Reaching the village of Rhodes in the Eastern Cape is a bit of an adventure in itself. Tucked away in the foothills of the Maluti mountains, just a rock’s throw from Lesotho, Rhodes is accessible only via beautiful gravel mountain passes that are measured in hours, not kilometres. But in Rhodes a new world of magic awaits. Indeed, this little village is probably one of the last wild outposts in SA.
DAY 1 – A bearded man with stories to tell
The big man with the white beard stares down at us, from the other side of the counter.
He looks vaguely familiar. His voice, the mannerisms… his size.
It’s… it’s Grizzly Adams! And he lives in the village of Rhodes, in the Eastern Cape! The television character of Grizzly Adams (or Jopie Adam, as he was called in the translated version of the popular American series), was based on a real-life legend called John “Grizzly” Adams, a famous mountain man who trained bears for shows.
In the television series, Grizzly is falsely accused of murder, and with no other option he heads into the wild Californian mountains of the 1800s. There, he saves a bear cub, later named Ben, from certain death, and the two become inseparable partners – and legends in their own time, too.
And now Grizzly Adams is standing in front of me, here in Rhodes. In the mountains. But he does not go by the name, Grizzly. This is Dave – Dave Walker. He owns the Walkerbouts Inn in the three-horse village, and is one of the most recognisable characters in the area.
Everyone knows Dave, and Dave knows everyone. He doesn’t have a grizzly bear companion, but he does have a Toyota Fortuner 3.0D4-D.
“I’ve been driving Toyotas since 1980,” says the big man. “I started off with a Hilux SRX, then upgraded to a Venture. But the Venture was like a pot of honey for many local entrepreneurs, so I sold that before any dramas could unfold and bought a Hilux 2.4D, which I still drive today. I acquired the Fortuner as well less than a year ago, and so far I’m very impressed, especially with the overtaking power.”
So Rhodes’s Grizzly Adams has a “farm Toyota” and a “church Toyota”. But how did he end up here in Rhodes? Was he also on the run from the law?
The big man laughs heartily.
“When I was a student in Bloemfontein I decided to fill my parents’ swimming pool with trout… and my impromptu trout farm was underway. But then I met a lad in a Bloemfontein bar one night. When he heard about my home-grown trout, he said he’d show me where the real trout were. He brought me to Rhodes, and the rivers around the village. That was in 1978,” says Dave. After many years of fishing visits, Dave finally moved permanently to the village in 1990. And he was duly nicknamed “Jopie Adam” by the locals.
“When I just arrived here I helped fix some houses in the nearby Bokspruit area, and when someone jokingly referred to me as Jopie Adam, the name stuck,” he says. We are sitting in the Walkerbouts Inn’s bar, and if these walls could talk, the stories would be legion.
It’s a Wednesday evening and the bar is filling up. There are only 30 permanent residents in Rhodes, so new faces offer a good excuse for a beer or three. Janbert Reeders also drives a Toyota Fortuner 3.0D4D, and the discussion soon evolves from the latest presidential shenanigans to Fortuners.
“I drive a lot, and the Fortuner will last forever on these roads. No matter the conditions, it gets me there and back, every time,” says Janbert.
Another patron dares mention the name of another brand, which seems to be giving Toyota’s Hilux and Fortuner a tough time in the sales department.
Janbert is not impressed: “Ag no man! That bakkie may look all ladeda today, but it won’t last the distance. Toyota vehicles are the only ones that last in our neck of the woods.”
As a fifth-generation Rhodes resident, Janbert knows about the challenges of living in a small village.
“I bought the Fortuner brand new, nine years ago. Back then our children were in the school hostel in Bloemfontein, and we used to ferry them back and forth. Now the Fortuner has 210 000km on the clock, and my youngest daughter is a fourth-year varsity student. The Fortuner just soldiers on, regardless,” says Janbert.
The previously snubbed patron, who dared use the “F-word” in the bar, has another shot. “That new SUV that is coming later this year… now that will be a strong seller,” he pronounces. “Dave, please don’t give this man any more alcohol,” says Janbert. “He’s obviously had too much to drink.”
The conversation soon turns to Rhodes. It seems the quaint little town, with a history dating back to the 1880s, is suffering the fate that most rural South Africa appears to be subjected to – inept officialdom, bleeding the community dry.
The consensus seems to be that the local community needs a concerted effort from the powers that be to better manage, coordinate and expand the area’s tourism industry. In the meantime, the people of Rhodes are standing together and forging ahead with initiatives to keep the tourists coming. Dave and his companions had lined up an action-packed morning for us, so it was time for bed.
As we head down the creaky, wooden corridor to our rooms, we hear Janbert’s voice rise above the din in the bar. “Don’t get me started on resale value! Ag no man! Don’t get me started!”
DAY 2 – Fancy goats, a cello and a splash of craft beer
We start our tour of Rhodes on the run, after a hearty breakfast at Walkabouts. Sean and Liz de Wet moved to Rhodes a few years ago. Sean is an accountant by profession, but nowadays he plies his trade as a carpenter in his garage, restoring old wooden pieces for Oom Nigel Owles, owner of the famously infamous Rhodes Hotel. Sadly, the hotel’s doors were closed following a long saga of a sale followed by a dispute, followed by a long and drawn-out legal battle. Oom Nigel is now back in his hotel after years of court cases, but in that time the building fell into disrepair. There is no electricity or water.
While he waits for the right investor to walk through the historic De Wydeman bar door, Oom Nigel restores old wooden clocks and other items.
Just outside the village we meet Bernard and Bernadette Reynecke. The couple, who used to be based in Johannesburg, living the high life of corporate executives with fancy cars and houses, now live a more simple life, on the banks of the Bell River. Besides the farming activities, the couple make their own cheese and jams. And Bernard brews a very tasty craft beer, which is served in the Toeka restaurant – a fine-dining establishment on the farm – and sold in the area.
“We produce 1000 bottles a month,” says Bernard. “We prefer to stick to traditional methods of doing things, which includes thecheese making, beer brewing and even the farming methods.”
After selling his shares in a JSE-listed company, surely the quiet life in Rhodes must be a huge adjustment?
“In Johannesburg, material things mattered. Here they don’t mean anything, and we much prefer it this way,” says Bernard. “I still travel to Johannesburg occasionally, but this is where our hearts are.” We stop over at the school hostel, where only five children are currently accommodated.
Not surprisingly, it is due to close down soon.
We drop in at the art studio, owned by Gail Machanik. Her partner, Tony Kietzman, is also a budding painter, and a fly fisherman of note. Sharlene Sankey is another local artist, who sells colourful tablecloths.
We meet Susan Kölz’s prized Toggenburg goats, all the way from Switzerland. Susan is Dave Walker’s partner, and she’s been living in Rhodes for decades.
She enters the goat pen, but Heidi, a rather large animal with horns to match, seems irritated by this move.
“King!” calls Susan to her helper. “Come quickly and bring the rope before this goat donners me!”
Thankfully King saves the day and leads Heidi to, well… greener pastures.
After a few more twists and turns in the village, including a cookie tasting and a cello performance, we meet Petro, the newly appointed manager of the information centre. This is where you find out anything about everything. It is part of an initiative launched by the villagers to promote tourism.
Chatting to Dave again later, we ask why he decided to make the village his home. “There are many reasons,” he says, “the mountains, the trout, the fresh air, the scenery… and for me it’s also the people, including the tourists. Because we are so far away from the main tourist drags, those we do get here have come to Rhodes for a reason. They really want to be here.”
And the plans to keep the village ticking over?
“We recently introduced the Stoepsitfees (or “porch sitting festival”), which has proved very popular. It includes all the village’s attractions, including art, food and people. And we continue to work with the municipality so that we can bring more tourists to this beautiful but remote part of SA. Rhodes has so much to offer, and we’ll do whatever we can to secure its long-term viability.
“This place is magic. Just look at it,” he says, pointing towards the village, lying slightly below the inn, the beautiful mountains framing the picture.
He’s right. From any angle, it’s pure magic.
A little bit of history
The seasonally migratory San people were the first humans to traverse these parts, followed in the late 1800s by pioneering farmers. After farms were laid out, the Dutch Reformed Church established a church on the farm, Tintern. Farmer Jim Vorster agreed to the establishment of a village on condition that 100 plots were sold and that it was named after the prime minister of the Cape, Cecil John Rhodes. The plots were duly sold and Rhodes was founded on 16 September 1891. Over the years the village has seen its fair share of strife and hardship. During the Anglo Boer War it was invaded 29 times.
Later the village’s agricultural fortunes declined to the point where, in the 1970s, it was virtually a ghost town. However, the worldwide “hippie” phenomenon saved the day. People looking for an environment in which to “make love, not war” settled here, literally living off the land. Then came the tourism phase, coupled with the region’s reputation for great trout fishing, and the town largely depends on tourism to stay afloat.
Acquiring a property in Rhodes has evolved greatly from the depressing 1970s. Back then, houses were sold for whatever was owed in rates and taxes, and some were virtually given away.
But by 1987, things were changing. A medium-sized house retailed for up to R30 000, and by the mid-nineties that value had doubled to around R60 000.
Today the same properties sell for about R400 000. Sadly, this escalation has also resulted in more out-of-town owners who only visit the village occasionally for holidays, and fewer permanent residents.
The one-stop information centre in the main street can tell you where to stay, where to eat, what to eat, and even what road conditions are like and the travelling time to the nearest towns.
Fuel supply is a problem in Rhodes, so check about availability when you plan to visit. Also check about the condition of the mountain passes. The spectacular Naudes Nek is a bucket list kind of pass to drive, and the Tenahead Mountain Lodge, as well as the Tiffendell Ski Resort, are about an hour’s drive from Rhodes. Note that it is not advisable to use a vehicle with low ground clearance on these passes.
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