Geluksburg hides deep in the Drakensberg
When Stanford’s food magician Mariana Esterhuizen and her husband, Peter, searched all corners of the Western Cape in the early 1980s for a wholesome place to settle, one question remained at the top of their criteria: “How would we feel about this place at six o’clock on a Sunday evening when the wind is blowing?”
Well, when you drive into Geluksburg on a parched and melancholy Sabbath in September, it truly feels as if the goddess of fortune and her underlings have forgotten all about this small huddle of houses, situated at the foot of the Ntintwa Mountain between the Oliviershoek and Van Reenens Passes. You’re a mere 30km from the N3, 27km from Bergville and 47km from Ladysmith, but it feels as though you’ve been transported to another solar system, one where the 171 inhabitants (according to the 2011 census) appear to have vanished in The Rapture the night before. For example, the orange trees in their back gardens are groaning under the weight of the fruit, but piles of it lie rotting on the ground.
As you wait for the first summer rains, feeling slightly despondent about the usually lush green landscape and majestic mountains that are now brown and yellow and thirsty, you eventually notice some signs of life: on a street corner, a tongue of smoke spirals out of a smouldering drum towards the pale-blue heavens.
Flies and bluebottles circle a few piles of cattle dung. Somewhere in the distance a rooster crows, a sheep bleats and a turtle dove calls. Way over there, three cows reluctantly chew the cud for lunch. Then a skinny dog comes running along, with a herd of dusty cattle hot on his heels. They’re closely followed by >
a bicycle transporting two young girls who must have escaped
Redhead Genie Louwrens has lived in Geluksburg since birth. Her mother, Joey, is the village butcher and biscuit baker, she says, and her father is the mechanic. She and Jessica Human, her friend and cycling partner, attend school in Bergville. They get a lift at 06:45 every morning with Genie’s aunt, who teaches Afrikaans there.
What does everyone else in town do on Sunday afternoons when the wind is blowing? “They are probably resting,” says Jessica, “because here you can rest whenever you want to.”
“Geluksburg is a wonderful place,” they continue. “Although it doesn’t look like it, there’s a lot to do here.”
“Well, we cycle, we walk around, we listen to music, or you could play hockey or netball or soccer. Geluksburg has its own soccer team – Mighty City. Oh, and on Saturdays we pick up rubbish in the streets.” THE VILLAGE was apparently founded in 1908, according to retired couple Philip and Bernice Gavin, a former engineer and teacher who immigrated from Scotland in 1975 so that Philip could assist with the construction of the Kriel power station. In 1984 they purchased six stands with a rickety old farmhouse in Geluksburg, but only moved here in 1992 and, “without any plan”, started building what is today known as The Homestead. It’s a three-star guesthouse that opened its doors on April Fool’s Day in 1995 and has been managed by their daughter, Pennie Human, since 2012.
“It seems there were plans for a place called Geluksburg as far back as 1908,” says Philip, “but World War I meant it was never proclaimed. In the 1930s there was another flickering but then World War II put paid to those plans. I think it was only in the 1980s that something really started to happen here. Not much, of course. But something. You wouldn’t believe it, but a lot of houses have been built over the past 30 years. I’d say the growth rate must be around 1 000%!”
Former farmer and insurance broker Geoff Lake and his wife, Ina, the local estate agent, confirm Philip’s story. They arrived here in 2004 after having lived in Ugie in the Eastern Cape, as well as Wellington, Lanseria, Bronkhorstspruit, Carolina, Belfast, Pretoria and Palm Beach.
“It was in Palm Beach that we realised we are mountain people, because after two-and-a-half years beside the water, we’d had enough of the sea and the salt and the rust. So we bought here with the idea that it would be a halfway house, and now look: we have Gina’s Self-catering and we can accommodate 56 people in the chalets and huts, as well as 25 campers – from school groups to motorbike clubs.
“When Geluksburg was proclaimed and 310 residential stands were demarcated, people were so poor that government promised residents they wouldn’t have to pay any tax or submit building plans. Of course this concession
attracted many down-on-their-luck folks, but in 2004 the municipality changed its tune without consulting residents. Since then we’ve had to pay property tax to the Okhahlamba Municipality, which manages Bergville, Cathkin Park, Champagne Castle, Geluksburg, Hlolela, Mount-AuxSources, Van Reenen, Winterton, Wyford and Zunckels. The thing is: we have no service delivery and we don’t want it – we’ve been doing without it for years.”
These days increasing numbers of city dwellers, particularly from Gauteng and Durban, are buying stands here. These are still ridiculously cheap, says Ina, because Geluksburg is only a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Johannesburg and about three hours from Durban. Although there aren’t many new residents who live here full time, the weekend and holiday visitors tend to have more money than most of the local residents, which is slowly helping Geluksburg to pull up its socks.
One local after another points out the wonderful work that the nongovernment organisation Sportstec is doing. Sportstec started the Geluksburg Centre, which includes a crèche, a digital centre where kids and teachers are given access to excellent training and healthcare material, and a range of sporting activities are also offered, with the goal of improving school attendance figures and results – and it’s worked. >
However, what hasn’t improved, says Pennie Human of The Homestead, is the ring road you turn onto from the R616, which connects Bergville and Ladysmith. You soon realise that by “not improved”, she means “hasn’t been tarred”. She admits that it’s only her, the Lakes and one or two other residents who make a living from tourism, who’d like the road tarred to make the village more accessible.
“I understand why most residents want things to remain as they are. The fact that it’s quiet and remote, and the dirt road that complicates matters for criminals are the main reasons why many people have moved here,” she says.
Pennie adds that there are plenty of other reasons too: here she can find farm-fresh eggs and milk, an abundance of silence, and even a decent massage. And every six weeks she escapes to Ladysmith, Newcastle or Volksrust for “hair, nails, shopping, wine and a non-Geluksburg type of sanity”!
Her parents, who’ve never regretted their move to this country, “forgive South Africa and Geluksburg anything remotely negative” because the fantastic weather makes up for everything.
Eighty-year-old Kay Thorne, who bought a house in the village in 2000 and moved here from Mount Edgecombe in 2007, says she feels safe, at peace and deeply satisfied in Geluksburg.
“It’s an incredible privilege to live so close to nature – and there’s no crime, although they did steal six big bags of pecan nuts from my back stoep last year, which was quite a big loss for me. I’m officially retired but run the coffee shop to keep myself busy and meet interesting people. Otherwise I read a lot and watch television, and on Wednesday afternoons the women of the village gather for the Knitterknatter Club meetings where we knit and gossip up a storm.
“I don’t have transport so sometimes I wish I was closer to doctors, supermarkets, butchers… But, you know, I’m happy here – and that’s more than most can say.
“People who are unhappy by nature shouldn’t come searching for happiness in Geluksburg because they won’t find it here. This is a place for people who understand that happiness can only be found inside themselves.”