The donkey in the room: Down memory lane in Van Reenen

I cannot claim that I stumbled upon Van Reenen by my own initiative... that credit must go to Margaret Pretorius.

Frans van Reenen was a self-styled Boer general whose main legitimate claim to fame (or notoriety), apart from possessing great wealth, was marrying his son’s fiancé while the younger man was away on a business trip.

Very few people are aware that it is after him that the well-known mountain pass linking the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal – roughly halfway between Johannesburg and Durban – is named.

Nor do many people know there is a village of the same name that straddles the extremely busy N3 highway at the top of the pass.

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I cannot claim that I stumbled upon Van Reenen by my own initiative: that credit must go to Margaret Pretorius, who acted as “road captain” for a Suzuki Auto expedition to the northern Drakensberg in April.

Her family farms near the village and, on our way back to Gauteng, we stopped at the charming Little Church Tea Garden for lunch.

Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

A book, a chapel, and a pub donkey

I was smitten, even more so when I visited the adjacent gift shop and picked up a copy of Gillis van Schalkwyk’s Drakensberg Passes.

Research for the book, subtitled “An historical account of the origins of Natal’s Drakensberg passes”, took two years and – according to the jacket blurb – “revealed some little-known historical facts about the passes, Voortrekkers and early settlers”.

While waiting for my colleagues, I strolled over to the chapel from which the tea garden takes its name. Formally known as the Llandaff Oratory, the ornate sandstone, brick and wood church is the smallest in South Africa and the only Roman Catholic place of worship that is privately owned.

It commemorates 28-year-old Llandaff Matthew, who died in an unsuccessful attempt to save the lives of seven coalminers following a shaft collapse at Dundee (the South African one) in 1925. The oratory – a place meant primarily for private worship – has space for just eight people. Matthew’s father, Maynard, requested permission to lay a memorial stone at the Ladysmith Catholic church but was refused.

His response was to build his own chapel, a replica in miniature of one of the wings of the cathedral in Cardiff, Wales complete with stained-glass windows. Maynard Matthew was later ordained and the oratory, which was duly consecrated, hosted regular services. The Little Church would not have been enough to entice my return to Van Reenen but it happened my driving partner on the trip knew that part of the country well. He mentioned the local hotel had a donkey that visited the pub every evening to mingle with guests.

Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

A midnight arrival and unforeseen turmoil

I was hooked. I arrived at the Green Lantern Inn in the wee small hours of a Sunday, six weeks later after driv ing through the night.

The place was closed and I settled behind the wheel of my Suzuki Grand Vitara for a few cold and uncomfortable hours. There was a lot of police activity but I thought nothing of it.

Only later did I discover there had been a foofaraw on Saturday evening, with members of the community marching on the police station demanding the handover of a thug who had earlier stabbed a fellow reveller at a shebeen.

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Apparently, the army was called in and shots were fired on the crowd, who responded by closing the highway between Van Reenen and Harrismith with burning tyres.

I knew nothing of this because I’d secured an early check-in and, even without a cup of coffee to warm the cockles, crashed out in a comfortable bed for hours. It was an inauspicious start to an entertaining three-night stay.

Sitting in the lounge that afternoon, I opened Van Schalkwyk’s book and reread the chapter on Van Reenen’s Pass.

Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

From a vital pass to a charming inn

The original pass was laid out in 1856, and was followed by a rail way line 35 years later. Both road and railway passed the front door of the Green Lantern Inn (opened as The Coach Inn 1892) and, for a time, the settlement flourished.

The name is derived from the light that burned outside the hotel to inform travellers, especially on misty nights, that they’d reached the top of the pass. In the ’70s, however, the pass was rerouted to its current path and the village entered the economic doldrums.

The decline continued with the demise of rail travel and transport, so much so that Van Reenen has now fewer than 100 “official” residents. This makes the continued presence and popularity (particularly at weekends) of the Green Lantern Inn (www.greenlantern. all the more surprising.

Bill and Gail Ross-Adams bought the inn in 2012, and have conducted a systematic refurbishment process, modernising rooms and facilities, yet not detracting from the place’s funky charm.

The history of Van Reenen and the inn itself are very much evidence in the décor, to the extent that the title deed for the original hotel, signed on behalf of Queen Victoria by the Governor of Natal, hangs in the entrance.

The Witwatersrand gold-rush was in full swing at time of opening and up to 100 ox-wagons passed daily through Van Reenen. “With 48 oxen per wagon, can you imagine the flies and smell?” asks Bill.

At one stage, the inn boasted one of the first movie projectors in the country and the then-owners used to screen silent films such as those starring Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino.

These films play on continuous loop in the Green Lantern lounge on a screen that is flanked by a lovingly restored 1938 AJS 350cc Silver Streak motorcycle.

Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman

Bikers, classic cars, and unforgettable characters

The inn is popular with bikers and classic car enthusiasts. Accommodation rates are described as “affordable to South African travellers” and the fare served in the restaurant is similarly priced.

The a la carte menu includes hearty main courses such as mutton curry, oxtail, lamb shank, eisbein, steak and schnitzels priced from R110. “We used to do a Sunday buffet but Covid put paid to that,” says Bill.

There are braai facilities at the self-catering garden cottages, which are pet-friendly. The Ross Adams’ brought with them experience in the landscaping business, so the gardens are lush, making them popular for weddings. The eclectically decorated bar, known as Alkies’ Alley, is the hub of Green Lantern life after dark and over weekends.

Tigger, the friendly young hotel cat, has the run of the pub but the main attraction for many visitors is Mrs Bo Jangles. The elderly donkey comes from a nearby farm, where she bonded with a flock of sheep and protected them from predators.

She was initially wary of humans but the transfer of her affections started with following Gail around, even when she was tending bar. “So started her nightly bar visits,” relates Bill.

“Mrs Bo Jangles loves people and will accept fruit snacks from the patrons. She will occasionally rest her head on the counter and take a nap.” Hey, I’ve been known to do that.

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