On a blustery Heritage Day in 2017, a group of visitors to Wakkerstroom along with a number of locals, appropriately gather for a walk around some of the historical venues in the area. Wakkerstroom, sometimes called ‘The Jewel of Mpumalanga’ is set in an area steeped in South African history.
The San people were the first to settle in the region and not only is it where the first Zionist church originated but Swazi and Zulu history abounds and some of the battles of the Anglo-Zulu and Anglo-Boer Wars were fought in the area. Wakkerstroom has more recently been recognised as an international birding site as it is one of very few areas to incorporate wetlands, grasslands and forests. This diversity attracts wide varieties of birdlife with ‘twitchers’ from everywhere flocking in to record sightings.
The actual town was established in 1859 and the purpose of the walk is to explore some of its historical sights. The group, wrapped up against the cold, meets outside the now Bank Gallery. It began life in 1893 as a branch of Die Nationale Bank van Zuid Afrika, later became Barclays and then First National Bank. It closed, amid much protest, in 2010 and the town now has no resident bank and only one (FNB) [i]auto teller machines.
First stop is St Joseph’s Catholic Church, a lovely building erected in 1904 and originally the Baptist Union Church. It later became an Apostolic Church, then a Hervormde one (1942) and in 1989 Father Bertolini took it over as the Catholic Church. It was he who introduced the owner of the renowned Honeymoon Valley Cheese Shop to the art of cheese making, a skill he learnt in Italy.
The church’s deep baptismal font tells of its Baptist past and it boasts a stunning stained glass window, made by a local artist. Currently it is part of the Volksrust parish.
Next stop – the sandstone Court House (1897), which is one of three national monuments in the town. It is a fully functional court house and most of the furniture and fittings are original. The architecture is unique and the corrugated iron roof displays three Victorian air vents.
In around 1901 a small group of Indian people settled in the town, mainly traders and shopkeepers. They brought their faith of Islam with them and the Mosque, the next stop, is where they worship needs and contains a prayer carpet brought there in 1973. Their community is small in number yet they are an important part of the Wakkerstroom community. Visitors must show respect by removing their shoes and washing their hands on entering.
St Mark’s Anglican Church is next on our agenda and we visit the site procured in 1879 to serve the 50 or so English speakers in the town at the time. It was consecrated in 1890 and the rectory completed in 1907. This was subsequently occupied by a local priest for 32 years. In 1959 the Bishop of Johannesburg consecrated the church’s beautiful stained glass window and in 1982 the building also became a national monument.
Numbers of congregants diminished and in 1986 the church was deconsecrated. Subsequently bought by a NGK theologian and then in 2007/8 by a local business couple who allow the local Anglicans to hold services there. Today the church is still active, with two services being held every Sunday, one on Anglican lines.
Off again and the group now heads for the original Wakkerstroom Hotel (since replaced by the Wakkerstroom Country Inn on Badenhorst Street). There is debate around this but this is said to be one of the oldest houses in town (1904) and an early owner was Charles Hazelhurst. Originally a double storey house, the top storey was razed and burnt down during the Boer War. This might have been because British troops were stationed there at the time.
The hotel building was used as the Circuit Court and Paul Kruger held a meeting there. Today the current owner and his dog are the only residents of the once hotel. Onward ho and the group heads off in the direction of The Paul Kruger Bridge (the third national monument), shedding warm coverings as we go as it has warmed up considerably. The bridge marks the entrance to the famous Wakkerstroom Wetlands area.
During the 1877 -1881 British occupation of the then Transvaal, work was started on the bridge but stopped abruptly at the outbreak of the first Anglo-Boer War. When it ended the application for funding from the government to continue work was refused until Paul Kruger visited Wakkerstroom after heavy rains. His coach got mired in the flooded Wetlands. Funding was soon approved and work continued in 1892/3. The 12m span steel truss girder bridge was one of the last steel bridges erected by the ZAR. It was manufactured by SietzeWierda in Germany and shipped to South Africa.
A very interesting part of the history of the bridge is that this was the site of the first water baptism of the Zionist Church, arguably now the largest church in South Africa. In about 1894 Dutch Reformed Church minister, Rev. Le Roux, came to town as a missionary and, influenced by the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion, Illinois, he and his deputy, Daniel Nkonyane, leaned toward Pentecostal/Zionist teaching. In 1904 the first Zionist baptisms were held at the bridge and the majority of the NG Mission Church members joined the Zionists.
The NG Church disapproved of baptisms and divine healing practices and Rev. le Roux found himself on the street with his family. Most local Zionists then joined the Apostolic Faith Mission, of which Le Roux became president. Zionist churches, such as the Shembe Nazirite Church in Kwazulu Natal and Zionist Christian Church in Moria, Limpopo, have flourished.
We now pass over a cattle bridge and come to a wooden walkway that leads to the Wetland Reserve. Here Kristi Garland, who heads up Birdlife South Africa in Wakkerstroom, waits to tell us more. People can head on foot into the area where a number of strategically placed bird hides are placed. The organisation does sterling work and its mission is to promote the enjoyment, conservation, study and understanding of wild birds[ii]
Kristi is also launching a new Bird Life project, a book called Ringo – the Journey of a White Stork – detailing the finding of a bird’s ring locally to tracing Ringo. The book is part of their ‘Spring Alive’ project, which aims to get communities interested in bird migration.[iii]
The much warmer group now heads back into town for the last stop – the beautiful sandstone Dutch Reformed Church. The history of the church dates back to 1860 wand the first minute books from that time are stored in Stellenbosch. Originally a small building, where the church hall now stands, was erected and the current imposing church was inaugurated in 1887. Originally it did not have its own minister and from 1861 – 1874 Rev. van der Hoff would travel from Potchefstroom (a significant distance) to conduct services. In 1874, Reverend Ackerman became the first dedicated minister.
The church serves both the town and surrounding and outlying farms and early Communion services were big occasions. Churchgoers would arrive in their ox wagons and camp around the church for days. This is a reason why the roads round the church are wide enough for an ox wagon to turn around in. Significant alterations were done to the church in 1944 and these changes meant the church could not be declared a national monument. The only remainder of the original beautiful woodwork is the baptismal font. The acoustics in the building are excellent and as a result of this the Gala Evening of the annual Wakkerstroom Music Festival[iv] is usually held in the church.
The end of the walk had been reached and most people were by now ready to head off to one of Wakkerstroom’s restaurants or watering holes for refreshments but, as we were outside an interesting building opposite the NG Church, there was more of interest to find out. This rather elegant building has the appearance of a boutique hotel and we learn it used to be a branch of the Harvey Greenacre and Co.’s chain, a clothing, cosmetic and haberdashery store that was popular with locals and those coming to town for shopping. After it closed it fell into disrepair and became home to tramps. In the 1990’s the Dutch Van Capelle family bought it, restored it and renamed it Greenacres Manor. They now use it when they visit Wakkerstroom annually, having plenty of space with seven en suite bedrooms.
An interesting couple of hours, organised by Wakkerstroom Walks and Trails[v], spent exploring the history of an intriguing little Mpumalanga town. Both locals and visitors agreed that the walk had inspired them to learn more about the history of the town. With its abundance of guest houses and cottages, it is a welcoming and tranquil destination for people (and especially twitchers) wanting a break not far from Johannesburg or Pretoria.
[i] Wakkerstroom Historical Route by Chris Smit