South Africa’s Hartbeespoort Offers More Than Just Boating

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Familiarity is often a ‘disease’ from frequent travelling. One gets used to a place and fails to appreciate the beauty that defines it. I was teetering between familiarity and fatigue when I travelled to Hartbeespoort for a New Year’s glamping experience. I have been to Harties [an informal reference to Hartbeespoort] several times. I live a little over thirty minutes from this place whose name means gateway of the ‘hartbees’ – a species of antelope.

My fatigue was a telling sensation of a year that was. However, it was to be a busy three days of exploring this sought after holiday destination in the North West Province of South Africa. Hosting 60 glamping enthusiasts was both intimidating and exciting. But, I was decidedly in search of the unfamiliar from a familiar territory, the history that shaped Harties.

Group of  glampers
Glampers ready for fun

We left the North of Johannesburg just before the sun came up. It was a morning of two skies. The east had red scattered clouds, probably feeding off from the ambience of the rising sun. It reminded me of my childhood days. I loathed this time of the morning. I still do, as an adult. Each morning my grandfather would wake us up with one familiar line. “Boys, wake up,” he would say with a characteristic clearing of the throat. “All your peers from neighbouring homes are already working the fields.” This line haunted me for years. I am fond of late mornings.

To the West, the sky portrayed an uncompromising dark, wet day. We headed towards the northwest. I tried using my indigenous knowledge if Harties would get the sunshine from the east or the rain from the west.

“The sky will clear and we the sun will shine,” I said to Eddy, my Glamping Adventures travel companion. “I hope so too,” he said, in languid affirmation.

As we moved forward, the gloomy weather pushed back. A steady drizzle welcomed us as we entered Broederstroom;. The Lion and Safari Park to our right was gloomy. To our left, the Lesedi Cultural Center settled under a canopy of lush trees. A thick mist covered the entrance. The hillock next to the centre was under the cover of a thick sheet of moving ‘smoke.’ On any day I celebrate rain and all the life it brings but not on a day when I am glamping with large group. Broederstroom was grey and dark. This is a small town is named after two brothers of General Andies Pretorius namely H.P.N. and H.A. Pretorius, who lived there. It was once part of the Pretoria district. General Andies Pretorius himself is a towering figure of South Africa’s historical trajectory. The capital Pretoria is named after him.

We set the camp in rain at Eagle Waters Wildlife Resort next to the dam. As the sun rose, the rain faded. By midday, it was humid and hot. The sun was unrelenting. I knew the following day would be a sweltering one. Hiking through the Phaladingwe Trail with a group of adventure seekers of varying capabilities would be challenging under such conditions. I was right. The last day of 2019 started with an open sky that did not show any sign of change. We started off just after sunrise. It was a mix of children, adults and the elderly.

“This is a 7km trail,” I addressed the group as we gathered at the starting point. “Don’t focus on the pain, set your eyes on the beauty of the landscapes, flora and fauna,” I added with the poise of a keynote speaker.

Phaladingwe Hiking Trail is circular. The starting point is a national monument known as the Preller House. Declared as a historical site in 1973, the Preller House was home to Gustav Preller, a Journalist and historian who played an important role in promoting Afrikaans language and culture. Before his death in 1943, Preller was part of the planning of the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. His remains were buried in this nature reserve of Pelindaba.

Headstone of Debora Jacoba Retief, daughter of Piet Retief, and her husband M. W. Pretorius, cousin of former South African Republic. They are buried in the Pelindaba area that has the Phaladingwe Hiking Trail
Headstone of Debora Jacoba Retief, daughter of Piet Retief, and her husband M. W. Pretorius, cousin of former South African Republic. They are buried in the Pelindaba area that has the Phaladingwe Hiking Trail

Phaladingwe means prettier than others. This is a trail that lays bare it beauty as one begins the hike through grassland. The terrain is full of colour, texture and character because of the rain season. We shuffled into a heaving line following the narrow trail. It emerged almost like a broken human chain. Animated discussions shot through the air. Like any huge group hikes; this slowly formed into small teams according to familiarity and capabilities. These alliances would shift throughout the trail as energy wanes and frustrations gnaw in. Friendships are forged in the trail while some are momentarily broken. From the grassland, we weaved through a rocky stretch with a beautiful tree canopy. Any shade is welcome under such an unforgiving sun.

On the trail
On the trail

I alternate positions; from the front to the back ensuring everyone was fine and capturing moments with my camera. It’s a largely joyous group with a blistering pace. The pacesetters are a leading pack of five. They disappear into the forest, swallowed by the hills, only to re-emerge from the top. At some point, we were never to see them again until the finishing point.

Approximately two kilometres into this trail comes the main attraction – the Crocodile River. The route is along the banks of the river. On the right, the river flows quietly below the colossal quartzite rock gorge. A gallery and restaurant are perched at the edge of the gorge across the river. To the left are slates of disintegrated stones lying here like a palette of a loose landscape sculpture. It is said that some of these stones were used to build the Preller House.

The route snakes through a corridor of reeds. “This is a reed dance,” shouted one of the hikers. “Yes, you are right,” I answered as we negotiated our way into this natural, living basket. “Keep holding the reeds for me to walk through unhindered,” I joked with Gugu. It was a joke that drew laughter from other hikers. She laughed too. It was a great stretch that saw us bending, at times to near crawling level to wade through the reed thicket.

Emerging from the reed passage felt almost like a catharsis. A colourful moor opens up as if welcoming us from the reed pilgrimage. This would be the beginning of the strenuous part of this trail. Three more hills would test our endurance with steep terrain and rolling downhill slopes. “Did we have to do this though,” said one glamper in a sarcastic tone. “Adventure seekers are like marathon runners,” I answered. “We all choose pain; fulfilling pain. We don’t have to but there is a great deal of immeasurable satisfaction after the adventure.”

It’s a question I often get when we go hiking. “Did we have to?” However, I have learned over years that tough trails are the most memorable. There lies the beauty of adventure. It’s sort of a masochistic pursuit.

The last stretch of this hiking trail circle feels like the circle of life. It induces mixed feelings. Sad that we give our backs to the amazing Crocodile River, its quite waters and majestic gorge but also thrilled that the road leads to the end. The Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (NECSA) emerges on the right side. This is South Africa’s only nuclear research reactor.

The rewards of a hectic hike
The rewards of a hectic hike

Far ahead, the Magaliesberg mountain range looms from a distance. It lurks over the Hartbeespoort Dam. This dam has become the poster attraction of this area. It covers just over 2 000 hectares surface area and it was commissioned in 1923. It’s a recreational magnet with boating as a main feature. We had a boat cruise later that day too. A lot is known about this dam but little about what surrounds it, which like the hike in Phaladingwe can be known by taking a step back from the familiar. I am satisfied as I leave the trail that I have accumulated something from a place I thought I knew.

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