TOUR­ING Hills alive be­hind Van Ree­nen’s

Saturday Star - - LIFESTYLE - WILLEM VAN DE PUTTE

HANDS up any­one who’s driven to or from Kwazulu-natal and at the top of Van Ree­nen’s Pass has given a cur­sory glance to the turn-off to the vil­lage of Van Ree­nen and car­ried on with­out giv­ing it a sec­ond thought.

Most peo­ple, I’m sure. I don’t and whether I need to re­fill or not I stop for a re­fresh­ment for a cou­ple of rea­sons, one of them be­ing that I’m not a huge fan of over­priced, taste­less, un­der­cooked and crowded fran­chise food re­fu­elling con­glom­er­ates.

I’ve of­ten won­dered what lay be­yond the garage but never thought to ven­ture too far past it. That was un­til an in­vi­ta­tion came to spend a week­end at Oak­lands Coun­try Manor and, while there, drive some of the orig­i­nal Drak­ens­berg passes with his­to­rian and au­thor Gillis van Schalk­wyk.

I’m noth­ing if not a sucker for a road trip so a call to the good peo­ple at Ford re­sulted in a brand-new Ranger Wild­trak de­liv­ered to the of­fice, per­fect for long stretches of tar and off-the­beaten-track dirt roads.

The wind gods were hav­ing a blast, most of it head-on, all the way to our des­ti­na­tion, with a num­ber of im­pres­sive whirl­winds mov­ing across the earth, and I couldn’t help won­der­ing whether per­haps this was a metaphor for the land ex­pro­pri­a­tion with­out com­pen­sa­tion pol­icy that we seem to be head­ing for.

Box that de­press­ing dis­cus­sion for a dif­fer­ent day be­cause as we turned in to the prop­erty it im­me­di­ately gave the im­pres­sion of tran­quil­lity with rolling green polo lawns, leafy trees and a manor over­look­ing the prop­erty.

A warm wel­come and stroll through the manor with its eclec­tic dec­o­rat­ing, fire­places, paint­ings, old pho­tos, com­fort­able couches and free roam­ing dogs im­me­di­ately put you at ease and ready to … well, do noth­ing but soak up the views, have a sun­downer and put your feet up be­hind the oak for­est, which was planted orig­i­nally to build and re­pair ox wag­ons that car­ried goods and ma­chin­ery up the orig­i­nal pass to the Highveld.

The rooms are all lux­u­ri­ous, metic­u­lously clean and range from ac­com­mo­da­tion for a fam­ily through to a gar­den room for two, where we stayed.

Proper down du­vets, a fire­place, wall heater (in­clud­ing the bath­room) and elec­tric blan­kets speak to ro­man­tic, cold win­ter week­ends.

Be­ing spring it was a bit warmer with only a slight chill in the air as Si­mon, one of the owners’ fam­ily mem­bers, ex­plained the evening’s din­ner menu to guests en­joy­ing a drink on the pa­tio.

All food is lo­cally sourced and or­ganic, in­clud­ing whey cul­tures that are pro­duced on the farm.

While the dec­o­ra­tion may be eclec­tic to some, the food with some su­perb, el­e­gant and in­ter­est­ing twists was right on point (there’s al­ways a veg­e­tar­ian op­tion avail­able) and some of the best I have tasted in­clud­ing in Paris, where I found my­self a day af­ter leav­ing Oak­lands Coun­try Manor.

While I don’t have small chil­dren, I ap­pre­ci­ated the fact that they en­cour­age guests to bring the kids, with enough ac­tiv­i­ties to keep them oc­cu­pied, as well as baby-sit­ting should mom and dad want some “us” time.

They also have a pol­icy of train­ing their own lo­cal staff into man­age­ment rather than bring­ing in “out­siders”, and since that de­ci­sion their staff turnover has dropped sig­nif­i­cantly.

We met Van Schalk­wyk and a host of fel­low in­ter­ested peo­ple out­side the Green Lan­tern Inn (you couldn’t have missed that sign on your N3 trav­els) for a short briefing.

The passes are: Nor­man­dine Pass, Collings Pass, De Beer’s Pass and Van Ree­nen’s Pass, in­clud­ing the his­tor­i­cal Wy­ford, then Olivier­shoek Pass, Retief Pass in­clud­ing the Kaalvoet Vrou and Retief Stone, Bezuiden­hout’s Pass and Tintwa Pass, in­clud­ing the for­got­ten vil­lage of Geluks­burg.

The drive over two days cov­ers eight passes and you re­turn to your orig­i­nal ac­com­mo­da­tion af­ter com­plet­ing each day.

There’s not nearly enough space to take you through ev­ery­thing and de­scribe the spec­tac­u­lar views, but if you have even an inkling of in­ter­est in the area or the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of early set­tlers, sex­ual shenani­gans of the time, trans­port riders, and pre-set­tler com­ings and go­ings, then Van Schalk­wyk’s book, Drak­ens­berg Passes, is a must. He also sorts fact from fic­tion and tells in­ter­est­ing tit­bits through­out the tour, in­clud­ing the many bat­tles that took part in the area dur­ing the An­glo-boer War.

We re­turned to the lux­ury and splen­dour of Oak­lands Coun­try Manor for more sun­down­ers, while watch­ing the Spring­boks score a sat­is­fy­ing win over the Aussies, and a bril­liant meal capped what was pretty much a per­fect day.

The Ranger Wild­trak’s com­fort with three adults and a pic­nic bas­ket packed by the manor staff con­trib­uted largely to this as well, and while you don’t need a 4x4 or cli­mate control to cover the var­i­ous routes, be­ing able to do 300km on dirt in a 4x4 makes driv­ing so much eas­ier and safer.

So, next time you zoom to­wards the top of the pass, make a plan and take a sho’t left to­wards Oak­lands Coun­try Manor. You will not be dis­ap­pointed. You can find them on Face­book or their web­site www.oak­lands.co.za

Con­tact Gillis van Schalk­wyk on his­to­ry­with­[email protected] or 078 127 9627.

THE Ranger Wilk­trak makes off-the-beaten-track tour­ing in an area like the Drak­ens­berg a breeze.

2018 Sum­mer Hair Col­lec­tion, com­edy, hair-art fash­ion, live per­for­mance, goody bag, food & drinks.

GILLIS van Schalk­wyk ex­plains some of the in­ter­est­ing facts and fig­ures next to part of the orig­i­nal Van Ree­nen’s Pass that car­ried hun­dreds of heav­ily laden ox wag­ons ev­ery month.

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