To the top of Compassberg

In 1840, an Indian Army Officer left his mark at the top of Compassberg, a mountain on the outskirts of Nieu-Bethesda. Major Walter Stanhope Sherwill was on long leave from Bengal and decided to visit South Africa. He initially sailed to Cape Town, where he explored for a while and then continued on to Port Elizabeth. He then decided to explore the interior and so trekked to Cockscomb and on to Graaff-Reinet. When he saw Compassberg, he could not resist climbing the mountain. However, on reaching the summit he found someone had already planted flag pole there. After exploring the Karoo, Walter trekked across country going as far as the Augrabies Falls.  He returned to Port Elizabeth via George, the Cango Caves, and then visited Cape Town, again for a short while before rejoining his regiment in India.


The 2505m Compassberg was named by Colonel Robert Jacob Gordon, Commander of the Dutch Garrison at the Cape in 1778, when he travelled through the area with Governor Joachim von Plettenberg, states a Graaff Reinet Museum newsletter.  Gordon explored the interior with restless zeal and on one journey of great magnitude discovered the Gariep River which he named the Orange River, to honour the Prince of Orange. He also visited the Sneeuberg and because he was an experienced mountaineer, climbed and named Compassberg. Perhaps he planted the first flag at the summit. John Barrow said that Gordon gave the mountain this name because steams flowed from it in all directions, but Lichtenstein, said he named it Compassberg because being the highest point it offered fine all-round view from its summit.  Research reveals that a large San population was also present in the Compassberg area when farmers began moving in in the 1700s.


Prof Garth Sampson and others have explored over 5 000 m² at the foot of this mountain and excavated well over 16 000 surface sites.  Many stone artifacts have been discovered, and archaeologists constantly visit the area.    Today the Compassberg Hiking Trail is among the attractions that brings outdoor enthusiasts to the area.  Mike Sporen of the S A Mountain Club once stated that there was still much to be discovered along this route. He noted some graffiti that dated back to the 1870s.   Compassberg is composed of sediments of the Beaufort Series in the Karoo System, and extensively intruded by dolerite dikes and sills.


© Rose’s Roundup, May 2012 (No 220)

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