Accidental Tourist

The historical significance of the little town of Hankey is nothing to sneeze at

A detour to see Sarah Baartman's grave in the Eastern Cape leads to some unexpected adventure for Nancy Richards and friends

05 May 2019 - 00:00 By Nancy Richards

We were still high from the Addo experience - swinging trunks, labouring dung beetles, hidden lions. Next stop was to be Plett via the Bloukraans Bridge to witness bungee madness, then on to Knysna. Our Londoner travel companions were ticking many boxes.
Scanning the route map, my eye lit upon the red-starred Sarah Baartman grave at Hankey. "Really not much of a detour," I suggested, offering a potted version of Saartjie's tragic story - adding that she'd seen dark times in their own home town.
Culture creatures, London was easily persuaded and we set off along the R331 through undulating bush and farmland. Appetites were further whetted when a Google search on Hankey threw up that here was a 34m giant sundial with an 18m gnomon pole (shadow caster), as well as a second grave, that of William Philip, son of John, head of the London Mission Society, who had invented a cunning irrigation tunnel bringing water from the Gamtoos River to arid fields during a severe drought in 1843. Ironically, the unlucky Mr Philip drowned just days after the opening of the tunnel.
We were ready for all this - but not for the massive building works all but obliterating the entrance to the tiny town of Hankey.
Assuming Baartman's grave would be well marked, I'd done no homework on its exact location so we were momentarily stymied. But the town was buzzing, with Saturday morning shoppers, a farmers' skou at the laerskool grounds, and a charity golf day at the Hankey Country Club, where we pulled in to try to source directions.
"It's closed," said the giant behind the bar when I asked about Baartman's gave.
Disappointed, we consoled ourselves with tea at a table underneath a portrait of BJ Vorster, who'd officially opened the club in 1973. We also learnt from the manager that Baartman's grave was being extended to include a museum. This was the building site at the town's entrance, and the reason the grave was presently closed. She glanced at her watch. "They'll be knocking off around now, so you could give it a try."
We needed no further encouragement. Back in town, we parked near the skou and, passing the construction team on their way home, headed up the hill to the site entrance.
Within moments, we were stopped by Security. Understandably.
But here was a man who mercifully cared that some had come all the way from London to see this grave. He accompanied us through the bricks, rubble, clay and indigenous plants waiting for their place in the ground up to the crest of the hill.The view across the Gamtoos Valley coupled with the significance of the spot - with or without the planned 4,000-odd square metre museum, hotel and shopping complex - brought tears to my eyes. Here Baartman's spirit could be free to soar, heaven knows deserving after all those years being paraded in European capitals.The Londoners were pleased and humbled to have shared the moment and after handshakes and selfies with sympathetic Security, we headed back down the hill.We stood at the car for a moment to hear the brass band at the skou finish a rendition of Nkosi Sikelele - at which point it felt like the right time to leave. We never got to see the sundial, or the Phillips memorial - but we had had a grave experience that spoke volumes.

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