If the first thought in your head is potatoes, maybe citrus, when it comes to the Gamtoos River Valley, then we have news for you. The so-called vegetable basket of the Eastern Cape is so much more than that.
Tourism has begun to take off in a big way in this valley of plenty. And it is largely thanks to an extremely dedicated group of locals from Gamtoos Tourism, who, with the provincial tourism authorities, have worked hard to promote their valley as a gateway to the Baviaanskloof.
My husband, Salvelio, and I headed to the Gamtoos one icy winter weekend, but there was nothing chilly about the reception we received from friendly valley folk wherever we went. And, while its proximity to the vast and arrestingly beautiful Baviaanskloof is indeed a savvy selling point, there is also a lot to see and do that does not involve the wilderness area.
It took us scarcely an hour to drive to Patensie from Port Elizabeth, bringing home the fact that the valley is very accessible for those who want to get to know their home province of the Eastern Cape better.
Our journey of discovery began at Tolbos, a popular padstal that has been around for nearly 30 years, where we were met by Gamtoos Tourism’s Nichola Uys.
We asked Nichola what her job title was and she burst out laughing. This, it turns out, is because she does pretty much anything and everything to educate visitors about the wonders of this part of the world. Nichola and her tireless team are also heavily involved in making sure events like Patensie’s annual citrus festival grow bigger and better each year.
“Gamtoos valley residents are not scared to work,” she chuckled.
We soon saw this first-hand. Hetsie Scheepers, co-owner of Tolbos, did not so much as break into a sweat to cater for more than 300 bikers from the Christian Motorcyclists Association who were there for an annual memorial run. And this on a day when the entire Gamtoos was without electricity!
Another local with a deep love for the valley is Kobus Kok, whose family farmed the area for generations. We spent an entire day with this highly experienced guide and did not have a moment’s boredom, heading out past scenic farmland and areas with names like Kwagga and Andrieskraal, and passing some fascinating geological formations – including one that is the spitting image of Queen Victoria!
Before entering the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area – the subject of a separate travel piece to run in Weekend Post in September – we also turned off to view the Kouga Dam.
Set in picture-perfect surroundings this impressive dam supplies much of the Bay’s water, while also sustaining the Kouga and Gamtoos valleys’ varied crops. Citrus does exceptionally well here and huge export contracts are not unusual. Potatoes, too, are prolific, especially in Patensie. Order a meal in most of the town’s eateries and they will proudly serve a side of “Patensie chips” – none of that frozen, processed rubbish, only proper chips cut from potatoes fresh from the farm.
On day two of our weekend valley visit we retraced our footsteps somewhat, heading a little closer to the Bay again by exploring the area around Hankey and Loerie.
We could not have asked for two better “guides” than John and Catherina Wait from the farm Honey Clough, about 12km from Hankey, at the foot of the Winterhoek Mountains. Their amazing property borders the wilderness area and offers some fine hiking trails, pristine swimming holes and idyllic picnic spots. The Waits call the tourism side of their business inniKloof and John – both farmer and IT guru – leads a monthly hike into the Baviaans, taking groups to a magnificent set of waterfalls.
The places John and Catherina shared with us are too numerous to mention, which just goes to show the incredible variety of attractions the area has to offer. What particularly stood out for us was the curious “window” in the ancient hill between Backhousehoek and Vensterhoek.
It’s a bit of a scramble to get up there, but the view will take your breath away.
Another marvel, down below, is the Philip tunnel, built by William Enowy Philip whose inspiration was this very “window”. Incredibly, his 228m tunnel right through the mountain was dug using only picks and shovels – and continued to be in use from 1845 to 1970.
Hankey, interestingly, is the oldest town in the valley and many today will also know it as the home of the famous Sarah Baartman memorial.
Loerie, too, is an interesting little place – why not visit on October 1 when the citrus trees are flowering and the annual Loerie Naartjie Festival takes place?
For a soulful getaway the farm Bergrivier – home to the Williams family for the past 150 years – is also a very doable 50km drive from PE.
Your guide to unlocking valley magic
People to meet
WE spent a day in the company of Patensie-based Kobus Kok, whose knowledge of the valley is vast. Kobus can tailor a guided trip for you right into the Baviaanskloof, with overnight options available. He and his wife, Estelle, also operate a rustic tented camp called Tia Ghee (Khoi for “secluded”), in a forest about 9km outside Patensie and then some 3,5km along a dirt track. Contact (042) 283-0739 or 082-774-1805.
Though John and Catherina Wait are not trained guides as such, this charming couple from the farm Honey Clough near Hankey were kind enough to show us much of the area and its attractions. The Waits have hiking, birding, self-catering accommodation, camping and caravanning on their farm under the banner of inniKloof. Contact (042) 284-0940 or see www.innikloof.com
Where to eat and drink
Tolbos and Padlangs serve country breakfasts and lunches. Make sure you also stock up on preserves and other produce from the area. Tolbos is on (042) 283-0437; visit their site at
www.tolbos.co.za . Padlangs is on (042) 283-0798; see www.padlangs.net .
Spekboom Lapa is 7km from Loerie, on the Gamtoos/Melon road near Gamtoos river. We enjoyed a relaxed Sunday lunch on the deck, soaking up superb views of the area that forms part of the route for the annual VW Rally. You might even spot game if you have a keen eye. Sunday lunches are popular, so it’s best to book. Expect hearty
boerekos like lamb, pumpkin fritters and malva pudding. Spekboom Lapa is open Saturdays from 9am, when they also have a veggie market and a la carte menu, and Sundays from 11am. Bookings: 082-555-5328.
Ripple Hill Hotel in Patensie’s Paul Ferreira Street is owned by former pilot John Moore, who fell in love with the country lifestyle here. We had a most enjoyable dinner in the hotel restaurant – the rump steak with snails was an unusual highlight and our table was next to a cosy wood fire. Portions are huge and the meals, particularly the steaks, are excellent. The hotel bar is a great place to get to know the locals. Contact: 083-233-7713.
Where to stay
We spent our first night in the valley at Gamtoos B&B in Dicky Doubell Street, Patensie, and awoke to a very pretty view. Our suite was spacious, comfortable and very neat and tidy. Owners Radie and Gina Ferreira, both retired, are a sweet couple with a wealth of knowledge about the area. Radie told us a fascinating story about a baobab tree growing in Patensie – and even took us there to see it! Bookings: 082-655-6236 or (042) 283-0907.
Pabala Game Farm in the Loerie district has a self-catering farm cottage, where we spent a night, and a bush camp with several permanent tents and ablution facilities nearby. The camp offers gorgeous views of the surrounding landscape; Pabala also has game-viewing opportunities. We had a delicious oxtail potjie with freshly-baked bread by the fire for dinner – a delicious treat on a cold night. Contact (042) 296-2950 or visit www.pabalagamefarm.co.za
Gamtoos Tourism covers Patensie, Hankey, Loerie and Thornhill, and markets the entire area as a gateway to the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area. Their website at www.baviaans.net is very useful; on Facebook search for Gamtoos Tourism. They have an info office at Tolbos near the entrance to Patensie, and at Komdomo at the entrance to Grootrivier Poort, which forms the Eastern entrance to the Baviaanskloof conservation area. The Tolbos office is on (042) 283-0437 and Komdomo is on (042) 283-7912.
The Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency handles bookings for the Baviaanskloof Mega Reserve. Contact (043) 742-4450.
If you’re spending a weekend in the Gamtoos valley then it’s settled. You simply have to check out two iconic padstals in Patensie.
Both were established by go-getting local women who remain as passionate as ever about the town and its produce, particularly the wonderful citrus that is exported all over the world.
Tolbos, the first padstal you get to when entering Patensie from Port Elizabeth side, is co-owned by Hetsie Scheepers, who started it with her former business partner Toska Joubert 28 years ago. Hetsie’s daughter Carin Scheepers has since taken over Toska’s share; she and her mum have put heads together to give Tolbos a fresh new look and exciting menu, which they officially launched last Friday.
We enjoyed a rib-stickingly good country breakfast and were particularly impressed by the expertly made jams and other preserves, along with fresh produce and all sorts of items with a truly South African feel. We shared a picture on Facebook of the laser-cut windmills in fun colours, and a friend from the Bay immediately asked us to bring one back for her!
Padlangs, with its trademark retro styling and quirky, quality products, has also built up a very loyal following. You will find it about 7km outside Patensie on the R331. We stopped by for a lazy Sunday breakfast and found the shop, restaurant and staff delightful. We thought the labels on the jams and preserves, reproducing the old
Springbok Hits record covers, were just genius!
Owner Heidi Schellingerhout Muller grew up in the valley and went on to study criminology, but came home after falling in love with a boy from Patensie. The rest is history!