Grahamstown National Arts Festival
The National Arts Festival is a 10-day explosion of theatre, music, dance, art exhibitions, street performances, craft markets and much much more, that hits the Eastern Cape town of Grahamstown in South Africa every year at the end of June beginning of July. It was started in 1974 as a project of the Grahamstown Foundation, and has evolved into the leading arts festival on the whole African continent. If you've been to the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, this is a smaller version of that. Over 120 000 supporters flock annually to Grahamstown, an old 1820 Settler Town and home to Rhodes University, to experience one of the world's most diverse displays of creative talent, representing the full cross-section of South Africa's cultures.
From 1652-1795, the Cape Colony was under Dutch rule. However, the Netherlands was invaded by the French and Prince William of Orange fled to England and asked the British to look after the Cape for him. This was the first British Occupation of the Cape which lasted until the Dutch asked them to leave in 1802. However, the British saw what a prize the Cape was, and re-occupied it in 1806 when they attacked and defeated the Dutch settlers in the Battle of Blaauwberg.
The British immediately tried to anglicize the Cape and forbade Dutch children to learn Dutch at school amongst other things. Many of the Dutch settlers had farms and had intermarried with the French Huguenots who had arrived in the Cape in 1688 after the Edict of Nantes was revoked in France. They were not happy with the policies of the British and left their farms and started heading east. However, at the Fish River in the Eastern Cape, the Dutch met the Xhosa who were slowly moving South in search of new grazing for their cattle. The meeting was not a happy one and fighting broke out, signalling the start of the frontier wars. The British had to come to the rescue.
Grahamstown was founded by Lt. Colonel John Graham in 1812 as the military headquarters for a system of forts along the Fish River, which had been established as the boundary of the Cape Colony. However, the Xhosa did not recognise the boundary or the British for that matter. Lord Charles Somerset became governor of the Colony in 1814 and he came up with a cunning plan which would do away with the need for more soldiers to maintain the frontier. At that time, there was much unemployment in Britain. Wars had ended, soldiers were jobless and the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Somerset out forward the suggestion that unemployed soldiers and other British people be sent to the Cape Colony to populate the areas on the banks of the Fish River, and serve as a human boundary to stop the Xhosa from advancing south. For the British Government, Somerset's frontier scheme seemed an ideal solution to both the problems existing in Britain and the Cape Colony. Unfortunately, they forgot to tell the Settlers the real reason for sending them to the Cape.
Adverts used by the British Government to attract settlers gave a very unrealistic description of the life they would have on the Frontier. The 100 acre land allotments for each family, which sounded like a dream come true for a cobbler in a small village in England, was totally inadequate for successful farming, especially as the Settlers were not of farming stock. Most had earned their living as artisans and craftsmen.
They were given seed, farming tools and dumped in the virgin bush. The had to make temporary shelters or live in tents provided by some of the Dutch farmers, while they built a house to live in. The area the were settled in was not a crop farming area. It was called the Suurveld, which means sour ground as the soil was not suitable for crops. The British Government forgot to tell them this part as well. As crops failed , the British Settlers began drifting into towns, where they reverted to their former trades. The authorities at first tried to stop them from leaving their land as that was defeating the whole object of sending them there, but eventually granted the Settlers building plots in Grahamstown. So that's how Grahamstown became a Settler town.
Although you can take a domestic flight from Johannesburg, Durban or Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, and then hire a car to drive to Grahamstown, I'd recommend hiring a car and driving from Cape Town. If you do the trip over a few days, you can travel along the famous Garden Route and explore many of the beautiful coastal towns.
The Garden Route
The madness, the fun!
Pre-purchasing tickets before the festival has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is, is that if it a popular show then you have a guaranteed ticket. The disadvantage, is that you tend to race from show to show, having greedily purchased so many tickets that you didn't allow yourself breathing space in between. Also, if a spontaneous unadvertised fringe festival show is supposedly awesome, you might miss out as your time is already allocated elsewhere with a pre-booked ticket.
The atmosphere at the festival is electric. Random people stop you on the street to discuss shows they've seen. People are everywhere. It's crazy. It's mad. It';s the most fun you'll have. Seriously! I can't believe I had waited so many years before going to the festival. On every street corner people are dancing and singing. All halls are filled with art exhibitions and fringe festival shows. The Grahamstown national Arts Festival rocks!
Things to do around Grahamstown
Grahamstown has many old Settler Museums you can explore, old forts you can visit. Another good place to visit is the Observatory Museum which houses one of only two Victorian Cameras Obscura in the world - the other is in Bath, England.
For the outdoor enthusiast and adventurer, activities include skydiving, hunting, game viewing, fly-fishing, hang-gliding, abseiling, river rafting, walks through botanical gardens and mountaineering.
But the big thing you can do, is visit one of the many game parks where you can see the big five in the wild. Once you've been to a game park, you'll never be able to set foot in a zoo again. We went on a day safari to the Pumba Game Park, which was excellent and included an amazing lunch with barbecued kudu steaks.
Of course, all you might want to do is spend every day absorbing the fascinating arts and culture on display at the festival!