The cows and sheep were at peace, the countryside dozed in the afternoon sun, but the Shetland pony seemed agitated. Eyes fixed on a paddock, it galloped up and down the fence line, stopping every so often to gaze longingly.
When it continued this behaviour for hours on end, I asked Marietjie Groesbeek, who runs Mount Park in the Dargle valley on behalf of the owners, what exactly the plump little pony found so fascinating.
“It fancies the sheep,” she laughed. “It sleeps with them and now there are lambs, it tries to keep the ewes away from them.”
Such are the vagaries of animal behaviour. It reminded me of a pig on another farm that thought it was a cow and even joined them on the milking turnstile in the hopes of also being milked.
It all adds to the atmosphere of life in the country.
At Mount Park, if you are not quite up to storming iNhlozane Mountain – which looms above the farm – on foot (and it is quite a climb), the other options are to take easier walks on the lower slopes across the grasslands, or just a gentle stroll in the garden.
You could also sit beside the small dam in front of the main house and daydream, or read a book. During our recent visit, though, the dam was somewhat dry.
Marietjie said they stocked this dam with trout but because of the lack of rain, they would have to transfer the fish to another dam.
The main house, with its rabbit warren of rooms and shared facilities, is best suited to a large group of family or friends.
For smaller parties there are other options, like the log cabins “Yellowwood” or “Rose Cottage”. The cabins, situated alongside a stream burbling over the rocks, face on to a small forest. Then there is the grassy caravan park and campsite fringed by trees.
A stroll up the hillside takes you to the family cemetery. From there you can do a short circular walk, which allows you to look down over the houses and paddocks, connect with the main road and circle back to the main house.
Having visited the cemetery, it seemed appropriate to read up on the family history.
I learnt that the original founder of the farm, Robert Speirs, was born in Scotland in 1802. Robert married Agnes in Ireland and, at the time of the potato famine, decided to emigrate.
They first chose Australia, but instead came to Natal under the famous Byrne Scheme, which brought many hardworking families (the Byrne Settlers) to these shores.
Robert’s brother James and his son William also came to SA and resided near the present-day Mount Park.
One of Robert and Agnes’s sons, Charles Pennell Speirs, became Justice of the Peace for the country areas around Pietermaritzburg.
The Speirs raised cattle, sheep, horses and also did saw milling.
It was fascinating to read of a terrible blizzard on May 31, 1905, when the farm was covered in snow 90cm deep, while in the gullies and surrounding mountains it reached a depth of 15m and took six months to melt. Incredibly, sheep lived for three weeks buried beneath the snow. Their hot breath formed breathing holes, while their wool kept them insulated.
When Charles died in 1915, Mount Park was subdivided between James Gordon Speirs, Elizabeth Beatrice Speirs and Effie Nest Speirs.
To delve into the extensive family history could prove a chore, but all old places need a ghost and it is said Elizabeth Beatrice fills this slot. - Saturday Star
Call 082 524 5444; e-mail [email protected]; Website www.countryescapes.co.za