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TThe Tombstone Route, which starts in Williston in the Northern Cape, teaches you about the life and work of a master stonecutter 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.
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 stonecutter by the name of James Wright settled in the area for a while, just after the South African War (formerly known as the Second Anglo-Boer War) in the early 1900s. He met young Cornelius and taught him the skill 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 stonecutter. 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 9 months working on a single gravestone.
Working for 1-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 smoothen, 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.
TTravel tips & planning info
Who to contact
Tel: +27 (0)53 391 0003
Karoo Hoogland Information
Tel: +27 (0)53 391 3003
Local Guide and Owner of Williston B&B: Elsa van Schalkwyk
Tel: +27 (0)53 391 3069/690
Cell: +27 (0)72 523 1786
How to get here
Williston lies about 500km 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 very cold.
Things to do
The towns of Calvinia, Sutherland, Carnarvon and Nieuwoudtwille are all well worth a visit, especially in the spring when the wild flowers are out.
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, and 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.