From a vast space where wealthy feather barons auctioned off their wares, to a monument commemorating the arrival of the 1820 settlers and a walk cross in memory of brave seafarers and a walk that brings you closer to South Africa’s journey to democracy, a walking tour of Port Elizabeth’s city centre has it all. Port Elizabeth is named after the beloved Elizabeth, wife of Sir Rufane Donkin, who arrived with the 1820 settlers and ‘founded’ the port, and not Elizabeth, the royal monarch as many might think.
With walking shoes on, camera batteries charged and levels of enthusiasm high, we set off down John Kani Street with its life-size taxi sculpture and spectacular Opera House. We pass the old Post Office with its gothic Victorian architecture and the magnificent City Hall and Public Library in Market Square and learn about the colonial history dating back to when the 1820 settlers arrived. Port Elizabeth is the second oldest city in South Africa, second to Cape Town, and was an important port for on the Dutch East India Trade Route.
The Feather Market Centre, now a conference and events centre, is a glamorous space with double volume foyer, sweeping staircase and exquisite chandeliers. It owes its origins to ostrich feather boom in the 1800s, a time that saw South African ostrich farmers become wealthy, almost overnight. The building, and numerous others from this era, was proclaimed a national monument in 1980 and pictures of its history line the corridors.
Behind the City Hall is a large Coptic cross, we pause awhile, reading the inscription… ‘in memory of those fearless seafarers who searched for Prester John, 1145 – 1645’. The legend of Prester John, a mythical priest-king with great wealth and a magical kingdom, led many a seafarer to set sail in search of him, resulting in these explorers discovering much knowledge as foreign lands were discovered.
Gazing over Market Square, and in the direction of the Campanile memorial, is a marble statue of a somewhat sombre looking Queen Victoria – perhaps she had foresight into the demise of colonialism in this distant land they had called their own. We stroll down steps and under the M4, past large street art celebrating democracy and on to the Campanile Bell Tower. This iconic landmark was commissioned to mark the centenary of the landing of the British settlers in 1820, in what was then referred to as Algoa Bay.
We climbed its 204 steps to the Observatory Room, pausing a while to admire the art work on its various landings – and a good excuse to catch our breath! We hear the melodious and loud ring of the towers 23 carillon bells, the largest in the country. IT is here that we start the second part of our walk through history – along Route 67, so named as it consists of 67 works of art symbolising Nelson Mandela’s 67 years of work towards a democratic South Africa.
Along a wall is a frieze celebrating the local heritage of the Nelson Mandela Bay and Eastern Cape region. The visual images created by Mkhonto Gwazele are set into cast concrete curved in a beam with a flow-poem written by Lelethu PoeticSoul Mahambehlala beneath them.
Up steps we follow words created by a collective of crafters, words like uBuntu, patriotism, peace and Siliziwe, meaning we’re blessed; words that represent the new South Africa and its prosperity as a democratic nation. Along the route are ‘pages’ of Nelson Mandela’s quotes, stuck to balustrades, lamp posts and walls – inspiration from the great statesman himself.
We pop into the Cathedral Church of St Mary the Virgin, dating back to the 1900s, and complete with its Bishop’s throne, choir stalls, baptismal font and magnificent stained-glass windows. I smile as a child sits on the carpet, opens his lunchbox and enjoys a snack, while his Mom, a cleaner, goes about her work. Such is the inclusiveness of the Church.
We start up the Mosaic Stairs… created by a number of local artists, the stairway represents ‘an experimental journey that starts in darkness and turbulence and progresses to a new dawn and an explosion of colour, hope and new beginnings’. The stairs meander up through a glorious indigenous garden, along a path marked with X’s and finally along the Voting Queue – a sculpture representing the voting line that was formed during the 1994 elections.
On reaching the top we were greeted by a giant-sized sculpture of Nelson Mandela, a 470 square metre mosaic and a 65m high flagpole – the second highest in Africa. In addition to this there are the spectacular views across the bay, the pyramid shaped memorial to Sir Donkin’s wife Elizabeth – whom he dearly loved and referred to as the ‘most perfect human being’, and the old Lighthouse that was built in 1861. The lighthouse operated for over 100 years and was decommissioned in 1973 when a more effective lighthouse was constructed further up the coast.
Our three-hour timeslot for this walk was running out and we hadn’t even scratched the surface of this wonderfully historic city, and many of the 67 works of art would have to wait for next. All that remained was enough time to catch a quick ride to Mastersons Coffee, an institution in this city and in existence since 1924. With the wonderful aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans and a delicious cappuccino beckoning, it was time to say farewell… suffice it to say, this city with its colonial buildings, Victorian architecture, African aesthetic and vibey feel will certainly be welcoming me back sometime soon.
But for now, I’ll just #ShareTheBay