Travel: A-Spire To Legend, Or A Tall Tale Told

August 6, 2022


“Let’s go and see the devil.”


It is the final night of a trip to the venerable Karoo capital of Graaff-Reinet, and with the end of dinner, the official itinerary is complete. Some of our party have retired to bed. Others have enjoyed a nightcap in the cosy, thick-walled bar of the Drostdy Hotel, but are not yet ready to sleep. I fear the friend who has pitched this idea may have had one too many of the fine tipples on offer.

“So. The devil. Where is he?”

“At the church.”

“Again: pardon?”

“Come and look. Would be interesting to find out if you can see it.”

There’s no avoiding the elephant-sized cliché in the room.

My companion obliges. “The devil’s in the detail.”

We wander out into a completely deserted Church Street, the town’s main drag. Wait, can a street named after a church be called a drag? Existential etymology, late at night. It’s wide enough for a whole squadron of ox wagons to perform synchronised manoeuvres and there’s not a car in sight – nor for that matter, in earshot. Tonight, no traffic after nine.

The Dutch Reformed church at the top of the block is impossible to miss. The architectural pivot of the whole town, it’s an enormous Gothic edifice recalling Salisbury Cathedral, complete with an impressive spire – though at a mere 45m, this useful landmark is a bit of a stump compared to its English counterpart’s 123m. The spire on Graaff-Reinet’s Groot Kerk – “Big Church”; does what is says on the tin – however, has another feature going for it, at least at night.

Standing in the middle of Church Street, perpendicular to the front façade of the church, it’s possible to take in, thanks to bright lighting that illuminates the structure from every angle, all the details of the filigree on the crest of the roof and the layers that make up the multifaceted wedding cake structure.

From that angle, it is also possible to see, without too much imagination, the devil. He’s leering down at you – you’d expect him to leer, wouldn’t you; it seems in character – from a point just above the clock, where the spire starts to narrow towards its apex. It’s a trick of the light, an unlikely, unholy, coincidence of the placement of the upward shining beams, the pyramidal structures on each corner of the tower, the aerial-like spike above the clock and the jutting dormer window opening a little further up. The shadows and reflections of all of these combine in jagged symmetry to create the likeness of a Spring-heeled Jack-type demon – two luminous, close-set eyes, protruding ears and a choice of horns. Depending on how you see the image, there are short, dark curved horns – a bit like a cartoon bull. Or there are straight, notched eland-esque horns, lighter in colour than the stone behind them.

Either way, there he is, watching nocturnal visitors roll into town with a malevolent glare. Which is not much of a welcome, really. Rather time your arrival for the morning, when the locals innate hospitality (generally speaking, mind you, there are a couple of a outliers; a topic for another story) often involves moerkoffie, rusks, biltong and witblits. Often in a single sitting.

While partaking thus, perhaps spare a thought for the fallen angel in the architecture, with only his grumpy countenance sticking out above a clock eternally tick-tick-tick-tick-ticking like some infernal contemporary Edgar Allen Poe torture device – and nobody giving a damn about his presence other than a couple of tourists who will soon turn their backs on him and sidle out of town.