Three’s a charm

“It is good to see you in the dark,” was our cryptic evening welcome from Omri Nene, a Zulu named after a Biblical king. The original Omri became king by the choice of the people of Gibbethon after the smiting (by Omri, I think) of Zimri. It’s not a common Zulu name, but then Omri is not a common Zulu .

He is a tour guide, not of the battlefields of Judah in the ninth century BC, but of the Anglo-Boer War near Ladysmith in 1899. And he is a globetrotting actor. He had been accompanied here in the dark by the silhouettes and the barking of three baying dogs of war.

The Drakensberg can conjure up nightmarish visions of Family Fun, Bingo in the Bar and Deck Quoits, but we weren’t in the Drakensberg. We were at the nearby Three Trees at Spioenkop, where we planned to ride horses, spot birds, walk dogs and eat a lot. We hadn’t planned to go shopping or to a Drakensberg Boys Choir gig, but we did those as well.

In the best conventions of the new dispensation, Omri is a dispassionate observer when recounting the tale of the battle of Spioenkop. In our group, his version appealed just as much to the handlebar- moustached British general as it did to a couple of buzzing Pretorian youths of the De Le Rey new generation.

“I am in charge here,” he bellowed, becoming (temporarily) Lieutenant Colonel Thorneycroft. “There’s no surrender. Take your men back to hell, sir, where they came from!” It was a consummate performance.

Three Trees was once a member of the David Rattray stable but was recently taken over by safari stalwarts Simon and Cheryl Blackburn. It is now so much more than a battlefields lodge. They offer exemplary mountain hospitality without the enforced camaraderie of a big family oord.

You’ll meet like-minded guests on undulating walks followed by eclectically entertaining meal-time conversations. It’s life in the berg, bush and battlefield, to a backdrop of tasty soups and meaty roasts, not to mention a strudel that would have had Mozart asking for another coffee and a second slice, before heading for the highlands to hum a tune and walk it off.

When the mist lifts from the mountain-tops, the lodge’s views, from stoeps and baths alike, stretch over the Spioenkop Game Reserve, heaving with giraffe, eland, hartebeest and rhino. When last did you see a rhino from your bath? The horse rides have the same views but from closer up and without the bubbles.

All the lodge’s established traditions survive under the new owners. The rooms are comfortable, in period design, with quirky antique ads for Bovril and Keen’s mustard (both of which apparently kept the British troops alive in the diseased African veld just over 100 years ago).

Three days after Omri’s welcome, we bade our hosts, their hounds and our Zulu king farewell. We were no longer in the dark but enlightened. We were more than alive. Truth be told, we were as keen as mustard on Three Trees, foothill hospitality at its finest.

Local attractions

  • Craft shops and coffee stops are sprouting up everywhere you look on the labyrinth of roads in the foothills of the Drakensberg, a kind of Midlands Meander in the clouds. Try this for a day out in Champagne Valley.
  • Get wax and woven stuff at KwaZulu Weavers Rug and Candle Factory on the R600 outside Winterton. Telephone: 036-488-1657. See Goodman Khumalo, the strumming minstrel, and a range of trendy art, decor, culture, craft and clothes shops in Thokozisa on the R600. Telephone: 036-488-1207.
    Look at pots, dishes and plates at Ardmore, ceramics favoured by P resident Thabo Mbeki, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Caroline of Monaco and actress Angelina Jolie. Open seven days a week. Telephone: 033-234-4869.
  • Lunch at Valley Bakery, where everything’s home-made including bread and fillings, biscuits and cakes galore. Monday to Friday and Saturday mornings. Telephone: 036-468-1257.
  • Watch a lively and uplifting performance by the Drakensberg Boys Choir featuring Bach, Faure and Freddie Mercury. Yes, really. And an African selection to stir the worst cynic. Most Wednesdays. Phone: 036-468-1012.

If you go …

Where it is: In the lee of the Oliviershoek Pass, below Spioenkop, between Bergville and Ladysmith.

Why go there: Walks, talks, climbs, rides, swims, game-filled valleys. All the major walks of the Northern Drakensberg are less than an hour’s drive away.

What it has: Six en-suite rooms, one family, three dogs, one actor and a team of friendly Zulus.

What it�s like: Family-run, affordable, intimate, accessible.

And the food: Locally sourced and grown, meat, veg, milk and eggs. No imported kiwi-fruit. No carbon imprint. Legendary lentil curry.

Rates: In winter: R795 per person including all meals and guided walks. High season, R1350 per person . Ask for kids rates. Tours, rides and drinks charged separately.

Getting there: 8km on the D564, off the R616 between Bergville and the N3 highway.

What there is to see on the way: The ever-approaching backdrop of the magnificent Drakensberg range. Shopping, shopping, shopping.

Contact: Simon and Cheryl Blackburn on 036-448-1171 or 082-379-1864. E-mail or visit

Stairway to Hell

It’s hard to have an obvious limp when the story behind it is so excruciating.

It’s everyone’s worst nightmare. In fact, it is so unlikely that it has probably never even cropped up in most people’s nightmares but it can happen. Especially to drinkers.

I remember laughing like a drain when a friend dropped a Coke bottle on her foot and spent the next six weeks in plaster, faced with sniggering sympathy every time she was asked how she had acquired her injury.

For me, it has been nearly two weeks now. Still I can barely walk and still I haven’t found a story to explain my lolloping, wincing limp. It started at Bean Bag Bohemia, Durban, after a long day in at the International Convention Centre.

Excellent duck and mash, a bottle of red wine, a couple of cleansing ales and back to the hotel. Far from feeling disabled, I felt most abled. I took the lift to my room on the sixth floor, drank three glasses of water and fell asleep.

I don’t know what the time was when I got up and staggered, lens-less and blind, to the bathroom any more than I know what time it was when I reached the top of the building. I had opened (and closed) the wrong door and found myself in the corridor without a key, wearing only a pair of striped boxer shorts. I could be grateful, although I didn’t think of it at the time, that I was wearing these and not the Christmas pair with the hedgehogs and associated punning slogans. Grateful, indeed, that I was wearing anything at all.

I didn’t panic. I wasn’t awake or sober enough. I realised that the lifts were to be avoided for fear of loud screams from late-returning female guests; as was reception for fear of arrest.

So I began to climb the stairs, as the pressure on my bladder increased and I began to experience the level of pain I imagine comes from ignoring appendicitis. Faster and faster. In search of a loo. In search of a pot plant. In search, ultimately, of a roof garden. There were, I knew, 24 floors. Surely somewhere I would find relief.

I had climbed 18 storeys when I reached the locked door to the roof and headed back down again unrelieved, faster still, pattering bare feet on the painted cement, flying around the corners, with no plan. Twenty-three floors later, avoiding reception as a bat shuns the daylight, I stopped on the first floor outside the breakfast room and found, O Joy! a sign with an X-shaped man on a door. Bent double like an N-shaped man, I went in.

A bemused employee looked up from his swashing and politely explained, as if I was dressed for it, that breakfast wouldn’t start for another two hours. It was, I calculated, four in the morning.

I told him my story. He saw that the pain of embarrassment had superseded the now reducing pain of an over- burdened bladder. He called security, not to arrest me (as might have seemed reasonable) but to accompany me in a private lift. I was surrounded by men in uniform and feeling badly under-dressed when they unceremoniously let me back into my room.

I remembered everything when I woke. Then I climbed out of bed and couldn’t stand. The pain in my calves was of the intensity one might feel after climbing Everest . I crawled to the bathroom and lay in the bath until I could move my feet.

I left humid Durban and limped around the Drakensberg for a few days, wondering whether altitude might be the cure. Now I am back in the dry air of the Karoo and slowly improving. I have given up the idea of dropping a Coke bottle on my toe to divert the pain and I am not going teetotal. I have also given up any plans I might have had to climb Everest. The pain is too great and I can’t imagine where the loo might be.

Jelly babies come in all colours

She wobbled on her swivel chair like an enraged blackcurrant-flavoured jelly baby.

“Why are you travelling together? Going to a party in England, you say? No. I don’t believe it. I can’t believe it. You two white ones can go but you other three wait behind.”

She wouldn’t listen to my explanations. “Shut up, white person. They must speak. You. The black one. Khuluma. Speak.”

OR Tambo would not (I hope) have been proud of her. Our little multi-racial fivesome was divided on racial lines. Whites on South African passports may leave the country. Non-whites must be interviewed.

Twenty minutes later the Dark Three emerged, shaken but allowed to depart on holiday. It had been horrible they said. Brown people of all depths dragged in from the desks and abused. “You are not South African. This is a stolen passport. I don’t believe you. Where did you buy this passport? You don’t speak Sotho so you are foreign. A kwerekwere. Answer me a question. Where were you born? Bushbuckridge? Colenso? They are not in South Africa.”

Whilst Nigerians, Indians, Pakistanis and Somalis were shoved out through the back door and sent who knows where, we were all now free to board our flight. Our passports were probably legitimate. Mine damned well ought to be, it took Home Affairs over a year to provide it. And the system hadn’t picked up any of our outstanding speeding fines or missing vehicle instalments.

The journey to Dubai flashes past in an Arabic whirl of halal snacks and breakfasts. The time is two hours ahead of Johannesburg. Last chance to board for London. No time to shop. We have to run in the desert heat to catch our flight. In and out of white waving kaftans, trying not to tangle in the turbans and travelators.

We’re at the Gate. Another jelly baby. A small lemon-flavoured one. “You three wait here.” Two of us could continue our journey; the other three would have to stay behind for an interview with the British Embassy in Dubai before continuing to the UK. There are so many illegal South African passports that they are filtered out en route to prevent congestion at London’s airports, she explained in broken English. Thank you. Shukran.

“We’re never going to make it to London,” said one of the Dark Three.

“Yes, we are dammit.” I collared the yellow jelly baby and asked her to get the British Embassy on the line. A voice answered. The second secretary. Donald. A Scottish flavour.

I explained. In the new South Africa, I said, South Africans of different shades were now allowed, in theory, by all but our own immigration department, to do anything together including take holidays. I had applied for all the passports myself; I had known the bearers for many years. They were all coming to England for a party. I had enough money, travellers cheques, proof of employment in South Africa, copies of the party invitation, medical insurance. Everything. My poor mother, a Brit, would be mortified if they didn’t come. How could he do that to her?

“I’ll let you all board,” Donald agreed, fed up with my wheedling, “but you’re going to have problems in London.” Thanks, my good man. We’ll take the chance.

Eight hours and two more breakfasts later. Heathrow. Raining. Another blackcurrant jelly-baby, this time with dreadlocks. A quick glance at the passports and the paperwork, five sharp resounding stamps and we were in.

In a broad Jamaican drawl, he welcomed us to his wonderful country of Great Britain. Bob Marley recognised the new normality of our poly-tinted South African group and respected our President’s request that we should pass freely without let or hindrance. Something the said President’s own employees wouldn’t do. And for their information, Bushbuckridge is in South Africa. So is Colenso. Just.

It was cold. We wanted to go home, but we wondered whether the Sotho jelly baby at OR Tambo would let all of us back in. Or just the Pale Ones. Or maybe just the Dark Ones. We’d give it two weeks and find out.