The Tombstone Route, which starts in Williston in the Northern Cape, teaches you about the life and work of a master stone-cutter called Cornelius de Waal, but also reveals the customs, legends and lifestyles of the early rural settlers who had to survive in a semi-desert.

Did you know?

It was commonplace in the Karoo to have coffins ready-made and stored in the attic.

The central character of the Tombstone Route in the Karoo Highlands of the Northern Cape is Cornelius de Waal, a hard-bitten, rangy man who was a country gravestone artist.

When you spend a day with a guide from Williston, travelling from farm to farm in the district, you will see his elegant stonework still standing in some of the long-deserted family graveyards.

Before De Waal, a British stone-cutter by the name of James Wright settled in the area for a while, just after the South African War (formerly known as the Anglo-Boer War) in the early 1900s. He met young Cornelius and taught him the skills of gravestone cutting.

Like many rural South Africans of that time, De Waal was home-schooled and able to read and write a few basic words. He would take a hand-written brief from his clients and so you will often find the names of the departed misspelt on the stones.

Cornelius de Waal may not have been a bookworm, but he was an expert stone cutter. He and his wife, known as 'Tant (Aunt) Alie', would take a commission, move their wagon onto the client’s farm and spend up to nine months working on a single gravestone.

Working for one pound a month, De Waal would go out and find a suitable sandstone slab. After breaking it loose, he would cart it off to the graveside by donkey. Then he’d sit down and begin to smoothe, shape and carve flowers into the stone before chiselling the given inscription into the slab. When he made the rare mistake of chipping the gravestone, he’d simply begin again.

You'll learn more about life in the Karoo Highlands on a day tour following the works and signature of Cornelius de Waal than you would from any museum or book.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

The Williston Mall
Tel: +27 (0)53 391 3659

Guide: Elsa van Schalkwyk
Tel: +27 (0)53 391 3069
Cell: +27 (0) 72 074 0919

How to get here

Williston lies about 500 km north-west of Cape Town. Drive up the N7 to Vanrhynsdorp, take the R27 to Nieuwoudtville and Calvinia, and then the R63 to Williston.

Best time to visit

The shoulder seasons: April in autumn, September in spring. Winter in Williston is also a lovely time, but is very cold.

Around the area

The towns of Calvinia, Sutherland, Carnarvon and Nieuwoudtwille are all well worth a visit, especially in the spring when the wild flowers are out.

Get around

Driving from Cape Town is the best option.

What will it cost

A guide will charge about R300 per person.

Length of stay

It's a half-day tour, but because of the other historical features along the way, plan for a whole day.

What to pack

Pack a picnic lunch so you don't have to worry about getting back for meals, also lots of water if you're travelling in the hot season.

Where to stay

Die Ark at the Williston Mall is quirky and comfortable.

What to eat

Karoo dishes normally revolve around hearty servings of lamb, which is a local speciality.

What's happening

Look out for the Williston Festival, which is usually held in the first week of September.