Discovering the Old Orange Free State – Part 1

A while ago, while returning from our Cape  adventure, we passed through quite a few of these little Old Orange Free State towns, and thought that it would be interesting to discover their past history, so we decided to plan another tour. I had done a lot of research and downloaded pages on  heritage sites in the Free State.

The Old Orange Free State 01
The Old Orange Free State 02
The Old Orange Free State 03

We headed south on a very patched tar road towards Heilbron, our first stop. Cosmos started putting in a colourful appearance on the sides of the road. We drove alongside fields of healthy looking maize and sorghum, when all of a sudden there was a splash of bright yellow as we passed fields of sunflowers lifting their radiant yellow heads towards the sun. Heilbron, meaning ‘Spring of Salvation’ was founded in 1873 at the site of a perennial natural fountain.

The Old Orange Free State 09

During the early years of its history, several Jewish citizens  played an important role in developing the town, with  roads being  wide enough to allow an ox wagon to make a U turn. There is a fenced off section dedicated to the British soldiers who died in the area during the Anglo Boer War, with tiny mauve flowers growing all over,  another section for the graves of those who died in the concentration camp with a central monument, (787 inmates lost their lives, a large portion dying of typhoid and measles),  and a section for the Jewish deceased, and residents in the town.

Our GPS then led us to the Boer War Memorial in the grounds of the N G Mother Church, with the plinth having the names of Boer combatants who died in the war.

From there we made our way to the  Old Jewish Synagogue, now the Riemland Museum. As the railway station, also a  heritage site no longer exists, we struggled to find it, but in the end we discovered it in ruins. 

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The Old Orange Free State 12

We then left Heilbron behind us, and followed a quiet narrow meandering road through the beautifully green countryside, with the occasional farmhouse and windmill dotted here and there, heading for the Vegkop Battlefield. Once we had turned onto the road towards Vegkop, (battle hill) we had to nudge lazy cattle out of the way. The grounds of the battlefield, commemorating the battle between 33 Boers and thousands of Matabele, was very neat and tidy, and we were very fortunate to have the caretaker open up the very interesting museum for us to browse around.

In October 1836, the Matabele attacked the Voortrekkers beneath  a bush covered ridge, and the Voortrekkers formed a laager within a laager, with women and children in the inner laager. The Matabele surrounded the laager, and numbers differ  greatly, but the 33 Voortrekkers and 7 young boys fought about 5000 Matabele ~ Voortrekkers losing 2 men and 12 were wounded, and the Matabele lost 500 men. 

When  we left Vegkop we enquired  from the caretaker as to which road we should take to head for Petrus Steyn and we consequently followed his directions.  We drove on a narrow gravel road through very beautiful countryside with not a car in sight but imagine our surprise when we arrived back at Heilbron.  So we then followed the signposts which lead us to Petrus Steyn, which is a small farming town founded in 1912 on the Renoster river.   

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The Old Orange Free State 16
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We drove around looking for the Ox Wagon Monument, erected in 1938, but could not find it. The Old Pastorie, and various houses and monuments were on display. After having lunch under a large shady tree we then set off for Lindley, travelling along the R707, a terrible potholed road, eventually arriving at this little town and making our way to the Town Hall and a monument of Sarel Celliers.

Lindley is a small town on the banks of the Vals river. The Town Hall was opened in December 1911. Then we made our way to the Lindley Roller Mills founded  by Hekkie van Rensburg in 1959 and still in business. He showed us around the mill, and we bought some coarse mealie meal, and listened to his fascinating stories. Hekkie also took us to a museum with many old cars and antiques. He couldn’t do enough for us.

Lindley Roller Mills
Lindley Roller Mills

We now headed for Bethlehem (Hebrew for ‘House of Bread’) situated on the Liebenbergs river and was founded in 1864. The countryside was  beautifully green and so scenic.

The Town Hall
The Town Hall

The Town Hall is one of the most impressive town halls built in the Old Orange Free State and is a landmark. In 1918 during the Great Flu epidemic in the Free State the town hall was used as a temporary hospital and my Grandmother was instrumental in organising people to come in and nurse the sick and ailing. As the schools were closed, during the day my father and his brothers were instructed to go from door to door to enquire whether any of the ill families needed anything from the shops. Not one of their family caught the flu.

Then we made our way to J. P. Strapp & Son. This old Victorian shop is an excellent example of the sandstone architecture of the eastern Free State and dates from the late 19th century. The story goes that during the Anglo Boer War the shop was looted by a commando. Sam Strapp, being the owner of the shop,got the commandant to sign a chit for the goods taken and on the strength of that he received compensation from the British Administration after the war. When we visited the shop it had  been divided up into about 6 shops, which was unfortunate, as I would have loved to have seen it as it used to be. 

From there we found St. Augustines Anglican Church, which was built of sandstone in 1928. My father used to serve in this church as a young boy, and Tony and I had our wedding vows renewed in that church about 20 years ago conducted by Rev. Willem Taal, a very dear friend of ours, and rector of the church at that time. Then we made our way to the well- known Wooden Spoon Restaurant & Pub, also built of sandstone.  

St. Augustines Anglican Church
St. Augustines Anglican Church
The undulating road  leading us towards Clarens
The undulating road  leading us towards Clarens

This is the oldest existing building in Bethlehem having been built in 1874.  As we couldn’t find anywhere to camp in Bethlehem, we decided to move on to Clarens where we would be able to find accommodation.

The undulating road  leading us towards Clarens,  at the foothills of the Maluti mountains, was so beautifully scenic, with such a tranquil ambience.

We phoned on ahead and found camping facilities at Bokpoort Holiday Farm, and before long we had our camp all set up.   A sneaky chilly breeze started to blow, and picked up as the evening wore on, so out came warmer clothes.  

Nestled in the valley below, we spied the peaceful Clarens village with lights twinkling brightly in the distance.

End of Part 1