The Strelitzia reginae is commonly known as the Crane Flower and I have heard it called the Bird of Paradise Flower (what a cumbersome name that is!). I prefer Crane Flower as, from a distance in the veld, they bear a strong resemblance to the Crowned Cranes – which we do not see often enough in the wild.

These flowers occur naturally in our part of the Eastern Cape. The picture above was taken in the Ecca Pass Nature Reserve near Grahamstown. A lovely clump of them grow on a bank opposite our driveway and I derive a lot of pleasure from seeing them in bloom.

How interesting it must have been to name plants as they were found, examined and identified. The Strelitzia part of the name of this plant honours Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), wife of George III, from the house of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. She was apparently a keen amateur botanist who became involved with the development of the Royal Botanic Kew Gardens.



Day Six of us having no water in our town. That, combined with the first cheerfully sunny day for a while, encouraged us to take a drive out to some sites of historical interest in the area.

The first stop along the road towards Fort Beaufort was the Governor’s Kop signal tower (see 21 March 2014). Given our lack of water at home, it was pleasing to see evidence of ground water in several small farm dams en route, spray irrigation and even a working windmill or two.


The wild pomegranate (Burchellia bubalina) are coming into bloom, as are the coral trees – both Erythrina caffra and Erythrina lysistemon, providing bright splashes of colour in the veld that is slowly shaking off its winter mantle.

We turned off the tar onto a dirt road leading into the Coombs Valley in search of the well-known Clay Pits, where Xhosas traditionally used to collect yellow and red ochre with which to decorate themselves. The directions we had been given proved to be inaccurate. While I was photographing an old sneeze wood fence post, a passing farmer stopped to offer assistance. The Clay Pits happened to be on his farm another 4km away! How serendipitous that was.

fence post

They were not far from the farm house and so we walked through the veld to see them. I am not sure what I had expected, but it was not a heap of yellow and reddish stones next to a deep hollow, now overgrown with trees and shrubs as no-one seeks ochre here anymore.


Next, we drove through the beautiful Coombs Valley along a rough dirt road cutting through game farms before turning into the equally beautiful Trappes Valley leading towards Bathurst. Apart from the ubiquitous Vervet Monkeys, we saw herds of Black Wildebeest, Blesbuck and Impala.

Large swathes of indigenous bush hug the hillsides with flocks of Cape Glossy Starlings, Speckled Mousebirds and Crowned Hornbills flitting in between.

crowned hornbill

The dense cover of vegetation rouses admiration for the 1820 Settlers and others who were dumped in this (what to them must have been) inhospitable terrain with no amenities and expected to make a living for themselves.

It is disturbing, however, to note the infiltration of exotics such as wattle, eucalyptus, conifers and even palm trees – some possibly planted by those early inhabitants – along the road and water courses.

The Kowie museum in Port Alfred is housed in a beautiful dressed stone building that once was the station for the railway between Port Alfred and Grahamstown. This was officially opened on 1st October 1884 and remained in private hands until the government took it over in 1913.

Kowie Museum

All that remains of the original fort in Port Alfred is a low stone wall, now incorporated as the boundary wall of a private home in Hards Street.

stone wall

We stopped at the historical Pig and Whistle Inn in Bathurst for a late lunch. This is said to be the oldest pub in South Africa, having been in operation since 1832.

pig and whistle inn

There is a leisurely aspect to life in the countryside. The warm hospitality we’d received from the farmers in the morning had given us a taste of it. Instead of ‘popping into’ the historic St. John’s Anglican Church in Bathurst, known for sheltering women and children during the Sixth and Seventh Frontier Wars, we met the assistant verger who gave us a detailed tour of the church along with background stories of local interest and who pointed out the grave of the man who originally built the Pig and Whistle.

bell at St Johns Church

Leaving much later than intended, we wound our way further up the road to Battery Hill, where only the Powder Magazine remains of the original fort. This commands a superb view across the valley to the ocean at Port Alfred on the one side and across the Coombs Valley to Governor’s Kop on the other.

powder magazine

On our way back, we stopped briefly at the Bathurst Methodist Church, which also sheltered women and children during the Seventh Frontier War.

Our last stop was the Toposcope, sadly so vandalised now that few of the direction plaques are of any use. By now we were being blown about by the blast of the cold front that had been edging closer for most of the day. The strong wind brought with it curtains of haze and mizzle that blotted out the landscape in its wake and flattened the grass around the Toposcope. The sky clouded over completely and the temperature dropped to 8°C.

Bathurst toposcope

It was clearly time to drive through the rain and to head for home – where not a drop of water came out of the taps!


History is not my cup of tea, you might say. Yet, we didn’t just arrive in the 21st century: the world was populated long before we came, events happened globally, nationally, and within our own families that have shaped who we are and what we do; how we feel about politics, global environmental issues, and the management of our local municipalities.

Let me take you on a journey to an open space of great beauty and tranquillity I didn’t know existed in a city I have visited fairly regularly over the past twenty six years. It is a place where gnarled old indigenous trees, bent by the prevailing wind and subtropical plants typical of the Eastern Cape coast vie for attention with the aliens so beloved of public landscapers of long ago: exotic palm trees, Scottish pines and rubber trees!

There are raised ponds filled with blue water lilies; rolling grassy banks; ha-has; a stone bridge crossing a moat to an island complete with bandstand; benches placed at intervals so that one can rest while one’s eyes take in the vista of immaculately mown lawns, cobbled pathways and wide stone steps leading to another level. A well maintained playground attracts laughing children, the paths are wheelchair friendly, and there is shade aplenty – very welcome in the 40degree C heat of the day I was there.

Welcome to Victoria Park situated in the lower end of Walmer, near the airport – probably named after Queen Victoria. As I waited for the Algoa Bay Highland Gathering to begin, I observed white-rumped swifts flying overhead against the bright blue sky devoid of clouds; a skein of twenty five Egyptian geese honked over the park in a classic V-formation, competing with the bagpipers warming up for the solo competitions held during the morning.

Unperturbed by the sound of bagpipes and drums, a flock of speckled mousebirds flitted among the palm trees and a fiscal shrike regularly swooped down from its high perch to catch insects on the grass. Common starlings picked up crumbs near the food stalls while black-collared barbets sang their duets. Black-headed orioles called relentlessly against the backdrop of bagpipes, drums and the music emanating from the tent where the Scottish and Irish dancing competitions were taking place. The red-eyed doves seemed bemused by the activities on the ground, which included a medieval fayre.

By the time the band competitions had begun after lunch, first with the march, strathspey and reel followed by the medley, the large flock of Hadeda ibises that had taken to the sky could be seen and not heard – fancy a mute flock of Hadedas!

It was to loud applause that the crowd listened to pipe bands from Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Durban, Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth competing for top honours. Among several tartans on display were the Mackenzie, Gordon, and Graham of Montrose. The day ended with a massed band performance of all the bands playing as one marching to well known tunes such as Scotland the Brave and Flower of Scotland.

The crowd was enthralled and young children danced or marched on the fringes of the circle as the clouds gathered and the temperature began to drop at last.

An interesting discovery: band members wearing waistcoats with the last button undone signifies that they are not married. A highland gathering in Africa? There’s a history to that…



The Eastern Cape is awash with places of historical interest. Some are tucked out of sight, but all are worth visiting as part of exploring the threads of the past that have helped to weave the future.

The Governor’s Kop Signal Tower, 15Km east of Grahamstown, is one of those sites that leave one wondering about so much more than the reasons for its existence.

It was built in 1843 as part of a series of signal towers that relayed messages via semaphore from Fort Selwyn in Grahamstown via Governor’s Kop to Fraser’s Camp and so on to Fort Peddie and Fort Beaufort.

signal towerSONY DSC

Given the historical context, it was likely that not only would these towers have warned about possible raids by the tribes across the Fish River, but also provided information about stock theft. The idea was a good one in an age without cell phones! The signal tower at Governor’s Kop is a double storey stone structure built on the highest point in the surrounding area. Interestingly enough, cell phone towers have now sprouted on high points throughout the country – following a similar principle.

While it is now surrounded by vegetation, the Governor’s Kop signal tower would have commanded an excellent view of the Winterberg Mountains with a clear line to the towers on either side of it.


I am told that the signalling system was not as successful as originally planned for, in spite of the (then) unimpeded view, signals were apparently often difficult to decipher because of the mist and hazy conditions that obscured the messages.

Although the signalling system had fallen into disuse by 1846, the tower remains to provide us with a glimpse into the past and to leave us wondering about things like: how the stones were brought to what must have been a remote place in those times; the care taken in shaping the stones and fitting them together in a way that has lasted – in site of the large crack down the front.


A close look at the tower with its small windows and narrow loopholes reminds one of the potential dangers faced by the few people left there on their own to man it. Spending some time there filled me with curiosity. Where did they draw water from? What sort of food supplies did they have? What did they do for relaxation and entertainment? What did they think about being posted in such a remote place so very far, and very different, from home?