Once Upon a Forest… Stutterheim certainly has a tense history but is now quite the magnet for nature lovers.
Words and Pictures: Marion Whitehead
Getting the churches to ring their bells simultaneously for ten minutes for a good cause just takes a little good-natured cheek in a small town where everyone knows each other. Same goes for disrupting the town’s entire business district by driving around in a car swathed in pink ribbons, escorted by traffic police on motorbikes blaring sirens as you raise funds for charity.
“It’s the kind of thing this town does when a crisis hits,” says Rotary Club’s Di Blom with the friendly exuberance that made such a success of Stutterheim’s Pink Trees for Pauline cancer fundraising project. In 2014 the local beneficiary was a six-year-old with leukaemia. “Stutterheim is a caring community. We all pull together here,” Di says of the Eastern Cape town that received international acclaim in the early 1990s – before apartheid was abolished – for building bridges and mending relations between the races.
Stutterheim has a tense history, as it was one of the flashpoints during the 100 years of the Cape Frontier Wars, when the Xhosa nation fought Britain for this beautiful tract of land at the foot of the Amathole Mountains. The Germans who were settled here in the 1850s, under the command of Baron von Stutterheim, were a tough, hardworking lot.
My own forebears were among those who raced for refuge in the little St Barnabas church in town, shared by the English and German communities in those early days. Amid the chaos of that bumpy wagon ride, great-great granny Manthe gave birth to a son – and they both survived.
Stutterheim’s heritage trail starts at the first church in the area, the Bethel Mission Station that Pastor Jacob Ludwig Döhne built in 1837 for the Berlin Missionary Society. Sorrow struck when his wife Bertha died in childbirth and her infant son followed her four months later. On top of this, Döhne’s church was torched during the War of the Axe (1846) and he left the area a disillusioned man. His successor, Pastor Albert Kropf, rebuilt the mission church twice and is credited with helping translate the Bible into Xhosa.
Some ten kilometres out of town, with a fine view of Mt Kemp, are three solitary graves under a beautiful spreading oak. In the centre lies rebel Xhosa Chief Sandile, a brave warrior who died in an ambush during the 9th Frontier War (1878) and was buried between two colonial soldiers who perished in the same skirmish, guarded for all eternity so his spirit would not roam and incite his people to rise up again – or so the British wanted the Xhosa to believe.
But the days of conflict are over and today it’s the adventure activities in the thick indigenous Xholora Forest cloaking the slopes of the Amathole Mountains that draw visitors to the area. Water sports on the outlying dams are popular, with big-bass fishing tournaments hosted at the 1 000-hectare Wriggleswade Dam, where motor boating and skiing are allowed. “And the annual Merrifield Mile in February attracts more than 1 000 swimmers,” says Lyndon Hall, secretary of the Stutterheim Aquatic Club, as he stands on the deck of the clubhouse that has seen numerous raucous parties.
But if you’re wanting a quiet spot to cast your fly, head west of town. “Our biggest secret attraction is Gubu Dam,” confides Simone Flanagan of Croft Guest Cottages in the pretty Xholora valley. This is a haven for flyfishers set on teasing rainbow and brown trout, and canoeists who slice silently through the water, breaking the dark reflections of pines lining the dam.
Nearby, Natural High Outdoor Adventures scores a bull’s eye for family activities in the Xholora valley (formerly spelt Kologha by those who couldn’t pronounce the Xhosa name). Tweens and teens get to flex their computer-saturated muscles on the abseiling tower and the challenging obstacle course.
Manager Stan Dugmore confesses to being a nerd at school and is an expert at quietly encouraging youngsters to overcome their fears. “Anyone can have fun with archery,” he says, demonstrating how to load an arrow onto a bow for my first attempt at this ancient art. I take aim and am chuffed to actually hit the target – and have visions of finding my own Robin Hood when my arrows hit the bull’s eye twice.
The back roads through the forest to the timber plantations are great places for mountain bikers to crank up a good sweat and are also used by riders from Hillside Horses on outrides. I branch off onto a trail into the forest to look for the Knysna Turacos I’d heard calling, but they are feasting so high in the canopy I can’t get a good sighting.
Marked hikes into the forest start at the main picnic site and vary from three to seventeen kilometres, ambling past gushing waterfalls. I take my binoculars on a stroll along the wheelchair-friendly boardwalk so I can keep my eyes focused upwards for Cape Parrots, without stumbling on loose stones. Other forest specials to watch out for include Orange Ground Thrush, White-starred Robin and Bush Blackcap.
I’ve never seen a Narina Trogon and am most excited when Rob Scott, my host at The Shire Eco Lodge, says he saw them practically every day in the forests surrounding their house. He offers to call up a trogon for me, cupping his hands and making their call, but it isn’t my lucky day. I have to be content with observing rare samango monkeys leaping about the canopy from my open-air shower that evening.
I sleep like a baby in one of Rob’s eco-chalets, which look like giant mushrooms. He built them of timber from nearby plantations, curving the roofs and walls. Each is a small work of art, as Rob cut every piece of timber himself and laminated the beams that underlie the curved structure. He even bent tempered glass to fit the curves. “I broke a few panes in the learning process,” he admits wryly. The beauty is in the care of every small detail, such as the cupboard and door handles he carved from old sneezewood fence posts.
“My grandfather was a cabinetmaker and I learnt some things from him,” says a modest Rob, whose main business is growing unusual indigenous bulbs for collectors around the world – his nursery is fascinating. A keen outdoorsman, Rob can also be persuaded to take groups abseiling down a 90-metre cliff in the forest, or fishing and skiing in his boat on Wriggleswade Dam.
Stutterheim seems to attract creative people with quirky ideas. At Eagles Ridge Country House not far away, Alan Steyn and his artist wife Hester have taken an offbeat approach to building their restaurant and function room. Recycling and upcycling materials are second nature to them, and Alan can build a wall out of practically anything, whether it’s old bottles or pieces of pipe found lying around.
Floor mosaics of broken tiles are Hester’s unique creation and the outer walls are carved with free-flowing relief patterns and shapes in cement, reminiscent of renowned Spanish artist and architect Gaudi. “My son Conraad Strydom the artist did most of it,” says Hester, herself a ceramacist who has passed on her skills to local people.
Once every three months, Stutterheim’s vibrant community gets together for an all-day market at Eagles Ridge. Stallholders set up in the garden and function rooms: artists, bakers, cheese makers, crafters, pancake tossers – you name it, says Hester. Natural High sets up archery targets on the bowling green and the Presbyterian minister does his Leonard Cohen impersonation, belting out his ‘Hallelujah’ song. It’s a festive time when everyone gets to socialise regardless of their differences. Says Hester, with a grin, “We are so blessed to live here, we should celebrate it every day.”