Nature is one of the quickest routes to relaxation and Hogsback is the perfect place to do it.
‘You look far less stressed this afternoon than you did yesterday.’
Ticia’s comment didn’t surprise me. I’d arrived the day before from a sweltering 30-degree Joburg to mist churning up the only tarred road in mid-monsoon Hogsback. I had under-packed in the winter-clothing department and shivered in my softshell as whispers of snow trickled to my table from the kitchen in the Happy Hogs Restaurant where I’d found sanctuary, a fireplace and strong filter coffee.
On my first day, locals told me it had snowed in Hogsback every month of last year except in February and that summer is especially unpredictable. In my four short days here, mist melted through the valley, ice sleeted across the windscreen, the sun built up a sweaty swelter, nights resumed the chill and snow did fall, just a little higher up in the mountains near the hogs (the three geological ridges forming spines along the mountaintop after which the village is named).
On that first drizzly day, I had hopped from fireplace to fireplace in my inappropriate slip-slops but, thankfully, the village was a lot more equipped for the cold than my luggage. A hearty helping of chorizo and bean soup in the Happy Hogs Restaurant fortified my feet. It was still raining in the evening when I made my way to the Hogsback Inn for sweet chicken curry. A fire foamed from a charred black furnace and the bar was full of stories from locals about the old hotel, which was established in the 1880s and had the first swimming pool in Hogsback. Brrrrr.
The bad weather explains the number of potholes in town, but not the people. I wondered why this one-road, one-grocery store, one petrol-pump town attracted the large community of ʻhippies, retirees running guest houses and lately, younger familiesʼ, as described by a local.
When I woke up on the second morning, Hogsback was a transformed town. The sun glittered off the raindrops dribbling down leaves outside my toasty cottage in Maple Grove and clouds lifted higher with every hour of the day exposing the mighty Amathole Mountains. Then the verdant Afro-montane forests emerged with waterfalls spewing from inclines after the downpour. A new, dynamic region of rapturous beauty revealed itself and we explored it on a guided cycle tour and hike with Neels du Toit, an adventure enthusiast who checked into Hogsback for a five-day holiday and is still here five years later. Our first stop was the beautiful Arboretum, where the Californian redwoods took root 100 years earlier thanks to a local, Mr Summerton, who planted many trees in Hogsback, such as the five enormous redwoods and other successful orchards. Before pine plantations were created in the drier areas, these were strongholds of the Eastern Cape lion. The last one was shot nearby just 50 years ago.
Today, the area’s lush forested slopes are home to the smallest antelope, the blue duiker, and the shy, critically endangered Amatola toad. It’s the smallest toad in the world and, until recently, was thought to be extinct. These toads are incredibly dependent on the crazy climatic conditions of the area, sleeping underground until the first rains after which they emerge to mate, spawn and then promptly return to the depths again. Neels filled us in on the natural systems of the mushy, slippery world beneath tall trees, ferns and moss clumps covering the slopes. Cape parrots, endemic to SA, are reliant for survival on our national tree, the yellowwood. You can hear their unmistakable squawks in the forests. The birds sometimes spill into town too, flying high above the shops and restaurants. In the forests, Samango monkeys peered at us through foliage. These endangered primates call Hogsback home too.
Mud flicked at my calves as we cycled through the woods, my tackies squelched deep into the dirt road in an attempt to steady myself. Neels wasn’t so lucky – he slid, slammed down on his brakes and then promptly swam through the thick muddy mass. Luckily, we could freshen up in the swollen streams. Water sprayed my cheeks at the bottom of the Madonna and Child waterfall, which pumps into the emerald depths of this magical arboreal world. A group of youngsters resting on rocks nearby offered us coffee cooked on a compact hiking stove, and served in tiny steel espresso tumblers. They warned me that the coffee was spicy; cardamom-infused warmth danced on my taste buds, changing my view of this bitter drink.
Cattle blocked the road on the way back to the cottage, but it didn’t matter. To kill time I found fairies in a meandering garden nearby. Foxgloves and fuchsias framed the walkways alongside carefully placed delicate sculptures. Across the road, lunch included fresh sprouts, crunchy, colourful roots and seed-covered falafel, all served outside in the crisp sunshine and washed down with a cold coffee shake.
In that moment, I understood that it is freedom that attracts people to this village. From almost any point in Hogsback you can walk a couple of metres and cross a forest trail that’ll inevitably lead to a waterfall – it is wanderlust on a precipice and tranquillity is just a footfall away. Small wonder then that when Ticia spotted me outside the information centre I looked so relaxed. I guess nature just has that effect on people.
Also read: A local’s guide to the Midlands Meander
I flew to East London from Johannesburg (using Discovery Vitality rewards I landed a return trip for R850). From East London, take the N2 to King William’s Town, the R63 to Alice (be patient, there are a few stop-and-go areas due to roadworks) and then left onto the R345 and up beautiful Hogsback Pass that leads to the town.
Things to do in Hogsback
1. Hogsback Adventures
Cycle, hike and abseil down the Madonna and Child waterfall with Hogsback Adventures and learn about the trails, history and wildlife. Neels is knowledgeable and activities can be tailored for beginners or pros. If you’d like to go it alone, permits and trail maps are available at Hogsback Adventure office and Neels is happy to dish out advice. Activities start from R75 per person. Tel 0735679487.
2. Forest hikes
Hike in the indigenous forest. As I said, there are plenty of trails in the area and you could easily spend all your time traipsing through the woods. Get Hogsback Hikes by Ken Harvey from the info centre for a complete set of trails, maps and which ones join together for longer hikes. Pack waterproof shoes and walking sticks. R25 per person for Ken’s hiking guide including the permit.
3. Camelot Fairy Meander
Find fairies at the eccentric Camelot Fairy Meander. It isn’t very long, but the garden is beautiful, the sculptures unusual with inspirational messages spread throughout, and kids who believe will love it. R30 per adult and R15 for kids. Tel 0459621098.
4. Kettlespout Falls
Admire the views and take the best pictures at the Kettlespout Falls, which look over the valley below and mountains opposite, and at Eco-Shrine which Diana Graham has set up. This sculptural garden pays homage to the earth. It may be a bit ‘out there’ for some, but the paintings are fascinating and offer more insight into the history of the area too. It’s open on Wednesdays, weekends and public holidays and costs R30 per person. Tel 0459621136.
5. Arts and crafts
Buy mud hogs and Knysna loeries, painted with white swirls and flicks, crafted by locals for R25 each. Brightly painted walking sticks carved from alien invasive species are also available for R30 each. Find them for sale by informal traders outside the Visitors’ Information Centre on the main street in town.
6. Amathole Horse Trails
Horse ride the natural way with Amathole Horse Trails. Bonds are formed with the horses rather than ‘breaking’ them in and trainer Shane Eades prefers to ride bareback and barefoot. Beginners (like me) are welcome and the horses are well-behaved and incredibly responsive to Shane. Outings range from an hour and a half (R250 per person) to three days (R1050 per person), which includes accommodation and all meals in a local Xhosa home. Tel 0828977503.
7. Gardens and parks
Get your floral fix and explore any number of gardens in the area – spring and autumn are the most colourful times of the year. The Arboretum is a good place to start. Entrance is free. Other open gardens include Mistlea (R60 per person) and sprawling Nutwoods Park (R20 per person), where you can have a cream tea in the garden (R55 per person). Peruse Hogsback Gardens for maps and upcoming garden tours.
Accommodation in Hogsback
Hogsback has an astonishing amount of accommodation for a small village and there’s an enormous variety of price and style. We whittled down the following during our research.
1. The Edge Mountain Retreat
The Edge Mountain Retreat delivers on its name with self-catering chalets perched on the precipice of the Hogsback plateau with breathtaking views of the valley below. Some chalets only have garden views so specify the cliff-facing ones when you book – Thunderstone ronadavel definitely takes the cake for privacy and panoramas. If you’re not up to cooking, the restaurant has great variety and is very good value for money. From R950 for the best-view units (sleep two). Tel 0459621159.
Terra-Khaya is a secluded off-the-grid ecolodge made almost entirely from recycled material such as old slabs of wood and road signs coupled with indigenous architectural methods using wattle and clay. Picking wattles for three hours a day buys you dinner, and bringing and planting an indigenous plant, a free night’s stay. Camping R85 per person, rooms R325 for two sharing, and vegetarian dinner costs R75 per person. Tel 0828977503.
3. Maple Grove
Maple Grove is a collection of lovely cottages. They all have a fireplace and electric blankets, and owners Peter and Lyndsay Walker have added thoughtful touches such as freshly picked flowers, rusks, bubble bath and knee blankets in the lounge. There are three units – one three-sleeper (I preferred Maple Grove Cottage as it was set a little further from the main house), a two-sleeper and a spacious four-sleeper. From R600 for two sharing. Tel 0459621116.
Where to eat in Hogsback
1. Nutwoods Park
Nutwoods Park is Hogsback’s fine-dining destination. The antique-filled lodge is a feast for the eyes and Spanish co-owner, Atila de las Heras Prieto, will keep your belly busy with a four-course set meal. I dined on mushroom soup (the mushrooms were picked locally), Parma ham-wrapped asparagus, lamb shank and a delicious trio of desserts. Book at least a day in advance. Great value at R240 per person. Tel 0459621043.
2. Butterfly’s Bistro
Butterfly’s Bistro is rated number one on TripAdvisor for good reason – the menu is unusual, with fish cakes and falafel on offer, the portions are generous and shakes delicious. The garden setting is ideal for summer days and the colourful interior will warm your mood on the cold ones. Tel 0459621326.
3. Hogsback Inn
Hogsback Inn is the local hangout where you can tuck into homely meals around the fire in a relaxed country vibe. Ask about the drinks specials and upcoming events. Tel 0459621006.
4. Away with the Fairies Backpackers
Away with the Fairies Backpackers is popular for younger adults and serves excellent pizza. Tel 0459621031.
5. Happy Hogs Pub & Restaurant
Happy Hogs Pub & Restaurant has a wide variety of choices from stews to burgers and good-value breakfasts. Service is a little slow, but let’s be honest there really is no rush. Tel 0459621380.
This article was first published in the February 2016 issue of Getaway magazine.
All prices correct at time of publication, but are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion. Please check with them before travelling.