The town of Potchefstroom, 120 kilometers southwest of Joburg in North West province, has several claims to fame:
- Potchefstroom is a very old town by South African standards, founded in 1838 by Voortrekker Andries Potgieter.
- Potchefstroom is a university town. The Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education — now the North-West University Potchefstroom Campus — was founded here in 1869.
- Potchefstroom has the longest avenue of oak trees in South Africa — possibly in the entire Southern Hemisphere.
- Potchefstroom is a long and difficult (at least for me) word to say. Thank goodness most people call it Potch. (Read more about the origin of the name Potchefstroom.)
I lived 90 minutes from Potch for nearly nine years before going there. I didn’t expect to particularly like it. With the exception of the oak tree story I’d never heard much about Potch, and it isn’t a town that one unexpectedly stumbles upon. It’s not really on the way to anywhere.
But I did finally go to Potch a couple of weeks ago, for about 24 hours. And guess what? I had a great time and didn’t want to leave.
I liked Potch because:
- University towns are fun, interesting places. I’d forgotten this because there aren’t many such towns in South Africa. (Most of the country’s prominent universities are in major urban areas and don’t really have that college town vibe so common in America.)
- Potch has great coffee shops.
- Potch is walkable, especially in the area around the university, and has interesting architecture and landscaping.
- The people in Potch, at least the ones I met during my brief visit, are exceedingly nice.
If you happen to find yourself in Potchefstroom for a day or two, as I did, here are five things I recommend you do.
Things to Do in Potchefstroom
1) Walk Die Bult
Die Bult means “the hill” and is a slang term for the blocks surrounding the NWU Potch campus — around Steve Biko and Molen Streets. No one seems to know why Die Bult is called this as it’s not hilly at all. But anyway it’s a pleasant place to walk, with lots of interesting shops and cafés and of course the oak trees.
I was there in June, when the trees were losing their leaves and creating a fragrant brown carpet of oakiness. I loved the smell, which reminded me of home, but didn’t like the sap that stuck stubbornly to the soles of my shoes.
2) Have Coffee
I went for coffee as many times as I could in 24 hours but didn’t get the chance to try all the good coffee shops in Potch. (One can only caffeinate so much in a single day.) I did make it to three great ones.
Toro and Dukes
3) Explore the Campus
Like most college campuses, NWU is historic and pretty. I was fortunate enough to take a tour with Joy, a woman I’d never met who contacted me through Instagram when she saw I was in town. Joy is a Ph.D. student in the music department and I had such a lovely time walking around Potch with her.
NWU has a fantastic art gallery, which I visited briefly but didn’t photograph because the curators were in the midst of setting up a new exhibition by acclaimed artist Gordon Froud. Do check it out if you’re there.
4) Visit the Botanical Garden
The university has a great botanical garden, just up the street from the main campus, which was originally created in 1962 to provide samples for the school’s botany department. Today the garden is open to the public (only during the week, sadly) and is a fun place to stroll through at any time of year. The garden also serves as an outdoor gallery for occasional NWU Art Gallery exhibits.
5) Lunch at the River Café
Shortly after I met Joy she asked me if I’d been to the River Café yet. I said no. She looked alarmed. “But it’s the best place in Potch!” Joy told me. So we went. And she was right.
The River Café sits at the confluence of the Mooi River and Potchefstroom Dam, just a kilometer or two from campus. The restaurant’s deck is so close to the water that there is almost an island vibe, even in winter. The River Café serves a massive selection of beers from around the world, tasty pizzas, and wonderful deep-fried bites called rissoles that are like jalapeño poppers without the jalapeños.
Thanks Potch, hope to see you again soon.