It's all in the name
Much has been speculated over the years about the origin of the name of Onrust River, as it was known originally. Villagers, visitors and various interested parties have proposed a variety of theories, from the fanciful to the far-fetched. This is hardly surprising, if we bear in mind that the word “onrust” has many shades of meaning in Dutch and Afrikaans, such as ‘disquiet’, ‘unrest’, ‘unease’ and ‘restlessness’.
Some have claimed that name stemmed from the early inhabitants’ unease about the leper colony in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley, at the source of the river. Others have speculated that the name came from the leper colony ‘Eilande van Onrust’ on the island Puremerend in Batavia. Imaginative suggestions include possible reasons such as the loneliness of isolated farms, the presence of wild animals and the fear of attacks by deserted slaves, particularly those who had weapons
Romantic as these theories may sound, none of them has any foundation. The answer is plain and simple: the name refers to the turbulence of the river. During the heavy winter rains it came down in full flood from the upper regions of Babylon’s Tower, and travellers had to wait for days before being able to cross over. A relatively recent instance of heavy flooding was in September 1944, when the road on the Hermanus side of the old bridge was completely washed away after a rainfall of 275 mm during the night.
The name “Onrust” appears in various documents from the Dutch colonial era, dating from as early as 1723. After the wrecking of the vessel Schonenberg at Cape Agulhas on 20 November 1722, the following report was written in Dutch to the Governor of the Cape Of Good Hope. The report is quoted from the journal of Albertus van Soest and Paulus Augier. This journal gives full details of the journey to Cape Agulhus (Caab d’ Aguillas) and back to the Cape of Good Hope.
On the morning of Saturday the 16th January 1723 we continued our journey and arrived at Bot River and two hours later arrived at the Onrust River. On Sunday morning the 17th we inspanned and proceeded and at the afternoon arrived at the Mossels River, then continued our journey and arrived at eleven o’clock that night at Uijle Craal. …We arrived at Cape Agulhas on Wednesday the 20th at 11 o’clock.
The report further states that on their return journey on Saturday 30 January they again arrived at the Onrust River and that they crossed the Bot River on Sunday 31 January. Clearly the rivers had already been charted and Onrust River had already been named. Onrust also appears in the records of 1739, when Governor Swellengrebel granted grazing rights at ‘Attaquaskloof teegen over Onrust’ (opposite Onrust) to Gerrit Moss.
Around 1791 the grazing rights on Wageboomskloof ‘aan die Onrustberg’ (adjoining Onrus Mountain) were awarded to Matthjis Guillaume, and subsequently to Gabriel Frederick du Toit and Opperman in 1806. In 1825 Jacobus Gildenhuys took over the grazing rights of Wageboomskloof and on 15 May 1834 a perpetual quitrent was granted to him for the area below Rheezight (below the present national road), ranging from the ‘Hoek van die Berg’ (end of the mountain) where the village of Hawston is now, to the border of Hermanus Pieters Fontein (now Hermanus). When Gildenhuys died in 1862 the farm was taken over by Beukes and Associates and was run by them until 1903.
Up to the end of the nineteenth century this coastal stretch of the Overberg was a remote, thinly populated corner of the old Cape Colony. It was hardly ever mentioned in books or directories and rarely visited by anyone of significance. However, the area was being cultivated and developed and the beach at Onrust was an attraction for travellers from the Cape and further afield, as for visitors today who come to enjoy the environment, the sandy beach and the lagoon. It must have been a paradise for weary travellers arriving on horseback and in wagons, a place to rest and enjoy the tranquility of the area – despite its name!.
From a peaceful village to a thriving resort
The twentieth century heralded a new era in the history of Onrust, bringing business entrepreneurs and property developers to the area.. In 1903 the farm Wagenboomskloof was purchased by the Onrust Seaside Township and Estate Company Ltd. The directors were: W.H. Dempers, Joel Krige, Dr. Antonie Gysbert Viljoen, Charles de Villiers, Alexander Chiappini and Walter McFarlane. Visitors finding their way in Onrus today will recognise the names on the street signs, a fitting tribute to these early entrepreneurs.
A great effort was made by the Onrust Seaside Township and Estate Company Ltd. under the chairmanship of Joel Krige to promote the sale of properties in Onrust as a developing seaside resort. The anticipated development did not take place and the syndicate’s liabilities led to its demise in 1912. Another syndicate was formed 1923 and an all-out advertising campaign was launched to promote sales. The second attempt also failed and the syndicate was wound up in 1928.
After the death of Joel Krige in 1933, the South Western Land and Finance Corporation of Caledon bought the farm in its entirety. The area was divided into three sections, namely Vermont, Onrust River and Sandbaai. The Onrust Local Area Board was formed on 20 November 1936 and at last the village began to develop. Inspired by board chairman Pieter Hendrik de Kock the ratepayers took the initiative of purchasing the village from the corporation in 1942 – for the sum of £1 400 plus legal fees of £200. The Onrust River Village Management Board was registered on 27 March 1950, with P.J. Nel as chairman. Onrust became a full-fledged municipality on 1 January 1975, thanks to the efforts of Mr P. Dawson. As the first mayor, serving for a total of 13 years, he also earned the honour of having a street named after him!.
The street signs of Onrus River reflect its history, but the road sign tells another tale! Visitors may be puzzled to see that the name “Onrusrivier” on the road sign near the village has a “t” added by hand. This is proof of an ongoing debate: the archaic form Onrust, or the up-to-date Onrus? In 1969 the Place Names Commission removed the “t” from the name. No objections were recorded, and yet – the “t” keeps reappearing on the road sign!
In 1994 Onrus River was incorporated into the Greater Hermanus municipality, despite efforts to preserve a separate identity. However, for the fiercely loyal residents of Onrus it remains a special place with a unique character. Onrus River has developed into a thriving town and active community, which celebrated its centenary in style in 2003.