Country escape: things to do in Wakkerstroom

Posted on 19 February 2020

Known as a birder’s paradise, city folk have been drawn to Wakkerstroom for its country charm since the 90s. With no traffic lights and honest-to-goodness people, you might just become a regular too.

Words & photographs by Mia Louw

Ossewakop towers above the town, while the Clive Beck Memorial Hide presides over the Wakkerstroom wetland and river. The name Wakkerstroom (meaning ‘lively stream’) comes originally from the isiZulu name, uThaka. Image credit: Mia Louw

If I had to choose a place for my vehicle to break down, Wakkerstroom would be top of the list. My car’s clutch gave out an hour into my first visit to this little village in Mpumalanga’s highlands. Soon I found Martin Niemandt, a mechanic who works from home. Leon Rieger quickly towed my car and his wife, Christa, offered me a cup of condensed-milk tea at The Barn Eatery. Christa also handed me the keys to her little Toyota RAV4, after knowing me for less than the time it took to gulp down that sweet, delicious drink. Good Samaritans, salt of the earth, saintly … call them what you like. ‘Extended family’ is how Kristi Garland describes the town. ‘That’s how we roll here. When you need help, there will be 10 people at your driveway.’

Kristi manages the BirdLife SA Tourism and Education Centre outside of town. It’s surrounded by 114 hectares of grassland adjoining the world-renowned Wakkerstroom wetland. Due to growing interest from both local and international birders, the town experienced a tourism boom in the 1990s. The area offers the best of South Africa’s grassland endemic birds, as well as wetland and forest species.

Cattle are a common sight in town, with Ossewakop as a backdrop. The ox wagon on the hillside celebrates the centennial of the Great Trek, while the ‘knot’ (partially obscured by the tree) is the emblem of the North Staffordshire Regiment, which was stationed here during the Anglo-Boer War. Image credit: Mia Louw

Willow trees with long, tousled branches swaying in the wind dot the village. Dirt lanes divide the town’s large residential stands, enclosed with low (and sometimes rickety) fencing. Inside these expansive yards, dogs, cats, goats and cows roam the gardens. At Pot & Gieter Guesthouse, where I stayed, I watched a young foal named Pegasus chasing a flock of guinea fowl on his wobbly legs.

Driving into town via Van Riebeeck Street, you are met with a line of quaint buildings – some dating back to the 19th century. A lengthy and colourful stoep stretches down Badenhorst Street, the welcoming front porch of a row of small businesses (decor and clothing shops, galleries, restaurants and a bakery) decorated with potted plants and signboards advertising craft beer.

Bheki Mazibuko rides past BirdLife SA’s office towards De Oude Stasie, the pub in the old railway station. Image credit: Mia Louw

I signed up to make bread with Jeff Lawrence at Country Bread. ‘It isn’t the recipe, it’s all about the technique,’ he said while shaping dough in bannetons (proofing baskets). He’d been up since 4am preparing the dough, which needs to mature for hours. At 9am the golden brown loaves (his gluten light option) were ready. He also makes olive ciabatta for a local restaurant and sourdough spelt loaves.

Beginners usually start with shaping techniques. ‘When I do a baguette course we make six breads. The shaping is complex – if you just do one, you’ll never remember it,’ he explained. ‘My courses include notes, ingredients, equipment, lunch and too much wine!’ Another great spot to indulge in a glass of vino (and elegant, French-inspired cuisine) is Thyme Out in Van Riebeeck Street. ‘Wakkerstroom is a little drinking village with a birding problem,’ front-of-house Jill Robertson joked as she handed me the extensive wine list. Locals hang out at the old railway station, now a pub and grub with a priceless view over the wetland and village. While I was seated on the deck, the pub dog bolted after a herd of cattle trotting past on the dirt road, completing a perfect cameo of the platteland in spring.

Hancu Louw eyes some old-school tech at The Bank Gallery, which has a great collection of vintage prints and antiques. Image credit: Mia Louw

Just before the sun slipped behind the mountains, I headed to the Wings Over Wetlands and Clive Beck Memorial bird hides to catch the last light. Kristi had urged me to visit them – they are on the half of the wetland which consistently has water. There’s a shaded picnic site near the Paul Kruger Bridge and a wooden walkway leading you along the water, past drooping willows and poplars reaching up to the sky. I saw flocks of yellow-billed ducks, red-knobbed coots as well as common and lesser moorhens foraging for food.

The town’s motto is Inter Flumina et Montes, which means ‘between rivers and mountains’, old-timer Chris Smit explained. On the one side you have the wetland and river; on the other side, there’s Ossewakop. Chris was born in Wakkerstroom 86 years ago, spent most of his life here and has held many roles – councillor, town clerk and mayor for 16 terms before his retirement. He is also a registered tour guide, taking visitors to rock-art sites in the area. The town celebrated its 160th birthday this year and a festive itinerary was planned for every month. In August, he helped organise a re-enactment of the skirmish which took place in Wakkerstroom during the first Anglo-Boer War in 1881.

Locals catch up over a coffee or a drink on the stoep in front of the Red Rooster Pub & Restaurant in Badenhorst Street. Image credit: Mia Louw

3 Special outings

September to March is peak season for birding. The major drawcard is the endemic species which are restricted to SA’s high-altitude grasslands: Rudd’s and Botha’s lark, yellow-breasted pipit, blue korhaan and southern bald ibis. There are four bird hides around the wetland; the Wings Over Wetlands (WOW) and Clive Beck Memorial hides are the closest to town, near the Paul Kruger Bridge. See opposite page for guide details.

Crew (Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers) organises rare-flower outings once a month during the summer. After the first rains, flowers such as wild orchids, disas, pink nerines and the Wakkerstroom geranium start to appear. 082-354-5649

Image credit: Mia Louw

The Restory Centre, 25km from town past Zaaihoek Dam, offers various multi-day retreats and day workshops, such as Contemplative Photography, Pottery or Mindfulness. R750 pp for two three-hour pottery sessions, including lunch, beverages, materials and firing. 083-260-9093, restorynews.blogspot.com

 

Where do the locals go

George Angus, pastor and retreat owner ‘Drive to Zaaihoek Dam for pristine scenery and wonderful birdlife, but also carry on around the dam on the Groenvlei road to witness the curves of the Slangrivier in all its glory.’

Vincent Makhathini, waiter ‘Come to the Wakkerstroom Hotel for a steak. We are open seven days a week and all our meat comes from local farmers.’ 073-077-3864

Plan your trip

Getting There
Wakkerstroom is 274km south-east of Johannesburg and lies on the R543, near the border between Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal.

Stay Here
Pot & Gieter Guesthouse is a 120-year-old converted barn. The self-catering unit has two vintage double beds in an open-plan sleeping, living and dining area. This corner property has beautiful views of the wetland and every morning you are greeted by the five resident horses. R380 pp (sleeps five). 072-392-6064, potgieterguesthouse.co.za

Matilda Angus with her pottery creations at The Restory Retreat Centre, tucked away in the Balele Mountains. The quote behind her, by Walt Whitman, reads: ‘I believe the soggy clods shall become lovers and lamps’. Image credit: Mia Louw

Forellenhof Guest Farm is 7km Out of town in a delightfully remote setting. There are three en-suite rooms and three cottages, thoughtfully stocked with honesty baskets (wine, rusks and jam). All have fireplaces. Pretty Pig sleeps four and overlooks a dam for birdwatching from your stoep. R580 pp B&B, R480 pp self-catering. 083-463-7561, forellenhof.co.za

Apple and Quince Cottages are in the centre of town, a short stroll from shops and restaurants. The self-catering units are surrounded by tall trees and have chic country-style interiors, with open-plan kitchen/dining/living areas and fireplaces. R750 for Apple (sleeps two), R1 600 for Quince (sleeps five). 083-228-2848, wakkerstroom.co.za, airbnb.com

Pot & Gieter Guesthouse. Image Credit: Mia Louw

Weaver’s Nest Country Estate is 4km out of town and has two accommodation options (not self-catering, but there’s a restaurant on site). Weaver’s Nest Country Inn has six en-suite rooms at R550 pp B&B. 065-989-0871. Dell’s @ Weavers has four rooms of varying sizes for R300 pp sharing. 072-454-3074. Find both on Facebook. The estate has 4km of technical bicycle trails (open to the public to use). 060-427-2819.

Do This
Get out into nature. Pop into the town info centre at the Old Bioscope and pick up a Wakkerstroom Hiking Biking Running Guide for R40. The longest MTB option is a 65km circular route to Zaaihoek Dam; the walk to the summit of Ossewakop is 8,8km.

Go birding. Grab your binoculars and head to the Wakkerstroom Wetland Reserve. Book a bird guide for access to expert knowledge, hotspots and private property. R575 half day, R940 full day per car. 081-726-5282

Make artisan bread. The fundamentals course at Country Bread is R750 pp for an individual session, or R600 pp for a group of four. 082-900-2760

Play putt-putt. DeKotzenhof Guest House and Restaurant has a nine-hole course in the garden (R35 pp). There’s also a country farm stall, deli and shop on the property. 083-452-3363

Forellenhof. Image credit: Mia Louw

Admire the bearded irises. From September to April, visit the Runnymede Iris Farm in town, which has more than 150 varieties. Bulbs cost around R45 each. 079-787-7163

Join the Art and Craft Ramble. At this annual festival, you’ll learn various new skills such as weaving, knitting, cake decorating, leatherwork and more. Next year it’s on 12–16 June. 083-452-3363

Eat Here
Thyme Out offers elegant, French-influenced dining, and Jill Robertson makes you feel right at home with her quick wit. Try the wild mushroom risotto balls (R90), grilled sole Véronique (R155), with hand-made confectionery for dessert. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 063-945 5816

Apple Cottage. _Image credit: Mia Louw

De Oude Stasie is 4km out of town. Pop in for Freebie Fridays and get two meals for the price of one (a chicken burger and chips is R61, fish and chips costs R85). Thursday is braai day; it’s closed on Mondays. There’s camping at R250 per site for four people. 082-418-8906

The Barn Eatery Coffee Bar does hearty boerekos and fluffy pancakes – bacon and banana (R50), milk tart (R35), bobotie or spinach and feta (R40). There are also cakes, sweets, preserves and gifts, and with a day’s notice they will do dinner. Open 9am–3pm daily. 083-287-5977

Picnic in the wetland reserve, at Paul Kruger Bridge or in a bird hide. Stock up at the Honeymoon Valley shop on farm-style cheeses and preserves – I recommend the flavoured gouda (smoked, rosemary, lavender or mustard seed and chilli) for R120 per kg. 017-730-0331. Suikerbekkie Bakery just down the road has fresh bread, pies, quiches, sweet treats and more. 017-730-0077

 

 

This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of Getaway magazine.
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All prices correct at publication, but are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion. Please check with them before booking or buying.

 






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