Travelogue Eastern Cape 2: Bathurst

BATHURST
29 Nov

We dropped our friends off at East London Airport and drove along the coast as far as Port Alfred, where we turned inland for the 10 minute stretch to Bathurst. We had chosen to stay at the Historic Pig & Whistle Inn because it houses the longest running pub in South Africa and puts on a legendary Sunday roast.

Cutting it very fine for the kitchen's published 3pm close, we called ahead to secure our roast (lamb) dinners and made it in the nick of time, pulling into a parking bay in front of the hotel with mere minutes to spare. There were a few tables of diners and drinkers being entertained by a live band positioned underneath the hotel's sign on the wide curb.

The chefs had waited to plate for us, so we were served fresh piping-hot roasted goodness smothered in a rich gravy - and for that moment all was right with the world!

With a full belly we were newly excited to explore our surrounds, so without bothering to complete check-in or unpack the car we embarked on a self-guided walking tour of town. 

Established in 1820, it's hard to believe this peaceful little village on the banks of the Kowie River had such a turbulent start.

Established on the frontier, it was an area of fierce conflict between settlers moving northwards and African pastoralists and refugees from the Mfecane moving southwards.

The settlement was named after the secretary of State for the colonies at the time, a Lord Henry Bathurst, and was intended to be the administrative capital of the Albany Settler Country, but that was moved to Grahamstown because of its superior military position.

Bathurst is now renowned for its quaint and old architecture, counting among the visible relics - all on our short self-guided walking tour of the town centre - the oldest unaltered Anglican church building in South Africa (St John's), the oldest functioning primary school and the oldest continuously licenced pub in the country, housed in the historic Pig and Whistle Inn, which is where we chosen to stay for the night.

The inn building was originally built as the Bathurst Forge in 1821 but converted into a hotel in 1831 and has housed endless guests in its first floor 10 rooms, with countless more guests "having a swig at the pig" or enjoying the traditional Sunday roast lunch as we had. 

On finally checking in - a process managed by a local patron from the bar in the tender's absence - we were escorted to Room 8, a corner room which overlooked the town's main crossroad, and we were delighted with the hardwood floors, the old-world 4-poster bed and in-room basin (with the rest of the facilities shared and accessible from the landing). 

Opening our windows we could hear that the Bathurst Arms across the road was rather festive so, after having an obligatory Guinness in the Pig and Whistle (for Indexing purposes), we made our way to see what was going on. 

The pub was full to bursting, with an open mic style live music show drawing and holding the patrons. Some were more conventionally talented than others, but the small crowd cheered all gamely and sang along whenever the words were known. No doubt both the brave showmanship and the good spirits were fuelled by house beers sold in quarts.

Not particularly hungry, but spurred by the numerous mentions of the town's epic pizza place, we rounded the evening off with a pizza to share at Pickwick's seeing as it was across the road from our hotel. We could see what the fuss was about as we enjoyed our large, topping-laden cheesy nightcap.

Waking the next morning we filled in the gaps left on out on the walking tour from the previous day, with a jogging tour that would see us completing the further afield sights within an hour or so, on a wider 10km route.

First target was the Old Powder Magazine, which is the oldest building in Bathurst and was erected as a military supply shelter in advance of the establishment of the town. We headed off, thinking we knew where we were going but ended up taking a few wrong turns - easy to do when your destination doesn't have a formal address and none of the roads are marked. Nonetheless, we found it and were pleased that besides the landmark itself, the position on top of the hill offered a worthwhile panoramic view of the surrounds. 

From there we ran past town and up another hill to the Toposcope. This is a stone beacon that was built for land surveying purposes and still shows the plaques indicating which settler families from where were allocated which farms and what distance from the beacon. An open air and free experience that is a wonderful slice of history.

Running down the hill and back to the main road, we ticked the last box with a visit to the giant pineapple which, despite the rich history of this living relic of a town, is most often the first thing to be mentioned. 

Situated on Summerhill Farm, the Big Pineapple stands three stories high with a viewing deck on top and a pineapple museum inside. At 56 feet tall, it is officially the biggest pineapple in the world and was built by members of Bathurst's agricultural community in the 80s to pay homage to the prickly fruit as it had provided salvation to the farmers in the 1800s who had struggled to grow anything until they planted pineapples. 

Completing the last dash home along the main road, we washed, dressed and packed up, ready to head to Grahamstown for the next adventure.