The danger of visiting Underberg in the KwaZulu-Natal Southern Drakensberg is that you could fall under its spell and never want to leave. That’s what happened to Johannesburg couple, Huck and Elsabé Orban back in 2000, when they stopped over for a couple of nights. “While Elsabé was shopping for a snack at the then two-aisle supermarket, I got out of the car to look at the price of property in the Acutts Estates display window,” Huck recalls.
The Orbans ended up buying not only a snack but a smallholding on the banks of the Umzimkulu River. Later, they injected new flavour and enchantment into the town by establishing the Lemon Tree bistro that’s since grown to include a curiosity shop and book store and a gallery of Huck’s acclaimed photographs.
A vibrant social life
The Lemon Tree is my first port of call. I’ve heard the cappuccino is the best in the west and, after my long drive, I’m desperate for a caffeine fix. The place pulsates, every table occupied, and everyone seems to know everyone else. “It’s the heart of the village. Locals come here all the time,” says manager Bev Basson, who moved to Underberg
a decade ago and discovered a rare sense of community.
Retired estate agent, John Nothard also succumbed to the magic of the mountains, decamping there from Hillcrest, outside Durban. He offers me the spare chair at his table. “I’ve lived in many places, but Underberg is the friendliest of all. I’ll never leave.” The gateway to the Southern Berg, it’s far from the bright lights but is no sleepy hollow.
“We have a vibrant social life,” John says and mentions, among others, the Country Club, wine club, tennis tournament, music events, garden club, bowls, and ladies lunch club. “We also have a gentleman’s dining club – a jacket and tie affair that usually features a speaker.”
One who addressed the group is local veterinary surgeon and legendary mountain man, Tod Collins. “Meet me at the Lemon Tree,” he says when I contact him. So, the next morning I’m back there. Over the next several hours and multiple cappuccinos (you lose count after a while), Tod entertains me with tales of Underberg and beyond – tales sometimes hilarious, other times thought-provoking; tales enough to fill a book. But wait, they do. An award-winning author, Tod has written four books and is working on a fifth, The Art of Being… an Awful Angler.
Fishing is one of the region’s top tourist attractions, along with sports like mountain biking, hiking and trail running within the Maloti-Drakensberg World Heritage Site. “People come here because it’s not Disneyland,” Tod says. Tourism, he adds, is the second biggest industry after farming.
A dairy farmer himself, Tod describes the district as No Man’s Land until around 1880. “It was in the back of beyond, a place rarely visited. The long, cold winters made – and still make – farming very tough. To survive as they do, farmers here are among the world’s best.”
The autumn colours
Echoing that is lifelong farmer Norman Herring who, with his wife Monica, operates three top accommodation establishments in town, among them the gracious Cedar Garden where I’m staying. On retiring, the couple sold their stud dairy farm in East Griqualand and moved to Underberg where Norman once leased a farm. “Originally this was a poor farming area but, with the advent of lime and licks, and the arrival in the late 1960s of electricity, which made irrigation possible, farming took off.”
Norman adds that the average size dairy herd in the district is 860 cows, while some farms have up to 2 000. One of the first of the ‘modern’ farmers to have seen the region’s potential was Nico Bonsma. “In the 1960s, he realised that it could develop into one of the best farming areas in the country,” Norman says. Three generations later, the Bonsmas are among Underberg’s biggest farmers.
Another influential farmer was the late Ken Lund who, Norman tells me, introduced pastures and fertilisers. More famously, Ken and his wife Mona planted hundreds of deciduous trees around Kenmo Lake on their farm a few kilometres north of Himeville, leaving, as Huck Orban says, “A treed heritage for all locals to enjoy.”
Honeymooners Petrie and Willie, my fellow guests at Cedar Garden, tell me, “It’s the most beautiful place we’ve been to in South Africa.” They’re spellbound by Underberg and its surrounds. “There’s so much to do. We’ll definitely come back.” They’d spent an afternoon at Kenmo where the peace, reflections and autumn colours sent them into another dimension. “We lost all sense of time.”
Embracing the community spirit
At sunset, I visit Kenmo where I’m transported to a North American fall. Wearing their burnished best, oaks, poplars and Japanese maples admire themselves in the mirror that is the lake, while aquatic birds bask in the warm, autumnal hues splashed across the tranquil water.
It’s a landscape to inspire photographers and fine artists, like Underberg’s art group that I meet, not at the Lemon Tree, but at their gallery, [email protected] in Underberg Mall. They gather once a week to paint, share constructive criticism, and enjoy some camaraderie. “Previously, we had nowhere to display our work and we all painted in isolation,” says Windell Hart. Admiring the artworks on display, I’m amazed at how much talent resides in this remote region.
In a neighbouring shop, I meet two other creative people, both as generous as the mountains are high. Rosemary Storm and Gisela Glietenberg, aka the Cracker Ladies, make, at their own expense, gorgeous Christmas crackers that they sell in aid of charity. “Every box is unique and no two crackers in a box contain the same fillers,” says Rosemary who began the project in 2016. That first batch raised R6 000. Last Christmas, the sum trebled.
Another gifted resident and a member of the art group is Rob Leenhouwers who, with his wife, moved from the Netherlands. “Life here is perfect,” he says when I meet him at his studio in Himeville, where he’s painting his favourite subject, Nguni cattle.
Rob has embraced the community spirit, volunteering his time and skills in various ways such as teaching art in pre-primary schools and, as a member of Southern Berg Hiking Group, leading hikes. “I love bringing people to the mountains.”
That morning, he’d taken children from Underberg Primary on a hike in Cobham Nature Reserve, a tradition that Tod Collins and the then principal of the school started 25 years ago. “As they get older they do longer, harder hikes,” Tod told me during our first meeting. “For example, grade six does Rhino Peak.”
The Underberg spell is tightening
The Rhino is one of the peaks you might see when driving down the Drakensberg Garden Road. I get a peek of it en route to The Olde Duck, a country café on one of the Bonsma Farms and the starting point of MTB trails that, I’m told, traverse the most scenic landscapes imaginable.
Further along, I call in at Underberg Cheesery where I find cheese so outstanding I’m tempted to buy the full range. I restrain myself and leave with Italiano, MistakƏ, Underberger and ParmeSani.
Talking of which, there’s the vexed subject of the tarring of Sani Pass. Anticipating widespread condemnation of the upgrade, I’m surprised to find many in favour. For example, Huck’s view is that “it will always remain an attraction, tarred or gravel, because it’s so iconic.”
Won’t the 4×4 tour operators go out of business once all vehicles can drive the pass? “Existing tourism operators will simply expand their services to include excursions to the Lesotho interior and find new features in that beautiful country.”
The Underberg spell is tightening its grip. I turn for home, stopping at the Lemon Tree for a last cappuccino. Returning to my car, I’m arrested by a pile of Basotho blankets outside Sani Curios and Crafts and run my hands over them, unable to resist their magnetic pull. I’ve always wanted a Basotho blanket.
Noting the price tag, I tell myself it’s time to leave. Instead, I enter the store where owner, Alex Kiguru explains that until recently, genuine Basotho blankets were made of 90 per cent wool on a ten per cent cotton warp.
“Now they contain equal parts wool and dralon on a polycotton warp.” Alex has a few of those last true-blue blankies in stock.
As I drive away, my woollen mountain memento on the passenger seat, I realise I’ve got off lightly. What if I’d stopped at the estate agent’s window?
Pictures Andrea Abbott, Huck Orban, Anthony Grote and Stuart McClean