A giant tree splits and crashes to the forest floor. Pictures: Jim Freeman
A giant tree splits and crashes to the forest floor. Pictures: Jim Freeman
Hogsback re-captures the writer's heart.
Hogsback re-captures the writer's heart.

East London - As adults, we are told that it is impossible to recapture the magic or essence of those places we experienced and loved as children.

A recent visit to the Eastern Cape village of Hogsback – after an absence of 40 years – proved that, while this might often be the case, it is not invariably so.

As a youngster, I used to visit Hogsback at least five times a year. I was entranced by walks through the lush state forest with its gigantic yellow-woods and fern-hedged paths; by its icy streams and the lovely waterfalls under which we – with the imperviousness of frontier kids – swam and played for hours.

It was the place I first got snogged by an older woman (I was 11, she was going on 13 and what a wealth of difference in experience) as well as the first place I saw snow fall in Africa.

Years later, I would struggle to believe that such memories of idyllic childhood could be even remotely matched by the cynical and realistic expectations of middle age.

But Hogsback, I am delighted to reveal, serves up magical memories simply because it is a magical place.

Nothing disturbs its placidity – not the lumber trucks that bellow up and down its single street and not the overloud burble of my outsize Harley-Davidson cruiser as it slithers alarmingly down the gravel path in early autumn to the Historic Hogsback Inn.

Please note the capital “H” in the first word of the name: the facility was established as a wayside inn in 1880 and it was the place my parents took me for pancakes during a snowstorm in the early 1970s.

One of my happiest young memories is revelling in the flavour of those pancakes, filled with cinnamon and sugar, while a huge log fire kept the bitter cold at bay.

Anyway, so many years later, inn manager Dave Johnson showed me to my room in the “new” annexe, but when I opened the doors to the garden, that old magic came flooding back.

Not 10m away is the narrow but fast-flowing Tyume River gurgling through the huge trees of the forest.

My room proved to be the perfect departure point for hikes into the forest or exploratory forays into the village for food and drink.

The most important thing you need to know as a traveller in Hogsback I learnt while waiting for a lovely lamb curry at the Happy Hog Restaurant and Bar (it’s where the locals hang out) – it’s that the area’s faerie inhabitants call it neither Hogsback nor the village, but “The Mountain”.

This is slightly strange because Hogsback is not one mountain but three, which are commonly referred to as the three hogs’ backs.

Then again, there is no absolute certainty where the place gets its name from – certainly, the mountains bear little resemblance to the rump of any pig I have encountered – with some people saying it derives from one Captain Hogg, a one-time military commander in the region.

I got my first clear sight of the three hogs’ backs the next morning. I crossed the river and followed the path up the hill (the inn’s “garden” is 7 hectares in extent) to where the state forest commences.

It’s hard to describe the forest without resorting to clichés of towering trees with sunlight filtering through their tops and dappling the ferny undergrowth while unseen Knysna touracos groan their guttural greetings to those passing through.

When you’re a kid, you’re overawed by a forest. It can be a frightening place unless you are accompanied by other high-spirited youngsters hopping from one stepping stone to the other while fording the streams, running and tumbling down the track we called “The Mudpath” on the descent from Kettle Spout (to my young memory, the highest waterfall in Hogsback) to our campsite at aptly named Hobbiton.

The soundtrack to my four-decades-old movie is primarily of laughter and gleeful shrieks as we plunged into ice-cold pools or capered in and out of the myriad waterfalls – summer or winter made no matter.

Fast forward to March and my awe of the forest has not only survived, it has matured. I am comfortable being quiet and alone with the tree spirits and faeries that certainly abound in the undergrowth and glades.

I no longer feel the need to gambol in the pools, but I cannot resist the urge to drink from them – after all, for years I used to dream of their cold, sweet, clear waters while trudging through the arid bush of northern Namibia and southern Angola.

The forest, though free of the shrill hoots and yells of children, is far from silent: apart from birdsong, there is the distant rumble of logging trucks, the muffled conversations of firewood-gatherers, screeches of samango monkeys and high-flying raptors, and – all the while – the burbling of streams that will soon join the Tyume River flowing past my room. There’s a faint aroma of woodsmoke.

Sadly, I neither see nor hear the extremely rare Cape Parrot, of which about 400 are said to live in the Hogsback area.

After less than 40 minutes’ easy strolling, I reached the arboretum (one can get there by car or quicker on foot by walking through the village and then turning off the main road). It’s a beautifully maintained park featuring indigenous and imported trees, including 5 century-old California redwoods. The biggest tree in the forest is a 2 000-year-old yellow-wood known as the Eastern Monarch, with a bole almost 10m in girth.

There are several easy walks within the arboretum, but I chose to amble through the Garden of Love, along Fairy Walk, Frog Crossing and Waterfall Way to The 39 Steps. Although it’s not the most magnificent of Hogsback’s waterfalls – that distinction belongs to The Madonna and Child – it is the most easily accessible to visitors who do not have the time, energy or inclination to venture deeper into the woods and mountains.

The 39 Steps is preceded by a set of mini-cascades and many visitors have turned back in disappointment thinking these are the main event. Sitting in the gloaming and watching the stream tumble down the rocks, it is easy to imagine sprites at play – the spot is simultaneously peaceful and joyous.

I emerged from the forest and turned into the village, which straddles a single street that can be traversed top to bottom in 10 minutes if you’re in a hurry or three hours if you’re not. Restaurants (good quality, I am assured) and curiosity shops abound. The most intriguing of the latter being the Camelot Fairy Meander, which features sculptures of all the winged folk that populate the area.

I popped into the Butterfly Bistro for a superb late lunch under the gnarly oaks and a rather good, locally brewed craft beer. So good, in fact, that I could not resist having two or three more.

Of such things are magical adult memories made. You can keep your cinnamon pancakes. - Saturday Star



Situated in the Amathole mountains, Hogsback is reached by road from East London (117km) or Port Elizabeth (224km). Expect comfortable rather than luxury hotel accommodation. There are many self-catering facilities on offer. Go to www.hogsback.co.za for more general information.