Pulled Up To Heaven Like Elijah
by Jac Dowling
Cresting the Houw Hoek Pass one early summer’s night, a huge golden moon swinging low over the Bot River valley, bathing fields of canola and young wheat in a soft ephemeral glow, I rewound to 1798 when Lady Ann Barnard and her entourage traversed this route from Cape Town to Swellendam: ‘Another tremendous hill . . . a tolerable road but tedious.’ She found neither the comforts of today’s Houw Hoek Hotel, nor the various farm stalls, wineries and guest houses, double carriageways and comfortable travel. Instead ‘twelve fine, stout, beautiful oxen with horns which spread from pole to pole… and could carry us up to Heaven like Elijah…’, various covered and open wagons, and a team of unruly and cruel drivers completed their caravan. For the use of the oxen the Barnards were charged twelve Rijksdaalders, silver coins first minted in the Netherlands in the late sixteenth century.
The animals clearly disliked their task and, according to Lady Ann ‘lowed most piteously’ when finding themselves yoked to the wagons. The upwards trek, in excess of two miles, was perpendicular, with almost impassable sharp rocks and boulders which split wooden wheels, broke disselbooms and dislodged luggage and equipment. Flanks heaving with blood from whips and knives used by the drivers, the flayed and exhausted oxen collapsed bellowing and kicking at the bottom of the pass. But the hazardous trail had yet more in store before nightfall; at dusk a traverse of a steep hillside with precipice beneath had to be negotiated with overloaded wagon and eight horses, exhausted passengers and drovers who had neither the will nor strength to carry on much further. Various names have been given to this treacherous summit, the most likely being ‘ter houw komen‘ being the corner where oxen required rest at the top of the pass. Another theory is that Hou(w), the khoi word for cattle, was tacked on to Hoek, thus returning to the original Rest Corner.
In the event, the Barnard party finally found shelter in the farmhouse of Jacob Joubert, a mere boor, whose wife Lady Ann described as about thirty-five, plain, stupid but civil, yet who managed to serve a boiled fowl dinner fit for an Emperor. Away from the farmstead a slave was noted cooking her humble mess over a fire.
This farm, built in 1779, the original stopping place for resting travellers, soon required considerable expansion to accommodate the growing numbers and this was the origin of the present day Houw Hoek Hotel, recently sold for +-R42 000 000,holder of the first South African liquor licence(1834), and the oldest hotel in the country. A small village grew up around the hostelry consisting of a school, butcher, general stores and post office. All of which were later incorporated into the main building, site of a toll gate in the days of the Dutch East India Company, and the first coaching inn in the country. Handy for the passing mail coaches, carriages and ox-wagons, it was in 1861 still part inn, part farmhouse, small with clay walls and spotlessly clean according to one Lady Duff Gordon who was charged the equivalent of 90c for dinner, bed and breakfast .
In 1902 the Houw Hoek railway station was built and the trains from Cape Town to Caledon stopped at the inn at lunchtime when passengers were served, in style, on the platform while the engine was coaled and watered.
Sitting under shady trees, on the lawns of the hotel recently, I mulled the adventurous and bloody history of the area. A road was built by Andrew Geddes Bain in 1863, later replaced by a pass running along a ravine – later replaced by . . .and later still by today’s double carriageways from which remnants of the old roads may still be seen, twisting, turning and climbing ever upwards, if one knows where to look.
Pulled up to Heaven like Elijah? I don’t think so, not me, not just now. The countryside is idyllic; birdsong, clear high skies, spring leaf and flowers carpeting the mountainsides. My glass of sauvignon chilled and inviting – I’ll stay firmly grounded thank you and raise a glass to those brave enough to either Hou Hoek or plunge straight down.