Joe and I woke up ridiculously early one Sunday morning. It was a beautiful day. Joe had an idea for an outing but wouldn’t tell me what it was. He ushered me into the car and we headed up the M1 toward Pretoria.

When I saw this granite monolith staring down at us, I realized Joe was taking me to the Voortrekker Monument.

Die Voortrekkermonument. (It’s all one word in Afrikaans.) Voortrekker, which means ‘pioneer’, is pronounced ‘FOUR-trecker’, with a rolled R that I can’t replicate.

Before I came to South Africa, my knowledge of this country’s history went something like this:

South Africa has black people and white people. For a long time, the white minority ruled the black majority under an oppressive regime called apartheid. Then Nelson Mandela came and won freedom for black people. The end.

I think many other foreigners arrive here with similar levels of knowledge. But a visit to the Voortekker Monument, or to the Apartheid Museum (which I’ve visited twice but haven’t written about — too overwhelming), will show you quickly that there’s a lot more to South Africa’s history than that.

Blog-reading attention spans are short (at least mine is), so I try to keep my posts under 1,000 words. Explaining the history of the Voortrekkers and their monument would take five times that. So I’ll show you my pictures and keep the explanations brief. If you want to learn more, Wikipedia has a very informative description.

The Voortrekker Monument sits atop a big hill so you can see it from all over Pretoria. There are beautiful vistas around the monument, including this view of the Pretoria Telkom Tower through a coral tree (a.k.a. lucky bean tree) in full bloom. The monument is surrounded by a nature reserve, filled with indigenous plants and hiking/mountain biking trails.

Me climbing the monument stairs. The monument, which was built between 1937 and 1949, is 40 meters (131 feet) high, and the base is 40 meters by 40 meters. I’m sure there’s some symbolism there, as everything in this building is symbolic of something. (Photo courtesy of Joe.)

There are statues of Voortrekker leaders at each corner of the monument: Piet Retief, Andries Pretorius, Hendrik Potgieter, and one generic statue representing all the other Voortrekker leaders. I think this is the generic statue, which appears to be gazing at a dying aloe flower.

Inside the main atrium of the monument is a jaw-dropping marble frieze, stretching around the four walls, depicting the Voortrekkers’ ‘Great Trek’ from 1835 to 1852. According to Wiki, it’s the largest marble frieze in the world.

The frieze shows the Voortrekkers packing up their belongings in the Cape Colony, along South Africa’s eastern coast (the scene shown above), and moving through the interior of the country to find new land to settle on. The Voortrekkers fought bloody battles with the Zulus, and the frieze’s battle scenes are disturbing. (I took many photos of the battle panels but I’m not happy with any of them.) The frieze story ends with the Voortrekkers signing a treaty with the British at the 1852 Sand River Convention.

Obviously, this frieze depicts the Voortrekkers as heroes and the black Africans as villains. Much the same way that my grammar school history books portrayed the American pioneers as brave adventurers and the Indians as cold-blooded killers. But as we all know (or should know), history is never that simple. As I walked around the atrium and watched history unfold, I thought about the bravery, determination, and evil on both sides of this complicated story.

We climbed several flights of stairs to the top of the monument and looked down on the atrium. This view gives more perspective on the sheer size of the monument and the scale of the frieze. The circle in the middle looks down on the lower level of the monument, which is called Cenotaph Hall. More on the Cenotaph below.

The Cenotaph is an empty tomb on the lower level of the monument, representing the Voortrekker lives lost during the Great Trek. Every year, at exactly noon on 16 December, a ray of light shines through a hole in the dome and hits the center of the Cenotaph, supposedly symbolizing God’s blessing of the Voortrekkers. 16 December 1838 was the date of the Battle of Blood River, when the Voortrekkers defeated the Zulus.

Cenotaph Hall gave me the creeps. The florescent lights cast an artificial glow on the Cenotaph. Many of the flags circling the Cenotaph, which represent the different Voortrekker Republics, have since become symbols of South Africa’s white supremacists.

Creepiness aside, there are several interesting things to see in Cenotaph Hall, including many paintings of the Great Trek, a lantern that has been kept alight since 1938, and a long needlepoint tapestry, sewn by Afrikaans women, which illustrates the role that women played in the Great Trek. There is also a small museum one floor below, with interesting artifacts and funny Afrikaans mannequins sitting in wagons.

I really enjoyed visiting the Voortrekker Monument. I gained a new understanding and respect for the Afrikaans people, who embarked on a perilous journey across South Africa and ultimately built this stunning monument. But the monument also unsettled me. It emanates a “We’re in power here, don’t mess with us” kind of vibe. And the Voortrekker monument still serves as a symbol for right-wing Afrikaans nationalists, who would prefer that South Africa return to its pre-1994 configuration.

It sure is a beautiful place though. Worth checking out on a sunny winter Sunday.

Also, ‘Voortrekker’ has surpassed ‘bakkie’ as my new favorite Afrikaans word.

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