This year, Colesberg celebrates 190 years of formal existence – making it one of the oldest towns in the Northern Cape. Many of us know it as a midway stopover on the N1 between Johannesburg and Cape Town, but there’s more to this sleepy farming town than meets the impatient traveller’s eye.
It’s a quiet place to get away from it all, reflect, reconnect with yourself and others, savour glorious Karoo sunsets and escape into nature. With its beautiful architecture, much of it dating back to the 1800s, and its aura of solitude, Colesberg offers many unexpected pleasures to those curious enough to veer off the beaten track.
The area had been inhabited for many years by hunter-gatherers before missionaries and farmers moved in during the early 19thcentury. The town was founded in 1830 on the site where the London Missionary Society had stood for several years. As one of the farthest and most remote outposts of the Cape Colony, it was named after Sir Lowry Cole, the governor of the Cape at the time.
With hunters, explorers and settlers passing by en route to the interior, it wasn’t long before Colesberg gained the reputation of being a true “frontier” town – with rough-and-ready characters illicitly trading in gunpowder, liquor and all manner of shady shenanigans.
Being strategically positioned near the Orange River, it was a contested town during the South African War (also known as the Anglo-Boer War), and was captured and held by the Boers for about four months, during which several skirmishes took place with the British forces.
Today, it is a merino sheep farming and horse breeding hub, and also relies heavily on tourism.
There are two main landmarks in Colesberg: the Dutch Reformed Church, the centrepoint around which the original town was laid out; and the cone-shaped small hill or koppie just outside town called Coleskop. In fact, one of Colesberg’s earlier names before being proclaimed was Towerberg – meaning “Magic Mountain”, apparently because of an optical illusion whereby the koppie never seems to get nearer as you approach it.
Many of Colesberg’s buildings are excellent, well-preserved examples of early Karoo architecture, with their distinctive square, flat-roofed construction style. The town boasts a fascinating mish-mash of architectural styles, ranging from Victorian and Georgian to Cape Dutch.
Take a stroll to see historical buildings such as the elegant Karoo-style Colesberg-Kemper Museum, which was originally built to house a bank in 1861 but is today a site housing fossils, artefacts and war memorabilia from the area.
Why not go on a “church walk” around town? Guided walking tours are offered that tell the colourful story of Colesberg from pre-colonial times to today, during which you will also take in other 19th-century church buildings such as the Anglican Church, with its exquisite stained-glass windows. You can also go on a tour of battlefields and war sites.
If you decide to stop over in Colesberg for a night or two, be sure to include a visit to the Doornkloof Nature Reserve. Located alongside the Vanderkloof Dam, this 9 388ha reserve is home to almost 200 bird species as well as wildlife such as buck, brown hyena, bat-eared fox, aardvark and aardwolf (the latter three being members of the “Shy Five”).
With a picturesque 10km stretch of the Seekoei River (an Orange River tributary) running through the reserve, it’s ideal for picnics and camping, not to mention being a hiker’s and mountain-biker’s dream.
If you’re a meat eater, you can’t go to the Karoo without sampling Karoo lamb, and one of the best places to do just that in Colesberg (while quenching your thirst with a pint) is the Horse and Mill English-style pub and restaurant. Built in 1840, it’s named after the horse-driven mills that were once a feature of farms in the district. In fact, this immaculately restored coach house has a restored horse mill inside, dating back to 1891. There is also a guesthouse alongside.
Notable personalities and events
One of Colesberg’s major claims to fame, so to speak, is that Paul Kruger apparently grew up on a farm in the area (some claim he was born there, too).
A certain Dorothea Sarah Florence Alexandra “Florrie” Ortlepp spent her childhood in Colesberg (and, later, Kimberley). She later entered South African history as Lady Florence Phillips, wife of diamond pioneer and Randlord Sir Lionel Phillips and one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
The family home, Ortlepp House, built in 1844, is still standing in Colesberg and has since been restored to its original Victorian splendour, complete with “broekie lace” (ornate wrought-iron trim) on its verandah.
Another noteworthy event in Colesberg’s history is that the first diamond on record to be found in South Africa, discovered near Hopetown in 1867, was taken to Colesberg for testing by John O’Reilly, who had bought it from Schalk van Niekerk.
What would later become known as the Eureka diamond was used to scratch the letters “DP” on the shop window of the Draper & Plewman store in Colesberg – the first test of whether it was, indeed, a diamond. The stone was then sent to geologist Dr William Atherstone in Grahamstown to confirm its authenticity – triggering the subsequent diamond rush in Kimberley and surrounds, and altering the course of South African history.