISBN 0-620-17419-6) informs some of this story, but Hanna herself has many stories to tell. Like how she came to buy the school.

“It stood empty for years. The doors were kicked out, windows broken, horses got in, chimneys fell down,” Hanna recalled. “I wrote to the education department and asked to buy it.” The department replied that the school would be sold by public tender. Hanna and her husband Jacobus tendered, as did some recent arrivals to Rhodes. The night before the tenders were tabled, Hanna lay awake worrying that the lovely sandstone building would end up in the hands of vreemdes. At first light, she phoned an MP and asked him to persuade the then minister of defence, Magnus Malan, to turn the school into an army camp.

Her appeal had some affect for the tenders were cancelled. But nothing further happened and the following year the school went on auction, with Jacobus Reeders putting in the winning bid. “What are you going to do with the school?” he asked Hanna.

She had no idea. But when Jacobus threatened to store lucerne in it, an appalled Hanna quickly told him it would become holiday accommodation. He laughed. “Who would want to come to Rhodes for a holiday?” As it turned out, lots of people. Rubicon, as the school is now called, has provided self-catering accommodation for more than twenty years. “People who come to Rhodes are true nature lovers,” Hanna says. “If only some of them would stay for good; buy a house, put down roots.”

Only the purest air

Rhodes, post office, south africa

The sandstone Post Office at the top end of town.

The problem though, especially for older people, is that there is no doctor, no hospital. For younger people, it’s the need to earn a living.

“There’s no money here,” says Willem Jansen of the farm Kinmel, which has been in the family for over a century. “But the quality of life is unbeatable.”

He’s right. The tranquillity, sense of safety and pace of life in Rhodes are, like the buildings there, from another era. Walking out from Kinmel’s self-catering chalets early in the morning, the only traffic you’re likely to encounter are cyclists and a tractor; the only sounds, the bleating of sheep or lowing of cattle.

No exhaust fumes, only the purest air, no concrete jungle to block the huge skies and magnificent scenery in all directions.
How, though, to attract people not merely to visit, but to live in this olde worlde town with its tiny shop, single petrol pump, one hotel, dilapidated tennis court, and handful of inhabitants?

The answer jumps out as I page through Hanna’s book. ‘It can hardly be denied,’ writes the correspondent for the Barkly East Reporter in 1908, ‘that Rhodes is far from the madding crowd, and so our South African statesmen would enjoy the serenity necessary for the consideration of the mighty problems associated with the government of South Africa.’ He points out that the bracing climate would be beneficial for the ‘great minds of South Africa’, especially in winter. The jail is very small, he admits, but the cemetery is large and not full. There’s advantage too in the ‘exceptional facilities for mountaineering’. MPs wouldn’t have to ‘rush off to Switzerland to climb the Alps’. ‘Why not then’, he suggests, ‘locate the seat of Government in Rhodes?’ Why not indeed!

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