A Taste of Cradock Part I

By Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit

This little river town in the Eastern Cape Karoo is a tough nut, but it also has a soft heart, a sweet tooth and a deep affection for sport, festivals and parades.

Over more than two centuries, the settlement has survived and seen off the Frontier Wars, the Anglo-Boer Wars and two major floods which devastated many dwellings near the riverside.

Cradock nestles in a ring of low-lying hills crested with the red winter blooms of Aloe ferox.

It began as a frontier supply depot for adventurers, miners and hunters drifting into the vast Karoo plains and beyond.

Today, local life is mainly about the surrounding farmers, a thriving school system and looking after the stream of travellers heading to and from the coast.

Its communities, once divided, mostly live in harmony next to one another. In the centre of Cradock, staying in a cheerful jumble of Karoo-style homes and liquorice allsorts houses, kids of many different backgrounds enjoy the summer evenings together in the streets.

The Cradock NG Mother Church – shades of Trafalgar Square.

The Mother Church

Cradock’s Moederkerk looks just like St Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square, London.

Some call it the Taj Mahal of the Karoo, because it was said to have been conceived out of love and built to last.

The Karoo legend of the Cradock Moederkerk is that the dominee’s wife was English and pining for her home country.

Architect James Gibb designed the church in a Georgian style, and his blueprints were internationally copied.

There was a hint of skandaal in September 1868 as a massive crowd thronged about at the opening ceremony of this exciting new church in Cradock.

The building contractor refused to hand over the keys to the church, claiming he had not been paid in full.

Finally, a group of leading Cradock citizens pledged the shortfall and the keys were made available.

During the Anglo-Boer War, the Moederkerk was used by the British as a lookout. War correspondent Edgar Wallace reports in New Zealand’s Evening Post in October 1901:

“And so the roof of Cradock’s pretty church was garrisoned, and a man in khaki wagged a flag from its steeple, and sober businessmen shut up their shops and ran a ‘pull-through’ through their rifles, and the man who at 9 o’clock was serving out butter, was at 10 o’clock serving out ammunition…”

St Peter’s Anglican Church – on the walking tour of Cradock.

St Peter’s Anglican Church

“On Sunday, 5 November 1848 Bishop Robert Gray conducted the first Anglican service in Cradock in the Dutch Reformed Church, which was kindly made available for the occasion.

When Bishop Gray visited Cradock two years later, he called a meeting at which it was decided to build a small church, capable of enlargement, for 700 pounds. St Peter’s Church was completed in 1858. Built of ‘random rubble’ and with a steeply pitched Gothic roof, originally of slate, it cost 1 000 pounds.” – extract from A Literary Walking Tour of Old Cradock, compiled by Brian Wilmot.

“To save on the electricity bill the frugal churchwardens of St Peter’s saw to it that most of the lights in the chancel and choir area were switched off during the sermon.

Mr Evans, a Welsh fitter and turner from the Railways, who sang a good bass, could now fall asleep and zizz away quietly like one of his own steam engines whose fires are low.” – extract from Karoo Morning by Guy Butler.

A number of family crypts were built underground in the churchyard. In one of them lie the remains of a Danish lion catcher’s son. Toger von Abo, one of the famous ‘Danes of Cradock’, set up cages on the town square for the lions he captured and sent on to Europe.

MG Club gathering in Market Street.

Here Be Gatherings

Some weekends you wake up in an Eastern Cape Karoo town and it feels like the days of Kyalami and the Formula One Circus.

The streets hum and thrum to the sound of a hundred motorcycles, more than 50 vintage cars or, in the case of the Karoo Mighty Men Conference outside Middelburg, the arrival of many thousands of males coming to bond and worship together.

There’s a full diary of events planned every year along the route and, because nothing really beats the thrill of the open road, more and more South African city folk are choosing a Karoo venue for their annual conferences, rallies and general get-togethers.

Whether it’s the Fish River Canoe Marathon in Cradock, a Harley Davidson gathering or an Instagram jam in Graaff-Reinet, a garden festival in Bedford or a celebration of the humble pumpkin in Nieu Bethesda, the region remains a vibrant destination for events throughout the year.

The Eastern Cape Karoo is just a day’s drive on decent roads from the major urban centres of Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth.

What makes the area perfect for events? There are always enough beds, meals, wide-angle skies, outdoor adventures and welcoming smiles for everyone.

Die Tuishuise cottages are Karoostyle houses – made of sunbaked bricks, mud and corrugated iron.

A Sense of Style

Most Karoo houses were handmade from sunbaked bricks, mud and reeds, and are far more pleasant dwelling spaces than modern constructions.

But one should know a thing or two about local temperature control: to cool the place down in midsummer, it’s best to open the loft doors to release the heat trapped in the attic.

Karoo houses, it turns out, are full of quirks and unexpected secrets. In this dry land with its scorching summers and frozen winters, houses that were crafted more than a hundred years ago with ‘primitive’ materials are often still standing. And they breathe and flex like living things.

In the Karoo you will still find houses with peach pip floors, sash windows, cross-and-Bible doors, broekie lace fretwork and real shutters.

Verandah roofs are distinctively curved into shapes that resemble billowing canvas, in styles called bellcast, bullnose and Regency.

Then there are those distinctive architectural features that Karoo converts learn like a new language: quoins, gables, parapets, cornices, finials, fanlights, brakdakke and brandsolders.

“Karoo houses are aesthetically pleasing. They’re good investments, people are nostalgic about them and quite honestly, they’re just nicer houses to live in,” says Eastern Cape architect Peter Whitlock.

The spinning wheels of the windpump crafts on display at the southern entrance to Cradock.

The Legend of Oom Das

There’s a busy cluster of spinning mini windpumps on the southern outskirts of Cradock.

Stop and buy one. You will marvel at the craftsmanship and the ingredients that go into the windpumps: silver-painted wire struts, glued bottletops, parts of spray cans, soft drink tins, coffee tins and window blinds for blades.

Most of the Cradock toy windpump parts come from the local rubbish dump.

The crafters sift through the trash until they find the right component, and then they’re off to the hardware store for paint and thinners.

Compared to the love, labour and outlay costs of the windpumps, the crafters charge low prices for their products. They earn a few hundred rands in the lean winter months and, come the summer travel season, they make a few hundred more.

While you’re choosing your favourite windpump to take home, ask them about the late Oom Das Mowers.

They will tell you Oom Das had the strongest teeth in town. He used them as pliers to bend the wire while he fashioned his exquisite windpumps.

You will also find stalls selling these Karoo icons on the outskirts of neighbouring Middelburg.

This is an excerpt from Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. The authors are offering a two-book special of Moving to the Platteland: Life in Small Town South Africa and Road Tripper: Eastern Cape Karoo at only R520, including courier costs in South Africa. For enquiries, contact Julie@karoospace.co.za.


One thought on “A Taste of Cradock Part I

  1. John Gelb says:

    Hello Julienne & Chris,
    This is Johnny Gelb, an old OLD friend (a Yank), and fellow reporter from Pretoria News in 1975. How do I purchase these for shipment to USA? Hope all is well with you…my wife Sherry and I visited Pretoria, Cape Town and Stellenbosch/Franschoek back in late Sept/early Oct…beautiful trip, only wished I could have added enough days to get us into the eastern Karoo and see you! All the best, Johnny PS – if you ever run into Tom Duff, Irene Beeton, Neil Moultrie, Neil Jacobsen, David Carte, Martin Welz, or any of the others whose names have slipped my mind, please say hello

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