Did you know?
The blockhouses were guarded by 50 000 British troops and 16 000 African scouts.
On a road trip through South Africa you’ll often come across what looks like someone’s personal castle, standing in a field, or on the outskirts of a Karoo town, or on a hill overlooking the N1 highway between Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Some have been rather fancifully custom-designed, like the mini-fort that overlooks the Northern Cape village of Prieska, which was built out of semi-precious tiger’s eye stones. Others are simple constructions of sandbags, wood and corrugated iron – and generally riddled with old bullet holes.
At the turn of the 20th Century, however, these little buildings with gunports were part of the massive blockhouse system built by the British forces during the South African War (formerly known as the Anglo-Boer War).
Lord Kitchener, commander in general of the British Army in South Africa, was having a hard time countering Boer guerrilla tactics in the field. The Boer combatants, armed and mounted and moving in small squads, were hard to track and pin down as they swept through the countryside, causing havoc with the much larger – and slower – British contingents.
So Kitchener had approximately 8000 blockhouses built, with barbed-wire fencing between them, spanning more than 5000 kilometres. Most of the blockhouses were erected near essential railway routes to protect vital supply lines. And they proved to be effective in controlling the Boers’ movements.
Life in a typical blockhouse generally consisted of seven ‘Tommies’ (British soldiers) under a hot tin roof. More than 90% of their time was spent in boredom, cleaning equipment, teasing each other and holding corn cricket derbies. Then there was that 10% of white-hot action, when the Boers came visiting.
On some of the farms where blockhouses were built, you’ll still find evidence of a soldier’s presence: buckles, old boots, rifle shells and the ever-present pile of rusted tin cans that once contained bully beef or stew – generally consumed with rock-hard ‘dog biscuits’...
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
How to get here
South African War blockhouses are spread throughout South Africa. You will see them from the roadside in many cases. Always check with the local tourism info office and they will point their blockhouse out to you. They are normally a tourism feature of a town.
Tours to do
Some guest farms have blockhouse tours (see contact info below) and Kimberley Tourism offers a number of different historical tours, many of which contain blockhouse information.
What will it cost
Most blockhouses have restricted access but, if you check with the local tourism info office or museum, they may open the building for you - at a minimal charge.
Length of stay
A blockhouse visit with a guide takes about an hour.
What to pack
Sturdy shoes are essential, because many of the walkways into the blockhouses are overgrown.
Ask your guide if there is any information on famous South African War battles that may have raged around the blockhouse you're visiting.