On the shortest, most scenic route between KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, Matatiele has rich pickings. A secret trout lake, birding specials and mountain highs are just some of them…
Words: Marion Whitehead
Pictures: Marion Whitehead and David Rawlins
We’re trawling the back roads between Matatiele and Cedarville, binos at the ready as we scan the fertile valley at the foot of the Southern Drakensberg for cranes. Fields of rich, irrigated pasture alternate with grassy veld, where flocks of fat Spur-winged Geese grub about for tasty morsels amid herds of bontebok and beef cattle. Then I spot a flock of Grey Crowned Cranes on a hillside. A couple begin a slow mating dance, all feathers and graceful steps, and my excitement grows.
There aren’t too many places in South Africa where you can spot all three species of cranes in one area. We’ve already passed bigger flocks of Blue Cranes on pastures beside the R56 than I ever imagined, but I’ve never seen a Wattled Crane in the wild. Two friendly farmers, cousins Gerrie Nel and Kobus Nel, have promised to take me to the most likely spots to tick this biggie off my lifer list.
“We have one of the richest bird diversities in South Africa,” says Kobus, who regularly helps with avian censuses. “My own count is about 300 species, excluding difficult ones like the Yellow-breasted Pipit, White-winged Flufftail and Rudd’s Lark.” These rarities are seldom seem, but Gerrie chirps in that one of his guests at Cedarberg Guest Farm actually got a photo of a Rudd’s Lark a couple of years ago.
A charming stone church materialises beside the road. “It’s known as ‘the English church’,” says Kobus, who’s also the local historian and amateur geologist. “St Mary’s Anglican Church was built in 1898 by the Smith family.” In the graveyard, we find headstones dedicated to the pioneers who settled in East Griqualand more than 100 years ago.
These rich grasslands are a stockman’s dream. “In 1936, the biggest cheese in the world at that time was made here for the Empire Exhibition in Joburg,” says Kobus. The old cheese factory lies in ruins, as beef cattle now dominate. ‘This is red meat country’, announces a large sign beside the main road.
But still the Wattled Crane remains elusive, so we take a scenic detour to see some rock paintings. Images of graceful antelope tumble down the rocks at the back of an overhang with a view up the valley. The cave is on private land and you need to know the farmer to arrange access, emphasise my farmer friends.
The next day, Gerrie and I take an early 4×4 drive to the Cedarberg peak after which his farm is named. At more than 1 900m, it’s the tallest point in the district and overlooks the hamlet of Cedarville on the flats below, offering views all the way to the Drakensberg.
Bumping along the track, we spot a herd of unusual white blesbok and zonkies mixed in with the zebras. “Ag, the male donkey got into the herd after the zebra stallion died,” explains Gerrie. On the peak, we wait for the early morning mist to reveal Cedarville and the Mzimvubu River meandering its leisurely way to the Indian Ocean. The clouds part just enough to give us a glimpse and then it’s back to the farmhouse for breakfast.
I head into the town of Matatiele to find out more about one of South Africa’s most successful community-run hiking trails. “There’s amazing scenery and rock pools to swim in along the Mehloding Hiking Trail,” says Tsepo Lesholu, who helped build the traditionally decorated huts to accommodate hikers in villages. He then became a guide and is now a trustee of the community organisation.
“We built the suspension bridges on the trail with funding from the Department of Tourism,” adds Tsepo. Next I go in search of the secret lake in the Matatiele Nature Reserve above the town. I probably wouldn’t know a Rudd’s Lark if it chirped right at me – the rare special was recorded here some years ago – but the guard at the gate says I need a permit costing R100 to enter, so I turn around and go check in at Resthaven Guesthouse.
Owner Philip Rawlins, who is also the local chairman of the Maloti-Drakensberg Route, explodes in annoyance at my abortive attempt to reach the secret lake. “There’s no entrance fee; it’s just fishing permits from the municipality that cost R100 for a year.”
He promptly takes me there, driving up the rutted gravel road in his Land Cruiser. The big natural lake literally is right at the top of a mountain plateau. “This is a place where you can get lost – or find yourself,” says Philip, who’s been playing in its waters since he was a lad.
Now his son David, a keen member of the Matatiele Angling Society, casts his line regularly from these shores, trying to lure rainbow and brown trout. “It’s my favourite place in the world,” he enthuses. “But it’s a hidden gem. Keen flyfishers drive past from Underberg to Maclear without realising there’s this amazing lake sitting at the top of the mountain.”
Another surprise attraction is Mariazell Mission in the fertile Ongeluks Valley to the west of the town. “It was an offshoot of the Mariannhill Trappist order near Durban,” explains Philip. “Prayer and hard work were the credo of the monks from Austria who founded this mission.”
The striking Roman Catholic church with its three-bell tower, built in 1916, is clearly a work of devotion, and its stained-glass windows cast beautiful patterns of light onto the ornate interior. Modern pilgrims can tackle the mission’s own Via Dolorosa, with stations of the cross on a short hike along the stream that feeds the mission’s own hydro-electric plant (built long before Eskom arrived on the scene) to a cross in the foothills of the Drakensberg.
Mariazell High School is one of the top Eastern Cape schools and is the alma mater of prominent people such as Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, Mosiuoa ‘Terror’ Lekota and Epainette Mbeki, the former president’s mom. I’m just in time to snap a class photo of future leaders in front of the sandstone church.
But as an avid pass chaser, the highlight of my visit is the chance to tackle the three mountain passes linking Matatiele to southern Lesotho and I eagerly accept Philip’s invitation to join his 4×4 day tours to the neighbouring Mountain Kingdom.
Ongeluksnek Pass lies on the road beyond Mariazell and, despite being marked on the map as a provincial road, is little more than a grassy track that makes Sani Pass look like something very well engineered. Occasional antelope watch us bump through the nature reserve. At the top, the alpine Lake Letsie, a Ramsar wetland in a hidden valley, makes a splendid picnic spot.
The next day we take the winding gravel pass to Ramatseliso’s Gate, where we present our passports, and return via Qacha’s Nek. A 4×4 is not required, but the road’s so badly rutted I’d want at least a sturdy bakkie to drive it. It’s a fine day and we get glimpses of even bigger, more rugged mountains deeper in Lesotho.
I spot my first Southern Bald Ibis among the sheep beside the road to Sehlabathebe National Park. Its bright-red head looks like a bad case of sunburn, but it’s another unexpected tick for my lifer’s list. The elusive Wattled Crane seems to have gone the way of the ducks after which Matatiele is named – in Sotho, matat means wild ducks and ile gone. But they’re a good excuse for another visit…
Matatiele’s Wild Origins
- San Bushmen inhabited this wild area, known as Niemandsland (No-Man’s-Land). This was at the time in the 1860s when the Griquas trekked from Philippolis over the Drakensberg with their herds to settle what became East Griqualand.
- In those early days, Matatiele was the centre of cattle rustling, horse-thieving and gun-running to Lesotho, just across the border.
- Under apartheid, Matat, as locals refer to it, was part of Natal, right on the Transkei border, and developed into a trade hub attracting shoppers from both northern Transkei and southern Lesotho.
- Today chain stores are well represented, as are fast food outlets, but Matat still has the rough edges of a frontier farming town and you’ll struggle to find cutesy coffee shops and tourist tat. Vegetarians beware: this is red-meat country and proud of it.