SWELLENDAM is more than just an Overberg stop-over – it is steeped in history and surrounded by natural beauty.
Swellendam, South Africa’s third oldest town after Cape Town and Stellenbosch, is often overlooked or considered as nothing more than a stop-over. This is doing it an injustice but perhaps I shouldn’t be writing this because the town may just lose its status as a well-kept secret part of the Overberg.
It’s an ideal place to learn about the history of the Cape from the point of view of how the Dutch East India Company (VOC) ruled over settlers and the indigenous Khoi and San people. The primary reason for establishing a settlement here was to control and tax the farmers who had left the Cape to gain some form of economic freedom – not to give them assistance in the form of infrastructure and civil services.
The farmers – pioneers, really – clashed regularly with the Khoi and the San who stole their livestock. In turn, they were hunted and subsequently rendered submissive to the farmers and forced to become workers on the farms. These matters had to be decided on by law; hence law-enforcement was a matter of priority. The Drostdy – ‘local government building’, was built in 1746 and is the only typical VOC Drostdy still standing in South Africa today. It is the pride of the town and serves as the local history museum.
By 1795 the townspeople rebelled for a church and economic independence from the VOC. They even proclaimed themselves a ‘Republic’, albeit a short-lived one. Just prior to the British arrival of settlers in 1820, over 200 Scottish families settled in Swellendam and the town again tried to gain some independence by issuing its own currency and building a harbour at Malagas on the Breede River. These were boom years for Swellendam as the Breede River was navigable all the way to Malgas and farmers no longer needed to cart goods all the way to Cape Town or Mossel Bay.
Water was crucial but not everyone could live next to the river so a system of irrigation furrows was devised. Much of it still stands today, serving those who have large properties. It also cools down the town during the hot summer months.
Swellendam’s independence from the Cape Colony was short-lived. The Cape became a British colony, several devastating fires forced many of the wealthy townspeople insolvent, the Moederkerk church suffered damage, and the main street was widened causing the loss of many wonderful buildings. The national road now by-passes Swellendam but it’s close enough to make a detour easy and worthwhile, and this little town is a perfect place to base yourself for a few days of Overberg exploring.
Have a look through the town’s lovely website.
Where to stay?
Schoone Oordt Country House – best accommodation in town! Our clients love it, with good reason. In this top quality hotel you’ll be so pampered and well-fed you won’t want to leave.
Where to eat?
La Sosta – named the best Italian restaurant in South Africa.
Woodpecker Pizzadeli for excellent pizzas in a casual setting.
What to do?
Play with the faeries and walk through a magical garden at The Continent of Sulina.
Go berry picking and tasting on a working berry farm at Wildebraam.
Bontebok National Park – named after the Cape’s very own antelope. This is where bontebok were protected when they were close to extinction. Now the population has increased dramatically from the 17 remaining ones in 1931. This is the smallest of all the South African National Parks and is on the banks of the Breede River. Part of the Cape Floral Kingdom (a World Heritage Site), Bontebok National Park is always boasting something in bloom.
Marloth – marvellous hiking in the beautiful mountains and you can even stay there in self-catering cottages.
Coastal: Agulhas, the southern-most tip of Africa where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. Witsand for whale watching after crossing the river with the pontoon at Malgas. Infanta for walks along a long deserted pebbly beach with many remnants of shipwrecks. De Hoop, a glorious coastal nature reserve. Arniston, or Waenhuiskrans a lovely little fishing village famous for having two official names, gorgeous caves, rock formations and the cute houses that are so beloved by painters.
Inland: Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve – This 250 hectare indigenous forest is the most noteworthy afromontane in the southwestern Cape. Walking, mountain biking, bird-watching, camping – this world heritage site is a treasure.
Tradouw Pass – one of my favourite Thomas Bain mountain passes is very close to Swellendam. Meaning ‘the way of the woman’, this pass shouldn’t be rushed. Stop to take in the view several times, look for waterfalls after rains, and don’t miss the one stop where you can drive in a few metres and then walk a few metres further on to a rushing waterfall. If you’re headed in the direction of Barrydale, do stop for the world’s best milkshake at Diesel ‘n Creme.
Some information on the local history of the town and buildings taken from a mini-guidebook written by Willemina L de Wet-van der Harst. This wonderful guide is available at various places in Swellendam and is a treasure trove of detailed history of all noteworthy buildings in the town.