The Eastern Cape is not only home to numerous forts, battle sites, graves and monuments that attest to its turbulent past, but there are a number of churches dotted about the countryside – many no longer in use but which remain as a testament to spiritual succour as well as on occasion providing shelter in times of need.

One of the two focused on here is a stone church at Burns Hill, a site where, in 1846, the Xhosas attacked a British wagon train, capturing and destroying half of the 120 wagons and carrying off the wine and regimental plate of the Seventh Dragoon Guards. The whereabouts of the latter remain a mystery.

The corrugated iron roof is rusted, the windows are broken, sections of the guttering have disappeared and the down-pipes have fallen off. A tall tree shades one side, otherwise its surroundings are bare except for some cactus that has taken root in recent years.

Another church that probably dates from sometime after 1856 is St. Mungo Church, situated in the Beanfield Location outside Alice. The rear of the church provides evidence of the ravages of time: a hole in the wall, sun-baked bricks exposed where the plaster has fallen off, a large crack in the wall, and evidence of broken guttering.

These images reflect the state of this church building.

The pile of bricks in the corner suggest a desire to repair some of the damage to the church.

The dusty and torn Xhosa Bible and collection plate hints at a congregation still using this place of worship, if not regularly then at least now and then.

Outside the church is a simple monument erected by Toc H which reads IN MEMORY OF THOSE WHO FELL IN THIS VALLEY ON CHRISTMAS DAY 1850. This being the Tyumie Valley, where the Gaikas under Chief Sandile attacked military settlers.

You can read a reference to this in



I really did not have an idea of what to expect when we entered the Alice campus of the University of Fort Hare, founded in 1916 on the site of what had been a British stronghold in the previous century. Signs of the latter can still be seen on the campus in the form of both a cemetery and a replica of Fort Hare.

Julius Malema had obviously addressed the student body on the 16th June this year – a public holiday known as Youth Day (which commemorates a wave of protests commonly known as the Soweto uprising of 1976). I imagine the sports complex was chosen as a venue in order to accommodate a large number of students. The scratch marks across his face pose an interesting question: if you don’t like him, why not remove the poster – after all, it is nearly two months old!

While the campus was looking reasonably well kept, given that it is winter and we are still experiencing a drought – there are still numerous signs of student unrest that led to the burning of buildings in the not too distant past.

A military cemetery/garden of remembrance on the campus is the final resting place for British and colonial soldiers who died during the 8th Frontier War, fought in 1850.

The names of those interred there have been inscribed on a monument erected by the South African War Graves Board in 1973.

There are nonetheless a number of graves of soldiers marked ‘unknown’.

Among the few elaborate graves is this one:

There is a brightly painted indication of where to find the Department of Fine Arts:

A replica of the original Fort Hare is also on the campus.

The Eastern Cape is criss-crossed with graves, remnants of forts, sites of ambushes and battles. Each provides an insight to the past that has forged the people who inhabit the area today. There is something very sobering about each site, particularly those out in what we call the ‘bundu’ where one is compelled to contemplate such events while surrounded by thorn trees, boulders, the wind, and bird song – signs that nature continues despite the human turmoil of the past.


The town of Fort Beaufort, in the Eastern Cape, was established as a military post by Lt Col H.M Scott of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in 1822. It was named in honour of the 5th Duke of Beaufort, father of Lord Charles Somerset, then Governor of the Cape, and is situated at the confluence of the Kat and Brak Rivers. The War Memorial there takes the form of the Cross of Sacrifice, a simple yet effective memorial to those from the area who died during the First and Second World Wars.

Surprisingly, the bronze plaques and cross on this memorial are still in place – so many memorials and graves all over the country have been plundered by unscrupulous scrap metal thieves!

The Cross of Sacrifice was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield for the then Imperial War Graves Commission. It is mounted on octagonal base and takes the form of an elongated Latin cross on which a stylized bronze long-sword, point down, is fastened to the front. This form of memorial has been used in Commonwealth war cemeteries all over the world.

The surrounding area is fenced and, despite the drought, is reasonably well-kept. There is an unlocked entrance gate.

This has an interesting detail in the top corners, showing the ravages of time and benign neglect.


Once thriving towns all over rural South Africa are falling into decay. As franchise shops leave and buildings become vacant, other entrepreneurs move in: residents still need certain goods, there is still a certain amount of money with which to purchase what is required – not a lot and so overheads must be kept low, which means the bells and whistles must be dispensed with. The new shops tend to be in rundown buildings, often with little light; they are not necessarily large or attractive – yet attract customers they must if a living is to be made. The solution: place a range of goods on the narrow pavements so that passersby will see them, even if it means having to walk around them.

Among the items on display outside this tiny one-roomed shop in Fort Beaufort are cast iron cooking pots – South African readers familiar with these will be interested to note the sale price for these is R650. Cheek-by-jowl with these are aluminum cooking pots, sets of dustpans and brushes, soccer balls, an electric bar heater, cloth shopping bags featuring the Eiffel Tower, as well as full aprons. Of course there is air time to be purchased too: truly something for everyone.


Much has been written about the righteousness of living ‘off the grid’ as it were: to be self-sufficient with regard to water and especially electricity. Architects have won prizes for designing such homes; residents have spent fortunes on building such homes; articles fill pages exclaiming the virtues of such abodes. In this final look at our sojourn in the Transkei, I turn to elements of ‘living off the grid’ which are a necessary reality for so many.

Thatched rondavels do not lend themselves the collection of water running off the roof. Some of the modern galvanised iron roofs have gutters that feed into a rainwater tank. The latter are expensive and are not easy to transport into the rural areas from the towns. Communal stand pipes exist, although these are not always conveniently situated for householders who then have to collect water for their needs in a container of sorts and carry it back for some distance to their homes.

This water is used for cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, providing water for the pigs and chickens: no pumps, no washing machines, no tumble driers – walking, carrying, and using the natural elements of the wind and sun for drying one’s laundry.

At the Swell Eco Lodge a generator provided electricity for certain periods during the day; gas cooking stoves are provided, and the outside cooking areas were lit at night by solar-powered lamps such as these.

Every rondavel had these solar-powered Consol solar jars, which provided perfectly adequate lighting once the electricity was switched off. The solar-powered lid collects sunshine during the day, which powers four built-in LEDs inside the glass jar at night.


A large rondavel built of local stone stood next to our farmhouse in the De Kaap Valley. My father used it as a storeroom for all sorts of equipment that is needed on farms. The interior was cool, even on the hottest of Lowveld summer days. I loved the musty smell of the thatched roof and the smoothness of the cement floor – as well as the moment required for my eyes to adjust to the dark interior. Our recent sojourn at Swell Eco Lodge not only provided an opportunity to stay in a spacious rondavel, but to observe the various structures of buildings that make up a rural homestead.

Traditionally, rondavels are built from locally available materials, which can include stones, sun-baked mud bricks, or a framework of sticks combined with a mixture of clay and dung mortar. I have already pointed out that modern rural rondavels are being constructed from either cement air-bricks or commercially produced bricks. Blue gum poles – or branches from other trees cut to length – are used to make the basic cone-shaped structure of the roof. Smaller branches are then woven through them to provide the framework for the thatching.

I wondered if my ‘bird man’ was bringing home this particularly long branch for such a purpose.

What rondavels have in common is a thatched roof. The roofing thatch consists of bundles of grass that are sewn onto the pole framework with plaited grass rope – as can be seen in this exposed section of a roof. Note the Cape Wagtail bracing itself against the wind!

Thatching starts at the widest part of the roof, the bottom, and gradually moves towards the narrow top. As each section is usually allowed to weather in order to create a waterproof layer, the process of completing a thatched roof can be a lengthy one. We also saw several examples of rondavels with corrugated iron roofs or have corrugated iron covering the traditional thatch for extra protection.

In either case, the roof extends over the sides of the circular walls to provide protection from the rain.

As you can imagine, being constructed from natural materials, rondavels require regular maintenance or they would gradually fall apart as this one is doing.

Once the thatching is complete, a clay or cement cap is placed on the apex of the roof to seal off the edges of the thatch and to prevent rain from seeping into the building. There happens to be a Redwinged Starling perched on top if this one.

If you would like to learn more, some interesting sites include: