The road has led me to Rhodes Village in the Eastern Cape Highlands and I’m slowly getting to savour the gems in this Southern Drakensberg hamlet.
It’s so lovely that I decided to share a list of my favourites with you. Like the swallows, I am visiting in summer. In winter, there will be other favourites: think snow and log fires. Ditto autumn and spring. And your list will be different to mine. Here are my favourites, in no particular order:
You will walk: through the village, up that hill, around the commonage. I’ve walked in the morning and evening, and mid-day, too. For many people who have made this village their home, their daily triple-walks turn into social events. Perhaps you will stop to chat, pop into someone’s home or drop off a bag of spices.
A most pleasant walk is along the road to Tiffindell, the ski resort that closed up shop in the COVID-19 lockdowns. You can also track and dip into the Bell River, which hugs the folds of the village and beyond.
2 The Rhodes vernacular
Rhodes dates from the Victorian era and was declared a conservation area in 1997. That means new buildings and alterations must fit in with the feel of the village. An active aesthetics committee keeps an eye on things. From my understanding, four styles are acceptable: two kinds of Victorian; a barn house; and a Karoo-style “dorpshuis” (small-town house).
Instead of street numbers, the homes have names, like Vloedhuis (house that floods), Dollhouse, Snow Cottage, Sweetpea and Birch Tree Barn.
Most are cottages and some are truly tiny. It adds up to an unpretentious, timeless charm. And you just don’t see rolled barbed wire and high walls; instead of rampant crime, people seem to look out for each other. How charming is that!
3 Creativity that empowers
The founder of Made in Rhodes went to Zakhele, the township alongside the village, to find out what crafters were doing. She now stocks the work of more than 20 local crafters, artists and artisans; most had no outlet before.
A felter is expanding her range of slippers and tea cosies as the market catches on to her items. A mother crochets bathmats from waste t-shirt yarn. There are snoods and beanies, boxes and bowl covers, traditional soaps and trendy aprons. With each sale, most of the money goes back to the maker.
Down the road, the creative mind behind the “art studio” – it does not have a name yet – is training local people to make planters (fruit bowls, if you prefer) from cement made lighter with sawdust. Again, the money, and the skill, goes into the community.
4 The public spaces and spirit
A kind soul turned a garbage dump next to his house into a public park. It’s called Rhodes River Park and it’s free to enter. Every time I walk past, children are playing. Sometimes adults watch from benches in the shade.
Nearby, ratepayers tend a public rose garden and revive an old herb garden.
It speaks to me of a deep generosity and willingness to share. I see this when Bee, a domestic worker from Zakhele, hands Fi a bag overflowing with freshly picked homegrown spinach, radish and imfino (a wild leafy vegetable) to say thanks for a favour.
And I saw this previously, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people from Rhodes and Zakhele worked together to make and distribute free masks so that no one went without them. I wrote about it here.
5 The trees
I’m somewhat an indigenous tree purist. But then, I don’t live above the tree line. Rhodes is 1,824 metres above sea level, high enough to stop indigenous trees from growing naturally. One native tree – the ouhout (translated: old wood) – grows here, but apparently not in abundance.
So, you find oaks, willows, birches, conifers and liquidambar, among others, threading through and around the village. My head spins imagining the colours of autumn.
Then there are the old deciduous fruit trees: apples, apricots, peaches, pears and quinces. They are heavy with fruit. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it.
As impressive are exotic flowers, like towering hollyhocks, zinnia, poppies and alpine flowers. Indigenous flowers also put on a show: red-hot pokers and gladioli are just some brightening the village now.
6 The elements up here in the sky
No one seems to pay much attention to the frequent flashes of lightning and the thunder that echoes from the mountains. Sometimes, the rain and/or the storm comes; sometimes, it doesn’t. Meanwhile, you sit in a garden or stroll along and don’t worry about a thing.
You’ll look up at the ever-changing gallery of cloud shapes and hues. Rain coming, you’ll say. And a resident will smile indulgently and carry on as usual.
7 The silence, the darkness
There are no street lights in Rhodes Village. Hooray! And outside lights on homes, when they are on, cannot be more than a certain brightness. More hooray! Light pollution is banished: my kind of town.
Truthfully, it’s never silent. There is birdsong, a cow lowing, horses’ hooves on the dirt road, the Bell River flowing, trees rustling. One does not call that noise.
8 The wide open spaces
They will intoxicate you, the wide open spaces. Walk 100m and you will be on the outskirts of the village and lose yourself under a big sky.
You may find yourself, too.