What Comrade’s Marathon fan (let alone runner) hasn’t heard of the torturous Botha’s Hill overlooking KwaZulu-Natal’s Valley of a Thousand Hills. But sit back, relax. The eponymous town is quite the peaceful, scenic spot…
Words: Andrea Abbott
Pictures: Andrea Abbott and Supplied
The town of Botha’s Hill, gateway to the Valley of a Thousand Hills in KwaZulu-Natal, is rooted in routes. The first of these passageways was the wagon trail the Voortrekkers carved in 1838 on their journey to the coast.
A booklet called A History of Botha’s Hill, issued in 1981 by the Local History Research Unit of the town’s illustrious school, Kearsney College, documents that the Trekkers’ course ‘almost certainly led them down Botha’s Hill more or less where the Old Main Road now runs.’ The research team also established that the eponymous Botha was Cornelius, a one-time harbour master of Port Natal, who in 1851 registered an inn – Botha’s Halfway House – near the steep and winding hill.
The next significant route was the railway that reached the town in 1879 and became the main line linking the gold fields to the port of Durban. While it’s no longer the chief rail route to the Highveld, it is one of the oldest active railways in South Africa, thanks to the day trips that Umgeni Steam Railway operates between Kloof and Inchanga. The section of the line approaching Botha’s Hill in both directions is especially scenic, but the little Victorian station building stands derelict, the victim of vandalism and neglect.
The R103, aka Old Main Road, that passes through the town was also once a major route between Durban and Johannesburg but lost that status when the N3 was built. Although bypassed, Botha’s Hill didn’t fade into obscurity. The benign climate – said to be among the healthiest in the world – and the grand views of those thousand hills have long attracted day trippers who head inland to escape the coastal mugginess while exploring the pitstops en route.
Botha’s Hill has an especially diverse mix of amenities. Here are some, beginning at the crest of the hill. Woza Moyo/Embocraft is a hub of creativity where you can find outstanding handcrafted items like magnificent beaded ottomans, jewellery, and fine art. ‘Value from our hands’, is the motto of the Embocraft Training Centre that runs courses in welding, woodworking, sewing and computer literacy for unemployed people. “In addition to the learning, each person goes away with a tool kit so that they can start their own small business,” says coordinator, Linda Venton.
Continuing along Old Main Road and through the rather shabby commercial centre of town, you’ll pass the erstwhile Rob Roy Hotel. Once known for the scones and tea served on the lawn overlooking the Valley, it’s been developed into an extensive retirement village, any cream teas now private affairs.
Next up is Talloula, a favourite wedding and functions venue that incorporates Treat Café. One of the few destinations without a valley view, it overlooks instead the railway line. “Guests love it when the train chugs past,” says co-owner, Louis Gordon who, with Glynnis Dirksen, opened the establishment four years ago. “The restaurant was an afterthought,” Louis adds. “We provided accommodation for bridal parties then realised we needed a dining facility.” Treat Café has exceeded all expectations. “Many regulars have become our friends,” says Glynnis.
Across the road is a veritable institution called the Pot and Kettle. “It was a tiny café when I bought it 21 years ago,” says Heidi Devitt. “The kitchen couldn’t cope with more than ten breakfasts.” Considerably extended, the restaurant often caters for groups such as vintage car clubs.
“People come not just for the views but for the old-fashioned food. Everything is home-made.” Attached to the restaurant is The Pot and Barrel pub, popular among locals for its burger and beer specials. A brute of a cactus guards the entrance, making me think of a Wild West bar. It’s an appropriate analogy: Botha’s Hill lies in the Outer West region of eThekwini Municipality.
A short stroll through the car park, at the 1000 Hills Arts and Crafts Village, where quirky little shops occupy thatched rondavels, is the Puzzle Place. Here a sign cautions: ‘Attempting these puzzles could be detrimental to your self-esteem’. “People don’t take time out to exercise their brains,” says puzzle maker, Ian Courtney. His hand-cut wooden puzzles are hugely challenging and exercise “every aspect of the brain.” The 3D ones are extra cruel and each is unique. The trickiest is the Gordian Knot. I buy one for my husband, and take a photograph of the disclaimer.
A few metres on, turn right down Wootton Avenue to find the 1000 Hills Chef School and the Porcupine Quill Brewing Company. In addition to the school and brewery (a member of the East Coast Brewers Association), there is a top-notch deli-restaurant that’s open to the public at weekends for breakfast, light lunch (and the best pizzas) and beer tasting. “The intention is to train students to the highest standards,” says marketing manager, Kirstie Leeper. Those exacting standards are evident in the excellent cheeses, charcuterie, pastries, cakes and other delectable goodies stocked in the deli and made by the budding chefs.
“We’re also hugely proudly of our senior lecturer, Jade van der Spuy,” says Kirstie. “She scooped the 2015 Unilever Food Solutions Chef of the Year award.” No wonder then that the gourmet dinners held on the first Thursday of the month are always booked out well in advance.
Across the road is the recently opened Shunyata Sanctuary, a soulful place where you can enjoy a nourishing meal at the Sacred Bean Café while taking in one of the best views along the Thousand Hills route. “Shunyata is Sanskrit for ‘emptiness’,” says proprietor, Matthew Wilson.
“We’re not spiritually aligned with any movement. The idea is simply that people come here to empty themselves of stress and to find wellness.” Matt’s a horticulturalist. One of his goals is to establish a medicinal herbal centre at Shunyata. His wife Kaz is a nutritionist and Iyengar yoga teacher. “We’re planning wellness events such as yoga workshops and Nia dancing (a stress-release technique).”
I watch a heron doing a sort of dance on the wooden railings that edge the lawn. He seems in a trance, like someone lost in meditation. Or perhaps he’s hunting, which isn’t appropriate as the café serves only vegetarian food, including mushroom ‘biltong’ that, I’m told, meat eaters can’t tell from the real thing.
Back on Old Main Road heading north, I find PheZulu Safari Park whose many attractions include a reptile park, game drives, restaurants, craft shops, and Zulu dancing and cultural displays. “Small reserves like this are vital,” says general manager Tristan Dickerson. “Many people don’t have the means to go to large parks. But at more accessible peri-urban reserves like PheZulu we provide a bush experience that could win hearts and minds for Nature.”
And talking of winning hearts and minds, Tristan is the man behind the Furs for Life project that is saving the leopard population in Southern Africa.
Our last stop is a few miles out of town at Drummond, the halfway mark of the route most famously associated with Botha’s Hill: the Comrades Marathon. For much of its 90 kilometres, the race follows Old Main Road, taking in torturous ups and downs, including the notorious Big Five Hills – Polly Shortts, Inchanga, Botha’s Hill, Fields and Cowies.
“It’s here where hearts are broken,” says Doreen Squires, general manager of the Intaba View Restaurant, formerly Valley View Restaurant, another landmark destination with the kind of views property agents describe as ‘to die for.’
“Runners have pounded the road for something like 40 kilometres; the gun is fired at 11h30 and even for those who are just a second late, it’s the end.”
Never mind. They can drown their sorrows in the Drum and Bell country pub and restaurant while reflecting on whether it really matters if their names go up on the Comrades Wall of Honour, a short way along the road in the direction of Botha’s Hill.