Take a walk back in time to this Moravian mission village of thatched houses in South Africa’s Overberg. Founded in the early 1800s, it’s no tourist hub – and all the more appealing for that. Read on to discover its appeal and some things to do in Elim, Western Cape.
Even when it’s blazing hot outside, it’s cool and serene inside the thatch-roofed, gabled Elim church. All is white and sparse inside, plain and pure, as worshippers’ souls should be. Even the pews are simple wooden planks, painted white. When we first visited some years back, the now-late organist Andreé Joorst told us that backs were only added to the benches in 1935. ‘In the old days you couldn’t fall asleep in church but now you can,’ she laughed. Although the old people still stick to the division between sexes – there’s a wooden partition for that purpose – sometimes the younger generation is a bit more flexible.
Turn your back to the lectern and your gaze falls on a splendid honey-coloured organ on a raised balcony. Brought from Germany – the last part of its journey by jolting ox-wagon – it’s where Andreé used to love being on Sundays when the church is a hive of activity. After service and communion, the mostly middle-aged and elderly people stumble into the sunshine, women wearing black dresses and soft white headscarves, the men stiffly sweating into their suits.
Some 7 000 hectares of land around Elim are still privately owned by the church, and a democratically elected body called the Overseers Council controls all aspects of village life.
Thatched houses line the main drag up to the church, most well cared for, others sadly neglected, reflecting the owners’ lack of a fix-it budget. The oldest are built of mud-brick, with lime plaster made of seashells and thatched with restio grass harvested from the surrounding fynbos. Elimers are still renowned as far afield as Dubai and Spain for their thatching skill.
An old woman threw open her window to shout greetings to a friend across the street; another was sweeping her stoep, but took time to smile and wave at us. We stopped to admire sweet peas in a garden and got chatting to the gardener, who told us that brides sometimes visit to have their wedding photos taken.
Perched in the dust outside one of the guesthouses, a workers’ bell hangs between wooden posts that are peeling green paint. It used to ring at lunchtime so people working their plots of land would know it was time to take a well-deserved rest. A more stately church bell chimes people into service and doubles as a disaster warning system. If someone disappears or there’s a fire, the bell tolls and news of the disaster quickly spreads across the village.
Easter is a big event, and so is a flower festival in September. During our visit, we popped in at the tiny bakery to buy a hot loaf of sweet-smelling bread. Then we went back past the old thatched houses, watched by a patch of sunflowers turning towards the sun and a trio of grinning children – out of the time warp, back to the screech of modern life.
Things to do in Elim
Don’t miss these things to do in Elim and the surrounding area.
1. See the thatch-roofed church with its clock tower and bell. The clock is the oldest still working church clock in the country. If you visit on a Sunday, you’re welcome to attend a service.
7. Stroll the main street to admire the old cottages, perhaps stopping here and there to chat to the friendly locals. Remember to be respectful: this is still a working mission village and their home, not a tourist adventure park.
9. If you feel like a wonderfully lazy lunch, try the restaurant at Black Oystercatcher or Zoetendal.
11. Explore the area or the Geelkop Nature Reserve to see the local fynbos species, especially prolific in spring. Elim is well known for its everlastings (which used to be dried for pillow and mattress stuffing in the old days) and for its fynbos flower exports.
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