Port Elizabeth of Yore: Cycling to Cape Town in 1885

Imagine the capabilities of bicycles in the 1885 during the age of the penny-farthing. Apart from having a fixed gear ratio, the roads were non-existent. Yet despite these impediments, two brave souls from Port Elizabeth attempted the trip from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town.  

Main picture: Members of the P.E. Amateur Bicycle Club formed in 1881 outside Pearson’s Conservancy

On Monday 23rd March 1885, at 3 o’clock in the morning, two of Port Elizabeth’s pioneer cyclists, Charles Hallack and Frank Girdlestone, began an epic ride to Cape Town. It was going to take them 19 days to cover the 896 kms of their route. They experienced almost constant wet weather, with contrary winds, which added materially to their discomforts and the duration of the journey, but they endured adversity with impish good humour, and afterwards Hallack recorded their adventure in a booklet of 72 octavo pages, in board covers, which is one of the rarities of early Port Elizabeth printing.

As part of the journey through the Langkloof it is amusing to notice some of the landmarks which punctuated their way, and the impressions recorded of those localities eighty years ago. Their first overnight stop was Humansdorp after passing Cadles, and Fitches Hotel and resting at Nocton Farm but it should be noted that “our first day walking amounted to fully nineteen miles.” Often they travelled until a very late hour, or started before dawn. From Humansdorp they rode past Bilsons to Todd’s idyllic little hotel at Assegai Bosch to Rademeyer’s at Company’s Drift, the Kromme River Heights, and Shepherd’s at Twee Rivieren, the entrance to the Langkloof proper.

Usually they met with an hospitable reception, although their cycles and clothing provoked astonishment. This was expressed by one “old dame, dressed in the usual black frock, straight way down, except for the small sluit amidships, where the strings of her apron marked the half-way boundary of her baggy form,” who enquired “whence we came, how old we were, what were our occupations, whether the bicycles belonged to us and if we were going to play tunes on them for the delight of the metropolitans, and the increase of our worldly wealth. The idea that they were simply horses ………… was scorned, together with our statement that we journeyed for pure pleasure.”

At Krakeel River (Teran’s), they were delayed by an “oratorial Boer” known as Klein Boel. The hostelry at Diep River was owned by Inggs. Shortly after this they passed the missionary river of Harlem, astonished to find that it had a hundred or more well-kept cottages and gardens, fine trees, and “every appearance of fertility and prosperity pervading it ……… yet we had never heard its name till we got abreast of it…… This place is to be found on very few maps, although ten times the size of Avontuur. A fine looking old coloured man here gave them apples.

Then “Avontuur at last! 150 miles from Port Elizabeth but which of these four houses is the hotel.” Found it – “in the rear of the post office”, where they met a daunting dog. Howell, the publican, claimed that the dog’s “awful projecting row of lower teeth were fiercer than he intended …..the result of an accident in his youth …… he said that he was a Soonah dog – a kind not met every day – but we said we had sooner not met  him after dark, if it was all the same to him.”

Avontuur they found to be the junction of the roads from Cape Town, Knysna, the Karoo, and Port Elizabeth. Various fanciful explanations of its name were offered – that it meant “Evening Hour” when travellers made a point of reaching the hospitable home of Mnr. Zondag, an earlier patriarch – or “Af en toe – to and fro – a sort of central junction.”  

From here, the “wheelmen” were persuaded to ride down to Knysna to see the port and the forests. On reaching the coast, the gave up the idea of returning to the Kloof, but proceeded to George by way of the lakes and so left the route we hope to follow one day in the future.

Days later, dirty, travel-stained but triumphant, Hallack and Girdlestone rode into Cape Town, escorted for the last few miles by members of the Cape Town Bicycle Club “an imposing formation of eleven …. Nearly all nickelled machines and all in neat dark blue uniforms like our own when home.” Newspaper interviews followed, telegrams to the press in Port Elizabeth, toasts “drunk in bumpers of champagne. After all they had endured, the cyclists had still sufficient spirit to climb Table Mountain (on foot), to visit Robben Island (a very sickly outing) and to make several excursions with the Cape Town Club, envying them the splendid roads which made “fifteen miles per hour … no myth down there.

East to West: A bicycle journey from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town by Chas. Hallack PEABC (Port Elizabeth, James Kemsley & Co)
East to West by Chas. Hallack (Looking Back, Volume VI, Number 2)

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