History & Culture

How and where did it all start

The town of Kirkwood is situated in the heart of the Sundays River Valley and can be considered the citrus capital of the Eastern Cape. It is hard to believe that this beautiful valley was witness to bloody border wars a mere two hundred years ago. Also a place where, a little more than a 100 years ago, Afrikaner farmers (Boers) fought for freedom against the British Empire.

The 250km (156 miles) long Sundays river, with its origin in the Compassberg mountains near Nieu Bethesda (highest mountains in the old Cape Province), is the fastest flowing river in South Africa. It flows into the Indian Ocean at Algoa Bay near Port Elizabeth. The river winds its way through the Zuurberg mountains and passes Kirkwood in the fertile Sundays River Valley. Kirkwood is 80 km (50 miles) from the ocean and 100 meters (330 feet) above sea level. The weather bureau recorded a temperature of 50.3 C (122.5 F) in 1928. This is still the highest temperature recorded in South Africa. All these factors add to Kirkwood's subtropical climate and make it ideal for the growing of citrus fruits.

At the turn of the 19th century, the Sundays river formed the eastern border of the then Cape colony. This is one of the few areas where all of the South African ethnic groups were at war at one time or another.

Khoi against Xhosa, and Boer against the British. During the Anglo Boer war, General Smuts and his Commando of 250 men passed through the valley on their epic quest to the northwest. The three men who died the furthest south during the war, were killed on Cecil John Rhodes' farm, Brakkefontein. Arri van Onselen and Henri Rittenberg were buried in the Kariega cemetery, which is next to the main road towards Jansenville. Cornelius Vermaas was buried in Uitenhage. After these casualties, a major battle ensued on the Bedrogsfontein mountain pass.

In 1814, Governor Cradock awarded the first Sundays River Valley farms to leaders of the successful burger commandos for their role in the victories in the border wars of 1811 and 1812. Magistrate Cuyler (originally from America) of Uitenhage received "Geelhoutboom" (later Dunbrody), Commandant Ignatius Muller received Klaaskraal (just outside Kirkwood) and Fieldcornet J.S. van Niekerk received Gouwernements Belooning - the farm where Kirkwood would be established almost 100 years later.

James Somers Kirkwood, an auctioneer from Port Elizabeth, arrived in 1877 to auction off the farm Gouwernements Belooning. A flooded Sundays river prevented him from reaching the farm and instead he climbed a hill, known today as The Lookout, from where he had a view of the entire valley. He also had a vision of the valley, overgrown by valley bushveld at the time, being transformed into lush green irrigated fields with fruit trees. His vision also included farm produce being delivered via river barges connecting the fertile valley with Port Elizabeth.

Shortly afterwards, James purchased Goewernements Belooning and other farms in the valley. He established the Sundays River Land and Irrigation Co and also the small village Bayville. He started preparing irrigation land on a big scale. In spite of a very positive prospectus and tons of publicity, he failed to attract any interest in buying stock in this big venture. It coincided with the big diamond rush to Kimberly. Everyone was investing in diamond companies. His company eventually failed due to a lack of public interest and was declared bankrupt. Kirkwood died a financially and spiritually broken man in 1889.

Like many pioneers, James Somers Kirkwood was ahead of his time. His vision became true in the next century with the Sundays River Irrigation Project and eventually the Orange River Water Project. His name lives on in the town of Kirkwood that originated on his first farm Gouwernements Belooning in 1912.

Today, Kirkwood is the center of one of the largest citrus regions in South Africa with approximately 12 000 ha (30,000 acres) of citrus orchards. Approximately 8 million cartons of oranges, lemons, grape fruit and soft citrus are exported from here to countries all over the world each year. Kirkwood is at present the dynamic capital town of the Sundays River Valley Municipality, which includes places like Patterson, Addo and Enon, with a total population of nearly 70,000 people. It is known throughout the country for its citrus fruit, roses, game farms and its annual Wildlife Festival.

To the north of Kirkwood lies the beautiful Rietberg mountain with the Uyepoort (Uye gateway) that provides passage to the Zuurberg mountains and the Greater Addo Elephant National Park with the big five of the animal Kingdom. A panoramic view of Kirkwood and the orange groves is visible from The Lookout, where James Somers Kirkwood had his vision.

The Lookout is also well known as a site where large dinosaur fossils are frequently dug up by archeologists. The first complete dinosaur fossil to be found in South Africa was found not far from Kirkwood and aptly named Kirky, because it looked like a turkey.

Unlike James Summers' vision, barges were never used to transport fruit to the Port Elizabeth harbor - the railroad had this honour.

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