Situated near the banks of the Fish River, Fort Brown (built in 1835) now forms a part of the police station. It was one of a chain of forts built during the Frontier Wars in the Eastern Cape.



A button was lost near Bathurst in the Eastern Cape. Not any old button, but a rounded brass button that had once shone brilliantly on the tunic of a soldier. How it was lost will remain a mystery. So many things go missing when armed forces are constantly on the move during a war: buttons, buckles, stirrups, cap badges and so on.

Over a hundred and twenty years later the button was found by Theo van der Walt, who has developed an eye for such treasures from the past.

He looked closely at the embossed design on the button and made out the figure of a horseman and the number five. Could it have come from the Light Dragoons, he speculated, and turned to members of the Eastern Cape branch of the South African Military History Society for assistance in identifying the origin of the button, made from gilded brass.

Everyone loves a mystery.

True to form, within twenty minutes the Chairman had matched the emblem to a cap badge and sent a link to a Wikipedia article that suggested a connection with the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. What a promising lead!

Meanwhile, others were taking an even closer look at the photograph posted on the WhatsApp group. Was the clearly visible VOOAN a significant abbreviation, Nick Cowley wondered? After all, some units were called ‘Victoria’s Own’, but they usually had the word ‘Queen’ in front. Further research was required.

About four hours later, Nick reported that VOOAN is the word for the Irish province of Munster. Had this mounted soldier been part of a unit from Munster that had served in the area during one of the Frontier Wars?

Interest had been piqued and the collective search continued.

The following day brought to light that the 5th Regiment of Foot’s regimental badge pointed to the horseman on the button being St. George slaying the dragon. It is interesting to note that the regiment of the Northumberland Fusiliers was permitted to use the legendary figure of St George killing a dragon in uniform regulations dating back as far as 1747.

Three hours later, the mystery had been solved: the button had indeed come from a member of the 5th Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. The letters VOOAN had been an interesting red herring that was netted and put to rest with the discovery that the Latin motto of this regiment is QUO FATA VOCANT (Wherever the Fates call). The second O was actually a C and the letters (viewed only from the photograph) were clearly a part of that motto – the other letters were not easily decipherable. The button has a raised moulded band in the shape of a garter, bearing this motto. These buttons are described on eBay as ‘rare’.

The 5th Royal Northumberland Fusiliers had been involved in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1901). This infantry unit was raised in 1674 and subsequently served in many British Army campaigns during its long history. While there might not have been much military action in this area during that war, a British concentration camp had been set up in nearby Port Alfred.

Note: Photographs supplied by Theo van der Walt.


The roads in the Great Fish River Reserve in the Eastern Cape are generally not in good shape and so a high clearance vehicle is recommended. The vegetation here is typical of the thickets one encounters in natural areas here.

The reserve is close enough for us to visit it for a day. This time we were intent on visiting the rapidly disappearing ruins of Fort Willshire – a brief history of which you can see on this plaque.

Each time we come here the walls are more difficult to find as the whole area has become very overgrown as the veld has had two centuries in which to reclaim its own.

Weathering has taken its toll of the lettering on the few gravestones seen in the area. These are now enclosed with a wire fence to protect them from the animals – but not the rampant growth of grass and bushes. One that is still readable is a stone erected in memory of eighteen year-old Matthew Stanworth, “Late Private Soldier who was unhumanely murdered by […] February 24th 1825 …”

The pictures in WordPress Reader are usually larger, so you may wish to have a closer look at this one there. Apart from some of the pretty flowers which I featured earlier, I also spotted a harvester ant carrying away a leaf.

Several dung beetles were busy taking advantage of a fresh pile of dung. This is one of many rolling a ball of dung through grass and over rocks.


An interesting place to stop along the N1 is the Geelbek River Blockhouse situated next to the Geelbek railway bridge near Laingsburg.

While a number of blockhouses used stone in their construction, this one is built from shuttered concrete. The design of this, and other blockhouses, was developed by General Sir Elliot Wood – the British army’s chief engineer in South Africa at the time, basing it on a pattern he had used in the Sudan during the 1880s. It was declared a National Monument in 1965.

Although the plaque put up by the Historical Monuments Commission is high up and can no longer be read easily, it states that To prevent the destruction of the railroad by Republican forces, the British military, at the beginning of 1901, built this type of blockhouse near railway bridges at a cost of approximately R2 000 each. It was garrisoned […] for thirty soldiers.

Steel-protected embrasures were located on each floor, while two steel boxes projected at diagonally opposite corners of the top floor provided covering cross-fire to the walls below. The lookout platforms also provided a clear view over the surrounding area.

You can read more about blockhouses along the Cape Town-De Aar railway line at