The National Arts Festival? — an incredible gathering

2014-07-09 00:00

WE’RE already halfway through the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

Now in its 40th year, the festival is looking better than ever. The organisers have gone out of their way to ensure not only the slick running of shows, but a fantastic all-round experience.

The festival began with uncharacteristically warm weather and a buzz on the streets. The cold has since arrived, moving the crowds inside, but the air of excitement is only elevated in the numerous cosy establishments.

Every year, this small town is utterly transformed for 11 days. The 1820 Settlers Monument watches over the festival and vibrant colours are projected onto it once night falls.

Hopper buses run convenient routes through the town, offering a standard of public transport that South Africa sorely lacks.

The streets are covered in posters advertising the innumerable shows. Handrails, walls and lampposts are real estate snapped up well before the festival begins. Most of the posters are clichéd, predictable or vague. Occasionally, however, a surprising or thought-provoking one is worth a pause.

The diversity of shows never ceases to amaze. Music incorporates everything, from contemporary folk to Balkan swing, while the Standard Bank Jazz Festival showcases many of the country’s finest musicians. There are numerous theatre and dance performances, ranging from one-man shows to large-scale productions.

Art exhibitions are scattered across town and most are close enough to stroll between.

The festival would never be complete, however, without the traders. The Village and Fiddler’s Greens offer a brilliant array of wares and delicious food.

The smell of potjie mixes with kartoffels and Krishna cuisine. Hand-crafted trinkets and colourful clothing line the tents.

Dael Lithgow, a cobbler from the Midlands, tells me that sales have been good this year. His snug Yeti Boots are well-loved and a common sighting on the feet wandering the town.

For those seeking a party, Grahamstown seems to go out of its way to facilitate this. The Rat and Parrot must stand as one of the most famous pubs in the country. The festival sees it full to capacity by late afternoon and humming well into the night.

The Long Table is another fine venue. Open only during the festival, it serves great food and remains open long after all other establishments have closed.

It is popular among performers and one often finds oneself alongside the actors and musicians usually only admired from the audience.

With five days remaining, the National Arts Festival is in full swing. More people arrive every day and an air of optimistic expectancy is apparent on the faces littering the town.

The festival is a must for all South Africans to experience at least once. For those who have been before; the festival only gets better with each successive visit. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

• The National Arts Festival runs until Sunday. For more information on the festival, go to

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