Of earthquakes and fires…

Of earthquakes and fires…

Bain’s Kloof Pass is a wonderful route to get to Tulbagh from Cape Town.

At 02h38 am on Sunday 11th June, an earthquake hit Johannesburg. Whilst it lasted approximately 30 seconds, with a magnitude of around 5.0, no real damage was sustained or lives lost. Somewhat bizarrely, I happened to be travelling in the Western Cape this weekend past, visiting the sleepy little town of Tulbagh – specifically to visit their Earthquake Museum! So today we take a momentary break in the India / Nepal saga to bring you this one.

The Earthquake Museum in Tulbagh.

Founded in 1795, Tulbagh is the one of the oldest towns in South Africa. It was named after the Dutch Cape Colony Governor Ryk Tulbagh and in 1969 this small town housed approximately 1400 people.

There are many fascinating displays in the museum.

On 29th September 1969, an earthquake struck the Boland farming towns of Tulbagh, Wolseley and Ceres. The epicentre of this earthquake was situated in Saron, a region near Tulbagh, and the quake measured a sizable 6.3. Many of the locals recall “local animals having relocated themselves” the day before the event. To this day, it remains the most destructive earthquake in South African history. As the earth was shaking, and buildings were falling, the mountains also lit up with fires, sparked by the falling rocks and methane gas, which was released by deep cracks. Many thought that the end of the world had come. 

This image of the mountains ‘on fire’ is hanging on the wall of the museum.

Tulbagh was the hardest hit, suffering severe structural damage to many valuable historical buildings. Electricity, phone lines and water were cut off, and many roads, including Bain’s Kloof, Michell’s, Nieuwekloof and Du Toit’s Kloof passes were closed due to rock falls or cracks. The event completely changed the geological structure of the area, significantly altering  the ground water as well. Springs that were dry before began running, borehole water changed colour and, especially in Worcester, there were temporary changes in the groundwater levels.

Another image from the museum – great big cracks in the roads…

The quake was caused by a strike-slip fault, which happens when two plates move horizontally past each other. The accounts of the duration of the initial shock vary between 15 and 30 seconds, with the ‘official’ version maintaining it lasted only 15 seconds. The quake claimed the lives of 11 people – one adult and the rest children under eight.

Tents were erected on show grounds and school fields for temporary accommodation, although some residents lived in these tents for over a year, often through harsh weather. Whilst the Tulbagh community slowly recovered, the aftershocks persisted for more than a year following the initial quake.

These images from the museum depict the large scale damage inflicted on this little village.

The quake left a trail of destruction in its wake, and some highly significant buildings in Church Street were destroyed. Whole sections of the houses had collapsed, many of the soft brick walls had burst open leaving wide cracks, plaster had been torn off, and rafters and roofs had caved in. 

Church street on a quiet Friday morning…

Within a couple of days the ‘National Committee for the Restoration of Historic Buildings in Tulbagh and its Environment’ was created to restore the whole of Church Street. The Mr B. J. Vorster, the Prime Minister at the time, was the Committee’s Patron-in-Chief. Everyone who was anyone with regard to restoration at the time was represented, including the SA Institute of Architects, the Simon van der Stel Foundation, the SA Association of Consulting Engineers, the Historical Homes of South Africa Ltd, the National Monuments Council and the Vernacular Architecture Society. 

One of the beautifully restored buildings.

People from all over the country got together to rebuild and restore these charming 18th and 19th century buildings. The project had become the emotional epicentre of the tragedy, and a sacred endeavour for the entire country. Every house in this street is now a national monument, and it is believed to be the largest restoration project of its kind ever undertaken in South Africa.

De Oude Kerk – now a museum.

The cemetery in Tulbagh is another fascinating area to visit. It is a quiet, beautiful spot where, if you take the time, you can see the tragedies and events like the Great Influenza epidemic of 1918 reflected on the tombstones. You will notice many cement crosses too, which were used to replace the numerous gravestones washed away when the Malkops River flooded its banks in the early 50s. Many prominent members of the Tulbagh community were buried here, including the parents of Danie Theron.

Serene and evocative – Tubagh cemetery.

Should you want to grab something warm to drink, and perhaps a delicious treat for brunch, I can highly recommend “Kole & Deeg”.

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team


Kole & Deeg

29 Van Der Stel St, Tulbagh, 6820

The Earthquake Museum

4 Church St, Tulbagh, 6820

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