A mere hop from some of the biggest urban development in South Africa, the Bronkhorstspruit area is an easy getaway for stressed-out Gautengers
It’s a bright weekend morning and a group of yuppie bikers has just arrived at the local café on their breakfast-run. Out in the adjacent sculpture garden, a group of visitors admires a giant 7m-high sculpture called Faith. At the nearby dam, boaters and water skiers are out in force, while a few kilometres away a bass fisherman is testing his skill on one of a succession of oxbow lakes.
It’s hard to imagine that all this is playing out less than 45 minutes’ drive from Pretoria’s sprawling Menlyn Park Shopping Centre and the equally popular East Rand Mall, in the shadow of OR Tambo International Airport.
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Take a walk through an artist’s garden
Indeed, Bronkhorstspruit Dam and the neighbouring town of Bronkhorstspruit seem a world away from the big-city bustle, as we wander through the extensive gardens of the Anton Smit Sculpture Park, taking in the imposing Faith, which depicts a man looking up to Heaven. It’s just one of many spectacular works created by Anton in his local workshop and placed on display here.
The two-hectare space has been in development for the past 16 years, since Anton and his wife Roeline first relocated from Pretoria. It has been transformed from a once largely derelict piece of land into a landscaped park with hundreds of trees, artworks that change constantly, and places to sit, chill or enjoy a picnic. If you’re lucky you may even find Anton busy in his on-site workshop.
“This park has been a lifelong ambition; the idea was to create something that won’t be taken apart if I’m not around anymore. So it’s a permanent sculpture park that displays my work and probably, in future, my son Lionel’s work too,” Anton says. “I love it at the dam. It’s just far enough away from Pretoria to not be in town.”
Internationally renowned and constantly travelling and exhibiting, he’s made his home on a hill overlooking the dam and says he ended up there because of a dream. “I’ve always dreamed of living on the top of a cliff looking down on water. I thought I would have to move to the Transkei to achieve that. Then I found this place.”
Along the water’s edge a number of lifestyle estate developments in the planning may mean that, with time, this place will have more of a bustling Hartbeespoort Dam-style ‘dormitory town’ feel to it. But, for the moment, it still feels far from the madding urban crowds. However, there are enough visitors and locals to encourage businesses of all kinds to invest here.
Grab a bite to eat
One of these, in a corner of the sculpture park, is the Imagine Café, which serves a mixture of contemporary food and boerekos six days a week. “People are drawn here by the natural beauty, the hills, the open areas and the good climate. It seldom drops below ten degrees because the water controls the temperature,” says owner George Prinsloo, a former industrial psychologist who worked in various far-flung corners of the globe before he and wife Mirrie decided to settle here and embrace their passion for food.
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Meet the studs of Bronkhorstspruit
A business that’s driven by passion of a different kind is the Strydom Arabian Stud, on the main road to Bronkhorstspruit Dam, where you are welcome to drop in to the stud to see some of the horses – and hopefully a foal or two – and picnic in the grounds. The stud has gained a national and international reputation for breeding Arabian horses that are sold to breeders and enthusiasts throughout South Africa, as well as in other parts of Africa and in Europe.
Remarkably, it also has a clientele in the Middle East. “At one time, Middle Eastern countries were exporting all their best Arabian stock,” explains owner and champion horsewoman Francisca Strydom. “Now they’ve realised their error and are importing so as to build their bloodlines again. The Arabian horse evolved in the deserts of the Middle East, where they were bred and raised by the Bedouins on the Arabian Peninsula. The Bedouin tribes can trace their common history with Arab horses back to 3000 BC.”
Hop on a boat
But the real attraction of Bronkhorstspruit Dam is the water. It has been enticing boaters, waterskiers, tube riders and caravanners since the halcyon era of the 70s, when the likes of Bronkhorstbaai and other resorts were a magnet for then-Transvaalers in their thousands.
These days, one of the few resorts offering easy access to the dam for campers and casual boaters is Kaia Manzi Resort, where we meet long-time owner Gerhard Fleischman. We ask him about the water quality in the dam and Gerhard admits that there’s a pollution problem, although not as significant as at some other Gauteng waterways.
“There is a community forum that’s addressing the pollution issue. Last week my son was out waterskiing and the visibility was good. I was comfortable with him being on the water.” Significantly, the dam lacks the water hyacinth problem that bedevils the likes of Hartbeespoort Dam.
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Catch a fish or two
But there’s more to the Bronkhorstspruit area than just the dam and surrounds. About 20km to the south is a series of oxbow lakes on the Osspruit River. At Oxbow Country Estate you can experience these beautiful lakes and try your hand at flyfishing bass and trout, in season.
“In summer the weather’s mild, but in winter there’s a Dullstroom or Midlands feel,” says Oxbow spokesperson Jade MacCallum. “We’re in a valley and get plenty of cold and frost. Temperatures can vary from -4 to -14.”
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See some game
Located 27km north of the town, off the R25 to Groblersdal, lies the Ezemvelo Nature Reserve. The name means ‘return to nature’ in Zulu and is not to be confused with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife operated by the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government. “The reserve is run by the non-profit Maharushi Institute, an international organisation dedicated to educating underprivileged youth. All profits generated here go back to the institute,” spokesperson Liezille Draper tells us.
At Ezemvelo there are leopard, hyena and giraffe, among other wildlife. It also has a rich diversity of bird, plant and insect species as a result of its location in a transition area (called an ecotone) between grassland and savannah. “Because elements of both biomes occur within the reserve, it creates outstanding bio-diversity,” Liezille explains.
Grab a drink
For a lifestyle experience of a different kind, head into Bronkhorstspruit town and the Sinkshack guest house and restaurant. The epicentre of local nightlife, it has been hosting live music five nights a week for nearly 12 years. “More than 1 000 bands and musicians have played here, everyone from Karen Zoid to Jack Hammer,” says owner Deon Volschenk, a tattooed and earinged former retail industry executive who opted for a lifestyle change and likes nothing more than hands-on interaction with the eclectic collection of patrons.
Sinkshack lives up to its name in that it’s made entirely of corrugated iron (sinkplaat in Afrikaans) and has a decidedly informal shack-like aura to it. “I built everything – the pub, guest house and backpackers. This place is unique,” enthuses Deon. Indeed it is.
Take time out to meditate
No visit to the town would be complete without a tour of the Nan Hua Buddhist Temple, a remarkably extensive and colourful complex that dominates the local skyline. Opened in 2005, it covers more than 18 000 hectares and serves the African headquarters of the Fo Guang Shan Humanistic Buddhist Order.
Based in Taiwan, the order has about two million followers and 190 temples worldwide. The name Nan Hua means ‘flower in the south’, and spectacular it really is.
But that applies to much of a town that, just a short drive from Pretoria, feels a world away.
Words Mike Simpson
Photography Jeanette Simpson (OlivePink Photography) and Supplied