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By Brendan Seery

Deputy Editor

Midlands Meander: Community tourism at its finest

Good substitute for overseas travel– especially the rolling hills and pubs of the UK and Ireland.

The mountainbikers are bright flashes of colour against the distant hillside. Cows watch us, dumb and wide-eyed as we walk past. Hang on, we’re not walking … we’re dawdling as we take in the Drakensberg mountains, blue on the horizon with the green patchwork quilt of fields, farms and forest at their feet. We’re meandering – not caring of time or destination, savouring the moment, attracted by the diversions slightly off the beaten path. After all, this is the Midlands Meander and the rolling hills of central KwaZulu-Natal invite you to chill and lose your way (if only slightly).

The Midlands Meander is, by far, the most successful community tourism project in SA. Others have tried to copy it but have only come up with pale imitations. The Meander is a collection of routes along which to travel the area and each is packed with things to do and see. There’s adventure – from ziplining to horse riding to mountain biking to quadbiking and kayaking.

Image: Istock

There is accommodation aplenty – from self-catering to five star – which should suit most budgets. And there are scores of places to eat, ranging from fine dining to pub grub and everything in between.
The Meander stretches roughly from Mooi River in the north to Howick in the South, straddling both sides of the N3 highway. It began in the mid-1980s, when a group of artists in the area got together and decided to cooperate and offer visitors to their studios a broader experience.

The initial idea was for a rolling exhibition, to be held a few times a year, but that morphed into the year-round “open house”. People coming to view and buy arts and crafts might want to eat, so restaurants sprang up. There were already a number of established hotels in the Meander area and these were joined soon by B&Bs, self-catering cottages and farm stays.The Meander is easily accessible to two important markets when it comes to travel – Gauteng and Durban/Pietermaritzburg. It’s about four-and-a-half hours from Joburg on the N3 and just an hour from Durban.

As a family we’ve long been familiar (or so we thought) with this part of the world. En Route to Durban, we frequently ducked the toll roads and found the scenery along the twisting, turning R103 (the old main road) from Nottingham Road to Howick to be refreshing after the manic speeding of the N3.

On this trip, I was surprised to discovered that that main route – the spine of the Midlands Meander – is by no means all it offers. There are other routes running out to Dargle on the western side of the area and out to the majestic Karkloof mountains and forests in the south-east corner.

When my wife and I travel, we’re (okay, me) not really great on buying things. But there is so much on offer in the Meander, that even I joined in. Top priority for my wife was getting another wind chime, so we headed off west to Culamoya Chimes, outside the village of LIdgetton, which lies along the main R103 road to Howick.
The family business, started in the 1980s by Frik and Lola Haupt. Culamoya invites the guest to “soothe their soul, relax, feel, listen to the peaceful theraputic sounds.”

Even as a cynical journalist with an aversion to New Age “mumbo jumbo”, I found it definitely de-stressing to look out across the valley next to some massive wind chimes, which occasionally clinked and hummed as the wind sighed around them.Most of the chimes are made from aluminium tubing of varying diameters and thicknesses and produce a wonderful variety of sounds.

Now and then, Culamoya will make up bamboo chimes – and will do special orders, too. Spending money on the Meander is infectious and clearly, the new variant got me. I’d mentioned I’d like to look at some handmade leather shoes. With the “you never buy anything for yourself” ringing in my ears, I hit the brakes, almost missing the turnoff to Redline Footwear, near Nottingham Road.

Less than 15 minutes later, I had two pairs and some dubbin (haven’t heard of that for years and never used it myself) to keep the leather supple. There is no shortage of things to buy on the Meander – and things to eat. So your wallet will get lighter in direction proportion to the weight you put on. As we chatted to people at various places on the Meander, it looked clear that business is returning to normal, with the relaxation of the Covid restrictions, which, in their strictest regime, hit many businesses hard.

It then also occurred to me that Covid may well see the Midlands Meander have one of its best years. This is because, let’s face it, international travel is not going to fully recover this year and, when it does, there will be all manner of restrictions (health passports, Covid tests, isolation periods) – so it won’t be fun. I guess many people who had planned to travel overseas this year have put the plans on the backburner.

And if you’re looking around for a good substitute – especially for the rolling hills and pubs of the UK and Ireland, for example – you could do a lot worse than head to the Midlands Meander. www.midlandsmeander.co.za

Some handy tips

The Midlands Meander is about four-and-a-half hours from Joburg on the N3 highway. If you’re not in a hurry, detour at Harrismith and follow the R74 before rejoining the N3 just before Estcourt. ɲ Best time to go – year round. Summers are hot, but cooler than the KZN coast! Winters can be chilly … but there are plenty of warm and inviting places to stop to eat or stay over.

My wife is an excellent cook and, therefore, an excellent judge of food. She doesn’t often get excited, but it was all I could do to stop her waxing lyrical about the grilled salmon on her plate at the Fordoun Hotel’s Skye Bistro.

“Best fish I’ve ever had,” she said, ignoring the fact that I often correct people who use the word “ever” instead of “yet”… My Kingklip, lightly battered, was good – although, to be honest, I am not much of a fish person.
I prefer red meat and, on the following evening, as I savoured the perfectly cooked (medium rare, exactly as I ordered it) piece of fillet steak, it was my turn to heap praise on the Skye kitchen.Without exaggerating, Fordoun puts the star in five-star, which is its rating. The entire operation – from accommodation to facilities, to the professionalism and friendliness of the staff – is a cut above most other establishments I have been to in this country and can hold its own internationally. Fordoun (pronounced “ForDun”) is named after a parish and village in county Kincardineshire, Scotland and Skye Bistro is named after the Isle of Skye.

The property, still a working farm and dairy on the outskirts of Nottingham Road in the Midlands Meander, has been in the Bates family since the late 1940s, but it was under Jon Bates – who grew up and went to school in the area before going on to make his name in advertising and marketing – that Fordoun was transformed into a luxury destination in 2005.

And, it’s more than a business, it’s a community. Many of the workers at the hotel and spa originally worked on the farm or were family of farm employees. Bates has won an award from the government for the workers’ accommodation he set up on the property.

In keeping with the Meander ambience, Fordoun is all about relaxation and, for many guests, the main attraction is the spa, which must offer one of the most comprehensive treatment menus in the business. We’re not into spas (call us old-fashioned and uptight) but I can certainly understand the appeal of having your care gently caressed away.

A recent addition to the property is a nine-unit self-catering “farm village” which enjoys views clear across to the Drakensberg. It’s difficult to put your finger on the mystique of Fordoun. In a word, though, it would be tranquility.

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Brendan Seery Drakensberg Local Travel N3