It’s a warm and hazy morning on the mountain. The cableway hums in the background and below us a wisp of cloud drifts by, suspended between our vantage point on the top of the mountain and the glittering water in the distance. Off to one side, we see boats bobbing at anchor.
Table Mountain perhaps? Not quite. This is Harties, the growing resort area in North West. It includes the town of Hartbeespoort, Hartbeespoort Dam itself and various adjacent villages such as Broederstroom, Schoemansville, Kosmos, Melodie, Ifafi and Meerhof.
An ongoing problem
The dam’s 56-kilometre shoreline and surrounding areas have been extensively developed, and the epicentre of this playground is, of course, the dam. “People are attracted to water and, given that Hartbeespoort Dam is situated so scenically within the mountains, it’s a natural drawcard,” says Iain Gunn, chairman of the Hartbeespoort Tourism Association.
“We have powerboating, waterskiing, jet-skiing, canoeing and, of course, the big tourist boats. Increasingly, those boats are fully booked every weekend.”
But what of the dam’s well-documented battle with water hyacinth, the highly invasive aquatic weed said to cover 30-40 per cent of the dam’s surface area? According to Iain, much work has been done on alleviating the problem and the community is actively engaging with government.
We were able to see the scale of the problem for ourselves when, on three separate occasions, we tried to go out in the boats operated by Harties Watersports Centre. Each time we were thwarted by a giant green carpet of floating water hyacinth that kept the boats firmly in dock. On the fourth occasion we got out on the large double-decker paddle boat to enjoy a half-hour dam cruise amidst the towering rock faces and imposing waterfront homes.
“Water hyacinth in Hartbeespoort is a serious problem for us and sometimes we can’t operate,” observes Tidimalo Makhubalo, a manager and senior skipper with Harties Watersports Centre, which runs ferry boats, speedboats, jet-skis and luxury cruises for functions such as weddings and kitchen teas. Tidimalo has lived and worked in Harties since 2011 and says the natural splendour of the surroundings makes it a great place. “I enjoy showing the beauty of the dam to visitors,” he tells us.
Calm, gentle and friendly
But Hartbeespoort is more than just the dam. “It’s a family destination with a lot to see and do,” says Iain. “You can visit a zoo, try abseiling, go white-water rafting, do birdwatching, see a vulture restaurant or visit a cheetah sanctuary. Our slogan is ‘Close to the city, out of this world’.”
One of the top attractions is the Harties Cableway, which carries an average of 12 500 visitors a month. A total of 1 200 metres long, it rises 637 metres to a peak in the Magaliesberg that offers spectacular all-round views. The ride to the top takes seven minutes, where you can enjoy excellent amenities such as restaurants, express food stalls, a bar and picturesque seating areas. It’s top-class and a worthy rival to its better-known Table Mountain cousin.
The trails in the surrounding mountains are excellent for hikers and mountain bikers, who have the added bonus of being in a Unesco Biosphere Reserve – one of only eight in the country. About 2 650-million years old, the mountains of the Magaliesberg Biosphere are among the oldest in the world and are ten times older than the African continent itself.
Awe-inspiring nature of another kind can be seen at Glen Afric Country Lodge, set in dense bush, with the towers of the nuclear research centre at Pelindaba looming incongruously in the background. The upmarket lodge attracts both local and international visitors looking for a wildlife experience that includes giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, lion, leopard and hyena.
But the star attractions are a 30-year-old female elephant named Three and her biological and adopted daughters, Hannah
and Marty, both aged ten. The trio range freely around the property, and a ranger will take you to meet them.
“This is an up-close-and-personal interaction,” explains Sam Masoni, who has been a ranger at Glen Afric for four years. “The elephants enjoy contact with people because they’ve only ever seen the good side of humans. Three is calm, gentle and friendly, although she’s big. The kids are playful, but if they’re too playful we leave them alone because their size and strength mean that they could hurt someone. Then we rather just stay with mom.”
Butter sculptures and gold medals
Not far down the road from the lodge, we stumble across the Ama Zwing Zwing Zip Line Tour. With the Magaliesberg as an ever-present backdrop, seven zip lines offer rides from two to fourteen metres in height.
“Guides are constantly at your side to ensure safety, but we’re not too extreme,” owner Paul van Voorn tells us. “We get a lot of school groups, corporate groups and people of all ages and abilities. It’s a great way to enjoy nature and the great views that we have here.”
Nature tends to attract artists and the Harties area is no exception. At his home/studio on a cliff overlooking the Crocodile River, we meet one of South Africa’s foremost bronze sculptors, Dietmar Wiening. German by birth and a chef by training, he came to South Africa to work in five-star hotels until his career took an unexpected twist.
“I won gold medals for butter sculptures, and somebody said, ‘You are such an artist you should do that in bronze and become a real artist’,” he recalls. “Within a month I gave up everything, stopped cooking and started teaching myself sculpting. I never looked back and had my first exhibition in a tiny gallery in Rosebank. It was a sell-out.”
Dietmar’s been a sculptor for 35 years now and specialises in birds, marine life and abstract work. Many of the birds he sculpts are modelled on those he sees in the area.
“We have photographed 130 species just from our balcony,” he says enthusiastically. “We love the beauty of this location.”
Another Harties local who travelled here from distant shores is Annelies van Gaalen, owner of Van Gaalen Kaasmakerij (cheese farm). A native of The Netherlands, she immigrated to South Africa in 1990 and soon realised “there was no decent cheese in the country”.
French toast and cheese
She set about teaching herself the art of cheese making and began by selling to family and friends. Things blossomed and today the thriving cheese farm, with its garden setting and its running and biking trails, is one
of Harties’ best-known attractions.
“South Africans have become more sophisticated in their cheese-eating habits over the years,” Annelies tells us. “Now we offer 33 Goudas and Cheddars in different stages of maturity, and produce between one and 1.5 tons of cheese a month. We’re extremely busy on weekends and have many school groups in the week. We use traditional methods of making cheese, and do it all by hand.”
We head back towards the town of Hartbeespoort, braving the heavy weekend traffic. The problem is particularly acute around the dam wall, as only one lane of vehicles can cross at a time.
At the dam, queues of a different kind are often in evidence at French Toast, a French-themed ‘coffee café’ which, among other things, boasts its own replica Eiffel Tower and Pont des Arts – the famous Parisian ‘bridge of love locks’. The café throngs with customers as we meet owner Paul Kruger – a fifth-generation descendant of the famous 19th-century president of the South African Republic.
“Unfortunately I don’t have the Kruger millions,” he tells us with a smile, explaining that the venue was used as a film set for the 2014 South African-made movie, French Toast, which was released in 2014. “We opened around six months before the movie was released, as part of a marketing strategy to promote the film,” Paul says. “Of course, the movie also helped to advertise the restaurant.”
Is French toast on the menu? “Absolutely,” he laughs. “The menu concept is based on it. We do French toast sticks, cheese grillers in French toast, our fillet steak comes with French toast…”
Time for a landmark
Paul is a filmmaker by profession and has turned the town into something of a ‘Hartiwood’. He also owns nearby Pretville, which is another former movie set that’s now become a tourist destination. It’s fun, colourful and over the top. Oh, and the 50s-style diner serves great milkshakes.
“Pretville is an Afrikaans rock ‘n roll film set in the 1950s (think Grease) and was released in 2012. Apart from seeing some of the sets where the action was filmed, you can visit the roller-blading rink or see a movie – including Pretville – at the cinema,” he says.
Our final stop is at a Harties landmark – Tan’ Malie se Winkel. Housed in a building that dates back to the time of the dam’s construction in the 1920s, it’s a kind of general dealer-cum-restaurant that’s built in the style of an old trading post. You can buy home-made jams, spices, antiques, melktert, real boere koffie and even the tasty, but very smelly bokkoms (salted, dried fish from the West Coast).
Tan’ (aunty) Malie was born in 1921 and died in 2003. The shop was opened in 1984 by her daughter Marita. No doubt Tan’ Malie would be surprised to see just how far the once-tiny area around Hartbeespoort Dam has come.
Pictures Jeanette Simpson, OlivePink Photography
French Toast 078 592 6953
Tan’ Malie se Winkel 087 802 8403
Glen Afric Country Lodge 012 205 1412
Harties Info 012 253 9910