South African picture postcards from the early 1900s offer an interesting glimpse into times past. Here are some postcard depictions of nature – be it scenic shots, in gardens, at the seaside or other outdoor activities and structures.

The card shown above is a printed photograph of the Tugela Falls in unusually full flow. The falls are near Colenso in Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal).  The card was sent by a friend in December 1906 to wish my grandmother a Happy New Year. At the time my grandmother was living with her family in Tarkastad (west of Queenstown) then in the Cape Colony but in today’s Eastern Cape Province.

The mail then was efficient! The postcard was date-stamped in Cape Town on 28 December and on arrival in Tarkastad it was date stamped 31 December. Mail from Cape Town to Tarkastad would likely have gone by train to the junction at De Aar and then diverted via a non-direct route to Queenstown and from there out on a branch line to Tarkastad. (For a map of the Cape railway network in 1910 see the Wikipedia entry Cape Government Railways.)

It is not unusual to find bridges featured on postcards, such as the railway bridge (above) crossing the Buffalo River in King Williams Town (now renamed Qonce), which was first connected by rail to East London at the coast in 1877. The postcard was posted to my grandmother in 1907.

Natural features, such as rivers, mountain ranges, dramatic rises in elevation moving up to the interior plateau, provided significant challenges to railway engineers.  For interesting information on the early development of railways in the then Cape Colony see the article by Peter Bell titled Cape Gauge – From Ox-wagon to Iron Horse.

The bridge on the above postcard is over the Little Fish River, and as the caption indicates, it is on the Cookhouse Road, just outside Somerset East. The postcard dates from the early 1900s, and I have not been able to find out when the bridge was built. This was a wagon bridge – indeed in the photo horse-drawn vehicles can be seen crossing the bridge – and not a rail bridge. The old bridge was partially destroyed by floods in 1974. A new concrete bridge parallel to the old bridge is in use today.

The Buffalo River, which flows through Qonce (King Williams Town) as mentioned previously, enters the Indian Ocean at East London. Above is a postcard of the East London port situated at the mouth of the Buffalo River. The handwritten message on the card is dated 1906. It is surprising there are no early steam ships visible in the photo, but tall-masted sailing ships were still in use in the early 1900s.

Dated 1912, this postcard shows holiday makers on the beach at East London. I gather from reading postcards to my grandmother’s family in Tarkastad, where they lived from 1904 to 1912, that they took holidays in East London during the summers.

I enlarged a section of the photograph. Many of the women are veiled, I suppose to protect their complexions from the sun, and it seems that it was mostly men and children entering the sea to bathe or paddle.

In his late teens when my grandfather’s family lived near Umtata, they took their annual holidays at Port St Johns. I recall my grandfather saying they would travel to Port St Johns on horseback and by ox wagon, taking live sheep with them to provide them with meat during their sojourn at the coast. This postcard was sent to him in 1908 after he had left home and was working in the then Transvaal. Nowadays Port St Johns remains a holiday destination on the Wild Coast.

I like this photo of a horseback rider probably riding along a road parallel to the Umzimvubu River that enters the sea at Port St Johns. The river winds through a deep ravine and the high cliffs on either side of the river facing the sea are known as ‘The Gates’. There used to be a small port at the mouth of the river but siltation over time has made the waters shallow and consequently it has not been used as a port since the 1940s.

Highlighting another port and holiday town we move to Hout Bay near Cape Town. Today the fishing port is still active and the area is popular with tourists. On the postcard there is faint lettering, perhaps from a rubber stamp: ‘Beach Hotel, Hout Bay’. The largest building in the middle left of the photo is the Beach Hotel that has since been renamed the Chapman’s Peak Hotel. The hotel building in the photo was built in 1904, replacing the original hotel that was destroyed in a fire, and this building is still in use today.

Staying in what is now the Western Cape, this postcard showing people and fishing boats on the beach at Somerset West was posted in 1909. Today the beach is surrounded by multi-storeyed buildings and edged by a four-lane tarred road.

A view of Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town with Lions Head rising up in the background on a postcard posted to Tarkastad in 1905. Nowadays the beach is edged by a raised promenade and the view of Lions Head is obscured by many multi-storeyed buildings.

Moving into Cape Town itself and away from the coast, this postcard date-stamped in 1905 shows the immaculate Botanical Gardens. The original garden, which came to be known as the Company’s Garden, was established by the Dutch East India Company in the mid-1600s to grow fresh produce to provision ships passing by as well as supplying the small settlement. Later on the garden, which over time was diminished in size as it was by then in the centre of Cape Town, was designated as the Botanical Gardens, but this role was superseded by the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden that was established in 1913. Today this central park is known once again as the Company’s Garden.

Moving back eastwards the above postcard shows a section of the famous Swartberg Pass that cuts through the Swartberg Mountains. The Swartberg range of mountains run more or less west to east, spanning about 230 km (143 miles), and lies between the Little Karoo on the southern side and the Great Karoo along the northern side. Most of the mountains in the range are over 2000 m (6562 ft) high. The name on the postcard ‘Zwartberg’ reflects the Dutch rather than the Afrikaans spelling. The pass was engineered by Thomas Charles Bain and built by over 200 convict labourers using pickaxes, spades, sledgehammers, crowbars, wheelbarrows and gunpowder. The rocks were broken into small pieces and dressed to build dry-stone walls that formed substantial retaining walls to buttress the roads on the steep mountain slopes. (For an interesting history of convict labour in the Cape Colony see Convicts on the hard road: reflections on the system of convict labour introduced by John Montague in the Cape Colony (1844-1853) by Dirk van Zyl Smit.)

It took seven years to build the Swartberg Pass and it was officially opened in 1888. It is still in use today; the road remains unpaved and it is used more as a scenic and adventurous route between Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert.

At the foot of the Swartberg Mountains lie the Cango Caves, a tourist attraction since the 1890s. In fact the construction of the Swaartberg Pass made it easier for travellers to reach the caves. Subsequent to that, the railway line that reached Oudtshoorn (about 30 km (18 miles) away from the caves) in 1902 also enabled more people to visit the Cango Caves. In the postcard the exterior of the caves, presumably near the entrance is shown. These days the entrance to the caves is fronted by a building and interpretive centre. The cave system of tunnels and chambers is about 4 km (over 2 miles) long and massive drip formations are spectacular both in colour and form. This postcard was posted in 1908 and it is likely hand-coloured.

This printed photograph of a bushfire captures a sense of the smoke and the drama. Of course bushfires are not a thing of the past.

This postcard of the scenic Slang River Falls (near Volksrust) in the then Transvaal is a real photo postcard, with the image transferred from a negative onto photographic paper as opposed to a printed card. The caption is handwritten. The man seated patiently on the rock definitely does add a sense of scale. Real photo postcards are relatively rare – I only have few in my inherited collection of postcards that have been kept in the family since my grandparents’ younger days. For more about real photo postcards see Carol Hardijzer’s article A reflection on the South African Real Photo Postcard (RPPC) – 1902 to the 1930’s.

This postcard, date-stamped 1905 shows tents and wagons of those attending Nachtmaal (also Nagmaal) at the Dutch Reformed Church in Rustenburg (which is west of the city of Tshwane, formerly Pretoria). Farmers and their families from the surrounding areas would trek by wagon to their district’s church to participate in Nachtmaal (Holy Communion), which took place every three months. The congregants would set up camps in the open area around the church. In addition to the church service, Nachtmaal would afford those normally living in remote areas a time of community and socialization – at night around camp fires – and the opportunity to buy and sell provisions and conduct other necessary business while in town.

This postcard is undated and so one can only guess at the date from the car and clothing of the people posing under the big tree. I think the big tree is a camel thorn tree (Vachellia erioloba). Unfortunately, I have not been able to find out anything about this tree. The word ‘geluk’ in Afrikaans means ‘happiness’. I don’t know if it is a name given to the tree or if Geluk was the name of the region near Vryburg. From 1985 to 1910, Vryburg was in the Cape Colony, which became the Cape Province when the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910.

The enlarged section provides a closer look at the car and the man and three women posing beneath the big tree. Perhaps anyone who knows about early 20th century cars might provide a guesstimate of the approximate date?


Ball, Peter. 2015. Cape Gauge – From Ox-wagon to Iron Horse. The Heritage Portal.

 Hardijzer, Carol.  2017. A reflection on the South African Real Photo Postcard (RPPC) –  1902 to the 1930’s. The Heritage Portal.

History of the Swartberg Pass.

Van Zyl Smit, Dirk. 1981. Convicts on the hard road: reflections on the system of convict labour introduced by John Montague in the Cape Colony (1844-1853). De Rebus, Vol. 1981, No. 161: 223-226.

Posted by Carol