Inheritors of the Eastern Cape

But these are no ordinary country folk. Their lives are bound up in the history of the nation. For these are the descendants of the 1 820 British Settlers who carved out a new world from a virgin landscape not dissimilar to the experience of the Puritans who came to New England. For five generations their families have farmed the land handed down by those first men and women who landed in Algoa Bay. The settlers came with courage and vision and great hope and it is these qualities that the present-day conservationists have inherited in the creation of a game sanctuary called Amakhala, a tribute to the red-spire aloes that abound on their malaria-free property. Under a giraffe symbol, four families ‘ all descendants of the original settlers ‘ have created a 4 000-hectare game reserve carved out of six farms in the Albany and Alexandria districts just 30 minutes’ drive from Grahamstown, the major centre of “Settler Country”, and 50 minutes from Port Elizabeth, the gateway to the Eastern Cape. “It is difficult to say what our forefathers would have thought of our new venture, given that they were trying to tame the savage land, while we are trying to put a bit of savage back into a tame land,” says Richard Gush, one of the direct descendants of those early settlers. “One thing is certain: they would have approved of our endurance in the area and that we are prepared once again to try something new in an endeavour to sustain this existence despite surrounding pressures. ” Pressures are also what the first settlers faced. While being hardy and adventurous, they would have been completely unprepared for the trials that lay ahead. These included drought and disease and the danger of predators as well as the constant threat of theft by Xhosa tribes. Most of the party were tradesmen and not farmers which compounded the problems experienced in trying to grow crops on pre-ordained grants of land that were severely limited. There was also a political reason for their coming to South Africa. They were there at the behest of the Cape authorities who wanted to create a buffer zone with the increasingly restless African tribes to the north. A fter two years the Governor of the Cape relented and opened up the opportunity for them to farm on a grander scale and so the foundation was laid for one of the great success stories of South Africa. Many were artisans so they used their skills to develop industries within the towns and villages that sprang up to link with the farms. But others remained farmers. Tough and single-minded as they were out of a Britain that was still awaiting the Industrial Revolution, they applied themselves to a grand strategy of development while remaining a close-knit community. In a sense that is exactly what the young conservationists of Amakhala are doing today. Remaining close. In pooling their six properties. they have found a genteel way of harmonising tourists and wild life, backed by a deep personal knowledge of the game reserve they have newly created. The cattle and sheep have been relegated to other corners of their farms and other species have taken centre stage, as they once were when the settlers first arrived ‘ bushbuck, impala, blesbok, giraffe, zebra and wildebeest, cheetah and buffalo. And now elephant and rhino, involved in a breeding project. The beauty of the Bushman’s River Valley, which once saw back-breaking toil, has not changed over 1 80 years. The aloes litter the plain like so many sentinels and there is a spiritual harmony within this amalgamation of farms that cannot be gained in any town. Put them together and you have a conservancy. Take the fences down and you have freedom. It is an important move at an important time, for the Eastern Cape itself is on the move with grandiose plans, particularly centred upon wild life. The extension of the Addo Elephant Park to the coast, the success of the Shamwari and Schotia safari ventures, all within the region, now dovetail with the new conservancy established by the Gush, Weeks and Hart families. It was not a decision taken lightly. After all, there were the founding ancestors to think of. Would they approve? Richard admits that previous farming generations might have been somewhat disheartened to see the infrastructure of fencing and other strongholds being dismantled, for which they had worked so hard to establish. However, he is sure they would have approved of their conservation vision. “I would like to honour our ancestors by providing a place of natural beauty where people can come and enjoy nature and a sense of peace. All this is on the very land where they struggled and succeeded to establish a place called home,” says Richard. With the same name as himself, Richard’s ancestor, a carpenter by trade, left England in 1 820 with his family aboard the ship Aurora as leader of a party of settlers to the Eastern Cape. They settled at a location called Salem, meaning “peace”, which is the only village founded by settlers that still exists today. Amakhala ‘ meaning aloes in the Xhosa language ‘ is a pioneering conservation project that has the advantage of a diverse number of elegant Victorian cottages and bush lodges and even ox-wagons in landmark locations to give the visitor a home-from-home from which to explore the bush and its wild life. Says Mike Weeks, who runs a crocodile park on his estate called Reed Valley: “Visitors would like to spend time with South Africans. They want to see how we live. We invite them to mingle with us over a braii or at a picnic in the bush where they can experience a unique communion with the animals. “If you come to Africa you have to do a safari at some stage. And most people go to the Cape. We are on the same coastline. The growth of game reserves in this area means we can provide an alternative to the Kruger.” And now the tourists are coming where once there were the pioneers.

March 2006
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