Hidden Gems

Our regular feature in which we visit some unique, hidden-away and off-the-beaten-track places and experiences you probably didn’t know existed…but which are truly worth a visit.

By Stef Terblanche

Misty Mountain…along Mpumalanga’s scenic Long Tom Pass

Set in the beautiful mountainous parts of Mpumalanga on the edge of the Highveld escarpment overlooking the Lowveld, is a place called Misty Mountain, reached via the historical Long Tom Pass. Forming part of Mpumalanga’s Panorama Route, it is a place of mystical beauty, with mountains, forests, streams and endless views. And an old Anglo-Boer War canon still guarding the pass.

Within easy reach from Gauteng following the R4 out of Pretoria and the R37 from Lydenburg, through the Makubolaan Nature Reserve en route to Sabie, White River and the Kruger National Park, you will reach Misty Mountain …an ideal weekend getaway area set in lush farmlands, forests, and mountain area. It lies 31 kilometres from Lydenburg and 24 kilometres from Sabie along good tarred roads.

Misty Mountain is a 280 hectare South African Natural Heritage Site perched at an altitude of 1,700 metres above sea level in a malaria-free area. It is a convenient point from which to explore Mpumalanga’s Panorama Route, including the Long Tom Pass, God’s Window, The Pinnacle, Bourke’s Luck Potholes and Blyde River Canyon. The Kruger National Park is also just a short drive away.

From the Misty Mountain Lodge it’s just a 2 ½ km drive to the Long Tom Canon monument. The canon is a replica of a Creusot siege cannon and marks the spot where, from 8 to 11 September 1900, two of these cannons were used for the last time by the Boer commandos against the British army, with devastating effect. These cannons were nicknamed the “Long Toms”.

Apart from Misty Mountain Lodge, there are other accommodation options in the area, ranging from self-catering to luxurious. Activities in the area include quad biking, trout fishing, hiking trails, bird watching and mountain biking trails, as well as the longest and super-fast toboggan run in Africa with an impressive 1.7 kilometre track.

De Hoop…a hidden coastal jewel

As CapeNature states on its website: De Hoop Nature Reserve, which it administers, “is more than just a retreat – it’s total surrender”.  It is probably one of the lesser-known reserves in South Africa, yet it is a place of such harmonious beauty, including some truly stunning and pristine coastline. And it lies just 3 hours’ drive from Cape Town close to Cape Agulhas.

This beautiful 34,000 hectare reserve with its lovely coastline and beaches is treasured by hikers, cyclists, and bird and whale watchers. It has a neighbouring marine reserve, which extends 5km out to sea, and is one of the largest marine protected areas in Africa, conserving a vast and fascinating variety of marine life. It also includes the Whale Trail and is a World Heritage Site.

The Whale Trail in the De Hoop reserve is regarded as among the most spectacular hiking trails in South Africa. The 5-day trail offers coastal and mountain hikes with spectacular views and whale sightings. The trail has five overnight cottages perched high on a sea cliff at the foot of the Potberg Mountains. These charming self-catering cottages range from traditional Arniston-style fisherman’s cottages to A-framed, thatched “kapstyl” style cottages.

The reserve is part of the world’s smallest and most threatened plant kingdom – the Cape Floral Kingdom. Of the 9,000 plant species found in the Cape floral region, the reserve and its surrounds are home to 1,500 species, including the largest conserved area of lowland fynbos in the Western Cape. In addition wildlife lovers can see 86 mammal species, including the rare bontebok and Cape mountain zebra, eland, grey rhebok, baboon, yellow mongoose, caracal and the occasional leopard. It is also home to more than 260 bird species and the only remaining breeding colony in the Western Cape of the rare Cape vulture.

Activities include hiking, whale-watching, wildlife viewing, bird-watching, swimming, snorkelling, and mountain biking. Nearby attractions include the historical fishermen’s village of Arniston, the Cave at Waenhuiskrans, the Breede River mouth, the Renosterveld Research and Visitor Centre, and a bit further southwest, Struisbaai and Cape Agulhas.

Bush Babies Sanctuary… at Hartbeespoort Dam, North West

Escape the hustle and bustle of the city environment of Gauteng by taking a drive through the beautiful Magaliesburg and Hartbeespoort region of the North West province, to the Bush Babies Monkey Sanctuary just a stone’s throw from the dam. Here you can interact with some amazing furry little creatures that will melt your heart, while there are numerous other highly enjoyable activities too in the area.

The bush babies sanctuary is one of several sanctuaries in a group of sanctuaries, including the adjacent elephant sanctuary that provides a home and rehabilitation for orphaned and abused animals. Here monkeys, or primates, have their freedom in a natural environment free of danger. The 7-hectare sanctuary is situated in a beautiful kloof (gorge) of the Magaliesberg mountain range. It is one of only eight free-release primate sanctuaries in the world.

 

Here you can interact with and be educated about bush babies, squirrel monkeys, capuchin monkeys, black-handed spider monkeys, ringtail lemurs, black and white ruffed lemurs, and more. At the same time you will be supporting a worthwhile private conservation effort. The tiny monkey faces with their big dark eyes, and their effortless acrobatics are guaranteed to make you fall in love with them.

Other nearby activities include visiting the dam, going on a hot-air balloon ride, visiting the chameleon park, the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre, the Tangaroa Strawberry Farm, visiting the Lesedi Cultural Village, walking the Hennops Hiking Trail, taking the cable car to the top of the Magaliesberg mountain, visiting the Potstill Brandy and Wine Cellar, various hiking and cycling trails, quad biking and 4X4 trails, abseiling, the Hartbeespoort Aquarium, the Owl Rescue Centre, a cheese factory, art galleries, shops and restaurants, a walk with elephants, or visit the Hartbeespoort Dam Snake and Animal Park.

Chintsa”The Beach” of the Wild Coast

If you’ve always wanted to visit a place like The Beach off Thailand featured in the famous book and movie starring Leonardo Dicaprio, Chintsa, also known as Cintsa, at the start of the Eastern Cape Wild Coast, may be just the place for you. The place is a back-packers mecca where you will meet travellers from all over the world.

Chintsa has everything: a river estuary and lagoon, a dam upstream along the river, milkwood forests, tree-covered sand dunes, white beaches and flat waters, rocky little bays, nice surfing spots, isolation, good weather, and relatively few human beings other than a few locals and the global backpacking society.

 

Here you can chill in a hammock, fall asleep on the beach next to the breakers, go horse riding, catch some surfing, do some snorkelling, paddle up the river, go on a township or brewery tour, or visit the nearby Inkwenkwezi Private Game Reserve, where you can see rhino, giraffe, zebra and a variety of buck.

Just 45km northeast of East London, Chintsa is divided into two small villages on either side of the river mouth. There is a small permanent population, a scattering of holiday homes behind the dunes, three hotels, and a number of guest houses, self-catering cottages and backpackers’ lodges. It can be reached only by a bumpy dirt road, or dropping in from the sky or the sea. Laze away your days in blissful seaside isolation.

Darling…the Western Cape heart of flowers, satire and wine

Tucked away behind the hills a short distance inland from the Cape West Coast, lies the sleepy little town of Darling, famous for its resident satirist and actor Pieter-Dirk Uys, the Darling Wildflower Show, its wines and its wind farm. It also falls within the Cape Floral Region, a World Heritage Site, and lies within the West Coast / Namaqualand Wild Flower Route famous for the annual springtime wildflower spectacle.

The townsfolk of Darling will tell you, “It’s only an hour from Cape Town, but a million miles away”. The town was established in 1853 and named after Sir Charles Henry Darling who came in 1851 to the Cape as Lieutenant Governor. The local museum provides a fascinating insight into its history. Since 1917 the town has been famous for its annual Darling Wildflower Show…this year celebrating 100 years of the show.

The town is equally well-known for one of its residents, the award-winning South African satirist and actor Pieter-Dirk Uys, who performs many of his hilarious shows as Evita Bezuidenhout at Evita se Perron, a cabaret venue and restaurant, located inside the converted old railway station of Darling. The venue is filled with signage and other memorabilia of the apartheid era, the political order Uys fought relentlessly with his satire, lampooning and highlighting many of its absurdities.

 

The town also is home to a very active creative community, with arts and crafts and various markets. Also nearby is the !Khwa ttu San Culture & Education Centre where visitors can join San trackers on game-viewing excursions. Just outside the town is the Darling Wind Farm on the road to nearby Yzerfontein, a holiday town on the West Coast. Also close to the town is the West Coast National Park and the Langebaan Lagoon, a holiday playground and an area with a rich bird life. Here you can see migrating water birds, like flamingos and white pelicans.

There is a state-of-the-art brewery in Darling, and with its darling Wine Cellar and wine shops, the town is also the centre of the Darling Wine Route that includes wine estates like Cloof, Groote Post, Ormonde and Tukulu. All provide wine tastings and some also provide delicious meals. Furthermore, the town is famous for two major annual musical events, the Darling Music Experience, a celebration of classical music, and the Rocking the Daisies rock music festival.

Riemvasmaak…a tale of victory in the Northern Cape

In the Green Kalahari Region of the Northern Cape, lies the Riemvasmaak Community Conservancy, a place steeped in apartheid history and surrounded by rugged beauty. The conservancy is the first place to have been returned to its original inhabitants after the end of apartheid. And despite their erstwhile removal, their culture has survived and thrived, and today visitors from far and wide can come and enjoy it. But there is much else also on offer here.

The 74,000-hectare area of Riemvasmaak is located 56km from the Northern Cape town of Kakamas, bordered by the Orange River in the south, Upington in the east, and Namibia in the west. The story of the area is a rich but sad one with a victoriously happy ending.

The original inhabitants – people of Xhosa, Damara, Herero, Nama, and Coloured origin – who had settled the area around a small mission station since the 1800s and before, were forcibly removed by the apartheid government in the 1970s to make way for a military training ground. Some were sent back to their South African ‘homelands’ and others were relocated to Namibia, then under South African administration as Southwest-Africa. A section of the area known as Melkbosrand was incorporated into the Augrabies National Park.

Just before the end of apartheid that came with elections in April 1994, the outgoing government decided to hand the land back to its original people. After April 1994 it became one of the first land restitution projects under the government of Nelson Mandela. By the end of 1995, most of the original inhabitants were back on their land. Some two-thirds of them belong to the Nama group and live around the mission station. The Xhosa group lives at the Vredesvallei settlement on the banks of the Orange River.

Apart from learning of the history and culture of the area, the conservancy and adjacent areas have much to offer tourists. Ample accommodation is available throughout the area in the form of chalets and B&Bs. There are 4X4 routes, several hiking trails, a mountain bike route, bird and game watching, a nearby hot spring, the nearby Augrabies Waterfall, and much more. The area is also known for groups of traditional dancers who perform South Africa’s oldest dance form, the rieldans, dressed in traditional costume, while traditional meals are prepared for visitors who come to watch the dancing.

Sandy Bay…where nudists and nature lovers go in Cape Town

It may have earned itself an international reputation as South Africa’s first nudist beach in an era when public nudity was still strictly illegal, but Sandy Bay and its surrounds really have much more to offer. Even so, its beautiful beach and coves are still a favourite with nudist sun-seekers from far and wide.

To get to Sandy Bay, follow the M6 out of Cape Town through Sea Point, Clifton and Camps Bay, turning off into the picturesque little village of Llandudno. Drive south to the end of Llandudno where there is a parking area, and then walk for some 20 minutes along a rocky, bush-flanked pathway until you get to the beach. Other than that, it is almost inaccessible, which used to be big problem for police who wanted to raid the ‘illegal’ nudists back in the 1970s and 1980s.

Apart from letting nature lovers take it all off, the beach and surrounding area offers far more: a beautiful beach with stunning mountain and sea views; swimming and surfing; lots of rocks and hiking paths to explore; and the big mansions of Llandudno that precariously hug the steep mountainside. Llandudno itself has a beautiful beach…but here you have to keep your clothes on.

The surrounding scenery of looming mountains, bush-covered dunes, rocky coastline, hidden little coves and the Atlantic Ocean is truly beautiful. But don’t forget to take along water, some food and plenty of sunscreen. Those who have not heeded this advice in the past during a Sunday spent in their birthday suit under the African sun, sorely regretted it the next day when, back at work, they were not able to sit on a chair behind their desks!

Other attractions in the nearby area include the famous Suikerbossie restaurant where the road from Llandudno crosses over the neck down to Hout Bay. Hout Bay itself is of course well known for its lovely bay, beach, fishing harbour, art galleries, pubs and restaurants…as well as the famous fish and chips to be bought in the harbour area.

  • For more info: Call Cape Town Tourism on Tel 0861322223 or visit capetown.travel.

Wolkberg Wilderness Area…one of Limpopo’s hidden treasures

Mountain peaks, lively water streams, pine forests, deep and densely forested ravines, wide valleys, countless gorges, massive buttresses, indigenous subtropical rainforests, grasslands, rivers and waterfalls sum up the beautiful Wolkberg Wilderness Area some 80km southwest of the town of Tzaneen in Limpopo Province. In addition is has an abundance of birdlife and smaller game. No wonder it is a top-of-the-list favourite with local hikers and nature lovers.

But this pristine wilderness area adjacent to the equally beautiful Magoebaskloof is very accessible also for tourists travelling from further afield. From Gauteng one can fly to Polokwane or, with lighter aircraft to Tzaneen. Or drive along the N1 to Polokwane, from where a short 46km drive will take you to Haenertsburg. Around this area, at the southern end of Magoebaskloof and further north around the wilderness area, several dirt roads provide access to the area. However, best would be to ask Limpopo Parks or the Limpopo Tourism agency for more precise information about access routes.

The Wolkberg Wilderness Area spans some 22,000 hectares and forms part of the northern Drakensberg and Strydpoort mountain ranges, with its highest peak here being the 2,127m high, often mist-covered Wolkberg. The area was proclaimed a wilderness area in 1977. The lush indigenous forests are home to species such as the Outeniqua and real yellowwoods, wild fig, lemonwood, wild peach and Cape beech.

 

Tracks are pretty indistinct throughout the area, which means one can often make up one’s own route, although is not advisable to do so alone. Hikers will have a good chance of spotting smaller mammals such as klipspringer, grey rhebok, mountain reedbuck, duiker, bushbuck, genet, otter, the nocturnal caracal, vervet and samango monkeys, and, on the odd occasion even leopard and brown hyaena. The area is also teeming with birdlife, including black eagle, hamerkop, bat hawk, blackcollared and pied barbets, lilac-breasted roller, pearl breasted swallows and crested francolin.

For those travelling to the area from further away and need accommodation, there is plenty on offer to suit all tastes in surrounding towns and districts, as well as many other activities. This is truly one of the more beautiful parts of South Africa not to be missed. You can hardly get closer to nature.

  • For more info: Tel +27 (0) 15 307 3582, or visit golimpopo.com.