Lost in The Mists of Tom

Chris Harvie revisits an old favourite near Sabie and finds a Zimbabwean food fundi.

The top of the Long Tom Pass is seemingly always either bathed in sunshine or shrouded in mist. There doesn’t seem to be an in-between option. And atop the top, almost, sits Misty Mountain in an arboretum of a garden where strangely-formed trees hang out amongst hydrangeas and azaleas, ducks and trout.

In the summer, Misty Mountain provides a cooler alternative to the sweltering Lowveld below; in the winter, it blazes with cosy log fires and the sweet smell of moss. But it always seems warm there even when there’s a frost outside. And there often is.

The hotel has been in the Sheard family since 1974 and although James and Lisa, the current generation in charge, have made significant upgrades, the feel is still that of an old-style country hotel, albeit now with a modern conference room and two bars, one with a plasma-screen television on the wall and both with a view into the valley a thousand metres below the window.

All the rooms are fully-geared for self-catering (although there’s a very fine breakfast on offer) and all have thick walls, high ceilings, Jetmasters, and decks or verandahs with a braai.

The beds are comfortable, with layers of warm linen and blankets. In fact Misty Mountain oozes comfort and doesn’t do plush at all. Just the way a country hotel should be. Kids welcome. Quad bikes for hire. Fishing rods. A ping pong table and a pool table. Two swimming pools, one of them tipping into the infinity of the Rhenosterhoek Valley. An Amazonian jungle gym and giant chess. All the best traditions of South African hospitality, geared to South Africans.

In the day, following the view to the south, the far-off mountains of Swaziland break the horizon in the distance beyond hundreds of square kilometres of pine trees. At night, a panoply of stars pricks the clear black sky above. There’s no light pollution here. In fact there’s no pollution at all.

The Long Tom cannon is just down the hill on the way to the Devil’s Knuckles. God’s Window, Mac-Mac Falls and Pilgrims Rest are right around the corner. It’s the Escarpment the way you remember it when you were down there for veldskool.

A walk in the garden and over the mountain, gulping the fresh low-oxygen air in search of breeding blue swallows, brings a flush to the cheeks. It’s practically Alpine up there and strongly appetite-inducing. It is lucky, then, that Misty Mountain has Cletos Chiteza, an accomplished Zimbabwean chef, to feed that need.

On the first night, I choose a delicious trout carpaccio from a nearby stream, followed by a lamb shank Madras. But it is a tough choice. I am tempted by the pea soup, the coq au vin, the venison and so it goes on. At my second dinner, Cletos insists that I have seafood crepe although it is not on the menu and I am glad he does. The prawns are perfectly prepared – very slightly crunchy – and the sauce is a triumph. I follow it with a tender beef fillet in a gorgeous creamy mustard sauce.

Cletos tells me proudly that he is self-taught. He says that the wonderful thing about poverty is that it makes you learn. Well, all I can say is that Cletos’s poverty has made him into a very good self-teacher.

And whether the mountains are misty or sunny, and whether you are rich or poor, there’s nothing like a family-run family hotel to remind you of the important things in life.

Where it is: Just below the highest point (2150m) of the Long Tom Pass 24km from Sabie and 31km from Lydenburg / Mashishing.

Why go there: For a reality check and proof that there are still hotels affordable to the South African traveller. Misty Mountain is clean, safe, good value and everybody-friendly.

What it has: 27 rooms, some sleeping two and others sleeping up to 6 people.
What to do on the way: Ogle the magnificent views from the climb up the pass from either side and marvel at the determination of the transport riders on the Old Harbour Road that carried them through these mountains to the Bushveld and on to Delagoa Bay

And the food: Cletos is just the goods. He is the proof in the pudding. Proof, in fact, that a bit of perceived poverty can bring out the best in everyone. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Nothing fancy but imaginative and tasty. Even if you are just passing, drop in for a meal.

Rates: R495 pp sharing B&B

Phone: 013 764 3377
Fax: 086 684 7843
Email: mistymtn@iafrica.com
Website: www.mistymountain.co.za