Wakkerstroom is a village with no traffic lights for at least 30 kilometres in any direction. And that’s the way the locals like it.
Also see: In photographs, a visit to Wakkerstroom
‘So many stories are written about Wakkerstroom. They feature the same people and all say the same shit. Sorry, we swear here in Wakkerstroom. We are salt of the earth, real people.’
Wendy Paviour sits across from me in Laventaba Guesthouse. She’s furnished the beautiful 19th-century building with antiques and we’re finalising details of the dawn-break birding tour, with a locally trained bird guide, that she’s organised for me to see cranes and special endemic species.
An unassuming town of dusty gridiron streets, Wakkerstroom is a world-renowned birding destination because of the variety of unique biomes surrounding the town. On one side, high-altitude grasslands and small pockets of forest settle into the mountain slopes; on the other, an attractive protected wetland reserve runs along the entire western border of the Mpumalanga town. During the 90s, Wakkerstroom experienced a tourism boom as knowledge of its exceptional birdlife spread and a steady stream of visitors have since come for rewarding sightings and an authentic country escape.
Freshly moved in from Johannesburg, young Daniel Louw recently took over Birdsong Art Cafe, an affordable restaurant on the main street. He has precious insight into Wakkerstroom locals, having visited his mother, Janet Rowse, here for the last 10 years. He admits politely that it’s a population of much older people. Another resident candidly calls them ‘sharp old bats.’ Many engineers, scientists and doctors have chosen to retire here where the quality of living is a slow and easy one. In isiZulu, Uthaka is the name given to a river that runs near a town, which loosely translates into ‘wide-awake’ river, or Wakkerstroom – ironic given the sedate village pace.
Despite their inherent contentment, Wakkerstroomers like visitors, most of them having begun as visitors themselves before moving to the countryside. Over the last 10 years Janet feels the village has undergone improvement without becoming an over-popular destination.
‘It’s nowhere near a Clarens or a Dullstroom because it’s not commercialised.’
She’s right. There’s a rustic authenticity to these dirt roads and village homes, which are really more like tiny, neighbourly farms where everyone knows everything about everybody else. An easy stroll reveals vegetable gardens in the backyard of most homes. The fences are low enough to see into them. Horses, sheep, goats and alpacas share gardens with dogs, and guinea fowl join roosters to welcome the mornings. A visit to the local cemetery also reveals the community pride. Graves are neatly swept and maintained with a cheerful flourishing of flowers to mark the lives lived in the village. Some villagers even took it upon themselves to plant young oaks on the tarred road leading into town so that one day they will grow into a grand entrance. Birding, however, is still the town’s lifeblood.
It costs R415 per car to have bird guide Lucky Ngwenya ride shotgun and show you the best birding routes. Having local knowledge, a genuine love of our feathered friends and 11 years of BirdLife guiding experience beside you is worth it. He calls to a Botha’s lark in the long, seemingly silent grass, effortlessly navigates the community site, Fickland Pan, a couple of kilometres out of town, and knows where all the potholes are. While he is examining the road, I point to a lumbering raptor precariously propped on a fence post and Lucky shouts, ‘Shit!’ The bird hurries off and my guide is crestfallen.
‘That was a very important bird. A Montagu’s harrier.’
Apparently, you don’t get to see those guys very often and it’s not a species Lucky can readily conjure like his friend the lark. I’m far more amused at the vloek than traumatised by the inconsiderate flyaway though. Seems Wendy was right about the locals – salt of the earth.
Plan your trip
Getting to Wakkerstroom
There are a couple of routes to Wakkerstroom, but with roadworks under way this is the most painless one: from Johannesburg take the N17 towards Springs (through several tolls) until you reach Bethal (about 185km); take a right on the R35 towards Amersfoort and then follow the N11 to Volksrust; in town take a right on the R543 and drive the last 27km to Wakkerstroom. The whole trip should take about four hours.
Things to do in Wakkerstroom
Stop by the Information Centre on Badenhorst Street before you do anything. They’ll have all the phone numbers, maps and information you need to explore Wakkerstroom. If you’re a keen birder or want to find out more about the town, the Wakkerstroom Bird & Nature Guide by Warwick and Michèle Tarboton (R90 at the Information Centre) is a great source.
Visit Opikopi Museum. Every local I spoke to highly recommended putting aside a couple of hours to chat to the owner, Chris Smit, a legend in Wakkerstroom and one of the few lifelong residents. Unfortunately, Chris was in Pretoria during my visit but if the other successful recommendations are anything to go on, this is a must – especially for history buffs. Call to check he’s in, 017 730 0284.
Pet an alpaca. These comical animals on Mistique Alpacas, Romney and Fenella van Ryneveld’s farm within the village limits, have an unusual history. Romney and Fenella, both passionate farmers, chat eagerly about the animals’ odd traits and talk you through the reasons their fleece is so valuable. Call them to make an appointment, 017 730 0739.
Buy extraordinary irises from Runnymede Iris Farm. A visit in winter would catch nearly all 200 different flowers in their rainbow bloom, but the beautiful garden is always worth a stop. Bring some cash to take your favourite colour home with you, from R45. Tel 017 730 0482.
Indulge your inner twitcher. Pack your binos, a flask of tea (or G&T) and settle into one of the four bird hides near Paul Kruger Bridge within walking distance of most cottages and guesthouses. Otherwise, call Lucky Ngwenya (on 083 227 0128) for a birding tour, or visit the BirdLife South Africa Wakkerstroom Tourism and Education Centre just out of town.
Restaurants in Wakkerstroom
The Bistro at Metamorphis is a restaurant-cum-art gallery with quirky dining nooks surrounded by local art. The menu features delicious Greek, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Portuguese-Mozambique fare. Order a range of tapas (about R40 for each portion) to share for the table or spoil yourself with a memorable crab curry and get stuck into cracking open the shell. Tel 072 252 5781.
The Garret Emporium offers unusual pastas such as gorgonzola, cream and vodka along with cafe classics like tramezzini, and locals drink wine with their lunch on the stoep. If you eat just one thing in Wakkerstroom, make it Kathy’s Spicy Apple Crumble. Tel 017 730 0730.
Honeymoon Valley Cheese stocks a variety of goods, including homemade goats cheese and delicious chilli cheese. Tel 017 730 0331.
Suikerbekkie Bakery across the road is good for stocking up on bread, quiche and koeksisters. Find it close to other interesting stores on Badenhorst Street. Tel 017 730 0077.
Where to stay in Wakkerstroom
Laventaba Guest House is a gorgeous 1880s home filled with an eclectic collection of antiques, vintage prints, old photographs, books and original wooden floors. There are three guest suites in the main house and all are spacious, clean and comfortable, and surrounded by a colourful garden. .
Mahem Guest House and Bokmakierie Cottage sit on the edge of the Wakkerstroom with a view over the wetland and you can sometimes hear the call of the grey crowned crane in the early mornings (Mahem is the Afrikaans name for this bird). Both self-catering, they are set a little apart from each other. Mahem is bigger with four bedrooms, a lounge with a centre fireplace, and an enormous kitchen, while Bokmakierie caters for two. The homes are basic, but you’ll have everything you need.
Wetlands Country House & Sheds is referred to by locals as ‘The Hotel’ and everything feels a bit newer and more contemporary than other establishments in town. Just a kilometre out of town along a river, it’s peaceful. Breakfast is a tasty affair with fresh fruit (some grown in the garden) and exquisite views of the dam. The spacious self-catering sheds near the rose garden were my favourite but you can choose to stay in the country house or a larger self-catering family home.
DeKotzenhof Guest House is the newest B&B and you won’t miss the signs. It’s another beautiful old home in the village with wonderful hosts and close to the shops and restaurants. R380 pp sharing.
This article first appeared in the April 2015 issue of Getaway magazine.