Why would anyone be interested in a frumpy old woman with a beaky nose, who could curdle milk with one disapproving glance? Who spent her life writing her fingers to the bone, died 100 years ago and is remembered by almost everyone today for just a single book? Visit the Olive Schreiner museum to find out, then discover other things to do in Cradock.
So, why should you be interested in Olive Schreiner? Because she was one of South Africa’s earliest and most vociferous liberal feminists, a crusader, champion of liberty, advocate of the vote for all adult South Africans regardless of sex or race, and thorn in the side of British imperialism at the time of the Anglo Boer War. And, of course, creator of the well-loved South African classic The Story of an African Farm.
Visit Schreiner House in Cross Street (see photo above), Cradock, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Karoo and you come face to face with Olive and her difficult life. This is where she came in 1868 to stay with her sister Ettie and older brother Theo, headmaster at a local school, when her German missionary father lost his job at the Healdtown Mission under a bit of a cloud.
Olive’s Cradock years
The young Olive lived in this tiny house for two years. Teenagers are notoriously difficult and she was probably more difficult than most. Precociously, she’d already decided organised religion was a waste of her time – quite a radical perspective for the daughter of a missionary.
Her gentle father, said to have been the model for Otto in African Farm, probably patiently resigned himself to this, but at Cross Street there must have been clashes about going to church on Sundays with the rather more inflexible Theo and Ettie. Olive once described Theo, a deeply religious man, as a bit of a martyr so he probably wasn’t exactly a thrill a minute to live with. Attending what Olive would have thought of as silly ladies’ teas, picnics and bazaars, which were among Ettie’s excitements, must have been a hardship too. The intense, self-willed Olive would no doubt rather have stayed behind to write stories, or at least to stride up and down the lane in front of the house talking to herself, as contemporaries remember her doing.
Today the flat-roofed house where she stayed is a museum with photographic displays depicting Olive’s life and influences – Olive as free thinker, as writer, a well-documented personal timeline and a professional one. There’s also some info on the achievements of her three clever and famous siblings, and the story of how the house was restored in the 1980s.
A room at the back chronicles Cradock during the Anglo Boer War, Karoo geology, and anti-apartheid activist Fort Calata and the Cradock Four who were murdered in 1985. There’s also a bookshop with Schreiner’s works, as well as other South African authors like Herman Charles Bosman, Marguerite Poland, Agmat Dangor, Iris Vaughan and more.
The day we visited was blasphemously hot, and I couldn’t help thinking about poor Olive forced to wear thick layers of Victorian clothing in the heat and the dust of the Karoo. The earliest photo that exists of her was taken at Cradock on her 14th birthday. Far from the stolid older woman that springs to mind whenever her name is mentioned, here she’s almost fragile, her head resting pensively on her hand. Olive later described herself as ‘weak and lonely’ in her Cradock days. The only good thing about Cradock compared to Healdtown was probably slightly easier access to books to feed the craving for knowledge of the young girl whose formal education had been so limited.
A woman ahead of her time
The museum also documents her later years, from her visit to the diamond fields to the onset of the asthma that was to blight plans to study as a medical doctor in England and plague her throughout her life – one of the reasons she later stayed in Matjiesfontein. From her years in England and her friendships with sexual psychologist Havelock Ellis, mathematician Karl Pearson and political activist Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl Marx), to her travels in Switzerland, France and Italy. From the publication of African Farm when she was 27 to her strong anti-war stance and containment in Hanover under martial law during the Anglo Boer War.
She became involved with pacifists and conscientious objectors during World War I and resigned from the Women’s Enfranchisement League in 1913 because she was ticked off when it campaigned for the vote for white women only. Her avant-garde notion that all adults should have the vote took decades to be realised; white women were allowed to enter the election halls in 1930 and all adults regardless of race finally got to make their mark only in 1994.
For her, marriage was the result of ‘a little weeping, a little wheedling, a little self-degradation, a little careful use of our advantages’. It was a woman selling herself ‘for a ring and a new name’. Never a woman to pull her punches, she also insisted that marriage without love – and there were lots of those in Victorian times – was ‘the least clean traffic that defiles the world’.
But Olive did marry for love, though it took her to the old-maid age of 38 to find it in the person of Samuel Cronwright, eight years her junior, whom she met near Cradock. And don’t think physical stuff didn’t matter to the fiercely intelligent Olive: this is the man she asked – long before they were married – for a photograph of himself, demanding that it should be with his sleeves rolled up to show off his arms. Quite risqué for the late 19th century.
To his credit, he proved to be no mere toy boy, actively promoting Olive’s writing and editing her letters for publication after her death. He even changed his name to Cronwright-Schreiner, which was appropriate for the husband of an arch-supporter of feminism. Even today, in the 21st century, men willing to take their wife’s name are like hen’s teeth. The couple had one daughter, who died when she was just a day old. Olive was devastated.
A quarter of a century later, in December 1920, Olive died in Wynberg, Cape Town, and was buried at Maitland Cemetery. But her travelling days were not quite over. The following August she was exhumed and reburied together with her cot-death baby and her favourite dog on Buffelskop about 25km south of Cradock. It’s still a private farm, but you can ask at the museum how to get there. Be warned, though, if you don’t have a helicopter you may be in for a hot-and-heavy slog that will take half a day.
From the top there’s a grand view across the Great Fish River Valley, a sight that made Olive decide she wanted to be buried there one day – something good old Cronwright-Schreiner made come true. Her tomb, shaped like a typically Karoo corbelled hut, lies among the rocks, karree trees and aloes under the Karoo sky she loved.
Other things to do in Cradock
1. Don’t miss a visit to the Mountain Zebra National Park about 12km west of Cradock, to see animals like lion, cheetah, Cape mountain zebra, maybe even aardwolf and aardvark at dawn or dusk. Go hiking, drive a 4x4 track, have a picnic or join a guided activity to track cheetah by telemetry.
3. Visit the Great Fish River Museum behind Cradock’s town hall to find out more about the early history of the Eastern Cape’s pioneers from 1840 to 1900.
4. Want to visit Harry Potter’s grave? You’ll find it in the Cradock cemetery in Stockenstroom Street. Of course this isn’t actually the fictional wizard, but a man with the same name who died back in 1910.
5. Visit Cradock in June/July to participate in the Schreiner Karoo Writers Festival. Meet and hear some of the Karoo’s current flock of writers talk about their books, participate in a story-tellers’ workshop, attend a number of literary events.
6. Visit the Karoo Food Festival in Cradock, usually in April. Pop in at the market, join a cookery class, go farm hopping to visit some food producers, enjoy an elegant picnic and some special menus to taste Karoo food.
7. Drive up Oukop hill, 2.5km from Cradock on the Middelburg road, for a panoramic view over the Great Fish River and Cradock. Take a picnic, enjoy a walk on the koppie or find the rock etchings made by British soldiers during the Anglo Boer War.
8. Take a drive to see Egg Rock, a 10m-high egg-shaped dolerite rock precariously balanced on edge. You’ll find it about 8km from Cradock on the Queenstown road (R61).
9. Go river rafting or white-water rafting on the Great Fish or Brak rivers, surrounded by spectacular Karoo scenery. Choose from half-, one- and multi-day trips. To make this dream come true, talk to the folks at Karoo River Rafting, which you’ll find about an hour’s drive north of Cradock.
10. Do the two-day Fish River Canoe Marathon with almost 1 000 other paddlers in October. If your arms can handle 82km, that is. Otherwise, just go along to watch the excitement and join in the buzz.
Where should you stay when you visit Cradock? There are lots of B&Bs, self-catering cottages and guest houses, and a good starting point is to search this link for your Cradock accommodation. Here are three of my picks with a hint of what makes them popular.
If you love history, you can’t go wrong at Die Tuishuise in Market Street. This series of restored Karoo cottages is where saddlers, harness makers and wagon builders used to live in the mid-19th century. Each is decorated with period furniture to depict settler living of the time. Traditional Karoo dinners are a speciality. To see what similar houses looked like before they were restored, drive down one of the parallel streets.
On a farm
If you prefer country life, try Lowlands Country House a 30min drive north of Cradock. It’s on a cattle, sheep and pecan nut farm along the Fish River. Relax and rewind or get energetic with activities on the farm like swimming, canoeing, river rafting, bird watching, mountain climbing, mountain biking, or hiking to see KhoiSan rock etchings.
In a national park
The Mountain Zebra National Park (see point 1 above) is just 12km from Cradock and offers a range of accommodation from cottages in the main rest camp to rustic mountain cabins and historic houses overlooking a dam. There’s also a really nice campsite for those looking for a budget stay. Of course you get easy access to all the activities in the park as well.
Note: A version of this article first appeared in my book A Walk in the Park: Travels in and around South Africa’s national parks (available from Amazon)
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