Hidden Gems On Roads Less Travelled

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Often we are tempted to travel further afield for our holidays, but South Africa is a diverse country with so much to offer. It is in the small, undiscovered little towns and dorpies that you really uncover the precious gems that make our country so rich in history, culture and life. So escape the frenzy of the cities and follow the almost invisible routes on the map to discover the extraordinary.

The real magic of local travel lies in the finer details – the quirky one-horse towns and offbeat dorpies. There is a little town or village, a hill retreat or cottage in the woods to suit everyone’s taste. The following are just a drop in the ocean of what is out there. 

  1. Magical, Mystical Hogsback

Come away with the fairies as you discover this small town, about two hours inland from Port Elizabeth. Utterly enchanting, you will be captivated as you drive up into the dreamy winter mists of the Amathole Mountains. Once there, you will understand why South Africa-born author, JRR Tolkien, based his fantasy world Middle-Earth (the setting of The Lord of the Rings and other works), this little village deep in the forests of the Eastern Cape.

Like any enchanted forest, the walks are legendary. They vary from easy strolls to longer, more challenging adventures – all usefully graded. It’s customary to buy a walking stick – a traveller’s memento – from one of the crafters in the village. When you visit the Eco-Shrine, greet the angels at the gate, walk the Labyrinth and the 400m garden meander called the Fairy Realm, look out for the rare Cape parrot, and feel the magic. There is plenty to do, including visiting Lothlorien Cottage, The Edge, and Butterfly Bistro, but none trumps exploring the forests on foot.

The area is also steeped in history; in the 1800s it was from these very cliffs along the Hogsback escarpment that the Xhosa warriors descended into the Tyhume Valley to engage in battle with the British Frontier Troops. Hogsback, with its wonderful mountains, spectacular views, mystical forests, swirling mists, beautiful birds, butterflies and mushrooms, and its often glorious sunsets, is the ideal holiday destination for nature lovers and is well known for its beautiful spring, summer and autumn gardens. It often snows in winter and this is always a reason for much excitement and celebration! The village has a small grocery stores, a post office, a quaint chapel, several local craft venues and the award winning Eco-Shrine, and some local artists have their studios open to the public.

  1. Fascinating Nieu Bethesda

Nieu Bethesda, with is haunting atmosphere, is home to a growing number of artists, crafters and other creatives seeking a more conducive way of life. Decades ago writer Athol Fugard chose Nieu Bethesda as his inspirational home, where many of his world-famous plays were written. But it is Helen Martins, creator of the mystical and unforgettable Owl House and Camel Yard, who has immortalised Nieu Bethesda. It was here that she gave life and form to her unique vision, by transforming her modest house and garden with glass and cement.

The village’s growing reputation as a place to unwind makes it a popular choice for those wishing to reconnect with nature and self. Wildlife, birds and plants are abundant; physical pursuits are on hand; and there’s the enormous Karoo landscape. All of these – plus an element of mystery – make Nieu Bethesda a great place to just be.

In keeping with its distinctive laidback pace of life, Nieu Bethesda has no bank, credit card facilities or petrol pump. Many people assume that Nieu Bethesda started as a mission station. But it was started by a determined group of people in the area who wanted a church closer than the one in Graaff-Reinet – over seven hours ride away in the 1870s – these days it takes just over half an hour.

Nieu Bethesda is overlooked by Compassberg, the highest mountain in the Eastern Cape, and is lined on either side by hills. In this fertile valley lies a village waiting to enchant and beguile. Night skies are clear, velvety and unforgettable, and the air is a crisp life-giving force. Ancient pear trees and quince hedges edge the roads and fields, and even though the village has no streetlights, it is safe to walk at any time of the day or night. Life in Nieu Bethesda potters along much as it did 130 years ago, when the village was founded. Night skies are unpolluted, and with fresh, crisp and clean air you can really escape the ‘city’ feeling.

  1. Discover Diamonds In Cullinan

Cullinan has managed to hold onto much of its mine village character with its historic stone and corrugated iron mine workers’ houses, offices and churches a throwback to the mining times of the early 1900s. It lies 30 kilometres east of Pretoria and is a must on anyone’s itinerary when in this part of the world. Famous for the discovery of what became known as the Cullinan Diamond, the largest rough gem-quality diamond ever found. The stone was named after Sir Thomas Cullinan who owned the diamond mine at the time.

The stone, bought by the then Transvaal government was presented to King Edward VII and then cut into three large parts, an action deemed rather risky and difficult, but one that gave rise to the Great Star of Africa – the largest polished gem from the stone, also known as Cullinan I. The second largest gem from the Cullinan stone, known as the Lesser Star of Africa, is the third largest polished diamond in the world and part of the British crown jewels, on display in the Tower of London.

Cullinan’s Oak Avenue, richly lined with both jacaranda and oak trees, is a living museum and tribute to this era, beautifully preserved Edwardian period buildings complete with picket fences, cool porches, appealing little gardens and a number of restaurants and coffee shops. Cullinan still serves the premier mine, located on a rich diamond-bearing kimberlite pipe, the largest in South Africa. The mine is the third largest diamond producer in the country. When visiting the diamond mine, it is definitely worthwhile to visit the surrounding small Victorian town as well, and explore its rich history and breathtaking charm.

  1. Take A Step Back In Time In Matjiesfontein

Known for its splendid historical buildings and a timelessness that is rare, a visit to Matjiesfontein allows visitors to indulge in the sumptuous surrounds of yesteryear. Legendary railway man, James Douglas Logan, founded this tiny village on the fringe of the Great Karoo in 1884. Immerse yourself in living history; life here is a tribute to the early Karoo, the Anglo-Boer War and Queen Victoria’s England.

Matjiesfontein is a bastion of Victoriana. Explore the historic ambience of the famed Lord Milner Hotel, its old world charm, gracious servers, and elegant décor, not to mention delighting in its ghost stories. Dine by candlelight in the hotel dining room served by red-jacketed porters and feasting on local specialities, such as Karoo lamb.

There are various other accommodation options which include: the Olive Schreiner cottage, where the famous South African author of My thoughts on South Africa lived for a number of years; as well as private suites set by the pool, or along the riverbank, and more. The sprawling, well-established garden is an oasis of green in an otherwise dry and sparse Karoo. This not only attracts visitors looking for relaxation and respite, but also a diversity of birdlife. At the Lairds Arms enjoy a pint and a pub lunch in the atmosphere of a bygone era. Stay for the regular honky-tonk played on the piano, delve into Matjiesfontein’s cricketing history and marvel at the antiques.

Though small, Matjiesfontein has plenty of attractions to keep visitors enthralled; from the Marie Rawdon and transport museums to the courthouse and jail, the British Army Remount Camp and the old English Bus, which promises the shortest tour on Earth around the village to see its sights and so much more. Matjiesfontein offers everything that a world-class destination does, yet is wholly unique in the hospitality industry. In 1975 the entire village was declared a National Heritage Site.

  1. Have A Cuppa At Quirky Kaapsche Hoop

Kaapsche Hoop, established in 1882, is well known for its wild horses that roam freely, is a charming village situated in Mpumalanga, South Africa. This popular tourist village is a haven of beauty, peace and tranquillity. With its misty mountains and high rainfall, Kaapsche Hoop has a cosy ambience and is the nature lover’s dream destination. Rich in history and local art, it offers various leisure activities, such as horse riding, hiking trails, etc. With the local restaurants, quaint shops and loads of accommodation, it makes for the perfect holiday!

Kaapsche Hoop is approximately 290km from Johannesburg and only 28km from Nelspruit. It was the discovery of gold in the streams around what is known today as Kaapsche Hoop that led to the establishment of the town. The gold and its prosperity have long left the area, but the town remains, driven by the green gold of commercial forests and the scenic beauty of this region on the escarpment, the rare and endangered blue swallows and the wild horses.

For the tourist Kaapsche Hoop offers many nature and eco-related activities with an climate that presents no malaria threat, which is why it was the ideal place to establish a new community in the 19th century. The lack of significant gold deposits at the time, however, put an end to this.

The climate still is ideal, with crisp winters and moderate summers. The lack of gold did not deter many prospectors, some of whom still own claims, dotted all over the area to this day. The old, abandoned mine shafts created an ideal breeding ground for the rare blue swallows, one of the exciting features of the town. The prosperity also brought horses into the area, which were abandoned when the gold ran out. The remaining horses became wild with free access to everything in the area, including the town. This is probably one of very few places where the homes have to be ‘horse proofed’.

These two features were a result of early human activity, and led to the birth of Kaapsche Hoop, now a very popular tourist destination in Mpumalanga.

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Bewitched by the magic of France, Melissa Jane Cook is an intrepid explorer. A lover of traversing the globe, she eagerly absorbs different cultures and laps up the magnificent oceanic experiences. Wooed by words and writers alike, her penchant for facials, chocolate, owls and bugs, is surpassed only by her fascination with the stage aglow in lights or bookshelves that heave with stories, where characters invite her along on their marvellous journeys.

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