TOURING Hills alive behind Van Reenen’s
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.
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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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