We round the corner at the top of the plateau, having left Nelspruit behind and below us, and there suddenly in a clearing in amongst a series of rough sandstone rocks, Kaapsehoop makes its presence known. The gorgeous little hamlet lies high enough above the towns of Nelspruit and Barberton to experience a completely different set of weather patterns. Residents will tell you that you can anticipate a difference of at least five degrees.
It’s usually a lot cooler up on the mountain, in amidst numerous pine plantations with names like ‘Berlin’. Often white blankets of mist swirl in and the wild horses that roam free in and around the town appear like unicorns in a world in which it is no longer bizarre to anticipate faeries; sightings of the endangered blue swallow simply adding to the mythical atmosphere.
There is something distinctly otherwordly about Kaapsehoop. It has elements of Pilgrim’s Rest, but before all the fuss and bother turned the town into a tourist haven with bus loads of people coming and going. Kaapsche Hoop claims to have been the centre of the gold rush of the 1880s, after Bernard Chomse found gold in the bed of a stream on the plateau that perches between two valleys, each dominated by a river – the Crocodile and the Elands.
Photographs – Left: Tin Chapel / Right: Wild horse en route
The town, in fact, discovered gold even before Johannesburg and directly opposite the plateau, down in the valley that surrounds the town of Barberton, remains one of the richest veins of gold in the country – the Sheba Mine. Originally the town, because of a combination of unusual sandstone rock formations and swirling mists, was known as Duiwel’s Kantoor but this changed with the discovery of gold when it became known as the ‘hope of the cape’ or Kaapse Hoop.
The town was a booming little mining town during the 1880s with close to 5 000 residents. Over the years as interest dwindled – gold ran out – the town slowly died away until it was virtually a ghost town with all of 16 people living there.
Connie and Trevor of Corner Cottage tell me how Trevor stumbled upon the town in the mid 1980s whilst he worked as an engineer at Ngodwana. He suffered a flat tyre whilst out here with his camera, and, in the mist followed the only telephone line he could see into the very house where he and Connie now live. The house was already 99 years old. The town was in dissarray, the Post Office boarded up, and the old hotel virtually the only commercial venture in town.
Photographs – Left: Street lamps / Right: Mining commissioner’s house
Whilst awaiting rescue, Trevor was to take photos of the house. Years later, in 2003, he brought Connie out to the town to propose that they move here, for something about the village spoke to him. They were comparing his old photos with the same house whilst standing just outside, when the then owner came to invite them inside, something she later confessed she seldom did.
As with all stories like this one, it just so happened that the owner’s husband had recently suffered a heart attack and they needed to sell, even though there was no for ‘sale sign’ on the door yet. Connie and Trevor expressed an interest in the house. The owners proposed that they sell their house to them, but that they remain on in the house for a further two years.
Connie and Trevor, when I meet them, have spent five years restoring the house carefully, maintaining it exactly as it was initially built. Trevor has lovingly hand made all the wooden panelling, restored doors, window sills and floors, without the temptation to make the tiny house with its pressingly low ceilings any larger. These days the nature of the town has changed enormously. It exists solely for tourism. People stop off here on the way to the Kruger National Park. And a lot of people have bought up homes and turned them into guest houses, restaurants and arts and crafts shops.
Photographs – Left: Two cats follow me … / Right: Connie & Trevor
The couple are part of a Heritage committee the town has set up to try to conserve the old buildings. In a sense they’re trying to protect the town from itself. They’re considering registering as an Article 21 company to keep it unique. They’re hoping to set up an eco committee and have collected a heap of historical photos of the town from two little old ladies who were raised in the town.
Up at the end of their road where the old Post Office has been completely restored and modernised into a guest house, is Komisaris Plein. The village has raised the money to build a wooden fence around the old, original Mining Commissioner’s House (1884) that stands here. The wild horses were rubbing up against the doorways to scratch themselves and slowly the house was disintegrating.
Not everyone agrees with the fence. Inside the old building’s clay walls are crumbling, and where they haven’t, every inch is defaced with scratched graffitti. Just beyond the old building visitors can escape onto the plateau in amongst the aloes and the incredible rocks of the area. A walk starts from here.
Just opposite Komisaris Plein is the beautiful tin church, perfect for weddings in Mpumalanga – it’s not as new as it looks. Many of the houses here conform to the old standard – houses on wooden stilts, made from sheets of tin. Street names have been established for the town and signs now grace the edge of each street. And the group want to provide eco information for those who come to walk the trails that start from the little hut in town, and they want to set up a picnic area.
Photographs – Left: Kommissaris Plein / Right: Anabelle’s shop
On the black reef quartzite sandstone rocks to the east of town, behind Komisaris Plein, it’s a little chilly. Nonetheless we enjoy our picnic, drink in the views of the surrounding plateau that seems not to end and imagine that a hike would be more than rewarding.
Two cats follow me through town. They’re fluffy and friendly and turn up like bad pennies (or is that good) wherever I go.
To look out for when in Kaapsche Hoop:
- Koek ‘n Pan (every one stops here to sample the pancakes, they have an ATM)
- the wild horses
- Kaapsehoop horse trails
- Salvador (great pizzas)
- over 200 different bird species
- Blue Swallow Natural Heritage Site
- hiking trails – to the east a walk through sandstone pillars, to the west through forest to a waterfall
- craft shops
- Komisaris Plein
- the derelict jail and magistrate’s court at the top of the village
- tours of Adam’s Calendar and Kaapsche Hoop (Enos Zulu 072 331 1197)
- the geology of the area, which is said to date between 2 600 million and 3 600 million years ago
Don’t expect to find:
- a supermarket
- chain stores
- property agents
- anything open on a Monday
Kaapsehoop lies 14 km from Ngodwana and the N4, 28 km from Nelspruit, and rests on an escarpment overlooking the De Kaap Valley and the town of Barberton. Once there, you may never want to leave…