Good Neighbours

Wild horses drag Chris Harvie to Kaapschehoop – but its antique charm and easy-going vitality keep him there for a while

The road from Nelspruit (Mbombela) leapt and lurched through seemingly endless steep uphill curves, leaving the Lowveld far behind in a haze of tantalising glimpses into the distant valleys around Barberton.

The roadsides were lined with pine trees, whilst above us, the deep blue sky was patched with great swathes of white cloud that became fog and rolled in and out over the edge of the escarpment.

Ahead, a line of chestnut brown horses emerged from a patch of mist. Kaapsche Hoop is famed for its wild horses, which number as many as 250. In fact, talking to the locals and looking at the fortifications they have built around their gardens, the horses, once a major attraction, have become something of a menace to the hydrangeas.

There are only 120-odd people living here. I say ‘odd’ in both senses of the word. There are approximately 120 people here, and they are, for the most part, unusual. It’s something of an artists’ hangout. A historical relic. A haven from the heat and hurry of nearby Nelspruit. And the only required security precautions are against the marauding equine population.

There are plenty of places to stay. We chose the off-beat Flintstones, a circular above-ground cave rondavel, complete with Neanderthal Jetmaster chimney and prehistoric rock Jacuzzi. If that’s not odd, I don’t know what is. We resisted the Jacuzzi for fear of finding underwater bubbling bones, but the house was an ideal base for a weekend of exploring.

An early fog-dodging wander along the ridge yielded a massive view southwards towards Barberton and over the mountains to Swaziland. The plateau is scattered with jutting rocks across open patches of horse-strewn grassland. A pair of seemingly oblivious klipspringers perched calmly on an outcrop. Larks, pipits and a range of impossible LBJs flitted from one rock to the next; their clicking wings the only sound on the Alpine air.

Following the overstated signs to TOWN, we returned to the hamlet. It’s not even a village. Apparently during the gold rush of the late 19th century, there were as many as a thousand people living here.

The old jail still stands alongside a couple of original dwellings, as does the post office, complete with red telephone box. Many of the older buildings are now dwarfed by modern shiny-tin walled monstrosities but the place still manages to retain an antique charm and an easy-going vitality.

In its heyday, there were as many as 50 watering holes in the dorp but that has been whittled down significantly. Breakfast at the excellent Bohemian Groove Café supplemented a fine scrambled egg on toasted soda bread with lovely peppery mushrooms in a creamy sauce. The mushrooms, we discovered, were ceps, picked in the pine forest that morning.

Thus fortified, we headed off on a longer route in search of the blue swallows which breed only here and in a couple of other remote parts in Mpumalanga and, deep into the trail, we came to the area’s other main draw: Adam’s Calendar, billed by its discoverers as “the oldest man-made structure on earth”.

A rather ordinary pair of solstice-aligned upright rocks in an uneven circle of about 40 metres across, the site is strangely closed to the public for renovation and thus only accessible with a bird guide. The abandoned mine claims, where the swallows nest, are anyway probably of more interest than the calendar itself.

The nearby stone ‘workshop’ does show signs that the rocks may have been ‘worked’ and that there may have been some Stone Age activity here but is hard to accept that this site dates back further than Stonehenge. In fact, to a passing amateur like me, the Mapungubwe era seems more likely.

Dinner at Bohemian Groove was a world-class lamb curry. Owners Charl and Andrea Böhm, both artists, have created a wonderfully simple thrown-together eclectic concept. There are candles for Africa and tables and chairs in no fewer than 15 completely different designs. Everything down to the chandeliers and candlesticks is of Charl’s own design.

All the art is for sale. The music is Sweef soos ’n Arend translated into French. It’s the kind of restaurant where you know you’ll have a good meal. And we certainly did.

The Böhms have only been in Kaapsche Hoop for a year so they too are still discovering the allure of the area. On their advice, the next morning, we went into the nearby Berlin plantation on our mountain bikes, stopping on the way to pick mushrooms.

En route back to our overnight cave, before winding our way back down the pass to the Lowveld, we looked in at the old Kaapsche Hoop Cemetery. As with all such far-flung places, every grave tells a story. Tragedy, war, sickness, hardship.

In a corner stands a gravestone which particularly caught our attention. Above the name and the dates stood a simple message. GOD NEEDED ANGLES. It might explain the number of sharp bends in the road to Kaapsche Hoop.

 

Where it is: On the southern detour off the old N4 past Nelspruit’s defunct airport.

Why go there: For cool, fresh mountain air and gentle breezes. For high-altitude walks. To see blue swallows. To fantasise about Stone Age rituals.

And the food: This is Mpumalanga so naturally, there are the ubiquitous plentiful pancakes and a pub. Bohemian Groove has a broad-ranging menu of country-style cooking, with vegetables and herbs from the garden. Don’t miss the cocktails or the chocolate vodka.

Getting there: Take Kaapsche Hoop Road for 25km out of Nelspruit or 12km from Ngodwana and follow the horses.

What there is to see on the way: Long views. Hundreds of locals searching for the Kruger Millions, rumoured to be hidden down a mineshaft. Manure on the tarmac.

Contact: Bohemian Groove Café. Open 9am – 8.30pm.S Sunday till 4pm. Closed Tuesdays and Thursdays. Tel 013 734 4545. Website www.bohemiangroovecafe.co.za. Flintstones may be booked through Bohemian Groove. Their website also gives a number of other accommodation options.