Wherever I may roam
The alternative party capital of the country, a spiritual Mecca, a place to experiment with herbal ‘medicine’, a permaculture education centre - I’d heard it all before ever setting foot in the infamous Rustler’s Valley. Like a hologram, Rustlers was something different to everyone.
We went to find out for ourselves, and perhaps, even find ourselves.
Leaving the majestic Golden Gate in our rearview mirrors, we headed deeper into the Eastern Free State, passing the picturesque town of Clarens, tree-adorned flowers as pink as a young girl’s blush, and the wild craggy mountains just north of Lesotho, before entering the tiny border town of Fouriesberg to stock up on supplies.
Avoiding large potholes and other perils of the gravel road en-route to Rustlers, we were grateful for our two wheels, imagining the cars that didn’t make it to all those long-ago festivals. We weren't the only small vehicles on the road though!
My confidence was overstated. Traversing across monolithic rocks and up a steep hill my bike cut out and I proceeded to do my not-so-graceful topple, accompanying it with an indignant squawk as my foot got trapped. Chris came to the rescue and we proceeded to Sunmoon Lodge, where we’d be staying in one of the bluegum/wattle & daub rondavels.
Owned by ex-fashion photographer Robert Stirling (affectionately known as Nishiwaka, or the Fire Keeper), Sunmoon is set on the slope of a mountain facing a spectacular sandstone valley that has held human life for 100 000 years.
In the wake of a devastating fire in 1997 that consumed everything at Rustlers, Nishiwaka was one of the few community members to rebuild, and currently is the farm’s director. While little but ruins remain, Sunmmon has risen from the ashes to provide spiritual teachings under the watchful Sangoma’s Eye, a 12m tall sandstone arch or natural Hole in the Wall.
A bountiful vegetable and medicinal garden shows evidence of permaculture at play, while solar panels provide power, toilets are composting ones, and water comes from a spring that taps into an underground river.
Waking up the next morning I sat and enjoyed the apparent silence until a Basotho lady came to do the dishes. She sat outside a few metres from me, all the while squeezing out farts as if she was a balloon letting out air - with no evidence of embarrassment.
Later we ventured around the ruin of what was once Rustler's Valley Mountain Retreat. With cottages, dorms, conferencing facilities, dance floor and restaurant - the once-popular guesthouse, surrounded by spectacular green valleys and towering cliffs - was eerily quiet with the only noise the whisper of the wind and the ghostly sighs of long-ago ravers.
Heading out to Parys, we had to cover 300 uninspiring grain-swept kilometres in a day of blistering heat, potholes and tiresome roadblocks.
Somehow managing to miss the worst of the storm, we arrived in the wet streets of Parys as the dying sun gasped its last breath.
Targeted as an adventure centre, Parys is home to the Vredefort Dome, what remains of a large and ancient meteorite impact crater dating back 2023 million years ago. Finding a place to stay on a long weekend wasn't very easy however.
Though we were as weary as a waitress after a double shift after riding all day in air sucked dry of moisture, we trawled Parys as dark set in looking for an affordable place to stay (or a decent campsite).
Though it looked closed on first inspection, Parys Adventure Lodge proved to be the answer to our prayers - owner Michelle opened up for us offered us a comfortable dorm room to spend the night.
Our next stop was Otter’s Haunt on the Vaal River, where we were impressed by owners Karen and Graeme Addison’s considerable knowledge of the area.
After a tour of the Dome, which, at between 40 and 60 km wide can only be properly seen from space, we learned that although the Dome was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2005, conservationists hope to see it designated as a geopark that develops ecotourism and scientific awareness.
Shaped by the underlying Dome Geology, the Vaal is one of the oldest rivers in the world. We joined Karen Addison for a kayak on this stately river, which today, faces the threat of pollution, development, invader plants and the erosion of its banks. Conservation is thus crucial to its continued existence.
White Water Rafting on the Vaal is another popular activity. We joined Dolf Jordaan of Ingwenya Tours to see whether this popular activity is.
Dolf's twinkly eyes and mischievous sense of humour immediately set everyone at ease during the comprehensive debriefing and safety speech - he joked that if we bumped into something it could be a rock, a tree or even a previous client. Still laughing, we set out to tackle the Vaal's sinous rapids armed with paddles, lifejacket and helmet.
Dolf told us that through the tours, they try to get jaded city folk to reconnect with nature. Regular river cleanups and training of local guides further contributes towards their environmental initiatives.
Fortunately I was paird with seasoned guide JP and had to do little more than paddle and keep a clear-head. Other girls on the trip had a harder time - sighting a rapidly approaching rock they'd freeze like surprised lizards - as if by being still the rock wouldn't see them, or in this case, upend them.
Others would see the rapids approaching and instead of paddling as instructed they'd throw their hands into the air in resignation, as if getting toppled was pre-ordained.
Though I managed to hold my own, it was while taking a turn to swim in the rapids (wearing just a life jacket and an oversized helmet) that things got ugly. The moment I hit the water my helmet came down and covered my eyes so I couldn't see what rocks to avoid.
It felt a bit like forgetting how to swim or attempting to do so while in a strait jacket. The weight of the helmet forced my head underwater so all I could do was flail about in slow-motion. Needless to say, I drank about 2 litres of stinky river water before making my way to shallower shores.
Conservation seems part of the parcel at Parys. Our next stop was the Dell Cheetah Conservation Centre (DCC), where we met with Pieter Kemp, who, together with his wife Estelle, aims to address the male cheetah’s low fertility and small gene pool through their breeding programme.
With only 8000 cheetahs left on earth, a 90% mortality rate for wild cheetahs and the chilling fact that for every four cheetahs taken out of the wild, three will die of stress-related diseases, Pieter and Estelle’s goal of reintroducing captive cheetahs to protected areas where they can be wild is increasingly important.
The first of its kind in the world, DCC plans to employ a three-pronged approach:
1.) Cheetahs are allowed to breed
2.) Cubs are raised without interference in a separate area populated with game
3.) Cheetahs will eventually be released at between 18-24 months.
And having successfully bred and hand-raised 23 cheetahs, of which 12 have been sold for breeding programmes, I have no doubts that Pieter and Estelle’s efforts will bear fruition.
Then a last frantic rush to attend the Green Expo in the City of Gold, where we talked about our trip till our throats were hoarse, and a visit to Food & Trees for Africa’s new Farmer Eco-Enterprise Development Programme (FEED AFRICA).
Managed by Quinton Naidoo, the project aims to provide emerging organic and sustainable farmers with training, mentorship, operational support and marketing assistance so they can join the mainstream agricultural economy.
We visited two farms, one at Rethabiseng just outside Bronkhorstspruit (which won Gauteng ‘Woman Farmer of the Year’ in 2011) and another in Cullinan, both shining examples of what can be done to uplift communities through sustainable agriculture.
Inspired by the vast variety of organic crops produced, we left keen to see what the rest of Gauteng has in store for us. Catch us In the City, our latest blog, to find out.
Read In the City, gardening in Jozi's Urban Jungle
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