A journey to the past

I am fascinated by history and get my kicks out of visiting places where some or other historical event played out. Tiresome and dull, I hear you say? Not so. I simply hopscotch-and-jump my way through the notorious minefield of dates and names to the exhilarating essence of events and people that shaped our world.

Living in George, the 6th oldest town in South Africa, there are indeed plenty of opportunities to get these kicks. It’s dotted with national heritage architectural gems (some of which are sure to sport a ghost or two), has produced its fair share of noteworthy people ( South African Rugby player Zane Kirshner and Olympic-medal surfer Bianca Buitendag), and the colourful timber-flavoured history lends a slightly exotic vibe which is tangible till this very day.

Here is a round-up of some really interesting facts and sites to absorb and visit next time you’re around town.

How it all started

Featured Image: Outeniqua Mountains

Long before European settlers could even dream of a place where men were laden with honey, the area was inhabited by various Khoekhoen tribes such as the Outeniquas – from whom our lofty mountains got their name. These heather-clad mountains teemed with bees with an abundance of honey as a result. Hence, a place where “men are laden with honey”.

Then came the Dutch in the 1700’s with their Dutch East India Company and the timber trade exploded due to a demand in wood for wagons, houses and furniture. The forests around Cape Town became depleted and soon there was a need for a timber supplying outpost – the embryo of today’s small city germinated. The British took over in the 1800’s, and the town was declared and named after King George III, the then reigning monarch. York Street got its name from the king’s second son who was the Duke of York.

Where to experience it for yourself?

Featured Image: George Museum

The spellbinding timber industry and the bohemian woodcutter community that is synonymous with it, is chronicled in the George Museum, situated in Courtenay Street in the former residence and office of the town’s first magistrate. Visitors will be delighted by the amazing displays including the original George Beacon erected in 1785.

Featured Image: Outeniqua Transport Museum

For another porthole to a bygone era, you shouldn’t miss the Outeniqua Transport Museum It’s a homage to the South African railway history, and all kinds of vintage vehicles can be seen and experienced here, including old-timey fire-engines, steam locomotives, ox-wagons and a lovely assortment of private collectors’ vintage cars. Being an enthusiastic follower of the British Royal family’s goings-on myself, to me the highlight of the museum is the Royal White Train, which served a key role in the imperial visit of 1947.

The transport museum is also the place from where the iconic Outeniqua Power Van departs, taking visitors up into the mountains. The former railway inspection trolley chugs its way through spectacular scenery, into and out of tunnels and past waterfalls. The staff give interesting commentary about the indigenous fauna and flora, and there’s a picnic stop at some ruins on the way down offering panoramic views over George.

Historic landmarks

Featured Image: Meade Street

You don’t have to look too far afield to find some beautifully preserved national heritage landmarks, each with its own captivating autobiography. York Street and the parallel-running Meade Street boast several of these beauties.

120 York Street is a well-known address and also known as Lache House. The district’s surgeon built it in 1903 and went ahead to become the proud owner of the town’s first automobile.

Stroll down the adjacent Meade Street to find number 91A. These days it houses a picture-framing business, but it was first owned by the town councillor in 1836, then became a Dutch mission school, served as the Salvation Army barracks at one spot and was turned into a business premise in the 1990’s.

Featured Image: The Historical Stone Church

In Pacaltsdorp, originally a Khoikhoi village called Hooge Kraal led by tribal chief Kaptein Dikkop, you are in for a treat visiting The Historical Stone Church, a truly unique building with its castle-like architectural style. Seventy steps lead up to its roof with its unrivalled views over the surrounding mountains, farmlands and George itself. The delightful Winston Julies, caretaker of the church, also took us on a most interesting and amusing walking tour to some of the other historical sites, and we left feeling enlightened.

Featured Image: Manor House, Fancourt

The Manor House Fancourt is another treasure. British-born engineer Henry Fancourt White, supervisor of the Montagu Pass project, built his family house in the mid-1800s in what is now called Blanco – he aptly named his abode, in the style of a Cotswold mansion, Blanco House. Years later, his son Ernest moved into the house and renamed it Fancourt, to honour his father. Due to a tragic mushroom-eating incident, Monty (as he was affectionately known) and two other people died in the house and it stood unoccupied for several years. Of course, rumours of hauntings and ghosts went rife. However, these days it’s part of the famous Fancourt Golf Estate as a luxurious boutique hotel and the ghosts seem to be at rest.

These bits of history and many more can be experienced by joining a cultural site guided tour available from the Tourism Visitor Centre. For enquiries, pop in at 124 York Street, a beautiful historic artefact in itself and built on the site of the town’s first jail.

Corrie Fopma is a freelance language practitioner who has been living and playing for the past 7 years in the beautiful George. Having travelled quite extensively with several interludes in various countries, she still cannot believe her luck to be now living in a true paradise, with its mild climate, spectacular scenery, great restaurants and interesting history.