Kokstad - Most people whizz past Kokstad on their way to the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast resorts, missing one of KZN’s best kept secrets, the East Griqualand highlands.
The countryside is beautiful here no matter what the season – in autumn all the leaves change colour and in spring wild flowers fill the hillsides and cows and sheep graze in the meadows.
But it’s always the people, their interaction with the environment and their history that give any place its character and, as with most old South African farming districts, the region has a wonderful history of thieves and scoundrels, missionaries and magistrates.
Kokstad Museum, Yankee and Oprah
If you didn’t already know it, Kokstad is named after paramount chief Adam Kok III, the famous leader of the Griquas, who died in 1875. The history of the Griquas is complex and has been rather patchily put together in some glass cases in the Kokstad museum, where you will also find chunks of 250 million-year-old petrified wood and old town photos taken between 1860 and 1980. Amazingly, there is a full set of editions of the Kokstad advertiser dating back to 1882 when the newspaper was founded by the black African American, Hubert S Woods, fondly known in the district as “Yankee”.
Yankee made his fortune on the Kimberley diamond fields and established Kokstad’s now-demolished Royal Hotel.
He is not the only American to have seen potential in Kokstad. Oprah Winfrey established the Seven Fountains School here that was designed by award-winning East Coast Architects.
Antiques and other elderly items
About 10km from Kokstad on the side of the N2 that winds between Port Shepstone and the Eastern Cape is a well-known landmark called “The Pink Church”.
Don’t whizz by. Turn off at the sign saying Willowdale Cottage Furniture. Helen and Gordon Treweek have been collecting unusual items of furniture since the days of the old Transkei.
They cart them back to the farm and, with the help of staff, bring the pieces back to life.
The shop they have set up on the farm is a trove of excellent quality and lovely old pieces.
And the rivers run through it… Fishing in the Highlands
In Kokstad I found a tumble of old trophies from inter-village fishing competitions. It seems the men of East Griqualand have always been keen on the sport.
That’s not surprising, considering the number of beautiful rivers and dams in this region. One can take a horse ride up to Sailor’s Gift farm (the name has a story for sure), one of the beautiful settings imaginable,to enjoy a spot of trout fishing and sun downers.
Who needs Scottish highlands when there are crazy little fishing huts high in the mountains of East Griqualand that you can hire for a weekend so that you can fish yourself into a coma?
Beauty, Bird Hides and Prayer Gardens
There’s no shortage of nature and beauty in the East Griqualand highlands. For instance, there is a strangely beautiful and wonderfully peaceful prayer garden with its little winding stream, prayer “stations” with thoughtful sayings and little sculptures, bridges and paths meandering through the trees.
People in Kokstad know where the garden is, but there is no address.
Another is the Penny Park bird hide, built by locals who enjoy the great bird life in the region.
We took an early morning flask of coffee and loads of home-made rusks, our binoculars and bird books and headed off for a few hours of excellent bird watching in the vlei. There is also a lavender farm in the district.
Hiking, gyrocoptering and cycad farms
A more strenuous way of enjoying the district is by hiking and mountain biking in places such as Ngele Forest or Mount Currie Nature Reserve.
Then there’s Chris Fey’s farm, which has a cycad forest, a historical stone wall and Iron Age archaeological sites.
He has the most amazing dam near his house where viewing water birds is an unrivalled experience.
If you want a bird’s-eye view of the region, try a gyrocopter flight. You might get the opportunity to see the site of the 1951 Dakota airliner crash – which you can also reach using one of the hiking trails.
The crash of the Paardeberg on Ngele Mountain was the first serious SAA airline crash in South African history.
Eating and drinking
If you’re going to stop at Kokstad, go to the East Griqualand Meat Supply and buy the best biltong available.
The butchery is a third generation Kokstad institution, started in 1946 by old man Miller and now run by Roland Miller.
Suffice it to say the recipe is a secret. The meat comes from local, grass-fed herds not subjected to growth hormones.
For a beauty-while-you-eat experience, the quirky and ridiculously popular Beilden Falls pub and restaurant is fantastic.
Even though it’s almost impossible to find without the help of a local, it’s worth the adventure simply to enjoy a huge plate of garlicky prawns while you overlook an amazing waterfall – one of life’s best eating experiences.
Kokstad Museum: 083 549 5457.
Willowdale Cottage Furniture: 082 923 3986.
Trout Fishing and Horse Trails: James Raw 082 940 1010.
Kokstad Prayer Garden: 084 669 9609.
Gyrocopter Flights: Rudolph Erasmus, 082 565 8272.
Cycad Forest and Water birds: Chris Fey 083 252 1126.
East Griqualand Meat Supply: 039 727 2008. - Sunday Tribune