An Alternative Guide To South Africa: Unusual Things To See And Do
Sunland Baobab, Modjadjiskloof
Imagine chatting to a friend over a pint of beer inside a 1,700-year-old tree. Well, on the Sunland Farm, you can. The Sunland Farm is home to one of the largest baobab trees in South Africa, and at 72 feet high and 155 feet in circumference, it’s the widest of its species in the world. After 1,000 years, baobabs naturally become hollow. During the 1990s, the crafty farm owners installed a small pub and cellar in the trunk, attracting visitors from far and wide. Unfortunately, in August 2016, a section of the tree trunk collapsed giving the bar a more ‘open-plan’ look and feel. Regardless of the change, you can still enjoy a drink inside the enormous tree.
Sunland Farm, Modjadjiskloof, Limpopo Province, South Africa, +27 82 413 2228
Macassar Beach Pavilion, Cape Town
The Macassar Beach Pavilion is an abandoned water park overlooking the False Bay coastline, near Somerset West. Derelict buildings sprawled with graffiti and broken waterslides faded by the sun create an eerie setting against a backdrop of dunes and sparkling blue sea. Built in 1991, the popular beach resort was closed after a string of financial mishaps, allowing the park to succumb to shifting sand dunes over time. The park is situated in the Macassar Dunes Conservation Area — a 2,760 acre reserve that protects the dunes and vegetation in the area.
Ponte Tower, Johannesburg
Ponte Tower is a 568-foot residential skyscraper in the neighborhood of Berea in Johannesburg. Built in 1975, the cylindrical building has a hollow center with apartments facing inward and outward, and an inner courtyard called the ‘core’. It is the tallest residential skyscraper in Africa. The 54-storey tower was designed by Manfred Hermer and was the epitome of apartheid-thinking at the time, as rich, white families lived in the outer apartments while their black servants stayed in the inner apartments, in perpetual gloom. Back then, Ponte Tower was one of the most coveted addresses in the city, but by the late 1980s, increased poverty led to a rise in crime in the area and the building became a haven for gangs, druglords and prostitutes. Management and apartment owners all but abandoned the building to decay, and rubbish piled up five-storeys high in the core. The building was also dubbed ‘suicide central’ as countless people leaped to their death there. In the 2000s, the tower was refurbished and 24-hour security added to ensure residents’ safety. Today, 3,000 people of all races and backgrounds live in Ponte Tower, now called Ponte City Apartments. The building has since featured in several movies, documentaries and books.
The Goat Tower of Fairview Cheese & Wine Farm, Paarl
It’s quite a funny thing to see: shaggy goats making their way up and down a two-story brick tower as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. The idea for the unique goat-climbing structure came about when Fairview Cheese & Wine farm owner, Charles Back came across a similar tower while on holiday in Portugal in the 1980s. Inspired by the unusual structure, he decided to build one for his herd of 750 saanen goats back home. The tower is an icon in the Cape Winelands attracting people from around the world.
Adam’s Calendar, Ehlanzeni
Nestled in the green rolling hills of Mpumalanga lies an ancient stone structure known as Adam’s Calendar. It claims to be the oldest manmade structure in the world, pre-dating Stonehenge and even the Great Pyramids of Giza by thousands of years. Dubbed ‘Africa’s Stonehenge’, the circular structure is made up of weathered dolomite stones measuring 100 feet in diameter, and is only accessible by rough dirt roads. The site was discovered in 2003 by Johan Heine, a South African pilot who was en route to rescue a colleague who crashed his plane into the side of a mountain. Heine noticed that the stones were aligned to the cardinal points — north, south, east and west. After months of research at the site, it was discovered that the stones are placed to track the movement of the sun, which casts shadows over the rocks, and that they are also aligned to the earth’s equinoxes and solstices. One astronomer estimated the five ton stones to be 75,000 years old, based on the rise of the constellation Orion, which follows a 26,000 year long cycle around the earth. Theories abound on who placed the stones there but no one really knows for sure. What is evident is that Adam’s Calendar is the only example of a fully functional, megalithic stone calendar in the world.
Klerksdorp Spheres, North West
The Klerksdorp Spheres are three-billion-year-old rounded objects that were found in pyrophyllite deposits in a mine near Ottosdal in the North West province. They range in size from just under one inch to four inches across and are circumscribed by evenly spaced grooves. Their manufactured appearance has led conspiracy theorists to believe they were created by ancient intelligent life, long before humans existed. But geologists who have studied the spheres conclude that they’re concretions which formed in volcanic sediments, ash or both, and that the grooves formed naturally. You can see these ancient spheres on display at the Klerksdorp Museum in Klerksdorp.
Owl House, Nieu-Bethesda
Tired of her dull life, Helen Martins, a middle-aged outsider artist, decided to bring color and light into her home by transforming it into a visionary environment in the late 1940s. She elaborately decorated the interior of her house with finely crushed glass embedded in brightly colored paint. When her home was completed, she recruited a former sheep shearer and turned her attention to the garden, which she named the Camel Yard. Over a period of 10 years, they created a fantastical display of owls, camels, sphinxes, acrobats, pilgrims and Buddhas made of cement, wire and glass. Helen drew inspiration from biblical texts, Iranian poet Omar Khayyam, and various works by British poet and painter, William Blake. She was also deeply fascinated by the Orient and positioned many of her statues towards the east. Sadly, her longtime exposure to crushed glass eventually caused her eyesight to deteriorate. At the age of 78, depressed and increasingly frail, she attempted suicide by ingesting caustic soda and died two days later on August 8, 1976. As per her wishes, the Owl House and Camel Yard were preserved. In 1989, the building was declared a national monument and opened as a museum three years later.
Owl House Museum, Nieu Bethesda, Eastern Cape, South Africa, +27 49 841 1733
Vredefort Impact Crater, Vredefort
The Vredefort crater is the largest impact crater on Earth, and is situated near the town of Vredefort in the Free State province. It measured a whopping 190 miles in diameter after a large asteroid collided with Earth billions of years ago, although much of the crater has been eroded away. The remaining ripples and rings, known as the Vredefort Dome, are only visible from space. With local development in the area threatening to erase the geologic rarity, the Vredefort Dome was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.
Huberta the Hippo, King William’s Town
Huberta the Hippo is one of the most famous animals in South African history. In November 1928, Huberta left her watering hole in the St. Lucia Estuary in KwaZulu-Natal province and set off on a 1,000 mile journey to the Eastern Cape which lasted three years. Huberta was initially named Hubert, as she was thought to be a male, but when her true identity was discovered after her death, an ‘a’ was added to her name. Along the way, Huberta became an international celebrity, attracting crowds of spectators eager to catch a glimpse of the travelling hippo. Huberta crossed rivers, swam at a Durban beach, visited a country club and even fell asleep on a railway line, bringing a freight train to a halt. No one knows why Huberta decided to walk across the country; some say she was searching for a lost mate, while others believed she was making a pilgrimage to the place of her ancestors. Whatever the reason, her life was tragically cut short in April 1931 when a group of hunters shot and killed her while bathing in the Keiskamma River, even though she had been declared a protected animal. After a public outcry, the culprits were arrested and fined 25 pounds each. Huberta’s body was recovered and sent to a taxidermist in London. Upon her return to South Africa, more than 20,000 people flocked to see the mounted animal on display at the Durban Museum. Huberta was later moved to the Amathole Museum in King William’s Town, where you can still see her today.
Alexandra Rd, King William’s Town, Eastern Cape, South Africa, +27 43 642 4506
The Big Hole, Kimberley
In 1866, a 15-year-old boy named Erasmus Jacobs was walking on his father’s farm near Hopetown on the banks of the Orange River, when he came across a strange looking white pebble. Astonishingly, that pebble turned out to be a 21.25-carat diamond — the first authenticated one found in South Africa. Three years later, an even larger 83,5 carat diamond was discovered by a Griqua herdsman in Hopetown, triggering the first diamond rush in the country. Miners from around the world began arriving in their thousands, and a settlement called New Rush (modern-day Kimberley) was established in the diamond-rich area. From 1871, a number of mines were established but the largest one, Kimberley Mine or The Big Hole, would become the world’s richest mine for over a century. Owned by world-renowned mining company De Beers, the Big Hole was dug by 50,000 miners with picks and shovels. It has a surface area of 42 acres, and is 1,519 feet wide and 790 feet deep, making it the largest hand-dug excavation in the world. In 1914, the outbreak of World War I caused operations to be suspended at the Big Hole; however, the mine was never reopened. The Big Hole has yielded 6,614 pounds of diamonds. Today, the giant hole forms part of a unique open-air museum with viewing platforms and a life-size representation of early Kimberley.