Located at the foot of the Langeberg mountains at the southern end of Traudow’s Pass in Overberg, Suurbraak is just off the N2 on the R324 to Barrydale.
- 2hr40 from Cape Town airport
- 2hrs from George airport
- 2hrs from Hermanus
- 1hr from Montagu
- 20mins from Swellendam
VEGETATION, WILDLIFE & BIRD WATCHING
Suurbraak is surrounded by gorgeous ancient forests, hidden streams and waterfalls, with the Marloth Nature Reserve and Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve (both World Heritage Sites) on either side. There’s also the Bontebok National Park established specifically to restore the population of bontebok. One of many enticing features of the area includes the Wonder Kloof, an incredible geological crack in the east-west Langeberg Mountain range dressed by 200m high waterfalls on either side of the kloof. Suurbraak is regarded as the “Waterfall Capital of the Overberg”.
This is the most significant stretch of indigenous afromontane forest left in the south-western Cape, with nearly all of the 35 typical forest tree species including yellowwood, stinkwood, Cape beech, wild olive, assegaaibos, cherrywood and hard pear.
The valley is also home to fynbos and renosterveld (which is critically endangered).
There are several species of protea and more than 25 species of erica, most of which flower in November.
The area is home to many small mammals, including the grey rhebok, klipspringer, common duiker, baboon, caracal, mongoose, porcupine, dassie and hare.
Marloth has leopard, but they are rarely seen.
Sighting a subspecies of the Forest Emperor butterfly, the Cape Ghost frog, or the Grootvaderbosch Dwarf Chameleon would be the highlight of a visit here, as they can only be found in Grootvadersbosch forest area.
An excellent birding destination with more than 196 bird species regularly spotted, including the African Fish eagle, African Crowned eagle, Wood owl, Red-Winged francolin, Tambourine dove, Forest buzzard and four different species of woodpecker.
Suurbraak was originally called “!Xairu” by the Attequa KhoiKhoi / Quena tribe who originally founded a village here. “!Xairu”/ “!Xairi” means “paradise” or “beautiful” – and it certainly lives up to its early name.
SOUR FERNS? IT’S A THING
The town’s current name, Suurbraak, came from “Zuurbraak” (Dutch) or “Sour Brake”, an early nineteenth century term referring to the masses of “sour ferns” (aka bracken) that grows abundantly throughout the area. Of course, for the majority of Afrikaans speaking people who hear the name, it’s modern translation is rather unfortunately closer to “sour vomit“.
The locals quite like that the ‘modern’ name keeps this little piece of paradise quiet 😉
THE (VERY BRIEF) RISE & FALL OF A REPUBLIC
Next door to Zuurbraak, a trading post was established in 1667, which later became the town of Swellendam, officially founded in 1747 when the Drostdy was built to house the landdrost (magistrate).
For a momentous few months in 1795, it was one of the capitals of the world!
Then, angered by the misrule of the Dutch East India Company, its handful of citizens dismissed their magistrate, declared Swellendam a republic, and appointed a president.
Just 5 months later, the Brits took their turn arriving and conquering, and the little republic passed into history.
The Dutch East India Company, in its commercial steam rolling through the bush, assumed ownership of land that was Khoikhoi territory. It was cleared of fynbos and farming ensued.
The arrival of these settlers in the Overberg (as elsewhere) was catastrophic for the indigenous inhabitants.
The bartering impoverished the Khoikhoi, and diseases (particularly the smallpox epidemic of 1713), land competition, alcohol and tobacco decimated the clans of the Hessequa’s.
Many entered the service of the European settlers and were lost to their clans. Missionary settlements became a refuge for some.
The Last Chief
In 1809, the Attaqua tribe’s (last) Chief, Hans Moos, is said to have written a letter requesting the London Missionary Society to send a missionary to minister to the 300-400 people in his kraal (settlement).
In 1812, the London Missionary Society arrived and built a mission station which you can still see today in the main town.
As written by Matthew Mentz in his paper “Unearthing the determinants required for off-grid subsistence: a case study” (Mentz, M. 2013), the London Missionary Society magnanimously ceded 2755 hectares of land back to the inhabitants of Zuurbraak (i.e. the Attaqua tribe who invited them) in 1812 (the same year of building the mission).
But according to the Swellendam Municipality Heritage Report, the land was surveyed and transferred to the London Mission Society in 1873, and only later in 1877 when the church buildings were sold to the Dutch Reformed Church was the land returned (still ultra magnanimously, of course) to the original inhabitants. (White people are embarrassing. Attaqua tribe be like, ‘um, thanks, I guess?’)
Either way, today the land is held in trust and managed by Swellendam municipality, whilst still belonging to the original villagers decedents.
By the 1850s, British settlers had colonised the eastern parts of the area, and Swellendam prospered as a replenishment stop (but not a republic, sorry Swell). Boats laden with provisions were sent via Malgas down the Breede River to the ships waiting near Infanta harbour.
A split in the congregation of a now very religious Zuurbraak resulted in the building of a separate Anglican church and school in 1883.
By now the village was well established, with some 2500 inhabitants, 18 teachers, over 400 students and nearly 500 houses. (There is still a major housing shortfall in Suurbraak today as housing promised by the ANC government has not yet materialized)
APARTHEID – WHITES EXPELLED
In 1948 the National Party came into power and instituted the Apartheid (‘seperateness’) policy, along with enacting the Group Areas Act. Zuurbraak was renamed Suurbraak, and was proclaimed a ‘Coloured’ village’ in 1960, forcing the removal of any white inhabitants.
Since the end of Apartheid a small community of white inhabitants (2.6% as of the 2011 census) has resettled in the area, and Afrikaans remains the predominantly spoken language.
Although some of the original character of the domestic architecture of Suurbraak has been lost or destroyed, the village still presents a historically interesting representation of the unique vernacular architecture, layout and cultural heritage of mission towns.
A large number of its mud-brick and thatch (later iron-roofed), two- or three- roomed cottages survive, many on or attached to smallholdings.
THEY’RE SQUINTING AT YOU
“But not found in most other mission stations is a type of double-storeyed house peculiar to Suurbraak, five or so of which are still left. Their upper floors have tiny windows sometimes placed slightly inwards giving them a curious ‘squinting’ look. Small pediments are set in the centre of their plain cornices.” – H Fransen (2007)
HISTORY COMES FULL CIRCLE
In June 2011, the Swellendam Municipality area (which includes Barrydale, Suurbraak, Malgas, Infanta and Stormsvlei), re-declared itself a Republic 216 years after its first ill-fated attempt at sovereignty.
This Republic is dedicated to the principles of the New South Africa, and celebrates rural life, racial harmony, respect for nature and wildlife, and aims to promote sustainability and an “unplugged” way of life for all to enjoy.
CREDIT TO SOURCES
- Hendrik Mentz – Suurbraak
- Wikipedia – Suurbraak
- Wikipedia – Swellendam
- IOL – Starry, Starry Nights at Suurbraak
- Fergus Murray – Rural Townships in the Western Cape
- SABC News – Suurbraak The Paradise (Xairy)
- Swellendam The Gram – Paradise Rediscovered
- Overberg Info – Suurbraak, Zuurbraak Shining Bright
- South African History Online – Group Areas Act of 1950
- Matthew Mentz – Unearthing the Determinants Required for Off-Grid Subsistence: A Case Study
- Open Africa – Xairu Blue Crane Route
- Swellendam Municipality Heritage Report
- eGGSA Library – Steyn