Why look for weekend getaways in the Magaliesberg? For starters, Magaliesberg is a shape-shifting area – one minute you’re driving through the bland scrubby bush with tatty signs of human detritus everywhere, the next you’re on a twisting dirt track that rises up a rocky ridge to survey a practically uninhabited valley.
Given its proximity to Gauteng’s metropolis, these pockets of untouched nature – a patchwork of conservancies and reserves with the purest-tasting springs and still offering surprise encounters with a handful of fauna – offer a visual and psychological escape that is pretty miraculous.
The Magaliesberg dwarf even the history of the Cradle Of Humankind (a very different experience). The range is the remains of a fossilized shoreline that dates back some 2000 million years, before there was even enough oxygen for humans to breathe. The Magaliesberg Mountains form a 120-kilometre-long escarpment, but for the purposes of this selection, I was looking for an easy wilderness/rural weekend escape no more than 90 minutes from Joburg. Inspecting within this radius it soon became clear that the area in and around Hekpoort, particularly those within the Hartebeestfontein Conservancy, is where most gems are found.
Many places offered lovely surrounds and/or hosts, but had the kind of decor that would force me to drink even more than I usually do. Others were within earshot of busy roads, or just too far. I looked for – and was most grateful to find – lodges and cottages that had real individual charm, where couples might reignite romance, or friends or individuals could just ‘chillax’, as my teenage daughters like to say.
Best lodge in a nature reserve
1. Steynshoop Mountain Lodge
A converted thatched house with nine rooms, Steynshoop Mountain Lodge is located within the Magaliesberg Protected Area, and is worth every bump along the dirt track to get there. Intimate and unpretentious, with farm-style antiques, and every sofa, table and bed dressed in white – thank heavens for people like Peter Curle who invest so much in creating classy hospitality products that remain affordable to South Africans. It’s not a full-service hotel but has the luxuries that count – not least Elcid Mostert, the attentive chef, who offers genuine service that makes you feel as if the lodge belongs to you. A small but excellent wine list; a 22-metre pool; huge views, and real proximity to nature – barking baboon, yipping jackals, and regular visits from nyala, warthogs and monkeys – all make for a restorative weekend.
Room tip: The four upstairs rooms: 5, 7, 8 or 9. Room 6 is also lovely but has a tiny bathroom. Room 9 is the best standard; room 7 the best luxury.
Best for budget or group of hikers
What a well-chosen name for this lush farm deep within the Hartebeestfontein Conservancy. The multiple-generation family is clearly as successful at gardening as they are at farming: towering trees and flowering shrubs punctuate the rolling lawns overlooked by a sprawling restaurant and veranda. There is an inviting 25-metre pool and, given the luxury of the grounds and facilities, the amiable service and great location, Rustig is surely the best bargain in the berg. You could spend the day at the pool after an early morning game drive (R250 per person including breakfast), but most come for the hikes of three (R65 per person), five (R65 per person) or 13 kilometres (R75 per person), or to overnight in the mountain hut, Karee.
Room tip: The Dormitory is a double-storey block with six rooms, ideal for a group (up to 36), but three of the rooms can also be made up with just two single beds – book an upstairs corner room. Nearby basic Stone House sleeps six and is a great budget family option. Heritage House, the original three-bedroom farmhouse, is furnished with antiques and shares one Victorian-style but modern bathroom (plus a great shower!). It’s not really set up to self-cater (meals can be served to you here, or at the restaurant) but you can braai.
Best luxury self-catering
3. Steynshoop Valley Lodge
Apparently based on the design of an early Transvaal farmstead, but Cape Dutch in character, Valley Lodge comprises a quadrangle of six self-catering buildings built around a large central courtyard. Every unit has Peter Curle’s trademark decor – white furnishings, Cape antiques – but it’s quite a different experience to neighbouring Steynshoop Mountain Lodge (above): aside from being self-catering, it’s fenced, so doesn’t provide the same connection to nature. Additional facilities include an all-weather, flood-lit tennis court, volleyball, badminton and croquet, a billiard room and a shared outdoor entertainment area with a small fenced pool, braai area and three thatched gazebos. Taken as a whole the lodge can sleep 20 comfortably, plus has three sleeper couches for kids. A pretty chapel is being built.
Room tip: The Homestead – Curle’s personal Magaliesberg five-bedroom bolthole – is easily the most luxurious self-catering option in the Magaliesberg, while the open-plan, one-bedroom The Valley Suite offers honeymoon-level luxury and privacy for a bargain price. The Corner Cottage is next best.
Best value hotel and spa
4. Valley Lodge & Spa
There are several hotel options in the area (more options below), but no one else offers better value, a spa of this calibre, and an adjacent nature reserve with clearly marked walking trails. As such it’s usually bustling, with friendly staff that aim to please and a choice of 76 rooms (so fairly densely developed) in well-maintained grounds. Interiors are pleasant enough, but the style is more bland urban corporate than country charm. That said, bag a Magalies River-facing room, and you really have the best of both worlds: a serene view from your veranda, combined with the pleasures of being in a large hotel. These include an enormous resort-style pool, that fabulous spa (heated mineral pool, Jacuzzi, saunas, great treatment menu), a very convivial pub, tennis court, babysitting and a few dining options, including wood-fired pizzas delivered to your room.
Room tip: If privacy and nature are important, book the best river-facing Luxury rooms: 64 to 74.
Cost: Luxury rooms from R2815 for two sharing B&B, R1070 extra for ages 6 to 12, under 6s stay for free. Check online for specials that include spa treatments – it’s worth booking these in advance.
Best for all-inclusive luxury
5. Quiet Mountain Country House
The pleasures are many at Quiet Mountain House, located in the Hartebeestfontein Conservancy. There’s the food, prepared with quality ingredients, including milk, cream and butter produced from resident cows, and eggs from their obliging hens; the rambling gardens; and the excellent service that John and his partner Terence have given guests for more than 22 years. And then of course there are the rooms: each different, but all richly textured with fascinating objets: Persian carpets, quilts and artworks collected during their many years as art directors in the film industry. It’s peaceful – no TVs in the rooms, but there’s a games room with a large TV, and a pretty loft-library in the original thatched home. Romance is inevitable, as are return visits – John recently welcomed back a regular who proudly told his girlfriend he’d been conceived here.
Room tip: Room 9 – a separate cottage with its own private pool and garden – (if you’re four, book along with Room 8). Room 7 (huge, with a lounge and fireplace, a private little courtyard with outside shower) and Room 5 (two patios; lounge and fireplace) are also top choices. Best budget room is 4.
Best for dog lovers
6. Stone Hill
This 75-hectare property has eight self-catering timber cottages, each freestanding and located 20 metres or more from the next, so not quite as private as Saamrus (below), but still offering much more space than most. Each has a small fenced garden with a private outdoor shower; ‘…and here’, owner Caroline de Villiers grins as she picks up an additional handheld showerhead, ‘is the one for your dog’. She and Mark Morgan love their dogs, and they understand how difficult it is for people with four-legged children to find neat-as-a-pin accommodation that accepts and welcomes the extended family. The cottages aren’t particularly stylish or luxurious but they are scrupulously maintained and very comfortable, with thoughtful touches that include anything from plasters and earbuds to easy-to-use recycling bins and well-lit, smoke-free braais. There’s a five-kilometre trail for socialised dogs (with benches for owners to enjoy the views), a small shared pool, and the Magalies riverine area at the bottom of the property is where happy canines get muddy before heading home for that shower.
Room tip: We liked Cabbage Tree Cottage for its more private location but all share the same features:an open-plan lounge with a log fireplace, well-equipped kitchen, full bathroom, shaded patio and Wi-Fi.
Overall best/most romantic self-catering cottages
7. Saamrus Guest Farm
The website does Saamrus no justice – this 500-hectare farm offers by far the most private and romantic collection of self-catering cottages in the area, and the best views. Owners Chris and Annatjie Geldenhuys have designed and furnished them with great flair in a budget farm-house style; each has its own fenced garden (hurrah, another pet-friendly establishment!) with firepit and braai. Except for the rondavels, each cottage is 50 metres or more apart. With the exception of Suikerbos and the rondavels, all cottages are open-plan with well-placed fireplaces; showers are over large custom-built bath tubs. Walks include a riverine area, indigenous forest and grasslands, and there’s a shared (small) communal pool. The only drawback is the 4×4 required to reach hillside cottages, or you’ll have to brave it on foot: it’s a 200- to 400-metre trudge uphill, but two strong men are always on duty to help carry for a tip – the staff are wonderful here.
Room tip: At the base of the hill, top choices are Die Plaashuis, the original farmhouse (circa 1945, sleeps four to 10) and has a gorgeous garden, and the more private Hoephoep (sleeps two to four). But it’s so worth booking one of the hillside cottages! Piet-my-vrou is the closest to base, and very romantic; Karee is the furthest and most private.
Best spiritual retreat
8. Melody Hill Retreat
Terry Franks, aka Tejbir Kaur, is a charismatic women who just radiates spiritual and physical wellness, and immediately makes you want to turn vegan and start practising yoga. She and her partner, Laurence Brown (both trained architects, which shows in the wonderful proportions and easy flow within and between the buildings) built the retreat as a place for friends and family, or strangers on the same path, to regroup, relax, create and/or learn. Located in a forested estate on the banks of the Magalies River (near the funky Blackhorse Brewery), it’s a tranquil place with a lovely swimming pool and large wood-burning fireplaces in winter. Book the retreat as a whole and self cater, or attend an organised event and just chip in – if you’re lucky Terry and her Zulu vegetarian chef Harai Kaur, also a sangoma and Kundalini yoga teacher, will be in charge, chopping vegetables while singing mantras. Check out the online calendar for events such as Fairy Godmother Training Retreat, Emotional Freedom or the 180-hour Level 1 Teacher Training in Kundalini Yoga which promises to ‘fill your longing for the sacred’. Amen.
Room tip: The two upstairs rooms (2 and 3) in the main house are fantastic, but you’ll likely get what you’re given – seven en-suite bedrooms sleep three to four people per room (no bunk beds).
Also read: Reptiles in the suburbs
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This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of Getaway magazine.