The Cederberg, a ruggedly beautiful region of South Africa with a remarkable history, tells a story that traverses through time. It spans from the original inhabitants, the San and Khoikhoi people, to colonial explorers, early settlers, and later conflicts and triumphs.
The Original Inhabitants
Long before European settlers arrived, the Cederberg was home to the San, or Bushmen people, and the Khoikhoi people. The San were hunter-gatherers who roamed this vast land, leaving their legacy in the form of ancient rock art found in caves and overhangs throughout the region. Some of these rock art depictions date back over 2,000 years and portray herds of eland, elephants, leopards, and more.
The first European contact with the Cederberg was made by the explorer Bartholomew Dias when he spotted these imposing mountains from the Atlantic Ocean. He named them the “Sierra dos Reis,” which translates to the “mountains of the three wise men of the East.” These three mighty peaks, including Sneeuberg, Sneeukop, and Tafelberg, are still visible from Cederberg Ridge today.
The name “Cederberg” itself originates from the Clanwilliam Cedar Tree (Widdringtonia cedarbergensis). This rare and endemic tree typically thrives at altitudes above 1,500 meters. It is revered for its fine-grained wood, but the arrival of European settlers nearly led to its complete extinction. The cedar tree was heavily utilized for furniture, housing, and even telegraph poles. Today, these trees are strictly protected, with only isolated, hard-to-reach specimens remaining.
Around 1670, one of the earliest colonists to the Cape, Marthinus Oloff Bergh, led an expedition north from Cape Town to explore the Cederberg. The owners of Simbavati Cederberg Ridge are proud 10th generation descendants of this visionary explorer. Bergh’s scouting party encountered the river that flows through the valley, observing herds of elephants along its banks, leading to its apt naming as the Oliphants River. Regrettably, these elephants were eventually hunted to extinction in the region by later settlers.
The Cederberg area began to see population growth with the arrival of the 1820 settlers from England and Ireland. Although many of these settlers initially found the area challenging due to its mountainous terrain and Mediterranean climate, Clanwilliam, one of South Africa’s oldest towns, steadily expanded. Clanwilliam’s establishment as a municipality in 1808 marked an important milestone. In fact, it is the seventh oldest town in South Africa, a testament to its historical significance.
Impact of the Anglo-Boer War
The Cederberg was the unexpected southernmost battleground of the Anglo-Boer War. Boer commandos traveled southward from their strongholds in northern South Africa, aiming to threaten the English Cape Colony. The town of Clanwilliam, the northernmost English stronghold, was a focal point of this conflict. The Boers sought to garner local support from Dutch-descendant farmers, but their efforts proved futile. These farmers, while harboring no love for English colonial governance, believed that the English would ultimately emerge victorious, and they feared repercussions. As a result, they chose to remain loyal to the English.
The Englishman’s Grave
A poignant episode from this era is that of Lieutenant Clowes, an Englishman leading a patrol from Clanwilliam. His patrol was ambushed by a Boer commando, resulting in his tragic death. He was buried on the spot, and his family later erected a headstone resembling a Celtic cross with the words “brave and true.” This location became known as Englishman’s Grave, and Lieutenant Clowes’ mother made the arduous journey from England to visit her son’s grave each year until 1936.
Clanwilliam Dam and Rooibos Tea
The construction of Bulshoek Dam in 1914 marked an important turning point for the area’s fortunes. The much larger Clanwilliam Dam was built in 1935 and later expanded in 1964. These developments allowed neighboring farms access to the vital resource of irrigation water. Today, the region’s primary agricultural products are wine, table grapes, citrus, and renowned rooibos tea. Plans for further dam enlargement are in the works, offering potential for continued growth.
Cederberg Wilderness Reserve
The Cederberg Wilderness Reserve was officially established in 1973, serving as a protected area that now spans about 5,250 hectares. In 1987, an additional reserve was established with the primary goal of preventing the Clanwilliam cedar tree’s extinction. These trees, remnants of a colder era, are now found on cooler mountain slopes in remote, inaccessible areas. All farming livestock was removed from the Cederberg Wilderness Reserve, and small quantities of indigenous fauna were reintroduced, allowing the mountain fynbos to recover. The reserve has become a cherished wilderness destination, providing solace for those seeking refuge from the demands of modern life.
Cederberg or Cedarberg?
A curious historical note is that the English name for the region was initially the Cedarberg, while the Afrikaans name was Sederberg. About 15-20 years ago, it was decided to merge the two names into the new name, Cederberg. As a result, you may encounter both spellings: Cedarberg and Cederberg.
The Cederberg, with its rich tapestry of history and natural beauty, continues to enchant visitors, offering a captivating glimpse into the past while embracing the present.
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