We drove slowly through the sodden countryside marvelling at the rolling, green hills and the grazing flocks of white sheep. It felt like we were driving somewhere in England. Misty valleys and rich, dark soil. As we approached the village we passed weeping willow trees and a bubbling stream that spewed onto the expansive wetland reserve.
Only 3 hours from Joburg, we were staying at The Weaver’s Nest, a charming guest house that made us feel as though we had stepped into an Agatha Christie story. Owner Mark Devenney, wearing his signature Panama hat, held court and told outrageous stories in his rich Irish accent. He and his partner Vivienne were generous and welcoming. We met strangers who were also guests and soon we were chatting away over whiskey and wine and becoming firm friends. The dinner that followed was chaotic, unconventional and delicious. But this was not the beginning of our Wakkerstroom story…
We were introduced to the little town of Wakkerstroom in November 2001 by Nikki and Christian. They have a nose for finding quaint and interesting destinations, and with them we have visited places as diverse as Ficksburg and the Waterberg. It rained most of the weekend that we spent at the Weaver’s Nest, making it less than ideal for the Nägele’s, who after living in Germany were after some African sun and bushveld, but this was right up our alley! We had a fun time racing around on the slippery wet roads (we had a near miss, both Geoff and Chris losing control as both vehicles went into a skid, narrowly missing each other as we slid around in what might have looked choreographed), admiring the expansive wetlands and watching hang-gliders soar across the valley to the delight of toddlers Nina and Melissa.
We vowed to return soon, but as life is wont to do, we simply never got around to it. In 2003 we were guests of Media 24 on a cruise from Durban to Inhaca island in Moçambique and we became very friendly with Janet and John Proudfoot. They mentioned that they had a weekend home in Wakkerstroom and on hearing how much we had liked the town, invited us to visit them. Our initial fascination was cemented and that very weekend we put an offer in on our house.
“Wakkerstroom is the sixth oldest district in the old Transvaal. It is situated at 1 829 metres above sea level, 27km east of Volksrust, in the southern part of Mpumalanga. Wakkerstroom is located fairly centrally between the Witwatersrand and Durban on the one side, and Bloemfontein and Nelspruit on the other.
The town lies in one of the most beautiful areas of the Highveld in the Versamel Mountains, close to the KwaZulu-Natal border, and it boasts a rare scenic beauty, with mountains, deep gorges, streams and waterfalls.”
(Wakkerstroom: Jewel of Mpumalanga by Hoffie Hofmeyr & Krystyna Smith, 2009)
The beautiful sandstone NG Kerk, stands at the centre of the village. Here it is pictured against the Ossewa mountains with an old building, just begging for a renovation.
It was far from a simple process. John and Janet took us around the town on the Saturday morning and we learnt that the options were either to buy an existing place or purchase land and build. We were concerned with the logistics of building 3-hours away from Johannesburg. We admired some of the architecture (old Transvaal-style) houses. Some were situated above the town on the slopes of the Ossewa mountain with lovely views over the village and beyond. Our preference though, was for the homes below the main road facing towards the wetlands and the endless green reeds.
John introduced us to the local estate agent who confessed that he’d had a rather heavy night prior and could do with not getting out of bed in a hurry (or for that matter, at all). Before leaving him to sleep off his hangover, I asked if there were any homes for sale on the vlei side of town, and he said: “Arguably one of the best properties in Wakkerstroom is up for sale, right on the vlei”. John knew where this home was located and offered to take us there.
Bev and Grant Heymans greeted us with mixed messages. “No the property is not for sale,” said Grant rather gruffly to John. “Nonsense. Of course it is! Come on in!“ said his wife Bev. It transpired that the couple were emigrating to Australia, but Grant’s heart was struggling to break ties with Wakkerstroom.
To say it was love at first sight is an understatement. The house is cool and spacious with a terracotta tile throughout. The main bedroom has an ensuite bathroom with an imperial style tub with ball and claw feet. Double doors lead straight out to the garden! The patio is open to the garden on the front and sides, allowing 270 degree views across the wetlands and fields.The kitchen featured an old-fashioned Union coal stove as well as an enormous modern gas stove and oven. Geoff has a sharp eye for building flaws and nagging details that will require repair and maintenance but he ignored the very evident rising damp, the roof that would need painting soon and the cracked, stipple, exterior plaster.
I was admiring the special antique wardrobes, tables, chairs and other accessories that Bev had carefully selected to furnish the house. “Try to imagine it without the furniture,” whispered Geoff. We had a view to bring down our old lounge suite and a few other bits and pieces as well as a plastic garden set that would be useful for the patio. John popped his head around the corner: “By the way, the price includes the furniture.” We were beside ourselves with excitement and wandered into the next room. John popped his head around another corner, “oh and the asking price includes the two vacant plots as well.” (Each plot is 6000 msq, so in total that is around 4.5 acres, or 1.8 hectares.)
We sat on the patio with Bev and Grant and the Proudfoots drinking in the view. Across the emerald expanse of vlei were beautiful hills dotted with trees and a couple of quaint dwellings. The edge of the property was flanked with numerous willow trees growing right out of the damp marshy land. Willows are trees that fill me with delight and transport me into an Enid Blyton story book. Right on cue, it began to drizzle, a gentle mist settling into the valley. If I believed in signs, this was certainly one. Geoff and I are both pluviophiles and our friends have frequently suggested that we live in a country like New Zealand or England where the rainy days outnumber the sunny ones!
We took ownership of “Umndeni” cottage (it means ‘Family’ in Zulu) in the April of 2004. Shortly before that auspicious date, John and Janet invited us for another weekend. We were enthralled with Wakkerstroom and it was starting to feel like ‘our town’. Soon we would be able to move in. Estie, our conveyancer had promised that all was on track. There was a busy Country Fair that weekend and it was like being in an old English village. Exotic chickens were for sale and we admired the fancy Leghorns, the Rhode Island Reds and pretty Silkies. Fresh farm produce, homemade jams, breads and cakes were on sale. The only way you could be sure we were still in SA, was the smell of open fires grilling boerewors and the sight of the tannies tossing pannekoeke in sweet cinnamon sugar.
Janet and I had to laugh as she greeted an acquaintance who told her in a conspiratorial tone that Bev and Grant Heymans’ house had just been sold to a Joburg couple for an “astronomical” amount and that they were “ruining the market for everyone else”. It was a fairly awkward moment for all of us when Janet introduced me to her as the new owner. Pity, I was dying to find out what I had supposedly paid for the property!
We wandered into the village Main Street and bumped into a colleague of mine. Rob was visiting from Joburg with the aim of picking up a plot of land for a good price. He had done just that, he informed us, grinning the grin of someone who had sourced a bargain. “And Niks, it’s right next door to your new house!“ We congratulated him while racking our brains. What empty plot right next to us? Following a confusing discussion we realised that he had put in an offer to purchase one of our two vacant plots, that were still being transferred from the Heymans’ to our name. After we had rained on Rob’s parade, his Estate Agent was brought over to weigh in on the conversation. Unbelievably it was the partner of our estate agent (yes the one that had thought it too troublesome to show us the property in the first instance and was raking in the sale commission as we spoke) that had ‘sold’ the plot to Rob. Geoff put in a panicked call to Estie, who reassured him and laughed off the aberrant Agent duo as “typical of Wakkerstroom.”
It was Cosmos season and the fields and gardens had masses of pink and white flowers What a gorgeous display. We were also introduced to the Wakkerstroom rose, a rambling climber in shades of pink that thrived in the cool climate. No wonder it feels so much like the UK.
Bev and Grant shared a little bit about the history of our house and showed us a book featuring the original building. Built in 1870, it was known as “The Dairy”, in the sense that that the farmers delivered their urns of milk to this communal point for distribution. (Source: “Wakkerstroom: A Conservation Study”, University of Natal; 1995)
Over the years parts of the house became fairly ramshackle and locals with good memories recall seeing cows grazing and wandering into parts of the building. It was then restored and beautifully improved, retaining its core of mud walls. At least three people confirmed that they see the ghost of a lady, dressed in the simple bustled dress and wimple of the 1800’s. She strolls across the land below our plots where the remains of a stone shed are still in existence. Thankfully, she has chosen not to reveal herself to me! May it remain that way!
We began driving down almost every weekend, broken-hearted when it was time to leave on a Sunday afternoon. We’d also inherited 4 bolshy geese (I now know why they are considered good watch-dogs!) some turkeys and chickens and best of all, the housekeeper/groundsman, Christof, who had worked for Bev and Grant. What a gentleman he was and a pleasure to have around, particularly in the winter. We’d arrive to find a fire blazing in the hearth; the old Union stove fired up, ready for cooking; the bedside lamps and electric blankets turned on; freshly laid eggs and newly harvested garlic in the fridge. Such a spoil!
Taffy and Taj would help us herd the geese and chickens back into their hok after the weekend. Geoff taught Taj to chase away the grazing cows so that we wouldn’t attract flies and he loved nothing more than to play Shepherd Dog, herding them skilfully off our land.
The main village is tiny and the activity is pretty much spread across the only two tarred roads. As you enter the town there is the delightfully named, “Mucky Duck” which is a pub style restaurant, run by Mel and Pat. A bric-a-brac store called “Bits and Pieces” owned by Kate and Rory, supplies delightful antiquey treasures so suited to the houses here. The one that had us falling about with laughter was the grandly named “Bra and Panty Palace”. (The target market for this was never clear). A new bakery opened by Dan and Marietjie made the freshest bread, excellent pies and most importantly – dog treats (chicken or liver flavour). A friendly man called Martin, had one of the most ideally located and pretty shops, but it was dedicated to electrics and car spares. It was a bit sad to see the gorgeous old wooden window frames show-casing fan belts and random vehicle backlights. Our favourite building of all was the Old Bioscope. A fairly dilapidated corrugated iron shed, with so much character that we day-dreamed of buying it, renovating and turning it into a simple restaurant with Italian fare and chequered tablecloths.
On the other side of town (in true old South African style) were the Indian shops. Mr Paruk was the General Dealer and sold everything from horse saddles to lamp oil and bicycles. Mr Chotia offered hardware supplies.
Of the closest friends that we would make, were the new owners of the old hotel, christened the Country Inn. Danny and Paula are accomplished British chefs and we were easily persuaded to join their Friday night gourmet offering of a sumptuous 3-course dinner, which became a delightful habit whenever we were in town. We found so much in common with them, including a love of good food, wine and dogs. We also got to know Paula’s parents Krys and Alan, who were huge fans of Wakkerstroom and commuted to their place on the hillside from Pretoria most weekends. (Krys later co-authored a book on Wakkerstroom, referenced in this blog).
We met our friendly neighbours, Niek and Ina Saayman. They turned out to be a godsend once Christof got a full-time, better-paying job and left us. Niek volunteered to keep the keys for our house, keep an eye on things and let our new maid in and out on Mondays. It turned out to be useful that he is also an experienced plumber.
The Wakkerstroom vlei is one of the larger reed marshes in South Africa. “Wetlands play a crucial role in flood control, slowing down the flow of water. As a result nutrients and sediments are deposited in the soil. This makes wetlands so richly fertile that they rank among the most productive environments in the world.” (Wakkerstroom: Jewel of Mpumalanga by Hoffie Hofmeyr & Krystyna Smith, 2009)
Inspired by the diverse wetland birds attracted to the region, we dusted off our binoculars and participated in a comprehensive birding course with John and Janet. Our garden is home to a fiscal shrike, a rasp of guinea fowl and a pair of Spotted Eagle Owls. We frequently see Crowned Cranes for which this region is famous. Swallows literally blanket the sky in summer as they swoop after insects at dusk. It’s a short stroll to the vlei to admire the coots, ducks, herons, gallinules, egrets and other abundant wetland species.
Many a weekend was coordinated with John and Janet and we revelled in ‘playing house’, taking turns to entertain, sharing our eggs and plant cuttings, getting to know the locals, and keeping an eye on the others’ property when they weren’t able to make it down. We explored the region, captivated by the undulating hills, the diverse terrain and the unspoilt places to picnic, like a nearby crater, accessible only via private farms.
What began as a quick weekend escape has evolved into a serious committed relationship. Umndeni cottage has become a second home and a sanctuary for both Geoff and I. It is also a haven for the dogs to roam freely, to swim and play. It is truly is a place to recharge one’s batteries after the busyness of Johannesburg and the harmonious landscapes really do restore one’s soul.