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WWhile the author John Ronald Reuel (JRR) Tolkien identified himself as a British writer, South Africans are quick to remind anyone who asks that the first 3 years of his life were spent on South African soil. The literary great, best-known for his fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (and the mythology behind their Middle Earth setting, The Silmarillion), was born in Bloemfontein in 1892.
At the time, the city was the capital of the independent Boer republic of the Orange Free State, which became the province of Orange Free State in the Union (1910) and later the Republic (1961) of South Africa, and then simply Free State province after the end of apartheid in 1994.
Tolkien’s father worked in a bank in Bloemfontein, having been transferred to South Africa from the United Kingdom with an eye on promotion. As a boy, Tolkien was a favourite among his family’s employees – he was considered a beautiful baby by the African servants. On one occasion, a servant by the name of Isaak took Tolkien home to his kraal for a night to show him off to his family – and later went on to name his first son Isaak Mister Tolkien Victor.
At age 3, Tolkien travelled with his mother and brother to England, a lengthy sea voyage for what they intended to be a long stay with family. While they were in England, his father died of rheumatic fever in Bloemfontein, and the 2 boys and their mother never returned to Africa thereafter.
Tolkien himself claimed to have few memories of South Africa, except for a vivid encounter with a large spider, an experience he put to good use later in his writing. The grave of his father, Arthur Tolkien, is still identifiable in Bloemfontein’s President Brand Cemetery.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Bloemfontein Tourism Information
Tel: +27 (0)51 405 8489
How to get here
Fly directly to Bloemfontein’s Bram Fischer International Airport, where you can hire a car. Or you can self-drive on the N1 from Cape Town (1 000km; around 11 hours) or Johannesburg (400km; 4 to 4.5 hours’ drive).
Best time to visit
Bloemfontein’s climate is quite temperate all year round, although summer days can be exhaustingly hot from December to February and winter nights can drop below freezing from June to August – pack accordingly. Even on chilly winter days, sunscreen is advised.
Around the area
Naval Hill offers magnificent panoramic views of the area, plus a nature reserve and a massive memorial to Nelson Mandela. The Franklin Nature Reserve, just a short drive from Bloemfontein, has giraffe, springbok, ostrich and buffalo.
Bloemfontein is South Africa’s judicial capital, so the Supreme Court of Appeal is located here. The court is among the interesting historical buildings and museums worth seeing – so is the Boer War Museum (commemorating what was once called the Second Anglo-Boer War but is now generally called the South African War of 1899-1902).
If you’re in the mood to mingle or play pool with the city’s more bohemian nightlife – or listen to Afrikaans ‘alternative’ music – visit Die Mystic Boer in Kellner Street, Westdene.