Rhodes Village – up where you belong

Posted by Tyson Jopson on 3 October 2018 Tags:

There are no tar roads and few people in the historic village of Rhodes. But solitude and a fascinating past are just two of the reasons you should visit.

If you’re not afraid of exercise, the views around Alpine Swift Trails are just reward.

You often hear about towns named after people. Rarely do you hear of places named before them. But that, sort of, is the story of Rhodes Village – a hamlet hidden beneath a neat copse of pine trees between the large toes of the enormous feet of the Southern Drakensberg.

‘They named this place in 1891, in the hope that Cecil John would grace the town with his beneficence,’ says Dave Walker, leaning back against the wall of the Thankshjalot Bar in the Walkerbouts Country Inn and Pub. ‘He never came … too busy making the big bucks down in the Cape. Instead, as the legend goes, he sent £500 and an ox wagon with a load of pine trees that now line the streets. If you ask botanical types, there’s no way that these are the same trees, and there’s no record of any ever being sent up, but they say you should never let the truth get in the way of a good story.’

Swimming pool or pond? Both! This natural pool at Alpine Swift Trails is chemical free

Built into the wall next to Dave is a frog tank – home to three bloated, aquatic frogs that move so infrequently that at first I think they are plastic bath toys. A parrot screeches in the background.

‘At any rate, they also say the town clerk disappeared shortly after, presumably with the £500, and Cecil never did grace this place with his presence.’ The last part is true (Cecil never did visit Rhodes) but, like Dave, I find myself not really caring all that much if the first part is or isn’t. There’s something about this bar. Perhaps it’s the quietness that renders veracity non-essential. And, besides, there’s enough truth on the walls – newspaper clippings, old photos, sporting memorabilia – to root most of Rhodes’s history firmly in reality, even if some of the stories curl at the edges.

And stories Dave has aplenty. He first visited in the late 1970s, during Rhodes’s ‘Hippie Era’.

 

A four-legged resident patrols Rhodes’s gravel streets; red-hot pokers in bloom at Tiffindell Ski Resort.

Dave wasn’t aware of this at the time but among the alternative-lifestyle seekers, some locals tell me, were also draft dodgers. They would post a man up on the nearby hill to warn of approaching military police. When alerted, they’d flee up to their cannabis plantations in the mountains, leaving their wives and girlfriends to give the officers hell.

Dave worked nearby at Tiffindell Ski Resort for two years around the time of South Africa’s first democratic election. He’s made and sold cheese, fashioned flies (fishing is big here), renovated the village’s original farmhouse, bought and sold property (he still does) and now, besides running the inn, makes combustible, compressed cardboard briquettes as he has an aversion to waste.

But even a man with never-ending stories isn’t immune to a conversation about the weather, especially when there’s been a week-long war raging in the clouds overhead. Ominous thunder rumbles above the mountaintops and a ferocious wind swirls dust clouds down the gravel streets, swooping past a mix of neat and ramshackle Victorian-style houses, a boarded-up hotel and rusty decommissioned petrol pumps. Two vandalised stop signs – ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ and ‘Stop Worrying’ – shiver as a gust sails past them. So too the smattering of ‘For Sale’ signs sticking out of unkempt lawns.

Red-hot pokers in bloom at Tiffindell Ski Resort.

Life in a historic village, out of the way and off the beaten track, has its drawbacks. There’s not much in the way of amenities. Obtaining resources – building materials, fuel and general supplies – is a logistical challenge. Many of the homes are of the holiday variety, their owners only visiting a few times a year.

‘The folks who visit Rhodes are of a particular mindset,’ says Dave. ‘To really enjoy it you need to take a week off, be prepared, and have a good reason.’ That night 11 reasons shuffle through the doors of the Walkerbouts Inn – a group of elderly botanical enthusiasts from Grahamstown, led by Rhodes University botany professor, Roy Lubke. They’re here to see the wild owers: red-hot pokers, yellow thistles, yellow dobo lilies (Cyrtanthus  anaganii) and tritonias that adorn the mountainsides at this time of year. ‘We saw more  ora in half an hour here [in the Tiffindell basin near the ski resort] than we’ve seen throughout the year,’ says Roy. That night the group is abuzz with stories and photos of the day’s outing.

Man and machine: local artist Tony Kietzmann plans his next piece atop this lithography press.

On my last day I head out to Alpine Swift Trails, another big reason people come here – for trail running and mountain biking. Run by Hylton and Sunelle Dunn, the impressive facility is built around a 25-metre swimming pond fed by springs and cleaned by water lilies and koi. I take a hike up one of the nearby peaks with Hylton, who points out some of the trails. There are endless possibilities for hikers, runners and mountain bikers. Some trails go all the way over the Witteberg Mountains to the farming community of Wartrail, others skirt the high-altitude Lesotho border near Tiffendell, and shorter, easier ascents take you into the hills around Rhodes Village itself.

There’s a glint in Hylton’s eye as he talks me through what’s on offer here for visitors and it soon becomes very clear that this place is paradise for anyone who loves the outdoors, and the small village beneath those mysterious pine trees are the fabled gates to it all.

Walkerbouts Country Inn And Pub

Plan Your Trip

How To Get There

From Bloemfontein, take the N6 to Aliwal North and then the R58 through Lady Grey to Barkly East. From there you’ll need to take the gravel R39 for about 60km (north and then east over the Bell River) to Rhodes. The journey from Bloemfontein takes about 4½ hours in total.

Where To Stay

Walkerbouts Country Inn and Pub sits on the site of the original farmhouse around which Rhodes was established. It’s classic but cosy, and between the lounge, dining room, Thankshjalot Bar and garden, it’s the kind of place you don’t need to leave if you don’t want to. The six bedrooms all have en-suite facilities and are well equipped for winter nights. From R615 per person sharing.
045-974-9290, walkerbouts.co.za

Alpine Swift Trails is a relatively new set-up built on Grace-Hill Farm about 4km out of town. It’s a high-altitude training centre with rooms and communal self-catering facilities set around a large natural pool. Behind this is the private, two-sleeper Swallows Nest chalet and further down a track along the Bell River is the off-the-grid, four-sleeper Amanzi Empilo stone bungalow (appliances are solar- and gas-powered and a donkey boiler heats water). Rooms from R250 per person; Swallows Nest and Amanzi Empilo from R350 per person.
072-529-2747, alpineswifttrails.co.za

Tiffindell Ski Resort has everything from private mountain suites to 12-sleeper self-catering family chalets. It’s the place to be if you want to stay up in the mountains close to the action, especially during the winter ski season. Winter rates are ski-package based (minimum three nights) and include breakfast and dinner, ski passes and equipment hire. From R5 140 for a family chalet (sleeps eight) for three nights.
011-781-2620, tiffindell.co.za


What To Do

Visit Rhodes Art Gallery. It’s filled with antiques, local and exotic artworks and pop-culture trinkets. There’s also an adjacent studio where you might catch local artist Tony Kietzman at work. 082-894-3946

Have a milkshake at Clay Café. It’s a good spot to watch the town go by before browsing pottery made by locals. 073-833-6068

Go fly fishing on a stretch of more than 300km of streams. Get a permit and rod from Wild Trout Association or Linecasters Fly Shop and you’ll have one of the ‘beats’ all to yourself. From R150 per person.
045-971-9003, 082-640-2930

Hang out in the Rhodes River Park, a neat, well-kept communal area next to the Bell River. There’s a deck with chairs beneath a big willow tree, a trampoline and plenty of space for kids to play. Entrance is free. 083-327-1724

Pop in at the Rhodes Info Centre. There are bicycles for hire (R60 per person per hour) and you’ll get the lowdown on any upcoming activities, trails and events.
045-971-9003

Where To Eat

Walkerbouts Country Inn and Pub is a hive of activity and its build-your-own pizza is worth getting hungry for. From R55. 045-974-9290

Rubicon Restaurant was closed during my visit but I have it on good authority that the food is tasty and the service on point and, if the sign at the start of the access road is anything to go by, it’s also biker friendly. Meals from R50.
083-659-3271

Clay Cafe

Where do the locals go?

Malebohang Letsika, potter

‘In my spare time, I’m at the Clay Café making something new. Come have a milkshake or a coffee and look at what we sell.’ 073-833-6068

Mari Small, chef

‘I spend most of my time out of town, but when I have a bit of time during my shift I’ll take a walk through the garden at Walkerbouts [there’s a secret chair worth looking out for].’ walkerbouts.co.za

Sean de Wet, retiree

‘Most Wednesdays [between November and February] the locals get together for Bring and Wine in the park on the Bell River.“Wine/whine” is spelt diff erently depending on what kind of a weekend it’s been.’ From 6pm. Entrance is free