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Notes on the Geography of South Africa: Stellenbosch

Stel's Bush. That's what it means, and it comes courtesy of Simon van de Stel, governor of the Cape Colony in 1679, when this second town of the colony (after Cape Town) was established.

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South Africa: Stellenbosch picture 1

Security was an issue, and so this gunpowder storehouse was built, the so-called Kruithuis or Arsenal. The belltower is a later addition.

South Africa: Stellenbosch picture 2

The date is surprising, because it's a century after the town's founding. But the building was authorized in 1686, which makes more sense. It took forever to complete, perhaps because security wasn't such a problem after all.

The VOC logo is a venerable one, found from Amsterdam to Java. It stands for Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or United East India Company. The C apparently means Cabo, as in Cape.

Notice that there's no gabled and thatched roof here; instead, a masonry arch rests on walls two feet thick.

South Africa: Stellenbosch picture 3

Wouldn't you know it. Do you suppose that when Wolfe came to Montcalm's Quebec he found just such a sign? Odd that it's in English, since 70 percent of the town's 117,000 people speak Afrikaans as their first language.

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The Mother Church is spectacularly located at the end of--wait for it!--Church St.

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The church was begun in 1717 and built in a conventional, cruciform shape, but it was extended in 1814 and enlarged again in 1863. It lost whatever Cape Dutch character it had and began to look uncannily like a NASA rocket.

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The interior is a masterpiece of carpentry, although you'd swear that hoteliers have come by, pointed up, and said, "That's what I want for my lobby."

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Pulpit.

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Bracing detail.

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This building is called Utopia. It was built as a private home but now, because it's so close to the church, serves as the church office.

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There's lots more where this one (the Morrel house, from about 1750) came from.

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Here's one: the so-called Burgher House, privately built and completed in 1797. It passed to the Rhenish Missionary Society (of which more in a moment), then in 1952 to the government, which restored it in 1959.

South Africa: Stellenbosch picture 12

From another angle. The building now houses the offices of Historical Homes of South Africa, Ltd., but is also open as a museum.

South Africa: Stellenbosch picture 13

The gable looks like waves washing up to the tippy top. There's no end of variety in these things. They would have tickled old Ruskin.

South Africa: Stellenbosch picture 14

Magnificent furniture, but not cozy.

South Africa: Stellenbosch picture 15

Fine hardware, too.

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The Rhenish Missionary Society was, as its name indicates, a German group. In fact it was a precursor of the German colony that founded what today is Namibia. Here is the church it built in Stellenbosch; a most unusual L-shaped floor plan, first with one wing (on the left here). With need for more seating, a second wing was added at a right angle to the first.

South Africa: Stellenbosch picture 17

The original entrance.

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The second wing. Wouldn't you know it: a service was in progress, but an hour later, service over, the door was locked tighter than... metaphors fail me.

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Dorp Street, one of the most amazing streets in South Africa, because it is (cars aside) so unchanged from two centuries ago.

South Africa: Stellenbosch picture 20

Fires devastated the town in 1710 and again in 1803, after which thatch went away, replaced by solid roofs, often flat. Today, tourism selling like hotcakes, and many old houses are reverting to thatch, perhaps confident that fire trucks can come if needed. Here, a sober Georgian townhouse.

South Africa: Stellenbosch picture 21

Another, but tweaked.

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A monument explains how it happened.

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Is the door handsome?

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Adjoining carriageway.

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Its neighbor. The gable is from 1825, though the windows are later. The thatch is very recent and replaced one of iron.

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A slight curve brings us to an unusual cluster.

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Fransen: this is the "first of [an] unbroken row of two-storeyed houses, all once without any upper floor. It is one of the most impressive complexes of old buildings anywhere in the country" (Hans Fransen, A Guide to the Old Buildings of the Cape,/i>, 2004, p. 180).

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"This is the most important house in the unique group," says Fransen. Built in one story before 1817, the second story was added about 1870.

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Across the street, there's a more Dutch-looking facade. Despite the gable date, the core is before 1800. Thatch went to iron and then back to thatch.

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Never-ending maintenance.

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As the gable announces, this is La Gratitude, from 1798. It was the home for 30 years of a minister, which may explain the watchful eye, a reference to Genesis 16:13, "Thou God seest me." Four vases are missing, but otherwise it's complete.

South Africa: Stellenbosch picture 32

Stripped down because it was modernized about 1900, this is Vredenlust.

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The house is older than the dated gable.


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