Visiting Grahamstown - A South African College Town
Updated: Dec 6, 2021
Leaving Stormsrivier, we wrapped up our time along the Garden Route and - temporarily - the coast. The next part of our journey would take us inland to Grahamstown, a South African college town and home to Rhodes University.
Tsitsikamma Gardens - Delicious Food and an Apt Name
It’s always good feeling like a local.
On our day-long bender in Stormsrivier, we met a South African gal, Danélle, whose mom owns a restaurant and self-catering cottage just down the road (Danélle runs wine tours in Franschhoek, too - wish we’d have met her during our time there!). Coincidentally, her mom’s place is on the N2 - the main highway connecting Cape Town to Durban - so we’d pass right by it on the way to Grahamstown.
Tsitsikamma Gardens, named after the A) nearby national park, and B) stunning gardens on its grounds, falls into the category of not-to-be-missed-roadside eateries. After - somewhat drunkenly - promising to stop by for a bite leaving town, we woke up and knew we had to make a pitstop.
What a treat! Danélle welcomed us with [figurative and literal] open arms, introduced us to her mom, and showed us around the beautiful lawns, gardens, and two stunning, self-catering cottages - now high on our list of places to stay next time we’re traveling the Garden Route.
The restaurant itself serves up absolutely delicious South African food and, to wash it down, a gluttonous selection of homemade pies and cakes baked by Danélle’s mom every day. When we left - absolutely stuffed - we felt like we’d just spent the morning as regulars at the local brunch spot - not visitors from the other side of the world.
Grahamstown or Makhanda?
Technically, Grahamstown has been re-named Makhanda. On the recommendations of the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a number of English- and Afrikaans-named cities, buildings, and geographic sites have been renamed. In 2018, officials proposed renaming Grahamstown to Makhanda in honor of the African warrior who led a failed attack against the local English garrison in 1819.
This proposal ended up in the courts for a while but eventually received approval. However, during our time in South Africa and the city itself, locals and most signage still referred to it as Grahamstown - imagine it’ll be years before the new name fully takes root in the lexicon of daily life.
Naming history aside, the topography and climate of the city differs significantly from the Garden Route. Whereas the latter has a lush, tropical feel, Grahamstown has a far drier, high-desert climate. Surrounded by rolling hills covered in rugged scrub brush, Grahamstown gives off a Texas Hill Country vibe.
A Little Slice of Rhodes University Life
Rhodes University serves as a cultural, educational, and economic hub of Grahamstown. A flagship undergrad and graduate university in South Africa, it’s impossible not to see and feel the student body’s impact strolling through town. From college pubs to bustling coffee shops to late-night pizza joints, Grahamstown just has that young, high-energy vibe so common to university towns everywhere.
The first night there, we had dinner and beers at an oh-so-English-sounding-and-feeling pub - the Rat and Parrot - full to the brim with students drinking, watching soccer on TV, and solving the world’s problems. Makes you feel, well, excited for life.
During our few days in Grahamstown, we stayed at the Milner Manor, a beautiful manor house restored into a bed and breakfast. A few-block walk from campus, Milner’s a prime spot for parents dropping their kids off at Rhodes. Our first breakfast there, we met two of these parents - somewhat tearfully dropping their daughter off for her freshman year (we happened to be there during student orientation week).
It was fascinating picking their brains about college life and traditions in South Africa, but one tidbit stuck out. These parents couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that, at American universities, students don’t immediately declare majors. In South Africa, the idea of a few semesters of general education classes before choosing your academic path simply doesn’t make sense. High schoolers apply to specific degree programs, so they know their major before the first day of classes.
Student life also exposed us to one of the major issues facing Grahamstown now – a rampant water shortage. Due to an extended drought, the reservoirs in the hills surrounding the city have nearly emptied. Water rationing measures have been imposed, and students had to queue up at local distribution points to receive jugs of drinking water. Naturally, students, residents, and local farmers rejoice any time the weather even thinks of raining.
Bathurst and the Pig and Whistle Inn (a.k.a. “The Centre of the Universe”)
On the recommendation of the Milner Manor owner, we took a day trip 40-ish minutes southeast of Grahamstown to the tiny village of Bathurst. It’s incredible – only 40 kilometers away from arid Grahamstown, Bathurst falls within the coastal climate, giving it a distinctly greener, damper veneer than its larger and drier neighbor.
But, meteorological studies were not priority one for us in Bathurst. Instead, we made the drive to experience the oldest continuously licensed pub in South Africa – the Pig and Whistle Inn. Dating back to 1832, it’s hard to imagine a cooler watering hole. Get a little history, drink a little beer – perfect combination.
After several beverages and a massive portion of fish and chips, we understood why Bathurst was dubbed “Centre of the Universe.” It may just be a crossroads town, but what a place to post up for the day! As the locals say, there’s no thirst like Bathurst…
Marines Protecting Rhinos… A Unique Military-to-Civilian Transition
Our afternoon at the Pig and Whistle also exposed Chipp to a new career opportunity. Chatting with Gavin, the pub’s current owner, we had the following exchange:
Gavin, seeing Chipp’s Marine Corps Rugby t-shirt: “So, you over at the reserve protecting rhinos?”
Chipp, thoroughly confused: “Um, no… Jenna and I are just traveling through on our way up the coast to Durban.”
Gavin: “Ah, I saw the shirt and assumed you were working for the reserve – lot of your fellow Marines come over here after their service.”
With poaching a major concern throughout Africa, public and private reserves go to extreme lengths to protect their rhinos. Apparently, the owner of a private reserve in the area has a habit of hiring former Marines as armed guards for the rhinos. Yep, if the accounting and real estate things don’t pan out for Chipp, he can always take up rhino protection duties!
Cricket - No Idea, But It Looks Fun!
In addition to Rhodes, Grahamstown has a number of English-style boarding schools, with St. Andrew’s College (all boys) and Diocesan School for Girls (as the name suggests, all girls) the largest. As Americans with limited exposure to this sort of education, the architecture, student uniforms, and grounds seemed to blend equal parts Harry Potter and Dead Poets Society with a dash of South African flavor.
The unfamiliarity extended to sports practice, as well. Working in a cafe just off the St. Andrew’s grounds one day, Chipp couldn’t help but watch cricket practice through the window. With the white uniforms, floppy hats, and all-around oddness (from an American baseball fan’s perspective), it was just hard to look away. Absolutely no idea what was happening, but it looked like a blast!