It is believed that Portugal sacrificed up to 10% of its population in the cause of maritime exploration during the 15th and 16th centuries. Scores of ships were lost on the notorious South African coast, and the little hamlet of Boknesstrand near Port Alfred was the final resting place of many of them. Bartolomeu Dias even called there to plant a cross. We went in search of some Boknes stories
Picture the scene.
It’s March 1488, and a Portuguese ship has ventured farther south along the African continent than any European vessel before it. But trouble is brewing.
After months at sea, including four weeks without sight of land, the crew had had enough. They wanted out, and captain Bartolomeu Dias, staring mutiny in the eye, conceded defeat. Finding a sea route to India would have to wait. However, he insisted that a landing party go ashore and plant a wooden cross to mark the spot they had reached. It was erected at Kwaaihoek (angry corner) in what is today known as Boknesstrand.
Ironically, Dias and his ill-tempered crew had unknowingly rounded the Cape, and discovered this two months later on the return journey to Portugal. Taking a more coastal approach on the return trip, the Portuguese adventurers discovered the Cape, which Dias called the Cape of Storms. They were the first Europeans to reach the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic, opening up the trade route to the east that changed the course of history.
Strangely, the Dias cross at Boknesstrand was discovered only in 1937. Professor Eric Axelson, a leading South African historian, found 5000 fragments of the original Padrao Sao Gregorio cross, estimated to represent 75% of the original Dias beacon. The cross was reconstructed by Witwa- tersrand University, and a replica was erected at Kwaaihoek in 1944. Portuguese president Mario Soares visited the cross in 1995.
Interestingly, the Dias voyage is considered the earliest recorded event in SA’s history, preceding the landing of Jan van Riebeeck by 164 years!
So Boknes, the humble little coastal town, has a notable place in the country’s history. Nowadays it is a popular holiday destination for Valies, and in December it virtually bursts at the seams.
The permanent residents much prefer the peace and quiet of the months when there are no tourists around. Among them is 80-year-old Edwin van Aarde, who has lived in Boknes for 23 years. His father owned a holiday home in Second Street, and their travels to Boknes, in the days before tarred roads and Toyota Fortuners, were adventures all in themselves.
“I was at university when my father, a farmer in the district, decided he wanted to build a garage on the property here in Boknes. But 60 years ago you couldn’t just call your local hardware store and order the required material to be delivered on site. We had to transport the cement, bricks, roofing and everything else from the farm, about 70km away.
“My father had a big, sturdy trailer which transported the heavy goods, towed by a paraffin-and- petrol Vaaljapie tractor,” says Oom Edwin. The Vaaljapie, or Ferguson TEA20, was produced between 1946 and 1956. Its 2,1-litre four-cylinder engine produced 20 kW of power.
Edwin and his brother, Johannes, shared the driving duties between the tractor and a Ford bakkie. But the going was very slow, and when they got to Bedford, one of the rear tractor tyres gave up the ghost. “The only replacement tyre available was an oversized one,” recalls Oom Edwin. “We realised we couldn’t have one normal rear tyre and one oversized one, so we upgraded both wheels to the much bigger tyre. We were quite excited, hoping that they would result in a better speed so we could get to Boknes faster.”
But there was a steep mountain pass to come. With a heavy trailer in tow, the infamously unreliable brakes on the Vaaljapie were put to the test… oh dear!
“Just outside Grahamstown we reached the steepest downhill section. I was in the Ford following the tractor, and when I reached 40km/h just to keep up with the tractor I started getting worried. When the tractor and trailer overtook a Ford Anglia, and I reached almost 100km/h in the bakkie, I realised we were in trouble. The only reason Johannes had passed the Anglia was that he didn’t have any brakes!”
Oom Edwin smiles as he recalls the incident: “The thing I remember most is the look on the faces of the two old-timers in the Anglia. Imagine, gently driving
down the mountain pass and being overtaken by a tiny tractor and a
big trailer going at 100km/h!”
Incredibly, the tractor and trailer safely made it to the bottom of the hill. And even though Johannes was as pale as a ghost from the shock, they continued the journey,and on the next downhill the Vaaljapie again clocked about 80km/h!
“We got to Boknes much faster than we had hoped for,” laughs Oom Edwin.
Today, farming forms a major part of the local economy, with dairy production the mainstay. Apparently its the combination of the topography, climate and the suitability of the soil for growing fodder that does the trick. But a cool surfer dude, with Rastafarian hair and characteristic surfer swagger, managing a highly successful dairy farm? You bet!
Hercu Venter looks after the family farm, Kuswag, where 900 cows are milked daily on a highly sophisticated Waikato SA rotary system. But surfing and dairy farming? That sounds like fitting a VW Amarok engine in a Toyota Fortuner.
“I’ve been surfing since I was 11,” explains Hercu. “I grew up on the farm, and farming is in my blood. Thankfully my dad supports my passion for surfing, so when I do take a holiday break he sends me all over the place. I’ve even been surfing in Indonesia and I’m hoping to add a few more famous waves to my list. We work really hard here, but when we take a break, we do it properly.”
Besides being an ideal candidate for the reality TV show, Boer soek ’n Vrou (Farmer wants a Wife) and being a surfer dude, the single Hercu is as down-to-earth as you can imagine.
Less surfer-like and more retirement oriented is Stephan van Niekerk, who owns one of the original plots set out by Boknes farm owner Daniel Scheepers. Stephan is the village’s Toyota praise singer. “I started driving Toyotas in 1990, and I’ve never looked back,” he says, standing on the banks of the Bakanas River. “Since then I’ve owned six Hilux bakkies, and the last single cab 2.7 I sold with 645 000km on the clock. I bought the Fortuner in 2008, and she’s done 221 000km trouble-free kilometres.”
And no issues with the ’Tuna? “Well, some people say the original Fortuner like mine danced around the road a bit too much. I think it often comes down to driving skill. Over the years I’ve changed the shock absorbers and the tyres a few times because of the high mileage, and I don’t have any issues.” As the saying goes: Give that man a… Toyota badge!
Santa Labuschagne owns and manages one of the town’s two mini markets, which also doubles up as a filling station. Santa grew up here, but she spent most of her adult life in Gauteng. “When I finally got a chance to come back on holiday to Knysna, I brought my husband to see Boknes, and I fell in love with it all over again. We soon packed our bags and ended up taking over the store and filling station. I don’t regret moving here for one moment,” says the petite lady, who will happily fill up your tank.
Also not afraid to get his hands dirty is Patrick Oosthuizen, a 66-year-old building contractor from nearby Alexandria. He has lost count of how many houses he has built or helped build in the Boknes area. “Building is what I’ve done all my life,” says Patrick. “And I’ve trained many young men in the art of building. Judging by the way other contractors snap up my lads, I think I’ve done a proper job.”
Down at the beach, with the wind whipping up the Indian Ocean to a white-foamed frenzy, some kite surfers are having a field day, flying every which way, as high and as fast as they please. It’s easy to imagine a massive old Portuguese sailing ship, battling to make headway through this sea, on its way to Kwaaihoek, just 2km up the coast. And a crestfallen Bartolomeu Dias on the bridge, inspecting this beautiful land through his telescope.
Boknes was a wild place back in 1488, and in many ways it still is. The present-day village is mostly untouched by the big cities’ glitz and glamour. It remains a place of legend, and a seemingly forgotten chapter of history. This is Boknes.
A nest of… buck?
Boknes is not a name that makes a lot of sense. Bokkies don’t normally do the nesting thing. There are various theories about how the village got its name. In 1785, the theory revolved around “Bocna”, the indigenous name for what became Vadersriviertjie (father’s stream). This, some say, evolved into Boknes.
Another theory, published in 1809, referred to the settlement based on the banks of a fine stream called Bokenax. It is suggested Boknes evolved from this name.
Later, the Dias cross was referred to as the “Baken”, and the name evolved
to Bakanasstrand. The change from Bakanasrivier to the simpler Boknes could have resulted from the vast numbers of bluebuck and bushbuck in the area.
As they say, “you takes your choice”. The village of Boknesstrand came into being when Daniel Scheepers, owner of the original farm, Boknes, hired a surveyor to measure up the first 22 stands on the bank of the river. The first property was sold for the princely sum of 25 pounds, and that sale represented the founding of Boknesstrand.