THE first thing that strikes you when you enter the sleepy village of Rhodes – apart from its stunning beauty and its many sounds of silence – is that there are no burglar bars anywhere.
Rhodes is child and pet friendly, but remember it is a long drive. When booking, check if it is okay to take your dog with you
There’s no security company and there’s no razor wire, except surrounding the police station, where there is a surprising need for protection against the almost non-existent criminals.
There are also no keys for the rooms at Walkerbouts, our three-star base for a weekend’s exploration of an area which truly is one of the Eastern Cape’s best- kept tourism secrets, although, should you have a nervous disposition, genial host Dave Walker will rustle up the necessary door security.
A delight to the eyes after a very long drive from PE, taking at best seven hours, at worst well over eight, it is well worth making the journey to Rhodes where time seems to have stood still. It’s a place which will restore your soul and inner tranquillity. And a place which is full of surprises and interesting things to do.
First off, Rhodes itself is unusual in that the whole village – and, presumably, its 31 regular inhabitants – is a national monument, a tribute to an era long past.
Other interesting facets to life in Rhodes are that visitors don’t travel by distance but rather by how long it takes to get to the destination – 20 kilometres can take over an hour due to the mountain roads – and that people measure how long they have lived there by how many of its harsh winters they have survived. Temperatures in Rhodes can go down to minus eight at night while in nearby Tiffindell the mercury can plunge to -25, and even lower when the wind chill is factored in.
Bearing the extreme temperatures in mind, the traditionally furnished bedrooms at Walkerbouts feature electric blankets, panel heaters and mounds of fluffy warm blankets. There’s also a roaring fire in the dining room, with the fare on offer making a visit a must-do even if you are not staying at Walkerbouts.
Breakfasts are hearty to stave off the winter chills, with the elegantly served full English also featuring rosti, while dinners are delicious home-cooked, three-course affairs featuring items such as smoky pea soup, home- made meatballs and the tenderest of lamb casseroles, rounded off with tiramisu or malva pudding. There’s no menu to choose from but even the faddiest of eaters will revel in the home-cooked delights of the meals – and if you really don’t fancy the night’s menu, you can tuck into a design-it-yourself pizza on the most perfect thin-crust base.
After dinner a visit to the Thankshjalot bar – on the list of the top 100 bars in South Africa – is a must for an evening of convivial chat, with host Dave who has banned intrusive cellphones in favour of allowing guests to get to know one another over a drink or two.
It’s also nice to chat to Dave, who moved to Rhodes to assist in the building of Tiffindell. At that stage the now charmingly restored Walkerbouts, which was originally a large family home, was serving as a backpackers for people working at what is now South Africa’s only ski resort, which opens to the public after a closure of more than two years at the end of this month.
Keen to know more about the resort, we enlisted the help of local fly-fishing, flower and environmental fundi Tony Kietzman and, armed with a packed lunch thoughtfully provided by Walkerbouts, we set off to explore this pristine part of the Eastern Cape which, being part of the Drakensberg range, offers a visual treat completely different to the traditional East Cape scenery.
Tiffindell is only 20km from Rhodes but the journey takes well over an hour as it is only accessible via mountain roads, which are currently being upgraded by the resort. And while it is possible to reach the resort in a family car, those of a nervous disposition would be well-advised to either make use of a guide or the Tiffindell shuttle service – especially when there is snow and ice on the roads as there often is at this time of the year.
En route to the resort, Tony gave us a fascinating insight into the plants, both indigenous and invader, and the geology of the area, stopping at many spots offering incredible photographic opportunities.
We also stopped at streams for some snow-chilled liquid refreshment, filling up bottles with the best-tasting water you will ever have tasted.
Reaching Tiffindell at almost 3000 metres above sea level, we were delighted to see that some of the previous week’s snow was still lying around – and in a few weeks’ time, if nature doesn’t provide the goods the resort will, via large dams from which water is turned into snow for the all too brief three- month skiing season.
On top of the world as we were at Tiffindell, we were alone with nature and one of the two sounds of silence you will enjoy in this stunning part of the world – the sound of endless streams trickling over the rockface. At this harsh altitude there are no trees whatsoever but further down the mountain the second sound of silence is of the wind – which can be extremely vicious – blowing through the trees.
Another must while in the Tiffindell area is a visit to Loch Ness, one of the area’s many exceptional fly-fishing spots and home to a mile high, mile long swimming challenge for the very, very brave.
But that, as they say, is not all. In an area which you would think to be devoid of things to do (apart from world-class fly-fishing) there’s a whole host of attractions and activities.
For keen runners there’s the 52km trail run which takes athletes on an arduous but stunning route through the Drakensberg mountains (Dave mans a water table along the route, serving up his sought-after mini vetkoeks stuffed with prairie oysters. Check out the recipe on the Walkerbouts website: www.walkerbouts.co.za)
This race is run by up to 350 runners who brave the extreme conditions of this area. Snow, sleet, icy cold winds and temperatures as low as -15ºC.
Then there’s the mountain bike challenge from September 27 to 29, which is raced under more favourable conditions, being in spring. The race is extremely challenging nonetheless, and many a racer at the end of the race will say “never again”, with frost-bitten skin on their knuckles. Visit www.rhodesextreme.co.zafor more details.
Close to Rhodes is the cell-free Wildside farm which offers a wide variety of both winter and summer activities.
While camping and kayaking are now closed due to the severe weather in the area, outdoor lovers can still take part in Wartrail Skywalk, a four-day guided slackpacking trail offering differing routes for varied abilities. The newest trail is from Wartrail to Rhodes, overnighting at Tiffindell. This is one of the highest slackpacking hiking trails in South Africa and the only one that includes a stop at a ski resort. Spending two nights at Tiffindell allows hikers the opportunity to summit Ben McDhui (3001 metres above sea level).
Then, for cyclists, there’s the Skyride, a four-day cycle tour. Averaging 40kms/day on gravel roads, the route is achievable for most moderately fit cyclists – and a back-up vehicle stays with the group in case anyone needs some assistance up the steepest hills.
Add to all this the fact that the Rhodes area is a haven for artists, photographers, history buffs, nature lovers, hikers and fishermen, then you have a truly diverse area with something for everyone – except perhaps the Sandton kugel.
It’s an area which is well worth exploring but be warned – three nights simply does not do it justice.