Hidden gem the smallest place in South Africa with a postal code? Have you heard of Val,
While most platteland hotels have been dying a slow, quiet death these past few decades, one such establishment has become the lifeblood of a Mpumalanga hamlet. The Val Hotel is a place of feasting, drinking, talking, laughing, crying, socialising… and, above all, living.
Few things are as spectacular to behold as a Highveld thunderstorm. It begins as a restlessness on the horizon. The brooding starts in the early afternoon with a wind that chases the clouds – high, high, into the pale blue sky, like a litter of Maltese poodle puppies, eyes closed, tumbling over each other to reach the last free teat. There’s an iciness to the stirring, and then, when the first deep rumble erupts, a dark greyness starts to enfold the white cotton wool and, before long, serious drama ensues: Lightning flashes. Seconds later, thunderclaps. Wind. And rain. Cats and dogs.
A scene exactly like this played out this afternoon in Val, the smallest hamlet in South Africa to have a postal code (2425). It’s not the first rain of the season –it’s already green in this part of the world – but it’s the first big rain, the type of storm that makes every farmer beam from ear to ear.
On the stoep of the Val Hotel, a few young chaps wearing shorts are watching the spectacle. Their smiles speak of pure joy, because they have just finished sowing this very afternoon. Now, the maize and soya will start to grow in the fertile red soil of Mpumalanga.
“We’re going to tie you guys to a pole today,” says Johann Pistorius, who is holding a double brandy and Coke. “You’ve brought us such fantastic rain; we’re going to have to keep you here.”
Inside, in the Moeggeploeg Bar, it’s busy and convivial. Nico Bierman and his wife, Orika, are there. Nico has his own small cloud hanging over him, because he didn’t finish sowing before the rain came. “I just needed another half-day…” Over there are the Kerslake brothers Norman and Monty (“They are big farmers” and “Monty… he’s a f— fast bowler!”), and their wives, both speech therapists with offices in Standerton and Secunda.
There’s Debbie Thixton, who lives in Greylingstad but manages the shop and museum next to the bar. She’s here with her partner, Stephen Barrow. And there’s well-known newspaper and sports photographer Wessel Oosthuizen, who was in the area this afternoon and decided to spend the night at the hotel. Wessel, now 76, was raised in Val and frequently hears its call from his one-bedroom flat in Allen’s Nek, Roodepoort.
There’s Kotie Mostert, a teacher with a keen interest in history. She’s enjoying a beer after driving through from Balfour specially to join the Val residents, who are getting ready to watch themselves on TV – there is big excitement about the insert on Val that’s being broadcast on Authentiek, Matthys Roets and Danie Niehaus’s travel programme on SABC2.
“Something to drink?” asks a young man beside me. “Yes, a G&T please. A single,” I request in Afrikaans.” “Oh no, here we only pour doubles. An enkel is something we break!” YOU MAY WONDER WHY Val still exists. Remember, this is the Mpumalanga
Highveld. The region is pocked with power stations and corruption, with towns giving up the ghost one after the other – including places just around the corner, like Balfour, Greylingstad and Standerton.
You don’t see much when you look around you. In Smith Street, a cul-desac that ends at the police station, you will find only the hotel; the former Post Office building; the Church of St Francis of Assisi, a lovely interdenominational church where people from the city sometimes come to tie the knot; and the cemetery. On the other side of the railway line, parallel with Smith Street, runs Elizabeth Street, also a dead end. The two streets are not connected at any point; you have to drive back to the main road, double back a few hundred metres and then take the exit at the Latib Janoo & Son shop, which, it turns out, is deserted. Mr Janoo left several years ago following an attack.
In Elizabeth Street you will find only the former primary school; a general dealer; a bottle store; the silos; and the co-op, AFGRI Agri Services.
But it’s the total number of residents that will have you scratching your head: apart from the flock of geese patrolling the streets, only 12 people live here permanently. At one point Val was semi-famous for being the safest town in South Africa because it was also home to 28 policemen. They no longer live here, but you will frequently spot a police van crawling down the street with a hand waving out of the window.
Not even the train – the Shosholoza Meyl shoots past on its twice-daily trips between Johannesburg and Durban – stops here any more.
So why is Val not a ghost town? Because one special person arrived in the hamlet and made a difference by administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation: Rita Britz, a woman blessed with equal amounts of intelligence, energy, creativity and positivity. Rita has family roots in the area, and a keen interest in the history and marketing of the town. It’s Rita who has gathered the locals at >
the bar tonight to watch the broadcast of Authentiek.
She and her husband, André, who has worked at Sasol Mining for 39 years, are the reason Val is still going strong, specifically over weekends. On Friday evenings, locals and young farmers come here to enjoy a meal and to catch up; on Saturday mornings the cyclists arrive for breakfast; and Sundays belong to the bikers, who come here for the traditional Sunday lunch – Rita warns you need to book four days in advance. City dwellers get married at the hotel (Joburg is only 90 minutes’ drive away). And various clubs hold their meetings here – Platteland spotted a garden club from Standerton on the stoep. RITA AND ANDRÉ bought the hotel at the dawn of the new South Africa. “The weekend before the first democratic election, I read in the Standerton local paper that the Val Hotel was being sold at an auction,” says Rita.
She remembers the auction as if it were yesterday. “It took place on 6 July 1994. It was icy cold. The only people there were me, the sheriff, the guy from Boland Bank, and Tannie Sybil who owned the hotel until some time in the Seventies. Homeless people were using it as a shelter and it was in a terrible state – the people were lighting fires in drums on the wooden floor.”
Rita says the sheriff started at R1 500. “We went up and up and up, but then the Boland Bank man stopped and was silent at R18 000. And then it was mine.” She laughs. “Suddenly I owned a hotel!”
So many people said, “Are you completely crazy? Who is going to come to this godforsaken place?”
But Rita had a vision and a plan. “We gave notice to the homeless people and in January 1995 started fumigating and renovating. I made my own sheets and curtains, and on 23 August 1995 we opened up with four rooms. And invited the locals to a meal.”
Later, in 2003, they bought the butchery next door, as well as the shop that sold sorghum beer – the drunks had been driving them crazy. Five years ago, they built the stoep and the >