We explore Heidelberg, which might as well be a suburb of Johannesburg
The town of Heidelberg in Gauteng, with its many historical landmarks, is close enough to the City of Gold to commute yet far enough to offer genuine platteland peace and quiet.
Heidelberg holds many stories – far more than most other South African towns. (Turn to “From way back to Nelson Mandela’s presidency” on page 29 for a brief history.)
Even now, you can get a sense of what life was like during those crossroads days. Heidelberg is a bustling place that hosts large industries such as Eskort and British American Tobacco; the Karan Beef Feedlot, the largest one in Africa, is just 20km south of town; and the N3, the main highway between Johannesburg and Durban, skirts its eastern edge.
Heidelberg is also know for its scenic beauty. Admittedly, as in many other platteland towns, the historical town centre has been somewhat neglected and a number of buildings are vacant, but on the face of it the streets are looking neat and they’re shaded by lovely trees. The first and last sunlight of the day turns the magnificent Suikerbosrand to the north of town a beautiful orange hue.
You’d think it would be a popular weekend destination for city dwellers, but this is not the case – which is something that bothers local lawyer Bouwe Wiersma a lot. “In terms of tourism, Parys and Clarens have always had an advantage, but it’s time for that to end,” says Bouwe. “Neither of these towns has a history as colourful as Heidelberg’s. It’s basically a microcosm of our country’s history.”
History is close to Bouwe’s heart. “I earned my one and only matric distinction for the subject,” he says. He aims to use the old stories, monuments and other attractions to draw visitors to the town.
The project was kicked off with the restoration of the run-down old railway station building, opened in 1895 when the tracks between Durban and Johannesburg reached town. A deviation in the railway line led to the construction of a new station building in 1961, after which the original one became derelict. In 1969 it was restored and five years later a transport museum was opened in the building, which housed an impressive collection of cars, motorbikes, bicycles and tricycles. But in 2003 it closed down and the exhibits were moved to Franschhoek. Once again, the building became dilapidated.
After a long dispute with the municipality, Bouwe reached a longterm rental agreement and, along with other interested partners, started renovations.
“It has cost us a lot of money, but we believe it will become a major attraction,” he says. The plans include a brewery and restaurant, and from there visitors can set out on tours of the local sights. “And on 10 October, Paul Kruger’s birthday, we plan to host the country’s largest beer festival.”
Bouwe, who grew up in Polokwane and studied at the university in Potchefstroom, started working in Heidelberg in 1994. He wasn’t always as excited about the town as he is today, 0 2,5 5 10 Kilometers but over the past few years he has started to see “the bigger picture”. >
The view down Voortrekker Street towards the CBD and Suikerbosrand as you come into town from the east.