By Keri Harvey
Photography by Ken Hamilton Photography
Who would believe the angry stinging nettle could be subdued into smooth cheese—creamy and with a hint of difference that’s surprisingly refreshing in summer? Or that red wine could taste so good at the winter fireside? But all year round there are unique and enriching offerings on a visit to the Magaliesberg. Even if you’d simply like to do nothing at all, the tranquil natural surroundings make the experience memorable. If you’re a nature lover, adrenaline junkie or heritage fundi, well, you have arrived in nirvana.
Peter Hewitt has lived in the Magaliesberg for well over a decade, lured by the natural beauty and tranquillity of the area. He found his special place on earth here with the Big Three, as he calls it—river, mountain and bush. And, of course, wildlife, which is prolific in the area. A century ago there were hippos in the rivers. Today wildlife has been restored to thrive here as it always did—on game farms large and small.
When Peter arrived in the area in 1994, it was a marginal farming area for vegetables and flowers—and people were desperately poor. “The worst,” says Peter, “is that they had no hope for better jobs or lives.” So Peter got involved with the local community development forum, with fresh ideas and enthusiasm. “Very quickly, we realised that agriculture could not offer a better lifestyle, so we needed a new strategy to uplift the local people. It didn’t take long to see that there was huge tourism potential here. And so the Magalies Meander was born.” And with it, the area was reborn. In 1998 there were 50 participants to start with, now there are over 100 that range from gifted artists to adventure sports operators, fine graded accommodation, and unique wildlife experiences. “Actually,” says Peter, “it just fell into our laps.”
While the area has changed dramatically since he first arrived, Peter says it’s definitely for the better. But the ambiance and gentle lifestyle that always appealed to him still remains. “Everything that happens in the Magaliesberg is in harmony with the community and surrounding natural beauty. I call it the ‘Franschhoek of Gauteng’, because it’s just so scenic here and only 45 minutes’ drive from Johannesburg.” Or you could travel there by steam train, or even race the train in the annual summerMagalies Steam Train Race.
“I believe we have a competitive edge,” says Peter, “because we can offer much more variety than any similar operation anywhere in South Africa. It’s not only about first-class hospitality, conferencing and function venues that are all graded, but we also offer diverse recreational and sporting activities, and then there’s pure relaxation too. There’s something for everyone, in safe, natural surroundings.”
Where else can you enjoy sunrise over the mountains from a wafting hot air balloon, see the Big Five and walk with elephants, then screech across a canyon on a steel cable, before watching Cape Griffons dine at their vulture restaurant in the hills—all in a single day? And that’s just the tip of the Magaliesberg. Horse riding, gliding, abseiling, mountain biking, micro-lighting, golfing, fly-fishing—or meandering along between artists’ studios, where they are quietly creating their masterpieces, making candles, buying hand-crafted leather shoes, marvelling at precious rocks, visiting an old gold mine, being inspired by glass, or lazing over high tea. Plenty of visitors also come just to relax and unwind and simply do nothing at all. It’s exactly these choices that make this area special.
It may be the antiquity of the Magaliesberg that creates the palpable calmness here. These mountains are old. Really old. Around two billion years old. In the beginning, this was an inland sea that was cracked and tilted by rumblings deep in the earth. Then it was scoured by ice for millions of years to smooth off the rough edges. The Magaliesberg has also been a swamp and a desert in its day, before it emerged as the gentle rolling hills and bubbling streams that epitomise it now.
It’s also believed this is where man first walked millions of moons ago. Mrs Ples, who was actually a man, also lived there along with other variations on very early humans. The Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage Site, is a human fossil record book dating back over 3,5 million years. Little Foot, a near complete skeleton, was also discovered here. But these are just two of the well-known finds—over 850 hominid fossils have been unearthed in seven caves across the Cradle. There are also Iron Age, Stone Age and rock art sites, and two actual excavation sites are open for the public to enjoy. The Maropeng interpretation centre is at the heart of the Magalies Meander and serves to make our complicated past a little more accessible and palpable.
Wonder Cave in the complex is truly surreal. After descending the 87 steps down into the cool, dank cave, you are surrounded by fantastical rock formations that are over two billion years old. This may just be the best- preserved broccoli and Madonna you’ve ever seen. Whimsical stalagmites and stalactites surround you in a rock theatre that will take your breath away. If it doesn’t, climbing the stairs back out of the cave certainly will.
Peter points out that while the Cradle of Humankind straddles Gauteng and the North West Province, geographical boundaries are not important in the area. Rather, keeping the meander safe, attractive and appealing to the whole family is the main objective. And, of course, continuing to grow the variety of offerings for weekend visitors to experience and enjoy.
“We also want children to appreciate nature and their heritage in safety, and our offerings are constant throughout the year.”
But if you want a pink carpet welcome to the Magaliesberg, it is in autumn that you should visit. Then, delicate cosmos flowers dance across the hills and line the roads there. And artists eagerly paint the wild flower show to capture its beauty. Until the cosmos comes again the following year. It’s Gauteng’s equivalent of Namaqualand, in pastels.
New on the calendar is the Magaliesberg Classic Country Festival, an annual celebration of all the finest offerings of the area. Peter believes this spring festival has enormous potential as a regional and national attraction, particularly because of the unique cultural and artistic attractions it offers. “I hope it will grow into a full week of festivities and become the single biggest generator of public interest and support for the area. I see it as a new playground for South Africans, with something for everyone to enjoy.”
For the rest of South Africa, the genteel Magaliesberg may just be the best-kept secret. But now the secret is out. And the playground is open for all.
For more information:
Magalies Meander and Festival, www.magaliesmeander.co.za.
Cradle of Humankind, Sterkfontein Caves, www.cradleofhumankind.co.za andwww.maropeng.co.za.
Wonder Cave, Tel. 011-957-0106 and www.rhinolion.co.za.
Elephant Sanctuary, www.elephantsanctuary.co.za.
Old Kromdraai Gold Mine, www.valleyofancestors.com.
Hot Air Ballooning, www.balloon.co.za.