A Guide To Vanrhynsdorp, Western Cape.
I love making destinations of places I’ve only ever seen as pass-throughs.
My prior experiences of Vanrhynsdorp include quick garage coffees or it would usually only act as a convenient fill-up station on our way to Namibia. However, on this trip I was adamant to stick around for a while, to see what this little Nama Karoo town and its people are all about.
Vanrhynsdorp is situated in the folds of the towering Matzikamma and Gifberg Mountains on the N7, 300 km north of Cape Town, en route to Namibia.
According to the Vanrhynsdorp museum, the area’s history dates back to 1488 when Portugese sailors documented the sighting of the Matzikamma mountain range from the sea. Yet, long before that Vanrhynsdorp’s mountains were home to the San and Khoi people and many fine examples of the art of these Late Stone Age hunter-gatherers exist in several rock shelters.
The town itself was officially founded as “Troe-Troe”, meaning “dry soil” (although some sources say the direct translation is ‘return-return’) in 1751, after Danish traveller Pieter van Meerhoff started exploring the Knersvlakte area around Vanrhynsdorp in 1661.
What followed was the Troe-Troe mission era which included the setting up of mission stations that eventually evolved into some of the neighbouring towns, like Wupperthal, Ebenhaeier, Leliefontein, and Steinkopf. Hendrik van Rhijn was the man behind most of these developments, and in 1881 the town was renamed Vanrhynsdorp to honour his valuable contributions as a church leader and community member.
ONCE YOU ARRIVE
Start your wander around the village at the local tourism office (18 Van Riebeeck St.), which also acts as the museum mentioned above. It’s your best bet to learn a bit more about the history of the town and find out what there is to do in the area.
Right next to the tourism office, you’ll find the Old Jail (20 & 24 Van Riebeeck St.). Now also somewhat of a museum, gift shop, and succulent nursery all rolled into one. The last prisoners left in the 1930’s, after which the building fell into a state of disrepair but it has been lovingly restored. Each cell has a different theme, all telling the many stories that Vanrhynsdorp has to share. Rumours of ghosts abound for those who are brave enough to try to meet up with them.
Knechtsvlakte Nursery inside the Old Jail also has a wide variety of succulents for sale and the local nicknames hidden between the plants are sure to leave you giggling as you browse.
Die Skoorsteentjie (7 Troe-Troe Street) is also well worth a visit for quirky signs alone. A family run business since 1991, they supply the best homemade baked goods to the village. Beautiful handmade products are on display and they’ve got a lovely little tea garden in the back.
Another fun fact, and a headline that momentarily put little Vanrhynsdorp under the global spotlight for a while, is that of Victor Smith’s crash-landing. In 1932, when he was only 19-years-old, Smith attempted to break the Cape Town-to-London flying record of 8½ days. The following year he tackled the London-to-Cape Town record, but crash-landed some 27km from Vanrhynsdorp, on the farm Quaggakop. He still made history though - his was the first successful forced landing on South African soil. There’s a memorial in his honour just outside of town that you can visit, should you want to retrace his steps.
WHERE TO STAY
There are a number of B&B’s and other places of accommodation in Vanrhynsdorp. I chose to book in to Letsatsi Lodge. Letsatsi is located just off of the N7, making it the perfect stop over between Cape Town, Springbok, Upington and Namibia.
Guests stay in chalets with tented sides and windows, giving you the unmissable feeling of “camping”, with the added-benefit of doing it in a comfy queen-sized bed. Each self-catering chalet comes with an Aircon, 40 inch TV, DSTV, and Wifi. There’s also a beautiful on-site restaurant called the Red Ox and breakfast is included in your stay.
I spent my days next to the dam, taking long walks over the koppies into the veld and admiring the beautiful Matzikamma mountain range during sunset.
Letsatsi is pet-friendly on prior-arrangement and has a number of different accommodation options to suit everyone’s needs. For more info head on over to their website at www.letsatsi.ncfamouslodges.com, contact them on +27 (0) 27 219 2828 or email them on firstname.lastname@example.org
Many towns in the southern Namaqualand were originally founded as mission stations, and the church on Letsatsi’s premises is the recently restored Catholic Mission of the Little Flower, dating back to 1927. It gets its name from a painting of angels scattering flowers from the top of the nearby Maskam Mountain. It’s also only one of two churches in the entire South Africa with Afrikaans inscriptions on the walls.
Today, they welcome guests to the venue for anything from a wedding, birthday to any other functions. You can learn more about the church and function venue HERE.
LAST, BUT CERTAINLY NOT LEAST...
The breathtaking Gifberg Mountain and Pass.
The Gifberg (Poison Mountain) Pass was originally built in 1917 and improved, widened and partially hard-surfaced over the years in an effort to improve safety. It’s still a challenging gravel pass (with two short tarred sections over the steepest parts) that ascends the Matsikamma mountain.
Gifberg gets it’s name from the San hunter-gatherers who used the latex from the bulbs of the gifboom, or gifbol (buphane toxicaria poison bush) in the area as a rich source of the poison for their otherwise puny arrows. The gifboom gave the deadly neurotoxin with which the San tipped their arrows. After wounding prey, the little hunters simply jogged along the wounded animal’s trail (the San are master trackers) until it fell.
At the top, you’ll find Gifberg Holiday Farm, through which you’ll be able to access all of the gems Gifberg has to offer. Various bushman painting sites can be visited on the hiking trails that puts you in touch with the wonders of the Namaqualand nature such as wild flowers, natural pools in which you can swim, a watercourse that is similar to a smaller scale Fish River Canyon, spectacular rock formations and the diverse vegetation that is unique to the Western Cape. Be sure to also take a drive to the Gifberg Waterfall (only in the rainy season) and the spectacular Kobee Pass.