Let’s go on a small town road trip: Joburg to Val and back

Posted on 19 November 2021

By Ryan Enslin

Intent on visiting the not-so-usual spots, Ryan Enslin heads out of Joburg for a weekend away that doesn’t include the well-trodden route to Durban or the Magaliesburg.

Ah, the freedom you and I are once again privileged to enjoy as lockdown regulations ease. That sensation of wild abandon that inevitably flows from a road trip out of Joburg. The confidence that provincial borders are once again unmanned as you cross their lines. The preparation and the planning, fused with the unknown.

Grab your mask, I have a really interesting weekend road trip that will act as a salve for the COVID-weary soul. Partnered with the Mini Clubman, John Cooper Works Edition nogal, I’m going to show you a 255km roundtrip that only requires 3,5 hours of driving time. Bring on that abandon!

Joburg to Heidelberg

Heading out of the city, the N3 takes me a mere 50km south-east to the town of Heidelberg. Steeped in history, Heidelberg started out as a trading post in 1862. It continued to grow and became of strategic importance to the powers of the time, linking Joburg, the then-Natal and the Free State. In addition to many other notable individuals, Nelson Mandela visited the town in November 1996, receiving honoury citizenship in the old town hall.

Entering the town I’m aiming for the Heidelberg Heritage Museum, located in the old station building. But first a stop at the Beer House for a spot of lunch, complete with their Heidelberg Heritage Beers, which have a fascinating story all of their own. The brewery tour and beer tasting are an absolute must. Ghandi’s Ale was a particular favourite of mine with the beer paying homage to yet another of the town’s iconic visitors.

The staff at the Heidelberg Heritage Museum are passionate about keeping the history of their town alive. This they do through the Heidelberg Heritage Route – be sure to grab your Heritage Tour Map with its 30 stops. Armed with a QR scanner on your mobile, a world of history awaits you on a self-drive around town. You determine the pace. I soon realised that a full day could be spent soaking up the stories of Heidelberg. I find time to stop on Rensburg street, having heard that strange phenomena occur here. It is said that water flows uphill in the region of this stop, but sadly the skies were clear, so I shelved that for a rainy day.

Heidelberg to Balfour

Leaving Heidelberg I jump back onto the N3, turn onto the R23 shortly thereafter and head for Balfour, a mere 35km away. Proclaimed in 1897 as McHattiesburg, the town was renamed Balfour following a visit by British Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour in 1905.

But I’m not going into town. Rather, I set the Clubman’s navigation system for Welgelegen Manor on its outskirts, to be my home for the evening. This Herbert Baker designed Manor House is perfect for a country getaway, and takes care of your every need right on the property. Slow, intentional living is the pace of life and I take it all in.

Welgelegen Manor

The Welgelegen ethos continues in the service of dinner prepared by the resident chef. Eating in the beautifully appointed dining room, alongside the fireplace, I feel myself stepping back in time.

A good night’s rest sees me up bright and early the next morning for a walk around the estate. A lazy morning spent reading goes a long way to recharging my soul here in Cosmos Country. A decadent high tea picnic on the lawn serves as lunch and, self-introspection attended to, I am once again off, headed for the village of Val (for those of the English-speaking persuasion, pronounced “fell”, but with an Afrikaans accent).

Balfour to Val

Jumping back onto the R23 I take the R547 for the last 10km of the trip. In total this leg of road is a mere 47km. I quite like these short distances, they allow for more enjoyment of each stop, rather than spending endless hours driving. Ideal for weekend jaunts.

Val is your proverbial one-horse-town, except it’s probably better defined as a hamlet. The main attraction in Val (read: only) is the Val Hotel, owned and run by Rita Britz. Owning the hotel as she does, Rita in effect owns the town. The Britz family have been in the area for seven generations, tracing her heritage back to the Great Trek. She is passionate about Val and the people who pass through its streets.

Val Hotel

A popular weekend spot for cyclists and bikers alike, the Val Hotel will be my home on this last evening of my road trip. Driving in I spy the railway line and my heart skips a beat as I imagine the sunrise shots I will shoot on its rusted, moody tracks. Parking the Mini, Rita and I sit down for a quick drink as she shares some of the fascinating history of Val, and the area in general.

Gandhi also has a connection to Val. While on a peace march from Charlestown in 1914, he headed for the goldfields of Joburg and was imprisoned in Val as he and the protesters passed through. But just for the night.

Rita also shares the story of the Whiskey Train. In September 1900, a train transporting whiskey derailed just outside Val, much to the delight of both the Boer and British soldiers, who happened to be slogging it out at the time. Nothing like the water of life to help a chap get over a squabble or two, if only for a day. Cheers boet! And then back to the senselessness of war the next day. The Whiskey Train incident is celebrated each year in Val as the Brit and Boer Festival.

Continuing to my room, Rita shares that it used to be the old bottle store of the town. The room is well appointed and has a fascinating headboard made from pressed metal ceiling panels.

Rita is passionate about a farm to fork philosophy in the kitchen of the hotel and eagerly shows me her herb and vegetable garden the next morning. The grand old oak tree with a billiards table standing beneath it, now doing duty as a dining table, marks the spot for yet another early lunch. I get to sample Rita’s farm to fork approach. My long, delicious lunch under the old oak tree seems to nourish my soul, and it finally dawns upon me that it also marks the end of my weekend road trip.


Val back to Joburg

Leaving Val I drive 130km back to Joburg. By far the longest stretch on this entire trip, it allows for a time of reflection. I contemplate how, all too often, we Joburgers are rather predictable when it comes to travel. Particularly last-minute arrangements. We stick to the usual spots when we leave town for the weekend, yet we have a wealth of gems to explore in relative close proximity.

If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that we need to explore more locally. Heidelberg, Balfour and Val – here’s your start in a new direction.


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