The towns of Ugie and Maclear in the Eastern Cape highlands are set in a landscape dominated by imposing mountains engraved with rivers that flow almost year-round. Add cosy cottages and you have the perfect autumn sojourn.
Words & Photos Gillian Warren-Brown
As I approached Ugie, it felt as if I’d entered a scene from Outlander. Not because there were any sword-wielding Jamie Fraser lookalikes in kilts but because the soaring green mountains reminded me of the Scottish Highlands. These are the foothills of the Drakensberg, and the mountains are taller here than in most parts of the Eastern Cape.
I was driving from the Elliot side on the R56. On the mountains to my left, giant rocks protruded through moss-green slopes, like castle crenellations. Thankfully, I glanced up occasionally, otherwise I’d have missed seeing the hole at the top of Gatberg, about 10km before Ugie. It’s possible to hike up to the hole (see Do This), which local lore claims is big enough for a span of oxen to turn a wagon.
My first stop in Ugie was to view 89 examples of the beast that replaced the ox in agriculture, on display at the Bob Kaschula Tractor Museum. Those crammed into the building make up just two-thirds of the tractor collection: another 45 are housed in a farm shed.
Jason Kaschula says as far as he knows, this is the biggest private collection in South Africa. It began when his grandfather Bob started buying or retrieving tractors that had been abandoned in the veld. He restored each one, the oldest being a 1916 Massey-Harris Wallis.
Accompanying me was the informative Charles Coetser, who knows as much about engines as he does about the area: he was town planner in Maclear for 20 years.
Ugie and Maclear are regarded – at least by locals – as a unit. On Charles’ watch, this was taken into account when planning infrastructure for the towns, which are just 22km apart.
Both have the feel of typical Eastern Cape towns, where the main shopping drag is often busy and the side roads are deserted and potholed. The spires of their respective NG Kerks point needle-like heavenward and there are a few old sandstone buildings.
The charm of these small towns, though, is that each has a close-knit community, and fabulous stories, such as the one Maclear resident Noël Wagenaar tells: after a day of gymkhana (a popular sport here), a pumped-up winner rode right inside the pub on his horse. With much less fanfare, Charles and I popped in to The Cock & the Cat in Ugie’s main road for lunch. Over delicious wraps and cappuccinos, Charles – a keen biker – told me what a popular destination this area is for adventure bikers; there are at least seven rugged passes within 50km of Ugie and Maclear.
To give me a taste of a few, Charles and his wife Ria took me on a triple-pass journey. We headed out of Maclear on the pine plantation-lined R396, which links the town with Rhodes village via Pot River and Naudé’s Nek passes.
Noël had urged us to look out for a cave next to a bend in the Pot River Pass where the original road builder had lived with his family (and a governess to teach his children). Legend or not, we decided which shelter it must have been.
Further on, we stopped at a stream so I could take a closer look at the red stars lining the banks. They were scarlet river lilies: the first of a host of high-altitude wildflowers that spattered the landscape with pink, red, yellow and orange. While I enthused about the flowers, Charles, who looks at streams with the appreciation of a fly-fisherman, remarked on the ‘crystal, gin-clear water’.
Being a major catchment area with an annual rainfall of about 2 000mm, the four main rivers and their tributaries offer more than 1 000km of fishable waters, flow almost year-round and provide ideal conditions for rainbow trout. To complement the water-mountain-flower combination, birds abound. In the grassland we saw blue cranes and grey crowned cranes with chicks, while against a backdrop of clouds I spotted at least one Wahlberg’s eagle.
Naudé’s Nek Pass begins on a gentle slope but switchbacks soon get you ascending pretty quickly and, by the time you reach a viewing point at 2 500m, you’re almost eye-level with the clouds and the landscape below stretches to infinity.
Our route back took in Pitseng Pass through wild countryside and we detoured to view the Tsitsa Falls. The waterfall was roaring after heavy rains, making it futile for me to visit the site of some dinosaur footprints nearby. They’re in the Little Pot riverbed and were submerged, probably until winter.
Later on, Adele Moore took me to a vantage point overlooking the site and we went in search of wildflowers with her dogs. She’s a botanical guide and her eyes are trained to spot the tiniest exclamation of colour. We shared great delight in finding some magnificent salmon or Transkei gladioli, sometimes consorting with red-hot pokers.
I couldn’t ignore my curiosity about the dinosaur footprints so I asked the academic who’s currently studying them (and others near Ugie) to enlighten me. Associate Professor Emese Bordy of the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Cape Town explained: ‘They are of enormous scientific importance because they’re among the oldest dinosaur footprints in the world. It was truly the dawn of the dinosaurs.’ The tracks in this area are unique because they’re preserved in rocks known as the Molteno Formation, part of the Stormberg Group, laid down roughly 235 million years ago, whereas other dinosaur footprints, such as those in Lesotho, occur in younger rocks.
I wonder if San (Bushmen) who lived here saw these tracks and stood in awe. They, too, left evidence of their presence: in the form of paintings and stone tools in shelters throughout the area. I went to see some well-preserved examples in a shelter at Woodcliffe. The farm is known for its spectacular scenery and I could see why: the same mountain-water theme, but amplified.
On our hike to the shelter, we crossed sparkling streams and as we climbed higher, there were ribbons of water cascading down crevices in the cliff face. The rock surface in the shelter is densely painted. I sat in silence taking it all in before examining the details, including eland, a cheetah, therianthropes and humans.
For the artists, there was clearly something magical here. Centuries later, there still is.
Clarendon Guest House
This stately double-storey house in Ugie was originally an orphanage for girls whose parents died during the 1918 flu pandemic. There are 13 en-suite rooms (double, twin and single), and two self-contained family units. From R250 pp sharing. Breakfast and dinner by arrangement at an additional charge. 045 933 1138, clarendonguesthouse.co.za
Insider Tip: Room 3 family unit upstairs features a brass double bed, while Room 1, off the elegant dining room, has an en suite bathroom straight out of grandma’s house.
Surrounded by a well-kept garden, you can imagine this as a grand old family home, which was its previous incarnation. There’s a lounge, a dining room where meals can be served on request and the upstairs rooms are under thatch. The self-catering units are in the garden, as is a braai lapa. Sleeps 26. From R610 pp sharing. Breakfast, lunch packs and dinner are extra. 079 455 7286. Facebook: Forty Winks Guesthouse & Self Catering.
Insider tip: If you enjoy luxuriating in a bath, choose Room 9.
Tortoni Guest Farm and Caravan Park
This working farm just off the R56, 5km from Maclear provides a range of accommodation options: B&B and self catering units at the main house, and next to the nearby dam, camping and caravan stands (the only one in the area) with electricity and hot water. R400 pp self-catering, R480 B&B (R140 extra for dinner). R300 per camp or caravan site. 084 200 2548, 083 386 0059, tortoni.co.za
Insider tip: The stone rondavel, which was a maternity home in the 1800s, is light and cosy, with a fireplace for chilly evenings.
Lazy 8 River Lodge
For an outdoorsy getaway in off-the-grid accommodation, Lazy 8 has two self-catering houses on a 3 000-hectare farm with a view of the Prentjiesberg. The farm has about 13km of river frontage ideal for fly fishing or tubing. The mountainous terrain lends itself to hiking, exploring on a mountain bike, driving 4×4 trails or horse riding (you can even take your own horse). A high-clearance vehicle, preferably a 4×4, is recommended; there’s limited cellphone signal and no TV. R2 000 a night for Lazy 8 River Lodge (sleeps 9) and R1 000 a night for Forest Cottage (sleeps 4). WhatsApp 082 557 6686. Facebook: Lazy 8 River Lodge.
Insider tip: For the best river fishing, visit in May.
Blarney Stone Cottage
This self-catering cottage is on a working farm and was built of stone reclaimed from seven tumble-down cottages in the area. It sleeps 10; a high-clearance vehicle is recommended. R1 000 for the cottage (for two) then R100 per additional person. 073 918 6224 or 083 232 2204. Facebook: Blarney Stone Cottage.
Insider tip: Plan to stay more than one night, especially with kids. They tend to fall in love with the farm and don’t want to leave.
Woodcliffe Country House
Here, location is king: the mountains are close and there’s easy access to fish-able rivers (R150 per rod per day), hiking, rock art viewing and wild flowers. A secluded self-catering cottage sleeps six and has outdoor braai facilities, a garden flat for two and a loft in the main house that sleeps four. In addition, there’s one campsite with ablution facilities. The farm is 22km from Maclear and a high-clearance vehicle is recommended. From R450 pp sharing; R140 pp for camping. WhatsApp 082 925 1030, woodcliffe.co.za
Insider tip: The loft has a long balcony that’s perfect for enjoying sun- downers with an uninterupted view of Castle Kop.
This upmarket B&B on the outskirts of Maclear has all the mod cons, including free Wi-Fi and DStv (full package). There’s a gym on the premises and a fully licensed on-site restaurant, Bistro @Alpine. From R650 pp for B&B. 074 123 1511, alpinebnb.co.za
Insider tip: Secure, undercover parking was specially designed with 4×4 adventure tourists and bikers in mind: the roof is high enough for big vehicles and bikers can park and take their luggage inside without it getting wet.
A double-storey rondavel forms the centrepiece of the guest house, set in a manicured garden in a quiet cul de sac overlooking the town. Some of the rooms, as well as the dining area, are in the main house while additional units are separate. All rooms are en suite and there are three family rooms. Indoor braai facilities are available. From R450 pp sharing. A full English breakfast is an extra R100 pp. 071 494 8504, maclearmanor.co.za
Insider tip: Room 5 has a balcony with a panoramic view over the town and far beyond.
Eat & Drink
The Cock & the Cat coffee shop is a gathering point for breakfast, light meals and – Wednesday to Friday – for dinner. 045 933 1019.
Maclear The vibey Bistro @ Alpine is open for lunch, dinner and takeaways. 045 932 1639 / 071 684 8646. The place to go for steak is The Ranch, 045 932 1008.
For outstanding coffee, breakfast and light meals, stop at the Bean & Bun Coffee Haus. 045 932 1135.
To play golf at Maclear Country Club, contact Noël Wagenaar on 082 925 1425.
Fly fish for wild trout: For information and a mandatory permit (R180 a day or R400 a year to join the club), call Dean Naudé on 082 417 4469.
Visit Ugie’s Bob Kaschula Tractor Museum on President Street. Entrance is free; it’s open 8am – 3pm weekdays. Weekends by appointment only. Call Jason Kaschula on 078 448 9600.
View the antique collection at Clarendon Guest House (045 933 1138). Main Road, Ugie, clarendon guesthouse.co.za.
Go flower hunting (from October to February): there’s a huge variety of wildflowers and more than 60 species of wild orchids between Maclear and Naudé’s Nek. Contact botanical guides Adele Moore (083 283 2999) or Phyll Sephton (WhatsApp 082 925 1030). They also offer guided trips to rock-art sites and Adele can show you the dinosaur footprints about 17km from Maclear. To view the tracks about 4km from Ugie, WhatsApp Corien Goosen on 082 430 8448. All by prior arrangement only.
For information about climbing Gatberg, visiting Tsitsa Falls and driving the passes contact Charles Coetser on 082 448 6069 in advance. Conditions can be treacherous, so check before attempting. samountainpasses. co.za