An enthusiastic 4×4 couple unravel the wonders of a quiet, peaceful valley that yields amazing honey and cheeses, exciting adventure opportunities, and endless possibilities for battlefield treasure-hunters.
Boer War museum, 4×4 trails, cheese, honey and muesli industries. What do these activities have in common? They will all be found at Elands River Valley, which must be one of the best-kept secrets in the Eastern Cape.
Where is Elands River Valley, you may well ask? It’s a mere 60 kilometres from Port Elizabeth, between Uitenhage and Patensie. Flanked by the Winterhoek and Elandsberge Mountains, with the Cockscomb range in the South, the valley offers the most stunning views of gorges and deep valleys. The gravel road, which is the start of the valley proper, is in good condition and, when travelled to its full extent (which is around 60 kilometres), eventually links up with the tarred road to Patensie, which is the gateway to the Baviaanskloof.
My wife, Heather, and I set off to find out what makes this valley so unique. One of the first things you notice when you enter the Elands River Valley is the apparent quiet and tranquillity of the area. Do not be fooled for a second, though, as there is more going on here than you can imagine.
Our first stop was at the Elands Nursery, which is one of the largest wholesale nurseries in the country. It is a family-owned business, run by the second generation of Carters – Rick, his wife Angie, and brother Mike. Angie met us the late afternoon, and gave us a guided tour of the flourishing nursery. We could see that its reputation as the largest nursery in the country is deserved – it is huge. The nursery encourages school tours that are hosted by Kay, a nursery educationalist; she is better known as ‘Call Kay’, as she offers an advisory service to the various municipalities and retail nurseries.
If you happen to be a 4×4 enthusiast, you will be in off-road heaven as there are several 4×4 trails in the area. We visited ‘The Meadows’, run by Donovan and Sunelle Whitehead. They offer trails of varying stages of difficulty, which range from moderate to the near-impossible stage five! Land Rover uses the track regularly to show new owners how to gain the maximum enjoyment from their vehicle.
We found a number of hiking trails criss-crossing the valley, each with its own merit and level of difficulty. The Burrows is one of those options where you can literally blaze your own trail, thanks to an agreement with the forestry department. A permit system is in place that allows you to utilise more than one trail to suit your levels of fitness.
Mountain biking as a recreational sport has been growing rapidly, and the valley offers bikers the opportunity to spend many hours in the countryside enjoying nature at its best, without the threat of being either hijacked or involved in a collision. These intrepid cyclists are a common sight throughout the valley, either in training, or else simply riding for pure enjoyment.
Morven and Mandy Maclean of Sand River Lodge Getaway have just added a 21-kilometre trail run to their already extensive hiking trail; designed by Dallas and Jane Barnado of Free Spirit Adventures, the trail caters for the hard-core runner as well as for the rank beginner. The trails are colourcoded and well-marked. Day-trippers keen on a trail run are always welcome.
Twitchers will salivate at the variety of birdlife in the area, which includes the African Fish Eagle, African Crowned Eagle, the Knysna Lourie, Kingfisher, Collared Sunbird and the Black-headed Oriel, to name but a few. There are some 130 resident species of birds that have been spotted in the valley.
After all this activity, food would need to be not too far off the horizon, and the Rozel handmade cheese industry beckoned invitingly. We made our way to Melkhoutboom in the mid-afternoon and were greeted by Rolf and Liezel Clotz at their farmhouse, where they make their cheese. To keep the cheese as organic as possible, the cows are hand-milked; and calves are not separated from their mothers, which allows for a proper bonding process. Each cow has its own personality (we were told), and we were introduced to Blossom, Goggles and Bluebelle, the three Jersey cows being milked at that time.
Rolf is passionate about his business and gave us an informative talk on cheese production and the complex technology involved. We will never complain about the price one pays for speciality cheeses again! He has about eight varieties in his range, so you will be hard-pressed not to find a cheese to your liking. He is particularly proud of his speciality, which is an oak-smoked cheese (particularly popular in pastas) prepared in the traditional way by using a steel drum set at a low temperature. There are no preservatives in any of the Rozel range of cheeses.
Another culinary delight that surfaced in this valley is Chunky Muesli. The business was started by Lize Fouche on their property, River Lodge, and Chunky Muesli has become the preferred breakfast treat in the area. Orders for this tasty product have outstripped the production quota to such an extent that there has had to be a relocation of the production line in order to cope with the incoming orders.
As Elands River Valley is one of the few areas in the country that is disease-free for bees, honey is farmed extensively in the area. The largest honey farmer is Alan Whitehead, who has some 200 hives; and he has also experimented with the making of Honey Beer. Alan hastens to add that this project is not yet at a commercially viable stage, so do not expect an inebriated afternoon in the bush.
Baboons are a major problem to the honey farmer, as marauding troops will do their utmost to tip the hive over in an effort to collect the honey. As a result, farmers are forced to come up with ingenious methods of protecting their hives. One of the methods shown to us by Mark Dodd (when we were viewing the hives on his farm) was to mount the hive on a pole and attach it with a bolted collar at the base. The hive has a frame of reinforcing rods top and bottom and is secured by a galvanised chain, which holds the lid of the hive down securely. The baboons have not yet figured out how to release the chain!
Another threat to the bee population is the plan to have Eskom power-lines bisect the valley – Eskom are proposing to run three 400 kv transmission lines through it, and this will be bound to have an effect on apiculture in an area where livelihoods are dependent on the proceeds of the hives.