By Brendan Seery
Tzaneen - I could feel myself speeding up and my knees were hurting more than usual, so I realised I was running downhill. But the mist which engulfed me meant I could see only about 3m in front of me and the sensations from my legs were the only clue to the changing spatial reality.
In London, they would call this a “pea soup” fog; in Zimbabwe, when we were kids we called it “guti” (from a Shona word, I suppose); here, thudding down the main road between Haenertsburg and Tzaneen, it was more like cotton wool. Not only in the colour and consistency of the clouds rolling over the tops of Magoebaskloof, but also because it muffled the sound as effectively as cotton wool plugs in the ears.
And it was brilliant.
When you head away from the city for a break in the mountains, then they should darn well act like mountains. And Magoebaskloof doesn’t disappoint.
Just after 6am on Sunday, the chill mist seemed to be a bare arm’s length away from the balcony of the room at the Magoebaskloof Hotel. The beautiful kloof, which we glimpsed in the afternoon on the previous day, was hidden. Everything was quiet. Even the morning birds don’t chirp when nature brings down this white curtain.
And you can feel the stresses of the city falling away.
About 5km into the run, I turned around and the mist started to lift, to show the awesome magnificence of the twisting road flanked by green forest.
Here and there, a green mountain peeped through the white.
I paid less attention than I’d have liked to because the pain of the uphill reminded me that this was going to be a long and arduous journey back.
Yet, the rewards were ample: a hot, soothing shower and a full breakfast, and I mean full – the hotel’s early morning buffet and eggs-to-order are the equal of anything I’ve seen in my travels.
At breakfast, we discussed it and came to the conclusion that this place (Tzaneen-Haenertsburg-Magoebaskloof) must be what Dullstroom used to be 20 years ago before all the Joburg clevers descended on it in their SUVs.
This past weekend, though, the area was packed with visitors, who flocked there for the Berry Festival.
The streets of Haenertsburg were packed with vehicles from far and wide, the restaurants and shops were full.
And yet, somehow, you could still feel the charm of the place coming through.
Perched on some hills and surrounded by forest, Haenertsburg looks and feels like Europe.
In the Magoebaskloof, where the indigenous forest is still dominant, it feels more like the rain forests of South America.
A friend of ours, who is from Costa Rica, said it reminded her so much of her forest-clad homeland. She also observed that the people – from the restaurateurs to gatekeepers working for Komatiland Eco-Tourism – were genuinely friendly and pleasant, just like those in Costa Rica.
But what sets this area apart from places like Dullstroom as a weekend option for stressed-out city folk is the number and variety of things to do.
You can vegetate, if you like. Or you can mountain bike or trail run over an extensive network of routes in the forests and plantations. You can try some watersport on the three dams in the area.
Then there is the adrenalin rush of the Magoebaskloof Canopy Tour, where you whiz along a zip line down a beautiful gorge.
Magoebaskloof Adventures, which runs the canopy tour, also offers a variety of other exciting, energetic things to do, including paint ball, quad biking, river tubing and abseiling.
If you’re into more leisurely sporting pursuits, there are some well-stocked trout-fishing dams.
You can do the foodie thing at the excellent restaurants which are dotted all over the place. The food is good and the service seems to be genuinely friendly.
One small eatery in Haenertsburg, Minki’s, was pure serendipity. Tired after traipsing around, we wanted some tea and coffee and maybe something to nibble, but didn’t honestly expect much from a small town coffee shop.
The baguettes stuffed with trout, and large muffins (with cheese and bacon, or biltong and caramelised onions) were outstanding by themselves (baked fresh by owner Minki) but the presentation was something to make many a fancy Joburg restaurant envious.
You can pick raspberries and blueberries, and buy fresh produce – from cheese to berry juices and wine, as well as stunning avocados (it is the heart of this country’s avo-producing region) – or pick up some indigenous plants from the local nurseries for a fraction of what you’d pay in town.
You’ll find any number of enterprising people selling indigenous lilies (which grow wild in abundance here) on the side of the road, and the area bursts into flower in September with the Spring Festival, when azaleas are out in profusion.
Hint: leave some space in the car for your purchases.
Limpopo, and especially the Magoebaskloof-Haenertsburg-Tzaneen area, is becoming increasingly popular with birders.
The mountains, Afro-montane forest and associated grasslands are home to some species prized by twitchers. And, even if you don’t see anything, merely wandering around the beautiful mountains – on foot or by car along a number of scenic drives – is reward in itself.
Like Clarens, the area has become a bit of a haunt for artists and there are a number of art, old book and antique shops to browse when the mist rolls in.
Accommodation covers all tastes and budgets, from self-catering and bed and breakfast, to five-star hotel luxury, but for many of the popular places, booking way ahead is recommended.
We were based at the Magoebaskloof Hotel, which was taken over by the Orion Hotels group about two years ago.
Hotel general manager Jacques Slabbert said he believed the area had “amazing potential”.
“There is so much to do and it is accessible for people from Gauteng, because it is just over four hours’ drive.”
Magoebaskloof Hotel is a typical country hotel, offering the basics done well, without the five-star frills. One can imagine sitting around the fire in the pub (and it is one of the most beautiful pubs I have seen, seriously) sipping red wine while the mist and rain cloak the area.
The hotel caters for couples, families and conference groups and can also do weddings, says Jacques.
A friend of ours spent a long time in conversation with Jacques and his assistant, Natalie Gibson, discussing possibilities for her daughter’s upcoming wedding.
On Natalie’s suggestion, we drove to the Debengeni Falls, which are off the R71 road to Tzaneen, close to the Magoebaskloof Dam.
To say that the place took our breath away is an understatement: a series of waterfalls cascades down the mountainside, one into another.
There are plenty of picnic sites and braai places in the forest at the sides of the falls and the place could be turned into a unique wedding venue (with the reception back in the comfort of the hotel).
In the car on the way back, we debated the experience.
My wife even suggested I should not write about it, lest others come and the place gets crowded.
That I can’t do. It’s too good not to share.
Those of you who have been there will know this and those of you who haven’t should go there and then tell me I’m wrong.
But the acid test of any destination is: will I come back?
There’s only one answer to that: yes.
Haenertsburg is about four hours drive from Joburg, Magoebaskloof and Tzaneen another half an hour or so. Best way to go is on the N1, via Polokwane, then take the R71 towards Tzaneen. There are stop-and-go sections on the R71, so add in about half an hour extra.
l Magoebaskloof Hotel:
E-mail: [email protected]
Tel: 015 276 5400
www.magoebasklooftourism.co.za - Saturday Star