Hidden Valleys in the Berg

Gatvol of the Big City, Obie Oberholzer packs up his old Isuzu to find freedom and happiness in the Southern Drakensberg…

High view of the farm Halstone of the Isted family in the Southern Drakensberg between Lady Grey and Lundeans Nek in South Africa.

An elderly man, slightly stooped from the ravages of long roads travelled, diligently follows his wife through Woolworths, pushing her trolley. She’s one of those super-purposeful, knows-exactly-what-she-wants kind of woman. Explained simply as ‘ein wunder Frau’.

The man is already gatvol because the parking lot outside the mall is full, and smells of petrol fumes, hot tarmac and rubber. There are blown-about plastic packets, Colonel Sanders boxes, littered cigarette butts, and hobos turned car guards. After the razzmatazz of Christmas and New Year, the old traveller brushes the dandruff of commercialisation from his shoulders and thinks of the forgotten days of Brylcreem and Elvis hairstyles.

From the well-stocked racks, shiny product branding of all sorts of foodstuffs and unnecessary products for human existence gleams at him with hungry eyes. Then he catches a glimpse of himself in a thin mirror between the awesomely wholesome breakfast cereals and superior health-food titbits. “#$%&,” the slightly stooped man shouts to his mirror image. “It’s me, Obie. Hello me, hello Obie.”

The ‘Woolie-Wonders’ stop to stare, throwing glares of indignation at me, the trolley pusher with the foul mouth and dandruff. So my really lekker wife with the purposeful character (and stride) doesn’t turn around and k#k on me for not ‘dog-heeling’ behind her with the Woolies trolley.

She gives me a hug and tells me she understands that I would much rather be travelling around some far-beyond mountains. I say, that made me feel real good, that little bit of love between the cereals and the titbits. If you get what I mean?

So the next day we pack the old Isuzu bakkie and set off to the hidden valleys of the Eastern Cape’s Southern Drakensberg. I can’t tell you exactly where these hidden valleys are, as then they wouldn’t be all that hidden any more. The only exception here would be the slightly gatvol men who trudge behind their wives pushing their trolleys through supermarket aisles.

After a day or two on the road, my personal loathing for modern society’s commercial insincerity and mankind’s material addiction starts to flake away, sucked out by the passing country air. Next to me, my hugging wife Lynn knows instinctively that happiness can forever be sought, but seldom bought. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a sure thrill in sailing your own yacht, flying your plane and driving your Geländewagen. But I just wonder how much humility and modesty you have left after obtaining all that. I don’t know. Let’s just let the answer blow away in the wind.

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As we slowly motor north, the road signs say Cala, Elliot, Ugie, Maclear and over the Potrivier Pass to Elandshoogte, and then the climb to the 2500m-high Naudé’s Nek on the second-highest pass in South Africa. After the summit, the gravel road twists down contour-ploughed fields that cling to the side of high-shouldered mountains. Spirits and vibes fly high here, below an eagle that soars in a big blue sky. The thoughts of wind currents and thermals under cirrus clouds make me feel mightily tall and minutely small, all in one.

The front veranda of the old colonial hotel in Rhodes village in the southern Drakensberg.

We drive down into the Bell River Valley that winds through the small village of Roads. As a besotted roadster, I’ve changed the spelling of this village, named after the British imperialist, politician and mining magnate Cecil John Rhodes. I sure don’t want to be responsible for the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ Brigade marching through this town’s tree-lined streets, toyi-toying for a name change. Sadly, the old colonial hotel stands closed and empty with a sign perched on its front lawn that reads, ‘Hotel for Sale’. I take a while-time with memories and the fading afternoon light, to photograph this iconic country hotel. Often in life, memories and melancholy amplify with the darkening of day. Don’t we dream best when it’s dark? Memories are like photographs, they embellish a situation that occurred, never to return again.

In the twilight, Lynn and I just sit there and watch, each knowing what the other is thinking. In 1974, we returned from Europe by ship, after the completion of my photographic studies in München, Germany. After four years in Europe, we drove an extended country roadtrip here, meandering from the Cape Town docks up to Pretoria, just trying to revitalise the ‘Africa’ in us.

That was the first time we drove the Bell River Valley and walked into the arms of this loving country hotel, filled then with an atmosphere of locals and a few lonely travellers. The bar was brimming with laughter and carousing, the sound of the old clanging till mixed with all that matters –living the happy life.

Early the following morning, I obtain permission to wander the sleeping passages and rooms of the now empty Roads Hotel. In the bar, the quietude stretches to every corner, where, hidden from view, are the memories and stories of a hundred bygone years. From across the floor the old till speaks to me in pounds and pence. The four bar chairs that have sat ten thousand asses, can only sigh to each other beneath the same kudu that still peers longingly into the open veld.

I order a glass of double sadness with an extra tot of gladness and toast the fact that in two days I have come from a busy modern mall to an old, abandoned, colonial bar. I pat the counter and stroke the kudu, then leave for another hidden valley that narrows its way up to the Carlisleshoek Pass.

Sandstone rock formations in the Balloch Valley near Lundeans Nek in the Southern Drakensberg of the Cape Province.

This pass curls its way north and gets really steep towards the summit at 2 581m. As the road squeezes up the cleavage of two rounded mountains at a maximum gradient of 1:3, the final bit of gravel road has been cemented. My bakkie does not have a fancy built-in GPS so, for the steepness of any pass travelled, I only have to glance at the whiteness of Lynn’s knuckles and the degree of angst on her face. Once over the summit, the landscape opens into one of the highest grassland plateaus in South Africa and for a moment I feel as though I am trekking over the high plains of Outer Mongolia. Surely, the feeling of true freedom is when you find yourself in such a place, where all stress and problems can be cast off to the abundance of nature and the vastness of space around you?

Freedom is stopping my bakkie in the middle of a gravel track for an early breakfast (oats soaked in milk, with berries and nuts). Every emotion in me strums in tune to the sights and sounds of the surrounds. Even the bullet holes through the only sign around add to it all. My God, how elevation can bring such elation.

a stone bridge leads over a stream in the Balloch Valley in the Southern Drakensberg area of South Africa.

An hour later we pass the small skiing resort of Tiffendell, quietly snoozing in the early summer sun. Love is not the Valentine Day’s kitsch stuff, love is feeling something before your friend says it. I stop the bakkie, my wife changes her clothes and starts her daily run without a word. Love is driving slowly behind a friend who jogs along a track on the top of the world.

Later in the day, we edge our way down the rather steep Bidstone or Volunteershoek Pass into the Wartrail farming valley. This valley is filled with the Isted families, some having farmed here for four generations. Rock art lovers, birders, hikers, bikers and ‘sky’ runners love this valley, often mentioned in context with the old Wartrail. This name is derived from skirmishes between the cattle-raiding parties of King Moshesh and the Xhosa people living nearer to Barkly East.

At the top section of the valley I drive into Bidstone Farm, and meet a young Allen Isted, who recently returned from Cape Town to start a new life here as a ‘farmstay’ manager, adventurer and guide. At the end of the valley lies the most beautiful of farmlands, the Halstone Farm of Cedric and Muriel Isted.

We spend two nights in their sandstone guest cottage, with a magnificent view of rolling fields and the dominant 2 427m Bidstone peak. Behind his gracious sandstone farmhouse, Cedric shows me his small museum filled with interesting local artefacts and while I nose my Canon around some historic finds, he tells Lynn, over tea on the stoep, some tales and secrets of this hidden valley. The mind shows affection when it sits to listen to the happy-sad stories of an old and isolated farming community. I try to light the objects that are affiliated to the spoken words.

The Balloch Farm campsite lies beneath a Sandstone overhang on the southern Drakensberg mountains of South Africa.

The Balloch Valley runs south-north into the mountains and lies just over a tall mountain from here. Here the Southern Drakensberg ends its own long trek from Limpopo, and changes its name to Witteberge. I drive up this magnificent, slender valley, and my visuals are in a state of exhilaration as I try to capture some pictorial graphics of the gigantic sandstone boulders and cliffs.

Photography always sits a little uneasy in its attempt to depict words such as grandiose and majestic. Easily said, but a lot more difficult to photograph. At the end of this hidden-valley farm live the Frosts, Margy and Graham, with their two sons.

For two days and nights my blood runs warm, as I take in the splendour of our mountain surrounds, and the light at dawn and early dark echoes into me with the resonance of a beautiful symphony. At the back of our sandstone cottage is a braai – that’s right, a sandstone braai. I light a big fire, not for the coals, but for the light. It flickers against a sandstone overhang. I am visually stoned. The small campsite on Balloch farm cannot easily be described in words. A grass slope bends up slightly, past a walnut tree hugging a rounded boulder, to a lapa with log seats beneath a massive rock overhang, a good 40 metres long.

For my image, I light another fire. My pyromania dances around the fire to the Witteberg drums and the flames that flicker ancient San legends up onto the overhanging rock. Happiness and freedom dance at a place that rocks.

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