Dullstroom: Life on High

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Lofty little Dullstroom, on Mpumalanga’s Drakensberg escarpment, has clear air, a cool climate and sparkling waters. It’s also super popular. Mia Louw finds out what all the fuss is about.

Highland Gate’s Waterfall Hike meanders along the Kareerkraalspruit. Along the way, malachite kingfishers dart from the lush greenery. Image by Mia Louw

The Insider

Leigh Peachey has seen Dullstroom evolve over the past 35 years. After studying and travelling, she moved back to her hometown to assist with the family farm and business, Dullstroom Country Cottages.

image by Mia Louw

The mist came rolling in over the sloping hills, slow and gentle, as a soft drizzle decorated my windshield. I was reminded that we were in the highest town in the country (just under 2,100 metres above sea level), yet a short drive away from the hot, humid Lowveld.

The Crocodile River, which flows through Nelspruit with wild and wide grandeur, starts as a narrow stream right here outside ‘Dullies’. Established in 1883 by a Dutchman called Wolterus Dull, residents of this dorp have a knack for using his surname in any title: Idullies Farm, Anything But Dull art studio and Dullybuggers, the local band.

I took a seat on a bench at Dullstroom Country Cottages, in front of our cosy unit overlooking a pond – a playground for geese and ducks. A baby peacock, pale brown and scraggly, frantically bounced past my feet as Leigh Peachey approached. Leigh came to Dullstroom when she was a year old; her grandfather bought their family’s first property, and 10 years later the neighbouring farm. Leigh’s father used to be a full-time fish farmer. ‘Dullstroom was absolutely miniature at that point,’ she said. She recalls the main street and Die Wawiel Kafee, at the first stop street as you enter town from Belfast, ‘and then nothing until you got to the last stop street’.

She has seen it grow from a one-horse hamlet to a popular weekend escape for Gautengers, offering around 1,500 beds for visitors. According to many locals, the first Sunday Times Finders Keepers competition in 1989 brought attention to Dullies; the one-million-rand prize was hidden behind a clock in the Dullstroom Inn. Others say interest grew more gradually, as word spread of its down-to-earth country charm combined with upmarket accommodation, fine dining and an abundance of activities. ‘I had a corporate life before I moved here. Wearing a suit and working in a bank in Nelspruit,’ says Madeléne Holtzhausen, standing in her shop and roastery, Beans about Coffee. ‘When I arrived here, I became human.’

I found a seat on the patio and admired the gently swaying trees towering over me and the creepers steadily slinking up the stone walls. This bucolic building doesn’t only house a roastery – for something stronger, the Anvil Ale Brewpub is right next door. Owner Theo de Beer has been making craft beer for more than 30 years, long before it was hip. It’s a Friday late morning, and thanks to the calm before the storm, Theo had some time to talk me through a tasting of six beers.

As I took a whiff and a sip of the Bookoo, infused with buchu and honey, I understood why Anvil Ale has won international awards. As I left, I noticed more cars driving past – the weekend rush approaching. ‘More and more people have been saying they want to move here,’ Trish Kennedy told me later as we added ice to our tumblers, soaking up the atmosphere at Wild about Whisky. Trish is Leigh’s mom and an estate agent. ‘You don’t come here to get rich, you come here to enjoy the lifestyle.’ Two whiskies later and we called it an early night. Trish had to be up early for the Parkrun.

This is one of the 14 lakes and dams to choose from at Walkersons, a popular location for fly fishing. Image by Mia Louw

Just before eight the next morning, I was in my car at the Dullstroom Dam, hiding from the rain and waiting for the race to start. The ‘highest Park run in the world’ takes place here every weekend, with the route circling twice around the water. Bruce Fordyce, the brains (and legs) behind Parkrun, joined runners for the first Dullies event last year. ‘It is really well supported by visitors and locals alike, even on rainy, misty days like this,’ said Leigh, just as I heard a shriek in the distance – a runner taking a detour around some hissing geese, heads and extended necks pointing in unison. On this run, you need to be on the lookout for horses, cows and fowl.

From one flight of birds to the next: Daffy, a spotted eagle owl, sat perched on a visitor’s head; and Hali, the fish eagle, glided over us, almost brushing the audience’s hair. At Dullstroom’s Bird of Prey and Rehabilitation Centre, Magdali Theron runs flight demonstrations to educate the public while exercising the raptors. I looked at a fellow visitor – both of us were in awe and teary eyed. Magdali had the audience amazed and amused, and busted quite a few myths about these birds she loves so dearly.

Back on the main road in town – lined with colourful buildings and quirky shops – families, tour groups and bikers stopped for a last bite. The weekend was coming to an end and the rush winding down. ‘A transient space,’ as Leigh described it. Restaurants emptied out, shop queues shortened and the roads quietened down. And I thought of something Trish had said. ‘When Sunday comes we have our little town back to ourselves.’

Dullstroom by Numbers

A sweet spot to savour craft beer or speciality coffees, on the patios outside the local brewery and roastery. Image by Mia Louw

7,500 clocks
Starting with 30 timepieces in 2007, The Clock Shop’s stock has grown into what’s said to be the biggest collection in the southern hemisphere, with everything from family-crest items to grandfather and cuckoo clocks. 0132540022

1,600 Whiskies
Wild about Whisky claims to be the southern hemisphere’s best-stocked whisky bar and shop. One of the three owners travels to Scotland or Ireland once a year to brush up on their knowledge and stock up the collection. The most expensive tot will set you back R965. It also has a variety of other tipples. Tastings from R165 per person. 0132540066

46 Shakes
Turkish delight, lemon meringue, milk tart, Ferrero Rocher, peanut butter, Zoo biscuits, candy floss, jelly beans and caramelised popcorn … just some of the delightful tastes available at Udderlicious Milkshake Bar. Savoury snacks (hotdogs, toasties) and tea or coffee are also available at this colourful, quirky spot. 0646219373

38 Years of flames
Have a drink next to the ‘eternal fire’, which has been burning since 1980 in the bar of the oldest hotel in town, the Dullstroom Inn. The last staff member to leave at night stacks enough wood on the fire for the glow to last until morning. 0132540071

Milkshake Bar by Mia Louw

Where do locals go?

Willem Human, manager of Tipsy Trout liquor store

‘Dullstroom is the ideal place for a pub crawl with friends. There is a wide selection of restaurants and bars close to each other.’

Francesca Stoltz, manager of Trams Trading

‘I like to go for a picnic at a waterfall with friends. We usually go to Waterval Farm, out on the Kruisfontein road.’ It’s private land – only guests who stay here have access. 0132540020

Mariana Coleman, shop assistant at J&L The Leather Company

‘There are two clay-pigeon shooting ranges close to town, at Lake Heron and Field and Stream.’ 0827810242, 0132540431

Christine Hammann, chef at Art of Food

The Mad Hatter is a must. Besides the special food, the cafe also has an Alice in Wonderland theme.’ 0729929711

Image by Mia Louw

Plan your trip

Getting there

We drove from Nelspruit via Belfast on the R539 and R36 (160 kilometres); it’s slightly longer, with a tollgate at Machado Plaza, but the R37 and R540 via Lydenburg is a popular truck route and will have you dodging potholes. Driving from Joburg, take the N12 to Emalahleni (Witbank), the N4 to Belfast and the last stretch on the R540, a total of 250 kilometres.

Need to know

Roughly 70 per cent of the beds available in and around town are booked out over weekends. Make sure you book in advance, or come during the week to have the village to yourself.

Dullstroom Country Cottages. Image by Mia Louw

Stay here

Dullstroom Country Cottages, nine kilometres out of town, has eight self-catering stone units sleeping two to six. Picnic Cottage, nestled in a pine forest, has beautiful views over a private waterfall. From R900 for two. 0823389458

Critchley Hackle Lodge in town offers stylish rooms with fireplaces and views of its private trout lake and gardens, and the mountains. There is a restaurant on site. R1 850 B&B for a lakeside unit (sleeps two). 0132540055

Dullstroom on the Dam has some of the cheapest self-catering options, all pet friendly, as well as camping spots with a view of the water. Cottages from R600 (sleep four). Camping R125 adults, R62 kids. 0617623209

There is a gentle bustle on weekend afternoons at Dunkeld Estate: friends strolling, families fishing and children running bikes until the last light; Daffy, a spotted eagle owl, takes a quick break during a flight demonstration at the Bird of Prey Rehabilitation Centre. Images by Mia Louw

Do this

Enjoy live music on Saturdays from noon at Bohobo Cafebar, the town’s newest spot. Owner Billa Pansegrouw plays in local band Dullybuggers, and owns the backpackers lodge. 0823122266

Visit the highest train station in SA. Built in 1911, it stands at 2 076 metres above sea level. Only freight trains pass through but Dylon Evens, who lives next door, says it’s ‘perfectly positioned for sunsets’.

Learn to fly-fish. Mavungana Flyfishing is one of SA’s largest specialist agencies, managing most of the waters around town. Manager John Thoabala is very knowledgeable. Rod rental is R75 a day, a 30-minute intro lesson is R190, half-day guided outings are from R1 495 per person. 0132540270

Play golf at Highland Gate Estate. The Ernie Els-designed course is ranked No. 15 on Golf Digest’s Top 100 Courses in SA list this year. From R530 per person. For non-golfers, there are short hikes to views and waterfalls on the estate. 0872874653

Enjoy the outdoors at Dunkeld Country & Equestrian Estate. Horse trails are from R220 per person per hour. Test your fitness at high altitude on one of the hiking, running and MTB trails; R50 per person day-visitor fee; bike rental from R50 an hour. Or take a guided tour of the trout hatchery (by prior arrangement, R50 per person). There are 19 fly-fishing dams and ponds; it’s R150 per person to fish. 078-293-1403

Raise a few glasses of the local ale. A tasting of the six in the range is free at Anvil Ale Brewpub. 0731686603

Art of Food. Image by Mia Louw

Eat here

Mrs Simpson’s is a fine-dining restaurant that’s comfortably quirky – filled with vintage shoes and bags, and home to Wallis the cat. For a delicious light lunch, order a starter; the chicken livers in Merlot balsamic cream costs R72. 0132540088

 

Art of Food‘s Instagram famous dish – Scotch egg with mushrooms, red pepper purée, pancetta and a Parmesan crisp on a warm slate plate(R80) – is almost too pretty to eat. 0823247594

The Flying Scotsman, about 16 kilometres out of town at Walkersons Hotel, offers tranquil views over trout dams. Share a Highland Platter for R135. 0132537000