Country Cuisine WAKKERSTROOM, MPUMALANGA
Travelling through Mpumalanga on the N11, there is a sudden, tangible change in the air when nearing the R543. It’s like moving through an invisible curtain to a place like no other. There’s a certain magic in the air of Wakkerstroom, as long time resident Brenda Carter likes to say.
Text: Leilani Basson
Photography: Jannie Herbst
It must be a cultural thing. In the same way that Portuguese immigrants chose to live in Rosettenville, Chinese people found a home away from home in Cyrildene, and Indians settled in Fordsburg on moving to Johannesburg, ex-Gautengers find Wakkerstroom irresistible.
Those who don’t live there permanently might own weekend or holiday property, and go there at the drop of a hat. They long for the day when they can pack up and move there for good.
Most of the shops, restaurants, B&Bs and hotels are owned by GP refugees. They began by visiting for a weekend, or passing through on their annual holiday, and knew instinctively that this was the place for them.
“After our first visit, we promptly bought property here.” That in essence is the response you’ll get from “new” Wakkerstromers – ‘promptly’ being the operative word.
No one says that they would like to live here one day, or that it would be nice to stay here when they retire. No, the spell that Wakkerstroom casts on them demands immediate action.
And so it was that Hannie Bergen abandoned Menlyn to open Mooi – a decor and gift shop, Romney van Ryneveld moved from Emmarentia to become an Alpaca farmer, Susanne van der Walt left Linden to open an art glass studio, and Brenda Carter deserted her Inanda garden to farm with irises in Wakkerstroom.
“It either gets to you or it passes you by,” says Brenda, 84, about the enchantment of Wakkerstroom. “I came here and turned my life around,” she says with a twinkle in the eye, while lighting her umpteenth cigarette of the day.
“I’ve always had a sense of adventure, and my husband was such a boring old guy. When he passed away 10 years ago, I packed up, came here and started growing things. If I can’t eat it, smell it or sell it, I don’t touch it,” she laughs…then coughs.
Brenda farms with irises, among other things. She’s won an award for her efforts as a female entrepreneur in agriculture, although she’s the first to admit that she accidentally fell into flower farming.
“A friend wanted to buy a working iris farm and asked if I would help. So it started as a favour… an act of kindness. Eventually she got caught up in other things, and after she’d taught me all there was to know, I had to carry on by myself.
“The irises were happy in Wakkerstroom and so was I. The cold climate works for them. Luckily, irises are strong flowers and easy to deal with. If they weren’t, I’d have found something else to grow!”
Brenda’s Wakkerstroom irises are distributed countrywide. In a weird and wonderful synergy, Brenda’s son, artist David Carter from Johnnesburg, runs his workshop from Brenda’s farm. David is renowned for his wood turned urns – giant wooden pots turned and polished to perfection and then sealed and finished off in a rich, reddish colour with a mosaic-like insert at the neck of the urn.
Two of David’s workers turn the wood day in and day out. “The shavings are just perfect for shipping my irises in,” says Brenda, her eyes darting around in search of her “darlings” — and a lighter.
One of the first “imports” to Wakkerstroom, who is unofficially celebrated as the source that pumped tourist life into the once derelict and forgotten town, is Elna Kotze. Elna, a keen birder, closed her touring company in Pretoria to open a guesthouse in Wakkerstroom in 1989.
The locals thought she was crazy. “No one ever comes to Wakkerstroom,” they would tell her, shaking their heads. Elna’s response? “But they are going to.”
She was right. In fact, since then, they have never stopped coming.
“Wakkerstroom is in the middle of nowhere,” is another mouthful of negativity that regularly came Elna’s way. “On the contrary, Wakkerstroom is in the middle of everywhere,” Elna would correct them.
Elna named her guesthouse Weaver’s Nest, and geared it entirely towards birders. She advertised in birding magazines and soon, bird lovers started flocking to Wakkerstroom. Many experienced the magic in the air and bought the empty, dilapidated houses and renovated them as holiday homes. Soon more guesthouses opened and, with them, a few interesting shops.
In 1992, the second guesthouse opened its doors and by the end of 1995, more than 5000 bed nights had been sold.
Elna, sadly, moved to London after her husband died in 2000.
Today there are more than 40 listed guesthouses and self-catering establishments in the town, and they are fully booked on busy weekends.
Paula and Danny Leahy can testify to this. They own the Wakkerstroom Country Inn, or “the hotel”, as it is called by the locals.
Paula, originally from Pretoria, met Danny in London. He was the head chef of a restaurant in Knight’s Bridge when Paula, who just finished her chef’s training in SA, knocked on his door looking for a job. Paula got the job… and married Danny soon afterwards.
They moved to SA and bought the old Utaga Hotel in Wakkerstroom in 2003 after searching for the perfect place to build their culinary dreams together. No other place had the appeal of Wakkerstroom.
The hotel was in a poor state and the couple had many a sleepless night, thinking they might have made the wrong decision. What convinced Danny, however, was the surreal peace and quiet he experienced one day when landing at the foot of Ossewakop after a paragliding session. “All I could hear was the sound of a cow herder cracking his whip,” recalls Danny.
Another amazing experience for Danny was witnessing two widely separated thunderstorms at the same time — one in the north and one in the south. There were wild lightning flashes and stereophonic thunder poles apart, but absolutely no sign of a storm directly overhead. “I instinctively knew that this was where I wanted to live,” he says.
Paula needed no convincing. She is as much a part of Wakkerstroom as the willows and krismisrose that thrive in this little town.
Everyone loves Paula. Since the arrival of their two daughters a few years ago, Paula is not as active as she used to be in the running of the beautiful and stylish hotel they created. But she remains passionate about Wakkerstroom. She is chairman of the tourist association and heads various charity projects.
Romney van Ryneveld and his wife, Fenella, left the al fresco lifestyle of Emmarentia, Johannesburg, to farm with alpacas in Wakkerstroom.
“I moved my IT business to nearby Volksrust but we needed something extra… something to keep Fenella busy,” says Romney. “Since we love animals, we tried our hand at a few things until we decided to farm with alpacas.
“Our little plot, with its plentiful water, is called the Caprivi Strip,” he jokes. “And that little hill down there, that is Mount Action – where new alpacas are made!”
Among his herd of insanely cute but ever so odd alpacas are Lady Rose, Bridgette, Indiana, Sweetie Pie, Bella and Daniella. “The boys are called Avalanche and Chocochino.” (The white and brown explain it.)
Fenella went for a spinning course, bought a spinning wheel and now produces the most marvellous alpaca wool items. She has a host of ladies who knit and crochet for her, and whatever you want made from alpaca, Fenella can make it for you.
“Alpaca wool has hollow fibres, which makes it the warmest wool there is,” she explains, while rocking her foot gently on the pedal to spin the wheel. She brings the romance back to this age-old skill that is just about extinct in SA – apart from Prince Albert in the Karoo, where a few ladies are still at it.
Chris Smit is Wakkerstroom’s own living legend. He is one of the few life-long residents and has played an integral part in the establishment, prosperity and birding life of the town.
Chris is like a storybook character. He was a major in “the bush war”. His mysterious, speckled eyes are encroached upon by unruly eyebrows. He has a radio voice that sounds as good in English as it does in Afrikaans, and a knowledge of history that is second to none.
Chris knows more than something about everything. He was town clerk for 14 years and mayor for 16 years. He knows the land like the back of his hand. This is what led to him establishing the only museum (Opikopi) in Wakkerstroom. It houses an astonishing collection of Anglo Boer War memorabilia, as well as artefacts he has excavated at the many historic sites – including concentration camps – in the surrounding area.
The remnants of dolls and miniature porcelain tea sets are heart breaking. A one-eyed, haggard and hard-to-identify teddy bear plays on one’s emotions.
Chris also leads tours to the Bushmen rock art caves in the area.
Apart from the thousands of bottles, military uniform buttons and horseshoes that Chris has dug up, and the antiques and collectibles that people have donated, most of the items on display are family items. “More than a 160 000 horses died during the South African wars,” says Chris.
A “quick visit” to Chris can soon turn into hours. He loves sharing his knowledge and anecdotes – some on serious history and others on the lighter side. For instance, he tells us that the Afrikaans volksliedjie, Suikerbossie, was not an original Afrikaans song at all. Chris has the dates, names and original gramophone record to prove it!
Getting back to the role he played in the conservation and promotion of the Wakkerstroom wetlands, author and conservationist Warwick Tarboton sums it up perfectly: “Chris Smit was the first champion of the wetlands.”
In the late seventies and early eighties, many locals were in favour of draining the wetlands to create canals and plant maize and wheat. As town clerk, Chris refused to let it happen and consulted Transvaal Nature Conservation about assistance in conserving the natural heritage sites in Wakkerstroom and promoting them for tourism. Together with Elna Kotze, Warwick Tarboton and John McAllister, he helped establish the Wakkerstroom Natural Heritage Association.
In 1997, the association and the town council arranged for the Mpumalanga Parks Board to take over the lease. In this way the wetlands could gain the status of a provincial reserve.
In 2007, Wakkerstroom’s ecological importance was realised and the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency applied to the national Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism to have the wetland registered as a Ramsar site. (Ramsar is a treaty to conserve wetlands around the globe.)
Today Wakkerstroom is a world-renowned birding destination. Since the area consists of wetlands, grasslands and forests, and has a wide altitude range, birding opportunities are unparalleled. There are nine endemic bird species in the grasslands that lure birders from around the world.
In 1998, Bird Life SA came to Wakkerstroom to formalise the birding industry, erect hides, train guides and conduct annual bird ringing projects for research and conservation.
Heading the Bird Life centre in Wakkerstroom are Kirsti Garland and Andre Steenkamp. They are bird educators who gained their knowledge and experience in Durban as environmentalists for various organisations.
“The biggest bird attractions in Wakkersroom are the larks and pippets,” says Kristi. “These are high altitude bird species that are not found in lower regions.
“Our main function is to record, count and monitor birds in the wetlands. We arrange guided tours and take school groups on bird sighting expeditions.”
Another resident who has created a career from the birds is Muzi Makhubu. He has a big smile and an almost tangible zest for life about him.
“My paintings always sold well, but then too many artists made their way to Wakkerstroom,” says Muzi, carving away at a wooden block in the shade of a huge willow tree. “I had to do something better than them.”
So Muzi got himself a birding book and started carving the most amazing birds from wood, before painting them as well as he possibly could. “I’ve been doing this for eight years now, and I’m getting better all the time!
“Sometimes I go and collect my old birds from guesthouses and shops in Wakkerstroom to improve them, so that visitors can see the standard of what I do. After seeing my work, they must feel they cannot leave Wakkerstroom without taking a few of the birds they saw away with them.”
The list of interesting people in Wakkerstroom goes on and on. There is Susanne van der Walt, an art lecturer from Linden, Johannesburg, who owns the Glass Art Studio and hosts glass workshops for adults and children. Her husband, Hannes, breeds thoroughbred Arabian horses.
Lizzie Lake and Paul Grobler, at The Bistro at Metamorphosis, run the most interesting restaurant with an ever-changing menu. They also have a dinner theatre that puts on top-class productions, music evenings and weddings.
And whenever food is involved, it is always free range. “The people are free-range in this place,” says Lizzie.