Olde Worlde SA charm

Discover a little isiSwitzerland and the Barefoot Woman.


One of my most enduring memories of Switzerland is, as a 10 year old in 1970, getting my first glimpse of an expanse of gorgeous water which, my mother told me, was Lake Geneva. Having spent most of my years till then in the Eastern Cape, I had no idea if what a lake looked like, let alone that it could be so iridescently blue.

I suspect I am not alone among South Africans at being gobsmacked when I see a body of inland water that is anything other than muddy brown. My only exception in recent times has been the Berg River Dam near Franschhoek, which is fed by the purest of mountain streams and whose rocky bottom permits no discolouring turbulence.

Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

A surprising encounter with Sterkfontein Dam and Little Switzerland Resort

Imagine my amazement when I recently drove the back road from Harrismith in the Free State to Mont Aux-Sources in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg (the R74) and spotted the breath-taking Sterkfontein Dam. The grass was vaal – as befits the onset of highveld winter – and the distant peaks of the uKhahlamba (“Barrier of Spears”) ’Berg did not have snow on them but I pictured the landscape green and the stern grey mountains white-topped.

Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

I could almost imagine the tableau located in Europe… it was only the frequent Free State kopjes and equally flat-topped acacia trees that indicated this was, in fact, South Africa… the so-called world in one country. Dropping down the Oliviershoek Pass from the escarpment towards Bergville, I was unsurprised to note a resort beside the road bearing the name Little Switzerland.

Walking down the steps from the parking lot and into reception, you would be forgiven for thinking you were entering an Alpine lodge with – out the usual tasteless cuckoo clocks or stuffed boars’ and stags’ heads on the walls. Instead, the African artworks that dotted the place suggested this was a place targeted primarily at tourists from north of the Mediterranean.

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Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

Little Switzerland Resort – A Charming and Historic Getaway

After a few days, I realised this was one of those rare establishments that was whatever you wanted or the seasons deemed it to be; Shangri-La or an Olde Worlde home from home. Little Switzerland* is operated by Dream Hotels and Resorts (www. dreamresorts.co.za).

The group says this of the three star facility: “With a name like Little Switzerland, it’s a given that you will discover more than enough charm at this affordable family friendly resort nestled at the foot of the northern Drakensberg. “The resort boasts a history that spans over 100 years, from its start as a tea garden to its transformation into quaint Alpine chalets and hotel rooms with breath-taking views.” I nonetheless experienced a touch of sadness as I looked upon Mont-Aux Sources – one of the highest sections of the Drakensberg – from the up – stairs balcony of my duplex chalet.

Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

I recalled cycling down from Joburg with two of my school buddies during the 1977 December holidays to camp in the Royal Natal National Park (RNNP), subsisting on bully beef, sardines and instant noodles until the need for a cooked meal proved too much. In such times, we would “de – camp” to the RNNP Hotel – the same place the British royal family stayed in 1947, and at which then-Princess Elizabeth celebrated her 21st birthday – for heartier and tastier fare.

Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

The historical significance of Royal Natal National Park and it’s derelict hotel

The RNNP was proclaimed in 1908 and, according to The Heritage Portal (www.theheritageportal.co.za), it was originally developed with an Alpine outlook and “managed in the light of 19th century European mountain climbing lore. “The area was much favoured by international tourists and mountain climbers, and persons visiting the area saw the Drakensberg peaks as the ‘Switzerland of South Africa’.” Sadly, the hotel has been derelict for the past few years, its ruins now looted and vandalised.

Being too old and decrepit to climb mountains as I did in my youth, I decided to explore the area in the comfort of a plucky new Suzuki Grand Vitara 1.5 GLX. Mountains and sprawling rural settlements apart, there is little to distinguish this part of South Africa from the 21st century and the 19th when Boer, Brit and isiZulu battled for its possession.

Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

Retief’s Rock and the Barefoot Woman Monuments

Again, it did not take much for my imagination to picture the impi of Shaka and Dingaan swarming over the veld to attack Voortrekker laagers or Boer snipers picking off redcoats from rocky heights. Indeed, it is not far from Little Switzerland that Boer commandos bloodied British Army noses at Spioenkop in January 1900. I was, however, going back a further 60 years to the time and place when Voortrekker leader Piet Retief sought a safe descent for his wagons from the Orange Free State into Natal (as the two provinces were then), an odyssey that would result in his first contact with Dingaan in 1837.

Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

Armed with Gillis van Schalkwyk’s Drakensberg Passes: An historical account of the origins of Natal’s Drakensberg Passes, I headed back up Oliviershoek Pass to look for Retief’s Rock and the Barefoot Woman, two monuments of great importance in Afrikaner culture. Stopping at the Phatt Chef Roadside Diner at the top of the pass for a pot of tea and a chicken, cranberry and camembert toasted sandwich, I read that Retief ’s “efforts were responsible for the Boers occupying Natal and eventually establishing farms and towns there. “He was also responsible for negotiating land for the Boers with Dingaan before being brutally murdered by him.” Retief’s Rock lies at the head of the now-disused Retief’s Pass at Kerkenberg.

Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

The commemorative monuments of Deborah Retief and Suzanna Smit

It gets its name from the piece of sandstone on which Deborah Retief wrote her father’s name in commemoration of his 57th birthday. Not far away is the statue of spunky Suzanna Smit, the Barefoot Woman. She is credited with having told the British High Commissioner to Natal at the time in 1843 that “you have invaded our country and taken it from us… We have wandered around for years and our feet are worn through. “We have been broken by our roaming and suffering.

However, we are prepared to go on. We are prepared to cross the Drakensberg Mountains on our bare feet… rather than to bow to a government that has treated us as the British government has done.” Gillis van Schalkwyk claims the bleak, but incredibly beautiful site was considered as a possible location for the Voortrekker Monument.

Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

That option was shelved when designated architect Gerrit Moerdyk proclaimed: “If you insist on building the monument here, you will have to find another architect. I do not compete with God.” * Little Switzerland’s chalets are self-catering.

There is a basic convenience store (as well as petrol station) on site. Guests can also use the hotel’s restaurant. Activities include hiking, horse-riding, mountain biking and go karting.

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