Philippolis, Free State
Did you know?
International naturalist, war hero and writer Sir Laurens van der Post grew up in Philippolis.
In the 1960s Africa’s version of Asia’s Grand Trunk Highway – the Great North Road – threatened to swallow up a tiny little southern Free State village on its march from Cape Town to Cairo.
Instead, the N1 bypassed Philippolis and there was great sadness in town. No tourist boom. No franchise strip mall. No motels and no immediate job bonanza for locals. The impressive (for those days) three petrol stations that the town boasted dwindled to one, and many buildings and farms were abandoned as residents left for more lucrative locations.
Today, as it turns out, that N1 omission was a blessing in disguise. Like a precious butterfly preserved in amber, Philippolis still has most of its Karoo architecture. Centred by the Dutch Reformed church, the town’s wide streets and slope-roofed homes are largely original, unlike those of its more developed Free State counterpart communities. Property prices are still affordable, national monuments remain untouched and there is no crime to speak of. Because it is so remote and quiet, Philippolis is actually a charming place to stop over on the way to Cape Town or Johannesburg. And the best kept secret of all is that the detour to the town is actually a shorter route than the N1, and has no trucks.
In the evenings, one feels the soul of the Karoo in a simple walk around Philippolis, where there is little chance of being run over in the traffic – unless you get in the way of a wandering donkey cart. And the night stars are always fine after-dinner entertainment.
Philippolis was born in 1823 as a mission station for the local Khoi. It was founded by the London Missionary Society, represented by Dr John Philip – hence the town’s name. It is the oldest town in the Free State, and has the most historical monuments after Bloemfontein and Bethlehem.
After the Khoi came the Griqua nation and a succession of their leaders, from Adam Kok I to III. Then the Boers arrived in the area and began farming this semi-arid land. Basotho and Xhosa people followed shortly thereafter.
Today, more than 3000 people call Philippolis home.
Visitors to the little town can go book-hunting at a fine collectibles store, buy art at a gallery, visit an intriguing tiger project at nearby Tiger Canyons, go on day drives to Gariep Dam and, in the final week of April every year, attend the local Witblits Festival ('witblits' means 'white lightning') and sample locally produced ‘white lightning’ liquor.
Accommodation in Philippolis is as quirky as the town itself, and you can stay in an old jail cell (with modern conveniences), Seebos, a lodge in the nearby bush that offers quad biking, or Starry Night Cottages, a national monument. And visiting artists or writers can make use of the artist's retreat in the Laurens van der Post Memorial Centre – but they'll have to explain their intended project to the town.
Philippolis is so peaceful that it really deserves more attention than merely being used as a stopover, and those who can spare a couple of days – or weeks – to linger will truly be rewarded. Visit the Van der Post Memorial Centre, the weaving school museum, or do a town walk, birdwatching trip or safari.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Tel: +27 (0)51 773 0063
Tel: +27 (0)82 770 0101
How to get here
90 minutes' drive south of Bloemfontein on the N1 you get to Springfontein – turn right and head for Philippolis.
Best time to visit
Philippolis is lovely at the change of seasons (April/May and August/September) and in winter, when the stars are best (though it can be very, very cold!)
What will it cost
Remarkably inexpensive lodgings of quality.
Length of stay
Suggest you stay two days.
Where to stay
Check the Philippolis websites listed, as they advertise a number of lodgings.
The Philippolis Witblits Festival usually takes place in April.