Insider’s Guide: Escape to White River

Posted on 28 May 2018

A stopover on the road to Kruger, White River is worth lingering longer than a leg stretch and coffee, says Mia Louw, who’s been visiting since childhood.

This farm stall hides a pancake bar and deli insider, selling locally made, organic produce. The free-range chicken comes highly recommended. Image by Mia Louw


The insider
Mia Louw is a born-and-bred Lowvelder. She recently moved back to her hometown, Nelspruit, after a stint in the Eastern Cape. Growing up, she spent many Saturdays in nearby White River, playing sport or browsing the art galleries with her mom.

At the Lowveld National Botanical Garden, 15 kilometres from town, you can walk all along the Crocodile River. Visit the Cascades Viewpoint, pictured here, during wet season. Image by Mia Louw

From the deck of our bush cottage overlooking the Plaston Valley, I spot a brightly coloured turaco flapping noisily from branch to branch. The early morning light is watery green as it filters through the dense canopy – home to bushbabies, who less than an hour earlier had enjoyed a quick scramble on the roof. Not an unwelcome wake-up call.

I reach for a cup of coffee as I slowly soak up the day and recharge in the soft sunlight – much like the pale geckos that patrol the beams of the bedroom ceiling, ready to gobble up unwary insects.

Our humble bungalow is on the smallholding of René Eloff, artist and wife of the late acclaimed wildlife artist Zakkie Eloff. René and my mom are old friends, but I haven’t seen her in a while.

When my husband Hanc and I arrived, we were welcomed by Fudge, a staffie with a wonderfully weird underbite. ‘Don’t let him in the cottage,’ René said. ‘He’ll make himself at home.’

White River is essentially a collection of artists, farmers and former city folks who have chosen to live nestled in the bush, away from the bustle. This mix lends it its unpretentious charm. Large trees line the streets, and as we drive up the main road a jumble of small store fronts meet my eye.

Also read: Get your head into the clouds with this Mpumaplanga road trip

There are gems crammed into every nook at Kraaines – irresistible for magpies. Image: Mia Louw

We pop into Kraaines, a second-hand furniture and bric-a-brac lover’s dream. Retired teacher Willie Ferreira has run the shop for 36 years and is proud of the place he calls home.

He quickly connects the dots: ‘Are you Clive’s daughter?’ This is part of that small-town charm; everyone knows everyone. Especially if your father was a teacher.

White River lies nestled in between pockets of lush Lowveld bush, hugging the slopes of gently rolling hills. Easily mistaken for yet-another-farming-dorp, and known to most who are familiar with the trip from Joburg to Numbi Gate as the nearest entry point to the Kruger Park, it hides a well-flavoured mix of attractions.

I take a short drive out of the town centre, past a farm stall with a beaded wire sheep manning the entrance, and the Bagdad Centre’s Mediterranean-looking buildings. Across the road, I pull in at the Casterbridge Lifestyle Centre. As I walk along the chic barn-style stoep, bunting and stars dangling from the corrugated-iron roof, fond memories come to mind.

Window shopping with my mom was always fun, but the outdoors-indoors design of the place, coupled with ‘more than just shops’, makes it special. I always keep an eye out for Rooikat, a shop owner’s fat cat known by most regular visitors. ‘Please do not give Rooikat milk, he is allergic’ reads a sign close to all the coffee shops. Rooikat is sprawled out in the photo, like he always is in real life.

You’ll find tranquil gardens, restaurants, art galleries and a range of quirky shops at the Casterbridge Lifestyle Centre. Image: Mia Louw

We stop in at Hans van der Merwe & Son, ‘Craftsmen of Fine Furniture’. This was always the first shop my mom and I would visit. While browsing, we’d imagine being in a luxurious safari lodge, much like the ones many of these pieces end up in all across the country.

A huge jacaranda used to guard the door, but it fell over years ago.

White River exudes a feeling of big game-style adventure against the backdrop of charming rural agriculture. All around, wild bush blends seamlessly with the deep green of pine and gumtree plantations and gentle slopes covered in neat rows of orange and macadamia orchards.

Pine Lake Resort, seen from across the water from the Pine Lake Inn. Both are, contrary to their names, located on the banks of the Longmere Dam. Image: Mia Louw

The gravel road leading to Longmere Dam winds past an array of idyllic country estates; on weekends you will pass many cyclists on this dusty road. Right opposite the dam lies White River Country Estate, where the skinny, muddy eponymous river flows through a golf course.

As the waiter brings our tea to the patio at the Pine Lake Inn, we notice something of a commotion on the other side of the dam. The Lowveld Triathlon is in full swing, with the sticky, humid air adding to the challenge.

Da Loose Mongoose is filled with the sounds of kids playing in the garden. Grab a spot under the trees for live music every Sunday. Image by Mia Louw

Seeking a reprieve from the heat, we find a haven hidden under a dense canopy.

Anton and Hanlie Bosch’s art studio is a cool concrete shed filled with a range of weird and wonderful ceramic creations. Ceramics runs in the family: Nina Bosch Porcelain is also here, and just around the corner is Ezra Bosch’s Studio.

The last studio we visit is René’s, a rugged, rectangular space with white walls and big windows. I notice that she has an interest in painting owls, but not like we know them – more colourful. And really wild.

There’s a rush of deep green across our windshield, another turaco (or maybe the same one as the first morning), as Hanc starts the bakkie. Both of us are reluctant to leave. Although our stay was short, the two nights enchanted us, embraced by the spell of the dappled green, open air and easy atmosphere of this place and its uncomplicated people.

Three noteworthy stops

An old tree

Visit the 120-year-old fig tree in the main road, Chief Mgiyeni Khumalo Drive, at Phat Boys Beer House (once the parsonage). Situated where the old post office used to be, this tree is believed to be the centre from which the town originated.

The local market

Held at the Bagdad Centre every second Saturday from 8am to noon – enjoy live music, fresh produce, arts and crafts and beer from the Sabie Brewing Company. The centre also has many restaurant options. 0137500469

A winery

There’s free wine to taste at Rottcher Wineries, but come here for Frank Theron’s unique orange wines, liqueurs and gins that he distils himself – some bottled in local potter Antjie Newton’s striking rugged bottles. 0137513472

Window shopping’s a breeze at Casterbridge Lifestyle Centre, with its lovely courtyard, walkways and landscaping. Image: Mia Louw

Where do the locals go?

Willie Ferreira, shop owner
‘If you’re looking for great coffee, try SIP Coffee Café & Deli on the main road in town.’ 0137500178

Gift Ramoshaba, tourism info officer
‘I love the White River History & Motor Museum. It has an impressive collection of restored vintage cars and bikes.’ Open weekdays. 0137502196

Brad Bense, marketing and media manager
‘My favourite thing about White River is the close access to dams. We have Klipkoppie, Witklip, Longmere [and Da Gama] – great for fishing and canoeing.

Kate Barnett, shop owner
‘There is a farm on the Plaston Road where you can pick your own strawberries and other fruit.’ By appointment, July to December. 0826235359

Derek Howe-Dreyer, maintenance manager
‘64 Coolmore is a fantastic restaurant in an avocado orchard just outside town. It offers comfort food and fine country dining.’ 0823710199

Bosch Ceramic Art Studio. Image by Mia Louw

Plan your trip

Getting there

White River is 20 kilometres on the R40 from Mbombela (stop in at the Lowveld National Botanical Garden, just outside town en route to White River). It’s 40 kilometres on the R538 to Kruger’s Numbi Gate and 15 kilometres to the Kruger Mpumalanga Airport

Stay here

Pumelani B&B is artist René Eloff’s place. The cottage has two creatively decorated bedrooms (sleeps six); the living room and deck are separated by canvas, which brings the outside in when rolled up. There is also a family room in the main house (sleeps four). From R700 for two sharing. 0837011528

NAD Living is a great option for mountain bikers. Six hip self-catering apartments in the upmarket country estates area give access to routes on the doorstep. R1200 for two sharing. 0609982036

Pine Lake Resort on Longmere Dam has 34 split-level, self- catering chalets. There is a spa, sauna, fitness centre and activities such as putt-putt, canoeing and bird walks. R4500 per chalet (sleeps six). 0137500709

Pumelani B&B. Image by Mia Louw

Do this

Go for a paddle on Longmere Dam. Bring your own canoe (unless you’re staying at Pine Lake, which has boats for guests). Klipkoppie Dam also offers watersports, and has great picnic spots and camping. Entry R30 per person, R40 per car, R50 per boat. 0766552904

Browse the shelves for finds while enjoying a coffee at White River Book Dealer. Amid the second-hand books, we spotted several rare Africana titles. 0137502021

Visit artists in their studios. René Eloff (an artist herself) says Bosch Ceramic Art Studio ‘is not to be missed, especially Anton Bosch’s work’. My favourite is his tree-themed ceramic wall plaques. 0834563272. Nearby is the Ezra Bosch Studio (0828237591), plus there’s also The Artists’ Press (0836763229).

Amble around Casterbridge Lifestyle Centre – it has fine and casual dining, a spa, spice shop, bookshop, chocolatier, touch farm and more. The cinema (0727264660) shows art and foreign films.

Enjoy beautiful flowers at Van Rooyen Orchids, a specialist nursery (it also has airplants and other bromeliads) that’s been in business for 60 years. Visits are by appointment. 0845612345

Eat here

Picasso’s Mexican Taqueria has a large and varied menu. Try the antojitos (‘little cravings’, typical Mexican street food), ranging from deep-fried avo for R35 to nachos for R75. With great tables under the trees, this is the ideal spot for sundowners too (at Thirsty Thursdays, a bottomless glass of wine costs R79). Plus you’ll get a parting shot of margarita with the bill. 0137500300

Da Loose Mongoose is a family restaurant, with shaded seating on patios and under trees, as well as a skateboarding ramp and playground. Order a thin- based, wood-fired pizza (from R65) or the hearty trout and leek pie (R95). 0835941006

Magnolia Restaurant has lots of shaded outside seating and natural light streaming indoors. There’s a jungle gym next door for the kids and an art gallery opposite for the adults. The deli sandwiches with hand-cut fries are from R95. It’s very popular so book ahead. 0137511947

Oliver’s Restaurant offers a fine-dining experience with pristine views on the White River Country Estate. Ideal for a lunch of grilled Mozambican prawns (R125) after a round of golf. 0137500479

Picasso’s Mexican Taqueria. Image by Mia Louw


This story appears in the March issue of Getaway magazine.

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Our March issue features three magical train journeys, how to plan your escape on a dhow safari around Bazaruto, where to eat delicious fare when you have only 36 hours in Mumbai, plus lots more.


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