Tzaneen’s dreamiest retreat

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Kings Walden’s ponds and gardens are being brought back to their original glory by Bridget Hilton-Barber, grand-daughter of the garden’s creator
Brendan Seery

The wind eddies softly around the verandah, occasionally nipping at the serviettes on the breakfast table. And then it is still. Across the green lawn, the imposing, dead skeleton of a 20-metre-high eucalyptus tree stands sentinel as the valley and, seemingly, the world, drops below it. In the distance, in almost every direction, there are mountains, their colours changing from green to grey to purple.

There is something magnetically primeval about the mountains: You are above the cares of the world, you have the space to consider the bigger, the important, things in life. American writer Jeff Rasley put it perfectly: “Chasing angels or fleeing demons, go to the mountains…”

Kings Walden Garden Manor is a favourite haunt of writers and artists who seek inspiration and peace.

There may not be angels here at Kings Walden in the mountains above Tzaneen, but there are the spirts of lives, and loves past. Its first owner, Bill Tooley. took on the piece of virgin bush in 1904, shortly after being demobbed from the British Army after the Boer War. Farming was a hard, and lonely, life in those days but he had as company some Aussies on a neighbouring (a long way away by today’s standard, though) farm.

In the manner of men of the time, they said to him: You must be lonely. We have an unmarried sister in Australia. And, so it came to pass, not long afterwards, that a young Australian girl married the man in Africa. She brought with her a reminder of her home – a eucalyptus sapling. That tree grew strong and steady, but sadly she did not and died while still quite young.

And so, eventually another woman, Elsie Dickson, stood looking out across that valley and said to Bill Tooley, “I never want to leave this place.”

His reply: “Marry me and you never have to.”

Al fresco dining with a mountain view at Kings Walden near Tzaneen

Their children and grand-children have kept Kings Walden in the family, and it is now an upmarket guest house and “Garden Manor”. Bridget Hilton-Barber, one of the grandchildren, recently took over the establishment.

Kings Walden has just five suites, so you get boutique hotel exclusivity and the sort of peace and quiet you’d expect in the mountains. Bridget has been restoring the magnificent terraced gardens which gave Kings Walden its claim to fame and, even though there’s plenty still to be done, a stroll through the lush bowers, ponds and waterfalls is a way to soothe the soul.

Manicured lawn at Kings Walden near Tzaneen

In a quiet, out of the way, corner of the garden is a simple mosaic memorial: to Bridget’s brother, Steve, who died in 2002 and his young son, Benjamin, who died shortly after him.

I worked with Steve, who was a photographer in Johannesburg in the turbulent 1990s. Steve helped save me from further injury after three rightwingers broke three of my ribs in the Free State town of Koppies in 1993 and I wanted to fight back: “Hey, bru, let’s go – these okes are serious.”

I pause and look at the little memorial. Thanks, bru…

It’s a memorial which should make me sad, but somehow it doesn’t. I remember Steve’s talent, his sometimes good, far-away look,

At Kings Walden you get the sort of peace and quiet you’d expect in the mountains.

Kings Walden’s spirits seem to be the benign kind I think as I wander back to the house, via the huge swimming pool.

And, as Jeff Rasley says, being in the mountains is also a great place to feel demons. I’m particularly pestered by them, buzzing out of the toxic swamp that is social media (I don’t have an option but to follow it, though: news is my business).

The hate, the anxiety, the fear which hangs heavy in the air in Johannesburg is absent in these Limpopo mountains. It’s tempting every now and again to sit still, breath in – very deeply – and absorb that freedom, that peace.

Kings Walden can be the sort of place you go to detox from the urban rat race…but this area has plenty of other things to keep you occupied.

The Magoebaskloof area offers green tranquility.

For me, the pleasure of the roads is something I don’t get back in the city – whether I am running them in the cool of the morning (and even despite the reminders my legs give me that running up mountains is not for sissies) or driving the twisty routes and exploring the towns. Towns like Haenertsburg, Tzaneen itself, Letsitele…

Most of the tarred roads are in good condition, although the R528 between Haenertsburg and Tzaneen is a bit of a nightmare because of the potholes. I love the dirt forestry-type roads, though, and am never disappointed with what Tzaneen and surrounds offers.

The forestry roads around Tzaneen are delight for both nature lover and keen driver. Pic: Brendan Seery

We wandered up the Old Coach Road (it is exactly what it says it is) after a day and night of rain and needed the all-wheel-drive capabilities and ground clearance of our Subaru Forester. Don’t do this in a normal sedan.

One worthwhile detour suggested by Bridget was a visit to Kaross, a bead weaving project which is based near Letsitele and which provides employment to almost 1 500 people, most of them Shangaan and Venda women from the area, effectively helping more than 6 000 people from their extended families live a better life.

Workers at the Kaross beading project just outside Letsitele

The organisation was started in the 1980s by artist Irma van Rooyen and Janine Pretorius as co-owner.

A small team of artists draws designs on pieces of cloth – ranging from purse size to large wall hangings – and the embroiderers then implement their own ideas of colour combinations, spending as long as a month on each piece.

A piece of the art work at the Kaross beading project just outside Letsitele

Visitors are welcome to go behind the scenes and see how the products come together. The work is stunning. My wife is in buying mode and, for once, I am not only interested, I agree with her choice. It’s a wall hanging of giraffes and Shangaan designs in vibrant greens and golds. It will be perfect for the stone wall in the lounge.

There is a coffee shop on site, where they serve light meals (and a glass of wine if you fancy), so we pause for coffee and hot chocolate – both as good as you’d get in Joburg. Not what I’d expected from an enterprise based amid the citrus trees of a working farm.

The best thing about wandering around the mountains – be prepared to put on some weight because there is no shortage of places to eat – is getting back to Kings Walden Garden Manor. The large bedrooms, with huge en-suite bathrooms (bath and shower), and king size double bed are the perfect place for nodding off with a book.

Don’t expect a TV – this is not the place for it and, trust me, you don’t miss it – although there is fast wifi. Somehow, even scrolling through Facebook and Twitter, it still all seemed a world away.

Kings Walden’s beauty soothes the soul

Meals are excellent – and testament to that fact is that Bridget has her hands full both at lunch and dinner with groups from the local area who view Kings Walden as a special treat.

How much of a treat the place is only becomes apparent on the last day. I am on my morning run and I need to stop, mainly because my legs have been fighting a losing battle against gravity and inertia but also because I want to take this all in. I want to look at the hills and plantations and forests rolling away around and below me. I don’t want to go back – not to the hotel, but to Johannesburg.

As I sit later on the verandah and finish the last of the second pot of tea, breakfast long since dispatched, I look at my wife and we agree: We should have stayed another night.