Explore the Makana Heritage Route – The umgwashu tree, hidden churches, Mlanjeni cave & long-drop lavs
Up until recently, I had no idea that there is a sprinkling of little villages in the Eastern Cape called Potsdam, Berlin, Breidbach, Braunchsweig, Frankfort, Hanover and Marienthal. Named after the German towns and cities with the same names, obviously, but on a much smaller scale; some of them on such a small scale that they barely exist, so that even tourist marketing material is given to referring to them as ‘not in very good condition’, which must surely be a euphemism for ‘on their last legs’ …
These villages form a mixture of what once were military posts and little domestic settlements that are today part of the Makana Heritage Route, one of four routes that make up the Amathole District’s celebration of the vivid history of the area. The others are known as the Sandile, the Mqoma and Phalo routes, and each of them is filled with heritage sites that include the author Olive Schreiner’s house, the Xhosa King Sandile’s grave, the Battle of Centane, Steve Biko Garden of Remembrance, and the Bhisho Massacre Monument.
This may sound like merely a smattering, but in fact there are well over 350 identified sites that extend over the area dominated by the Amatola Mountains, from Dutywa in the Transkei to Balfour, Peddie, Hamburg, Bhisho, Hogsback and Stutterheim. This area was the backdrop of the frontier wars (now ‘correctly politicised’ and known as the Wars of Land Dispossession) and a stronghold of the Xhosa nation in its heyday, plus there are a good handful of local leaders that come from the area, like Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.
And the route isn’t a series of dry historical sites that hold little fascination either. There is the uMgwashu tree or monument, a lone, rather gnarled beautiful, old milkwood tree that marks the spot of an important site where the Mfengu people still gather every year on May 14th to respect an oath taken by their ancestors over 170 years ago to be loyal to the British Crown, of all things (they collaborated with the British to try and keep a sense of their cultural integrity, having left their homelands in KwaZulu-Natal to immigrate to the Eastern Cape). But in modern times it’s morphed into more of a loyalty to authority and the South African constitution in particular.
Actually the 14th May was when the Mfengu crossed the Kei River and re-settled in an area they could call their own. The milkwood tree, or uMqwashu, symbolises life, protection and depth – amazing to think that something as humble as a lone tree on the side of the road can take on such epic dimensions.
Then there is also the Mlanjeni Dam and Cave found in the village of Tyhata, which although dry today and perhaps ordinary at first glance, is a sacred space for the Xhosa people. Mlanjeni was a well-respected diviner, regarded by some as a prophet, who is said to have initiated the frontier war that is named after him (one of the longest and most violent of the nine wars of the Eastern Cape during the 19th Century), and it was here that he would pray for rain, whilst the dam was used by him to wash the wounds of warriors so that they would heal.
It was also at the Mlanjeni Cave that he hid when the British tried to arrest him – Mlanjeni’s growing reputation as someone who could disarm witches, light his pipe on the sun, heal the sick and cause rain to fall from sweat that fell from his body, made him a target of the British who were intent on ‘civilising’ the Xhosa and found him a threat. Making him a target inevitably led to a war as Mlanjeni roused the Xhosa people to fight.
Add to these already appealing sites a number of little churches – a series of little Methodist mission stations that were an attempt to build a chain of churches from the Cape frontier to Port Natal – one of which, the Kwamadliki Methodist church, is made from tin and still standing despite being built in the 1860s from building material shipped from England. Other little churches include the pretty Newtondale Church, and the Ayliff Church built as a mission station at Peddie.
If you do nothing else on the Makana Route, visit Peddie, originally the site of a British fort and halfway, give or take a little, between King William’s Town and Grahamstown on the N2 (it’s the town where the TV series Tsha Tsha was shot). Because of its strategic position (it is halfway between the Great Fish River and the Keiskamma River and in line with Trumpetter’s Drift, an important crossing over the Great Fish River, and the Line Drift over the Keiskamma), it was a focal point of struggles for power and hence there are a great many historical monuments, memorials and places to visit in and around the town.
But back to the German villages. There was a German village in Peddie, although it isn’t regarded as one of the original settler villages. Of the original villages only Berlin and Frankfort grew much beyond a smattering of houses, a church or two and a general store. The villages grew as a result of Sir George Grey’s offer, in 1857 to volunteers from the German Legion, of land in exchange for manning a series of forts. And the rest was, as they say, history. Except that nothing much came of the towns that mushroomed here as a result.
Berlin today, some 25 kilometres from East London, is up in the hills and typically open farmland, whilst Frankfort, in similar vein to its European counterpart, which lacks the allure of Paris or Berlin, barely makes it onto visitors’ itineraries, although its proximity to Bhisho is in its favour. And it is worth a visit for its famous remains of long-drop lavatories – all 1 500 of them – that lie sprewn in amongst the veld, stripped of all usable materials by the local populace.
Next time you’re driving through the Eastern Cape and you hear someone mutter about the lack of excitement, mention the uMgwashu tree, the hidden churches, the story of Mlanjeni and the myriad long-drop lavatories, and you’ll have their attention…