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.

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