Harrismith (Including Swinburn and Van Reenen)

Harrismith lies on the banks of the Wilge River at the foot of the nine-km long, 2 394-m high Platberg Mountain. The town is strategically situated on National Road N3, midway between Johannesburg in Gauteng and Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. Established in 1849 and named after Sir Harry Smith, the then Governor of the Cape Colony, the town was used as a major base by the British during the Anglo-Boer War. The town also has strong historical ties with the early Voortrekkers, for it was in this area that Piet Retief, a Voortrekker leader, negotiated with the Zulu King Dingane for land. Retief and his men were led into ambush and killed. Today, Harrismith forms the gateway to the Drakensberg Mountain Range and the nearby Sterkfontein Dam with its extended nature conservation area. In addition, stock and crop farming flourishes on the grassy, rolling plains with their plentiful rivers and streams. Recent additions to the many crops produced in the area include apples, berries and flowers.

Adventure And Sport

Angling: The many streams and rivers in the area and Sterkfontein Dam offer superb angling and fly-fishing opportunities. The Maluti Fly-fishing Club holds trout and yellowfish angling competitions every June.

Golf: Harrismith’s magnificent 18-hole golf course is the third oldest in South Africa. The Platberg Golf Classic is played here every March.

Hiking and biking: There are several hiking and biking trails in and around town and on private land, guest farms and game reserves in the area. Several of the hiking trails pass through the Drakensberg Botanical Gardens.

Hunting: Platkop Game Reserve and several private concerns offer extensive hunting packages.

Polo and horse-riding: Harrismith is “horse country” and, apart from the polo played by locals, visitors can enquire about horse-riding opportunities at Kliphuis Guest Farm. The town hosts a gymkhana, coupled with horse-rides and “boeresport”, every April and polo tournaments in May and September.

Road running: The Platberg Mountain Marathon is run annually in October and has an interesting story attached to it. After a British schoolteacher angered townsfolk during the Anglo-Boer War by referring to the mountain (Platberg) as “that small hill of yours”, he was challenged to see whether he could run up and down the mountain in less than an hour. He managed it – but only just – and that was the start of a tradition that has continued to this day. The race has recently been expanded to include the Berg Bohaai, Harrismith’s own festival of sport, music, art and crafts. The 25-km Sterkfontein Dam Race takes place in May.

Sport: The town has facilities for bowls, squash, soccer, badminton, rugby and tennis. The Prince Arthur Men’s Fours tennis tournament is held in October.

Water sport: Sterkfontein Dam is an ideal venue for water sport enthusiasts. Every February a 1 500-m swimming and catamaran race is held at the dam. The surrounding nature reserve offers accommodation to those who would like to extend their pleasurable visit.

Art And Crafts

Art and Crafts: Art and crafts may be bought at Marqwa House in McKechnie Street where distinctive Southern African curios are for sale; at Thelmi’s Studio in Warden Street and at Qwa-Qwa Weavers.

Art gallery: The Le Art Gallery is situated next to Marqwa House.

De Oude Huize: Visit this lovely renovated old house to purchase beautiful handcrafted journals adorned with beadwork, ostrich egg buttons, feathers and porcupine quills, as well as Lisianthus flowers and lavender. Visits are by appointment only!

Cultural/Community Tourism

Township Tours: Guided day-tours and overnight stays in the Intabazwe Township are popular among those who would like to experience life in an African township. Obtain the services of experienced guides first, since they best know the places that are worth visiting.

Entertainment And Shopping

Clifford Estates Health and Wellness Manor: The manor is situated just outside town and offers weary city dwellers tranquil surroundings, beautiful gardens and all manner of beauty and health therapies in the confines of lovely old sandstone buildings.

Fauna And Flora

Bird-watching: Bird-watchers can make use of the facilities at Plover’s Burrow.

Drakensberg Botanical Gardens: The Drakensberg Botanical Gardens, on the lower slopes of Platberg Mountain is noted for its wide variety of indigenous flora. The wild flowers in the Gardens represent about 20 per cent of the Drakensberg flora. The Gardens are very attractive during the flowering season, which stretches from September to April. They also boast a historical attraction – an old blockhouse built during the Anglo-Boer War to protect the town’s water supply. Two dams within the boundaries of the Gardens supply the town with water.

Platberg Nature Reserve: This reserve is privately managed and includes game-watching, hiking, biking, climbing and abseiling opportunities. Most of the game originally found in this area has been reintroduced to the reserve.

President Brand Park: This lovely park, on the banks of the Wilge River, is an ideal spot for picnics and also has a bird sanctuary and caravan park.

Sterkfontein Dam Nature Reserve: The 18 000-ha Sterkfontein Dam Nature Reserve lies approximately 23 km from Harrismith on the Harrismith-Bergville Road. The Drakensberg Mountains, with their intricate rock formations and bushy slopes, form a spectacular backdrop to the blue waters of Sterkfontein Dam, renowned for its water sport and angling opportunities, especially yellowfish angling. The reserve that surrounds the dam is famous for its vulture restaurant, a successful Mazda Wildlife project to save the Cape Griffon. Since the reserve has started “serving” carcasses at the restaurant, in other words, by leaving them outside for the vultures to feed on, the numbers of Griffon have grown from a mere three or four to a record 340 at one sighting. Other birds found in the reserve include ibis, korhaan, ground woodpecker and sentinel. Eleven species of game, such as wildebeest, reedbuck and oribi, also inhabit the reserve. At dusk, bats fly around the rocky slopes and marshes. Accommodation consists of chalets, camping sites and a caravan park. The northern part of the reserve consists of grassy slopes, but tree fern, yellow wood, silky bark, wild peach, cocoa tree, bush guarri and protea abound in the gorges of the southern regions. The wild grape twines into treetops to form a dense leafy canopy that protects the mosses and ferns on the forest floor, as well as the fungi and lichen that grow on the tree trunks. Other adventure tourism possibilities include paragliding and mountain-biking.

History And Architecture

Community Museum: The community museum is housed in the Market Hall at the rear of the Town Hall.

Deborah Retief Memorial Garden: The Deborah Retief Memorial Garden, in the centre of town, honours those who fought and died during the Anglo-Boer War and the First World War and contains several war memorials. A 27-m, 250 million-year-old fossilised tree trunk is close by and a hitching post, water pump, a red Orange River Colony post box and naval guns dating back to the Basotho Wars can also be seen in the Gardens.

Historic buildings: The oldest home in Harrismith is in 78 Warden Street. British architectural influence is still discernible in the many old churches and other old buildings in the town.

Llandaff Oratory: The Llandaff Oratory, at Van Reenen, was built to honour Llandaff Matthew, a man who laid down his own life to help save others during a coalmine disaster. The petite little oratory can only seat eight people. It has been declared a National monument and is well worth a stopover and a cup of tea — there is a charming gift shop/cum tea garden close by.

Retief’s Stone: Kerkenberg marks the spot where the Voortrekkers camped and waited while their leader, Piet Retief, conducted negotiations with the Zulu king, Dingane. On Piet Retief’s birthday his daughter Deborah painted his name and date of birth on a stone, which is now known as Retief’s Stone, and can still be seen. She was still under the impression that the negotiations were going well. Tragically, Retief and his men had walked into an ambush and were slaughtered by the Zulus. An authentic replica of the words that Deborah painted on the rock can be seen at the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria where it has been immortalised in a frieze that depicts this incident.

Swinburne Bridge, the second oldest bridge in the Free State, was officially opened to traffic in 1884. It has since been declared a National monument

Town Hall: The graceful sandstone and brick Town Hall, built in 1907, has been declared a National monument.

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