Mia Louwm Johannesburg to Mbombela (Nelspruit), you know you’ve said farewell to the Highveld as soon as you pass through the tunnel near Emgwenya (Waterval Boven). The tunnel is the passageway from the chilly escarpment down into the balmy Lowveld.
Or, swap the N4 for the R539 and enter the Slowveld (as it’s fondly known) via Schoemanskloof, where you are welcomed by mountains, rivers and citrus trees galore.
Most people think of Mbombela as the last city stop before hitting the Kruger Park or Mozambique, a place to do some grocery shopping, exchange currency, grab a takeaway meal or sit down for a cup of coffee.
But next time, rather make Mbombela and surrounds your end destination. There’s so much to do, from horse riding in Kaapsehoop and paddling on Da Gama Dam, to yoga in a bamboo forest.
Here are five great places to stay, all within 45 minutes of the city.
1 SCHOEMANSKLOOF RETREAT
Precious few travellers think of Schoemanskloof as a destination, and what a pity that is. Most people rush through the kloof, making a pit stop at the Joubert en Seuns Padstal if time allows. But 3,6 km before the farm stall (coming from Gauteng), there’s a turn-off to your left, over the Crocodile River, to Falls Fish Farm.
Schoemanskloof Retreat is based here, where Myron Cort and Dee Malcomess run a 40-year-old family business farming with ornamental fish (goldfish and koi) and tilapia. The operations are at the bottom of the 184 ha property, with the accommodation hidden high up in the mountains.
The Bakoni Hideaway has a stone exterior inspired by Mpumalanga’s stone circles – historical terraces and kraals with beautiful designs found all over the province, made in pre-colonial times by the Bokoni people.
The off-grid unit (solar for hot water and lights, gas for cooking) has a big, open-plan space for living, sleeping and cooking, and a separate bathroom. The king-size bed can convert into two singles, and there’s a ladder up to a loft bed for two kids. Windows and glass sliding doors make up the entire front wall of the cottage – light and bush flow into the open space.
Mountain Pondokkie is slightly darker inside, which is understandable for a structure built in the 1800s! The owners say it was an inn on the old ox-wagon routes connecting Lydenburg, Nelspruit, Komatipoort and Delagoa Bay (Maputo). The thickness of the stone walls, which have been painted white on the inside, is another indication that the “pondokkie” was built more than a hundred years ago. The house can sleep six guests and it’s pet-friendly, with a big, fenced garden.
“We also do picnics on request. We can set up a space in the bush for people to enjoy – they can bring their own baskets or we can order food from Marian Cottle at Old Joe’s Kaia in the kloof,” says Melissa Adey, Dee’s daughter. Marian is well known in the Lowveld for her plant-based cooking.
Facilities: There are eight hiking or mountain-biking trails (some leading to streams and waterfalls), all marked on a colour-coded map available in the houses. There are also two long lists of all the birds and wildlife spotted on the property. I was lucky to see a civet during my visit, and I could hear baboons barking in the bush.
Rates: R1 100 for two people at Bakoni Hide-away and Mountain Pondokkie, plus R250 per extra person. Oneoffcleaning fee of R150 for Mountain Pondokkie if your four-legged friends join you.
Where? 45 km west of Mbombela, in Schoemanskloof, via the R539. You will need a vehicle with high ground clearance to drive up to the accommodation, otherwise the owners can collect you in their 4x4. The road is especially tricky after rain.
Contact: 079 885 3509 schoemanskloofretreat.co.za
2 KILLARNEY FARM HOUSE
This English-style country home is on an avocado and macadamia farm in a valley. The owners live in England and come to visit once a year; the rest of the time it’s available for luxury self-catering accommodation, weddings, workshops and retreats.
There’s also a fully equipped cottage, sleeping six guests in three bedrooms. The main house and cottage are both on the banks of the Stats River; the short Hippo Pool Walk leads you to a bench overlooking the water. The cottage is in a clearing among big trees – from the spacious veranda you can enjoy the view of the garden and the mountains in the distance.
The main house can accommodate 14 people and has unhindered views over the valley and farmlands.
“We do intimate retreats here. We start with early-morning yoga to get people in touch with their creativity, and then it’s time for art workshops. It’s a bit like Eat Pray Love,” says manager Kerri Dunshea with a laugh. “We give people the opportunity to breathe.”
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