The sandstone mountains surrounding the Little Caledon Valley are strikingly beautiful and beg to be hiked. But, as Fiona McIntosh discovers, the area has a sinister history
Pictures: Shaen Adey
A work trip to the Eastern Free State last year had me searching the web for a weekend escape. My attention was caught by the rather gory-sounding Cannibal Trail on the St Fort farm near Clarens, where, legend has it, cannibals kept captives in one of many caves.
“It’s not just legend,” farm owner Ernestine Goldblatt assured me when I enquired further. “Talk to Peter. He’s a fundi on the area who’ll tell you all about the cannibals.”
Intrigued, I emailed Peter Howard, an amateur historian who was a treasure trove of information. He had learnt of the area’s dramatic history from research and from the horrific experience of an elderly Sotho lady, Letlotlo, who had escaped from the cannibals and was later employed by the first permanent owners of St Fort, Alexander Walker and his family.
“In the early 1800s, when war and conflict were common among the tribes in the Little Caledon Valley, a small group was cut off from their main group,” Peter explained. “Under attack from other roving bands, they scaled the rectangular mountain adjacent to Mushroom Rock, which they then used as a fortress, repulsing their foes by dropping stones on their heads. But after being besieged for weeks, they were overcome by starvation and thirst.”
Peter described how they resorted to cannibalism through utter desperation. “Initially no outright butchery took place; they dined only on those who had died of starvation. But by the time their besiegers eventually departed, the group had grown accustomed to eating human flesh and, according to legend, went out of their way to take captives, interring them in a small cave with the intention of fattening them up and slaughtering them when the need arose.” Peter said this Prison Larder, as it came to be called, had one small entrance, which could be easily guarded but opened into a large cavern that could hold several prisoners.
Letlotlo confirmed this was no legend. As a young girl she had been incarcerated in the holding cave and would have been eaten had she been able to put on weight. Fortunately, one of the sentries fell in love with her and covertly fed her on choice marog (wild spinach) and other nutritious foods, so that she remained skinny but healthy. Together they planned an escape and slipped away one night and safely crossed into the open territory of present-day Lesotho.
A lifetime later, after her husband had died and her children were grown up and no longer living at home, Letlotlo, approaching her 80th birthday, decided to return to St Fort despite the memories, and seek a safe place to live out her days. There she was befriended by Marion, Alexander Walker’s eldest daughter, a fluent Sotho speaker who spent hours documenting Letlotlo’s horrific story before recounting the details to Peter.
I mused over the chilling tale as we drove in to St Fort. It was late May and the hills were dusted with snow that sharply accentuated the rock bands in the sandstone cliffs. “The Prison Larder, or Cannibal Cave, is secreted in one of those high bands,” said Ernestine as she showed us to the very comfortable converted barn that is the hikers’ base camp. “But you won’t pass it on the trail.”
If the history was interesting, the scenery we awoke to in the morning was mind-blowing. We’d seen one of the iconic landforms, Mushroom Rock, as we drove in, and the extremely well-marked circular trail was cleverly designed to showcase other wind- and weather-sculpted formations that typify the landscape in this strikingly beautiful corner of the Free State.
From base camp we climbed steeply over exposed rock, before contouring around for a tea break at a waterfall – Batwing Falls – so named for its resemblance to the wings of a bat. The path crossed the falls before a short climb out of the valley onto a flat section of grassland. The trail wound through diverse landscapes, taking us through ice-frosted leafy glades, over great, bare slabs of rock and along a forested stream to a big swimming hole – the ideal spot for lunch. An exciting traverse beneath five large overhangs, which housed the remains of kraals and rock paintings, popped us out onto the top of the plateau.
My eyes scanned the landscape for the Cannibal Cave. Peter had given few clues to its whereabouts, telling us just that Alexander Walker had discovered the well-hidden grotto in the upper rock strata in 1875 and, knowing nothing of its history, called it Leopard’s Lair. The cave ‘mouth’ was actually only a fissure through which an average person could squeeze with difficulty, before dropping down some two or three metres into a black void.
The Walkers were to make use of the caves themselves during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, when they were relocated to the cold Hlotse tented camp in Lesotho, following Kitchener’s scorched earth policy. Knowing that their irreplaceable spades, axes and other tools, along with household crockery, cutlery, clothing and other possessions, would be lost or stolen during their forced absence, they stashed as much as they could in Leopard’s Lair beforehand, trudging furtively up the valley in the dead of night as they carried these goods wrapped in blankets. After the cessation of hostilities, the family returned to the cave and retrieved their belongings which, once cleaned of dassie and bat droppings, were restored to their rightful place on the farm.
As we started the descent from the plateau, a large overhang came into view; clearly not the Cannibal Cave. Oh no. We hikers did not have to endure cramped quarters, and Mike’s Cave, the overnight shelter, is a real treat. The overhang, which boasts some well-preserved rock paintings, is well protected from the elements, and the nearby hut (in which the mattresses are stored) has flush toilets, showers and a kitchen. Firewood and braai grids are provided so it’s worth paying a few extra bucks to have your bags delivered – not only will it save your back, but it means you can wine and dine in style.
The route of the second day was perhaps even more spectacular than that of the first. It took us high onto the plateau and along the edge of the escarpment, from where there were far-reaching views of the surrounding snowy peaks Mt Horeb, Woodhouse, Generaalskop, Visierskerf and George’s Pimple. After a steep descent to the valley floor, one section of which is aided by a 125-rung wooden ladder, we followed a mountain stream through a pretty valley to the Little Caledon River.
At only seven kilometres, this is a short day, but Ernestine had insisted that we detour to visit Mushroom Rock so, just before we crossed the river for the second time, we dumped our packs and headed out on the three-kilometre return hike. How right she was, it was one of the highlights of the weekend, a magnificent section of trail that took us up and down through steeply eroded sandstone gullies and rock chambers before the steep final scramble up to the dramatic landform.
As I sat in the shade of the mushroom, I reflected on Letlotlo’s gruesome experience. There must be many more stories about the cannibals who once roamed these hills.