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Sunrise over Grahamstown is marked at the astronomical toposcope on Gunfire Hill, one of two major high points that overlook the town. Looking out over the valley that lies between them, you might be hard pressed to put your finger on exactly what it is that goes to make Grahamstown. But stop long enough to absorb its atmosphere, and you’ll discover a fascinating history that is not always apparent when you first enter this cathedral city.


A former frontier town, once the second largest in the country after Cape Town, it has grown from a small military village at the foot of Africa to one of the leading cultural, educational and tourist centres of South Africa. The other high point you see bears the name of the legendary Xhosa prophet and wardoctor, Makana, who launched a massive attack on the fledgling town in the early days of the Frontier Wars. The tale of the great Battle of Grahamstown is a stirring one. Keep your eyes on the eastern horizon and watch for the Pleiades. A cluster of seven stars, they are the rainstars of the Khoi people, who gather to dance, sing and pray when these stars first make their appearance in the southern skies. And here you have a clue to the earliest human inhabitants of this area. Long before the Europeans and the Xhosas first made contact, the Khoi and the San people lived and moved through this area. Not much evidence of their presence remains today.


The rising of the Pleiades marks the beginning of the year in Africa. They give their Xhosa name to the month of June – isiLimela – when the young initiates return from the period of isolation during their transition from boyhood to manhood. Go across to the townships and you’ll see them in the midwinter and -summer holidays, daubed from head to toe with the white clay the young boys dig from the hillside at Makana’s Kop. If you went across to the townships slowly, you’d have passed through what might seem to be a little English village set upon the African veld. Stone houses and churches, even a castle or two, many built in Gothic and Tudor Gothic Revival styles of architecture, are dotted all over the place.


Yet, the City of Saints did not start as a missionary town. The clue to its official origins lies in its name – it was founded in 1812 as a military garrison by Colonel John Graham during the early years of the turbulent Frontier War period. However, the town declined in military importance as the theatre of war moved further eastwards. From a military establishment it grew into a thriving market town, built up by the civilians and businessmen who developed property here; by traders and explorers, who passed through on their way to the interior, and came back to market their wares. A few years later came the 1820 British Settlers. Located on inadequate and unsuitable land, and hampered by drought, crop disease, floods and the incursions of the Xhosas, they battled to make a living. After three years, they began to leave the land, and many drifted to Grahamstown to ply their former trades as artisans and craftsmen. With this came the establishment of the town’s renowned schools, churches and many other educational institutions.


Much of the Rhodes University complex has developed on the site occupied by the military buildings of the early nineteenth century – the campus has a wealth of fine historical sites. The city’s eventful past is reflected in its unique historical buildings. The 1820 Settlers’ National Monument is an imposing memorial dedicated to honouring a small group of British settlers whose influence has been felt in nearly every field of undertaking in this country. Around it lies a wildflower garden filled with indigenous plants that point outwards to the flora of the area. And watch out for the weather. Grahamstown lies at the meeting point of four major biomes. It’s not unusual for a rainy morning to become a balmy afternoon or for the weather over the city on a particular day to differ markedly from that over the coast only 60km away.


Despite the prevailing wackiness, however, the city and its surrounds have a moderate climate, with the average temperatures ranging from 9° to 23° C. The hottest months are December to March and the coldest June and July. The region has a predominantly spring rainfall with the wettest months being October and November and – because it borders an autumn rainfall area – March. Down at the historic heart you’ll find the Cathedral of St Michael and St George, the very thing that makes our town a city. A magnificent Gothic Revival cathedral, it now stands on the site of Colonel Graham’s officers’ mess. It is the focal point of one of the best collective examples of Victorian and early Edwardian architecture in this country. The Observatory Museum is a must to visit, and houses the only Victorian camera obscura in the Southern Hemisphere, giving a fascinating view of the town all around. Here too is life as it was in Victorian times, where you can set your watch to Grahamstown mean time, which is 14 minutes behind the rest of South Africa. Leaving behind the Victorian heart and going up to the townships, we follow in the footsteps of our country’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, as he travelled across town to receive the freedom of the city on May 16, 1996.


Here township life mirrors the historically more affluent side of town, but with its own distinctive image. The commercial spirit survives, with spaza shops at every turn, placid cattle and goats plodding the streets, donkey carts returning laden with wood to build new houses, and rowdy clientele spilling from the shebeens at month-end. It’s a vibrant passage to visit the popular alternative to the central city restaurants. Here lunch is ushered in with song and dance, and visitors are warmly welcomed to the streets and homes of the dancers. Our route takes us through Fingo Village. It’s an interesting story, that of the Mfengu people, who threw their lot in with the British during the Frontier Wars, and became the first black indigenous inhabitants of South Africa to become British subjects. In later years, more Xhosa people migrated to town, taking up residence to the east of the little stream that bisects the city and later becomes the headwaters of the Blaauwkrantz river. We pass the informal houses of these modern African settlers on either side of the road, their homes not unlike those the 1820 Settlers first built for themselves. As we top the hill, we turn into Mandela Way. From informal housing we move again through suburbia, their streets lined with brick and plaster houses.


Here and there, even in this modern setting, are the symbolic kraals, taking the place of the traditional kraal used for ancestor worship in the days when there was more room to be had. We look back to the Settlers’ Monument, a quiet guardian over the city, but one which regularly comes alive as Grahamstown carves out its future as Africa’s Festival capital, merging the traditions brought by the European settlers with the rich diversity of Africa’s cultures. And there you have it – a city of contrasts – from the exuberance of its students and scholars on Saturday, to the quiet of a sleepy hollow on Sunday; from its stately Victorian charms, to its vibrant African rhythms. From its historic past as a frontier town, to its future hope as a leading educational centre, it is a modern-day melting pot of the many and varied cultures that met here and left their mark. Colonel John Graham established Grahamstown in 1812. His brief was to survey the frontier and establish a series of forts along the Fish River, the newly proclaimed border with Xhosa territories. It was the first town to be established by the British in South Africa, its location being primarily chosen for the perceived abundance of water.


It remained a military garrison and was the site of the famous 1819 attack by Nxele (Makana) in his attempt to halt the European incursion into Xhosa territory. A bitter battle, described as the most significant in South African history, ensued in which the Xhosa were finally forced to withdraw after the timely arrival of a group of Khoi-Khoi hunters under the leadership of |an Boesak. Today the battle area is known by the local people as Egazini, meaning the “Place of Blood”. A monument to the Xhosa warriors who died defending their homeland has been erected and specialist guides are at hand to lead tours of the battlefield. As a result of this battle it was decided to settle 4 000 Britons in the area to consolidate British occupation of the territory. Their influence on subsequent South African history was far reaching and way out of proportion to their limited numbers compared to the local inhabitants. After the arrival of the settlers, Grahamstown grew rapidly to become the second largest town in South Africa after Cape Town.


As military activity moved further east and north, education took over as its main infrastructure. Grahamstown has more than 70 declared National Heritage sites. One of these is the highest church spire in the country, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott the architect of many famous buildings of the Victorian era including the Albert Memorial in London’s Kensington Gardens, and St Pancras Station in London. Grahamstown remains an important educational and cultural centre today, with easy access to game reserves and the unspoilt beaches of the Sunshine Coast. The surrounding area is farmed, largely for chicory, pineapples, ostriches, sheep and game. The city is also an important legal centre. It has seven museums and two old forts are within its municipal boundaries.