SECRETS UNEARTHED - JSE MAGAZINE

SECRETS UNEARTHED

The mountain wilderness of Hogsback in the Eastern Cape is a hidden gem that inspires lost worlds or maybe just the imagination…

SECRETS UNEARTHED

‘What is it?’ I’m standing on an overgrown path, in a lush glade, staring at a life-size version of what looks like a Tolkien creature sitting on a very large toadstool. It’s unnervingly realistic.

‘A fairy, of course. They’re everywhere up here. This one’s just been captured. Isn’t he magnificent?’ I’m reluctant to answer. For two reasons. First, the whole Tolkien/fairy/ley lines thing is getting on my nerves and my friend is really just winding me up. Secondly, the Camelot Fairy Meander’s owner Patrick Smith – creator of said giant fairy – is lurking a few metres away in the brush, watching. Earlier I’d seen what he’s capable of with a welding torch and didn’t want to irk him.

Before I can fashion a response, Hogsback delivers up its own interjection in the form of a party trick – wrapping the mountain-top eyrie in a thick coat of creeping, dense mist. Camelot disappears in the blink of an eye, fairies and companions just so. Amazing really, given that a few hours ago I’d been swimming in waterfall pools and hiking through oxygen-rich indigenous forests.

This is a fitting metaphor for Hogsback with its many attractions both visible and hidden. Sure the forests, stores and walks are available to all, but the nature of the place takes time to reveal itself. It has something to do with its hidden communities, secrets, and well, just challenging geography – making Hogsback a warren of winding roads and confusing dips and gulleys.

Its inhabitants are equally contradictory – a mix of trippy soul searchers at home in labyrinths and A-frame wigwams, and sophisticated Fort Hare academics enjoying an English reverie of thatch and understated Anglicanism. With the addition of a good number of city opt-outers, retirees and artists, you have the makings of a thriving, complex, never-boring community.

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First-timers to Hogsback stick to main attractions, including Camelot’s fairy garden – A triumph of imagination, craftsmanship and engineering

Years ago I discovered the Arminel Hotel and always stay there. It’s in the middle of town –almost big enough to promote a certain anonymity but small enough to ensure a level of intimate village service. But the real reason I come back is for the gardens, which are magnificent – banks of azaleas, layers of rhododendrons and enormous oaks welcoming the weary traveller in a riot of white, crimson and green. A self-catering house in the gardens can be enjoyed for a song during the midweek and offers expansive luxury, a deck and wonderful views of the estate.

First-timers to Hogsback generally stick to the main attractions, including Camelot’s wonderful fairy garden, which truly is a triumph of imagination, craftsmanship and engineering; Diana Graham’s Eco-Shrine; an early morning stroll through the arboretum right in the middle of town, offering a garden of international trees; the Edge labyrinth, based on the famous example in Chartres Cathedral; and the Madonna and Child falls walk. These are the essentials and will take the better part of a weekend to really get to grips with. But more than that, Hogsback’s charm is what it offers up when you are not expecting it.

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The Saturday morning market, tiny Anglican church on the hill, and unadvertised art exhibition all offer a glimpse into a world lived differently up here in the clouds. An impromptu singalong at the erstwhile centre of the village – the Happy Hogs restaurant – is also not out of the ordinary here.

Happy Hogs is the one place that stays open, and where everyone eventually finds themselves on an evening when all else is closed. Unreformed hippies, uninhibited academics and a local showgirl all appear and, depending on your ability to say no, you may find yourself part of a future legend about a visitor who fell into a pond trying to do justice to La Traviata’s Sempre Libera.

But back to the real attractions. Venture down the avenue of interlocking trees off Summerton Drive and the Eco-Shrine fights for dominance, with a view that literally takes your breath away. The artist and Hogsback veteran, Diana Graham, has created a sinuous, Easter-Island-meets-Stonehenge homage to nature on her escarpment-edge property.

The red-haired polymath takes visitors around herself, explaining the significance of her paintings and sculptures. It’s far less Al Gore than it sounds, but is instead a hard-nosed warning that we’re of this Earth and if we mess it up, it’ll do away with us, rather than the other way round. Gaia at it’s best.

Natural selection is also at the heart of the village’s arboretum – a garden of trees from all across the world. The apex contenders, as it were, are the Californian redwoods – 100 years old – and alone make the visit worthwhile. The walk through the natural garden extends to the 39 Steps Falls and takes less than half an hour. If you’re lucky, say the locals, the endangered Cape parrot might show itself too.

Suitably warmed up for all things natural, the next goal is the somewhat more challenging Madonna and Child walk down to the waterfalls. It is a three-hour amble and the incentive is, in summer at least, the promise of a refreshing dip in the pool at the bottom of the falls.

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Forge on and the falls are heard before they’re seen – a high, elegant cascade into a shallow pool

The walk starts in the high street and snakes down to Hogsback’s Big Tree, then finally along to the spectacular falls. In the quiet under the canopy, it takes a hard man not to believe in magic, especially when you happen upon the huge 800-year-old podocarpus latifolius. This real yellowwood is reason enough to make the trek, a sobering reminder that our fourscore and ten is a galactic joke.

Forge on and the falls are heard before they are seen – a high, elegant cascade into a shallow pool, almost as lovely as, ironically, the elf kingdom in Lord of the Rings. Ironic because, of course, Tolkien never visited Hogsback, instead spending only a few months in Bloemfontein as a baby before heading off to wherever he went to be inspired to create Middle Earth.

The de rigueur swim and more difficult ascent out of the valley are good for one thing in particular – working up an appetite, and Hogsback’s reputation as a culinary backwater notwithstanding, there’s plenty on offer to sate even the most intense hunger. First choice is Nutwoods Park, hosted by Spaniard Attila de las Heras and Neil Boyle in a dining room on their estate, heaving with the classical art both love so much. The emphasis is on comfort food, albeit with a more often than not Mediterranean twist. The beef fillet gets an intriguing mix of Spanish veggies and the traditional mash can be replaced with fried Portuguese rice served with (again) Spanish meatballs. It’s a popular spot, and on a cold evening its not hard to see why – logs in the open hearth, thatch overhead and mood lighting. It is the very essence of country conviviality.

Closer to town the very traditional, very old-fashioned Hogsback Inn harks back to an era when one dressed for dinner no matter the standard of the restaurant. Here vegetables are served in stainless steel dishes, there’s a cultivated hush as the dining Miss Marples of the world listen in to the village gossip, and music tends to be of the Clayderman variety. In fairness, the restaurant has had a recent(ish) revamp and a menu spruce-up, making it less a historical anomaly and more of a justifiable nomination.

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Another place that gets a great deal of good press is the Edge’s informal dining room, which serves a mean hot trout. This estate, right on the edge of the escarpment, offers accommodation too, including one particular cottage, alarmingly named Thunderstone, which sits right on the edge of the drop-off. Good fun for the somnambulists.

Hogsback’s charm is its predictability as much as its remoteness, and it promotes the idea of ‘coming home’ as an attraction. That’s not entirely true but, in an era of dizzying change, it is reassuring – and relaxing – to return to a remote mountain-top and find it much as you left it. Swathed in mist, scored by unseen parrots and barking samango monkeys, hiding in the dense Afromontane forests. It deserves your patronage.

By Peter Frost
Images: Alamy, Gallo/GettyImages