Kate Turkington does country style in luxury in Dullstroom; battles a gale in Wakkerstroom, one of the world’s best birding spots; and catches a tiger fish on Jozini Dam - in one week.
Mpumalanga may be one of our smallest provinces, but it’s packed with beauty and things to do. And you don’t need lots of time, foreign exchange or finicky visas to travel to some of its amazingly diverse destinations.
Dullstroom in the Mpumalanga highlands is South Africa’s top trout fly-fishing area. A leisurely three-and-a-half-hour drive from Johannesburg will carry you up into misty mountains past sparkling lakes and green fields dotted with fat cows and munching sheep.
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A steep paved road of hairpin bends lined with ancient trees finally brings you to the gates of one of the province’s most plush properties, Walkersons Hotel & Spa.
Stay in one of the comfortable suites at the main hotel or take your family off to a remote self-catering cottage that overlooks a river and a waterfall, where the real world is a million miles away. If you’re not a fisherman, now’s your chance to try it. Children, beginners and experts are all welcome, and there’s always someone around to give you a helping hand.
Come hungry because the food is excellent. A rare steak, stripped pork, grilled trout, tempting veggie dishes and luscious desserts are served up with fine wine every evening in the comfortable restaurant themed in Scottish country house style. If you’re too tired and want some privacy, order a gourmet burger, a cheese or Highland platter, or panko prawns from room service.
'World’s top birding spots and headquarters of BirdLife SA'
There are walks and trails winding between freshwater dams and along rivers for every level of fitness, and even the 1.8km trail to the top of the mountain is paved most of the way.
You can also go horse riding, mountain biking, putter along in a golf cart or go to gym. The Highlands Gate Golf Course designed by Ernie Els is only a few fairways away. When the exercise is over, spoil yourself and have an indulgent treatment at the friendly spa.
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From Walkersons to Wakkerstroom, one of the world’s top birding spots and headquarters of BirdLife SA on the southern border of Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. It doesn’t look like a long drive on the map – unless you get lost, which my companion Coral and I did. After meandering for miles among seemingly interminable coalfields and country roads scattered with deep potholes, we arrived in the middle of a downpour at this historic, beautiful village in the internationally renowned Wakkerstroom Wetland in the Grassland Biosphere Reserve.
'Birds I had only dreamt about'
Birders come from all over the world to spot many of the village’s globally threatened bird species, such as the African marsh harrier, the grey crowned crane and the yellow-breasted pipit. BirdLife SA runs an important conservation centre here, and trains and employs local people.
Whether you’re a beginner birder or a twitcher, be sure to use the services of one of the knowledgeable community bird guides. On a previous visit, Lucky Ngwenya showed me birds I had only dreamt about.
There was an excited party of Europeans staying with us at Wetlands Country House & Sheds, one of the best B&Bs I have visited anywhere in South Africa. Rita and Phil, who own and run it, have repeat guests from all over the world who are thrilled not only by the surrounding birdlife but also by the luxurious accommodation, hearty country breakfasts, library, sitting room and more than 280 different types of roses.
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Our determined fellow guests left at 4am in driving rain to spot the elusive red-chested flufftail. We braved two of the hides in a gale, but the birds had more sense than us and kept their beaks down.
But another exciting find was still to come. On our second evening, we dined at The Bistro, a tiny, quirky restaurant in the middle of the village. The fusion food was superb, as was the fabulous collection of African art sponsored by Chef Lizzie and partner Paul.
On display were the thrones created by Sicelo Ziqubu, winner of the Spier Contemporary Art Award and beneficiary of the National Arts Council travelling exhibition grant. Ziqubu uses recycled media and his thrones are a mixed marvel of colour, texture, fantasy, mythology and symbolism. You can also sit in them. The work of other local artists adorns the walls and shelves, including bird carvings made of alien wood by artist Muzi Makhubu.
Wakkerstroom brims with other things to do and see. Take historic walks where the Brits and Boers battled; visit the historic church and cemetery; try your wheels on 4x4 trails; or walk across the narrow 1893 Paul Kruger Bridge, which is particularly interesting because the first black Zionist baptisms in South Africa took place there on May 24 1904.
On the road again ... now to Shayamanzi Houseboat on Jozini Dam in KwaZulu-Natal, the only place in South Africa where you can catch a tiger fish. You’ll stay on a luxurious houseboat that drifts along the shores of the Pongola Game Reserve, which was established in 1894.
Watch hippos, elephants, rhinos and lots of plains game as you dangle your rod over the side of the small launch that takes you into the middle of the dam.
One of my companions very politely said: “I think you’ve got an enquiry on your line,” and my fishing rod suddenly bent at a 90-degree angle. After a fierce fight, I pulled in a 2.2kg tiger fish. Minutes later, our houseboat captain, Alan Ndlovu, who has been with Shayamanzi for more than 10 years, pulled in one weighing 3.8kg.
Don’t spend those precious rands on overseas destinations when there are so many (much more affordable) places to explore at home.
*Disclaimer: Kate Turkington was hosted by all three establishments
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