CAROLINE HURRY finds horses, nature walks with white rhino and an adrenaline rush high above the tree tops
EVER since childhood, I’ve paired northern and central KwaZulu-Natal with mind-numbing lessons on the Anglo-Boer War and many a failed history test. Years later, a colleague who wore a kilt in the newsroom and a moustache waxed at the tips would bang on about the Boers vanquishing an entire British regiment at Nicholson’s Nek in 1899, thereby “sealing the fate of Ladysmith”.
I never did ask what happened to Ladysmith. Any perceived interest only encouraged further tedious musings on the military tactics of some obscure Scottish regiment to which he had close ties. I’m with John Steinbeck, who called war a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal. Hopelessly over rated in my book. But you can’t judge a place by its history. Or maybe you can. I just try not to.
I grew up in KwaZulu-Natal – just Natal in those days but KwaZulu-Natal has a better ring – so its sweeping hills, grasslands, valleys and rock formations soothe my soul. I prefer not to dwell on the spilt blood and the gravestones and memorials left in the wake of battle.
As I recall, the Voortrekkers fought the Zulus. Then the Brits and the Boers had a go at each other. The Boers won the first round. The Brits won the next one, and now a Zulu runs our country, when he’s not battling art galleries and media publications over the depiction of his much-debated manhood.
Three Trees Lodge specialises in Anglo-Boer War battlefield tours, but a history lesson is the last thing I want on a break. Give me horse-riding, hiking trails, bush walks or propel me along steel cables at high speed over a gorge, rather. Oh, who am I kidding? Just give me a comfy chair overlooking the Mfazimnyama Valley of the Spioenkop Game Reserve, then leave me alone.
Three Trees owners Simon and Cheryl Blackburn offer all the above and more. Some guests can’t wait to relive the Battle of Spioenkop in which 8000 Boers under Gen Botha kicked the stuffing out of 20000 Brits under Gen Buller. Simon brings the story to life over perfectly scrambled breakfast eggs.
My husband and two Danish friends relish every detail, poring over old framed adverts for Bovril and faded newspapers articles on the walls. Me? Not so much. I’m more militant about the ingredients in my food and what I put on my skin. I take all my own lotions and potions – pillows and duvet too – to most places, but at Three Trees I needn’t have bothered. Handmade, cruelty-free products festooned the bathroom of our twin suite, which overlooked the aloes and acacias of the valley. Watching zebra and giraffe from my bath was a treat.
The first Fair Trade-accredited lodge in KwaZulu-Natal, Three Trees also achieved Green Leaf status with the Wilderness Foundation for its eco-friendly environmental management, a concept close to my own heart. All leftover food is recycled into wormeries, which replenish the herb garden. Nothing is wasted.
The lodge is built in the wooden grooved panelling and corrugated iron materials of the 19th century but with all the expediencies of modern life – ceiling fan, luxury bed linen, leather wingback chairs, homemade biscuits and other items close to a woman’s heart.
Later that afternoon, Simon, hunting rifle slung over one shoulder, walked us through the Spioenkop Reserve, where we stumbled over a crash of three rhino just 40m away. Simon ushered us past the seven tons of fighting fury without so much as raising his rifle but it was a close call. Rhinos have more to fear from humans so I would not have blamed them for charging but they seemed as laid back as the waterbuck, warthog, zebra and giraffe around us.
The absence of big predators – though we heard black-backed jackal giggling and found their tracks near the river – means the game take life as easy as the guests. Farm-style cooking, washed down with delicious local wines – the lodge has both gold and platinum Diners Club wine awards – led to derring-do boasts involving the Drakensberg zip lines, the longest and highest in Africa.
Bad mistake. Being terrified of heights, I awoke at 6am, hung over and with sinking trepidation as dawn bathed the valley in a tangerine glow. A hearty breakfast helped settle my nerves and we took a scenic 45-minute drive to Catherine’s Peak via Winterton.
Drakensberg Canopy Tour leader Thabiso Ndlovu met us and, after a safety briefing, strapped us into our harness and drove us to a point at the top of the Blue Grotto forest, with its endemic birds and plants.
From the rabbit hole, as the first platform was aptly named, we plunged Alice-like into a wonderland of treetops, vines, dappled sunlight, waterfalls and rainbows. Dangling above it all, like a pantomime fairy, I waited for the dreaded panic to strike – but it never did. At the Big Tree platform, where a gigantic old knobthorn reared its trunk up through the foliage, Ndlovu told us how the Zulus use knobthorn branches to protect the cattle inside the kraal.
Two puff adders – a male and female – are caught. After wrapping her body around the knobthorn stick, the female is buried alive in a hole. Then the male is ritually killed with poison at the entrance to the kraal so the ancestors can use the snake spirits to increase the number of female calves to the herd. No fan of snakes, I thought it unspeakably cruel nonetheless, but Ndlovu swore by its efficacy.
Platforms are bolted to cliffs, banks and boughs and the cables run like giant spider webs across the valley floor.
Zip-lining enables you to experience nature with an eagle eye as you glide through the forest canopy, though one of our Danish friends complained his testicles had chaffed in the harness. Again, unsure where further inquiries might lead, I clucked in what I hoped was a sympathetic manner and changed the subject.
We were keen to head even deeper into the Zulu kingdom to explore two World Heritage Sites – the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, or the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park in the mountains – but alas, duty called and we had to return to smoky Joburg, a three-and-a-half-hour drive away.
Accommodation: Three Trees Lodge offer six standard luxury twin suites and a family suite with two bedrooms. Each of the six twin cottages has its own shower and bath with a view. Large verandahs invite relaxation surrounded by nature. The lodge has Green Leaf status with The Wilderness Foundation, which rewards eco friendly environmental management. All their wet waste is recycled into a wormery, which replenishes the herb garden.