Middle Earth

On my penultimate weekend in South Africa I decide, despite uncertain weather predictions, to risk a trip to Hogsback which is claimed to have been an inspiration for Lord of the Rings. I set off on Friday afternoon leaving behind, with some misgivings, a rare stunning blue sky and the azure sea and green hills of the Eastern Cape coast.

The drive from Zithulele takes me south west down the R61, a secondary road running parallel to the N2 but further inland. I have taken advice that Butterworth on the N2, a town that at the best of times reeks of evil and is a traffic gridlock, is almost impassable on a Friday afternoon. Joe tells me he once spent two and a half hours there sitting in a traffic queue to get through a town which is the size of a modest English village. There was no specific obstruction, just too many cars and an Eastern Cape specialty mix of robots, ‘give way’ and ‘stop’ intersections and an overall lack of traffic control. Like squeezing honey through a capillary tube.

The R61 is a good choice. Much of it is very straight and visibility is good, so even though it is mainly single lane there are plenty of chances to overtake the trucks that slow to 20kph on encountering the slightest incline. On one of these I note with amusement that the disappearance of words like ‘freight’ and ‘transport’ from the logos on these vehicles is not just a UK phenomenon. The smoking old wreck behind which I crawl up one hill has the sign ‘Value Logistics’ emblazoned on the back.

The road runs along the floor of a very wide valley occasionally rising on hills that protrude from the Drakensberg to the West. The ‘Dragon Mountain’ is called in isiZulu uKahlamba ‘barrier of spears’. The range towers over the whole of the Eastern Cape. On a previous trip I turned further inland to climb up one of the roads leading towards Lesotho. At the top I was rewarded by some wonderful views down vast green wooded valleys pleasingly bereft of any sign of human habitation and spent a pleasant 15 minutes watching brown coloured rock martins playing in the gusty warm wind that rose up over the edge of the cliffs.

Today the weather can’t decide what to do. At one stage the AC is full on and the temperature gauge reads 33 outside, next minute a bolt of lightning streaks down behind a nearby hill, the temperature plummets and the wipers are on at full pelt to cope with the tropical deluge. Mostly it remains clear and although the drive is long, much of it is through wild rugged attractive scenery and there are no serious delays. Bird life is surprisingly scarce. Pied crows and white necked ravens float around the road edges seeking roadkill. I spot a solitary raptor sitting on a telegraph pole.

I cross over the various tributaries to the Great Kei River (Black Kei, White Kei – all muddy red brown) and the houses begin to look more solid and the road improves. The ‘friendly’ N6 is a nice new highway and I pass through Cathcart (named after a governor of the Cape of Good Hope) which seems quite a smart place with wide streets. The turnoff for Hogsback arrives suddenly off the R351 just outside the town; and then it all goes wrong.

The road is appalling. It is laughably termed a ‘gravel road’. In places there is some gravel but overall it is 30% pothole and 30% deep ruts and the remaining surface is a mixture of mud and loose stones varying from huge boulders to shingle. Pebbles thrown up by the tyres make an alarming sound as they hit the underside of the car and I envisage holes appearing in the sump and the radiator. I recall the sign said 49km to Hogsback and I brace myself for a long haul over a surface that this saloon car was never designed for. The scenery is wonderful but my focus is on avoiding the largest rocks and the deepest gulleys. The zigzagging probably adds another 5km to the distance. The sky is crystal clear which would normally be a bonus but there is a long long stretch when I am driving up slope after slope with the sun beaming like a laser directly down the road towards me just above the crest of the hill, headache inducing and blinding me to the state of the road surface. Eventually after what seems like an age but is about an hour, I start the downward run towards Hogsback. I have passed no dwellings of any sort; had I broken down it would have been a long and dismal walk.

For a period of about 15 minutes as I descend I have the benefit of the evening sunlight on a view of green fields, and distant woodland and a hint of mist wrapping around lines of tall poplar trees. It is very atmospheric in a difficult to describe way; perhaps Turner could have captured it. This is followed all too soon by the dusk and I plunge into the cloud bank that engulfs Hogsback. It gets darker and the fog reduces visibility to almost zero.

I breathe a mental sigh relief as lights begin to appear through the mist. Rarely was the word ‘Welcome’ on the ‘Welcome to Hogsback’ sign more meaningful. Half way down the main street I see the sign I am seeking and turn into my Hotel

A young man finally appears some minutes after I have tinged the bell on the desk. I look around. I get the sense of an English pub that has fallen on hard times.

He takes me to my room. The bedroom is smallish. I have not seen Crittall metal framed windows in a hotel for a long time. They add to the impression of a rather seedy seaside guest house back home. It is the small things that do it. The four plugs jammed into a splitter from a single ancient electric socket, the broken bathtub plug chain. The beige wall tiles in the bathroom not quite meeting the darker beige vinyl floor.

I am just in time for supper but my starter and main course arrive simultaneously. It turns out the barman ordered as if there were two people dining. They take away the main course to keep it hot, which helps puree the vegetables. I finish my meal and head off for bed.

Next morning I am the first into breakfast. There is a cost cutting feel about the dining room exemplified by the single jug of lurid pink fruit juice and the first toaster ever invented. I am served by a local girl. Her English is fine and she smiles and responds to my Xhosa; when serving however she has obviously been taught the exact words to use as I hear her parroting the identical phrases to others as they join the breakfast. Her speed at clearing things away is electrifying. People are taken aback as, having taken the last mouthful, she whips away the plate as the knife and fork touch down on it and before the chewing has barely begun. There is a sense of not quite ‘getting it’ about her performance of these correct but badly enacted duties.

The weather is not promising. Mist and fog hover outside and I suspect the views will be poor. The landlord and his wife are an odd couple. She is a large rounded cross between Hyacinth Bucket (body and demeanour) and Sybil Fawlty (voice) and he has a slightly shifty car dealer feel about him; Arthur Daley without the humour. I ask whether the fog is likely to persist. ‘Can’t say really’ he replies, avoiding my eyes ‘this is Hogsback, four seasons in one day sometimes’. This evasion doesn’t inspire hope but I decide to go for a walk anyway and take a chance with the weather.

I stroll down the road using a basic map which Arthur has kindly provided. It has all the names of the shops on it. The Hogsback and Lord of the Rings themes are done to death. ‘Hair on the Hogs’ is the local hairstylist; ‘The Hoggest shop in Town’ is the proud boast of the gift shop which sits next to ‘The Enchanted Gallery’; my map shows ‘Hobbit Lane’ and ‘Rivendell camping’. Even the bottle shop is called ‘The Ring Liquor store’.

I turn off down a side road where, at the end, a back packer’s hostel named ‘Away with the Fairies’ sits at the beginning of a walking route. Its chalets have titles like ‘Bilbo’s room’. On the way a colourful Chorister Robin peers at me from the hedge. On the ground outside the reception entrance two huge hounds lie staring at me. They raise themselves slowly to their feet, there is a brief moment of indecision when I wonder if they are guard dogs and will take a dislike but they stroll towards me and demand attention. The reception lady is a nice African girl who points me in the direction of the start of the walk. The two dogs decide that this is an adventure and, along with a third that has materialised from somewhere, they become my uninvited travelling companions.

At first I have some feelings of reassurance. Perhaps having large dogs along is good for safety, although this lot wouldn’t harm a fly by the look of them. They soon turn out to be a menace. The path through the forest is narrow and steep and consists of mud made very slippery and porridgy by the rain, interspersed with large puddles. On one side there is an almost sheer drop and nothing to hold on to. The charm of my three canine companions rapidly wears thin as they turn out to be quite boisterous. They push past me then stop abruptly so I can’t move. Then they start having play fights. This is great fun if you have four feet. You can afford for one to slip over the edge. We bipeds are different. Any chance of spotting bird life with three barking canines has dropped from slim to fat to no. I last about another ten minutes of buffeting before I throw in the towel having been almost pushed to my death for the fourth time; I turn back. The dogs look disappointed.

Back at the hostel I take the alternative route which is signposted ‘viewpoint’. It is a short walk and I hear the voices of a young man and woman giggling ahead of me and some splashing. Puzzled I edge forward. There, cemented into the edge of a cliff with the tap end actually overhanging, is a bath, a normal porcelain bath such as one expects to encounter in a bathroom, not on a cliff. There is a large stove for heating water plumbed to the bath. A young couple clad in swimwear are immersed in the warm water while taking advantage of the view. The land falls steeply below them and opens out into a wide valley with the opposite tree clad slopes rising to cliff edges topped with white cloud. At the end of the valley one can see paler sunlit green fields of the distant lowlands. It is a beautiful and, dare I say it, a storybook view, but there is something bizarre and Alice in Wonderland like about the presence of a bath.

I walk back to the village. One of the dogs has adopted me and follows. The tourist information is open. The lady inside has a strong Afrikaaner accent and is clad in a long cheesecloth type dress, draped with beads and bangles, her hair tied up with an odd sort of ribbon. She adds to the general hippyish atmosphere and from her maturity could almost have been on original flower person.

Hogsback probably gained part of its Tolkien reputation by the opening of ‘Hobbiton on Hogsback’ soon after ‘The Hobbit’ was published. It was and is an outward bound school for deprived children, where they could come on summer adventure camps. The couple in front of me have two young girls; all four are loud. The man turns out to have been a ‘Hobbiton boy’ and he regales the information lady with his life history. They talk about people who were here when he was, some of whom are still living in Hogsback. He is an enthusiast and warms to his theme and she being polite and probably interested engages in the tale, although she must meet many revisiting Hobbiton boys. After ten minutes or so they eventually buy a map and leave and it is my turn. The lady is very keen to help. I buy my permit and get suggestions about where to go. All her recommendations seem to be commercial outlets rather than viewpoints or interesting walks. I mentally delete the ‘Ecoshrine’, the traditional potter and the ‘House of Mirrors’ from my itinerary. As I leave I mention the dog who is sitting outside waiting patiently for me. ‘That’s Snoopy’ she says ‘It’s a village dog’. It is an interesting reflection of how small and parochial a place is where everyone knows the stray dogs by name.

I go back to the hotel and get in the car to drive to a reasonable spot from which to start my walk to one of the better known waterfalls. Snoopy realises the game is up and looks around for another friend. A short drive later and I am at the start of the steep steps down to the Madonna and Child Waterfall. Hobbiton boy and family are here too and I pause to give them a fair start to let the disturbed birdlife settle before following them down.

I walk down the steep slippy uneven steps and along the wooden walkway. Behind me is a man about my age with binoculars. He turns out to be the local birdguide and we strike up a conversation, he introduces himself as Graham. The waterfall when we reach it is charming with a rock formation protruding through the cascade which plausibly resembles a mother and child. Graham and I climb back up together. There is a chirping sound very similar to an English Nuthatch in the background. I ask Graham if he is good on bird song. ‘That one?’ he asks ‘It took me years to work out it was the Hogsback frog’ he laughs. ‘I went through all my bird recordings time after time. It still fools people’.

The waterfall was a steep climb down and we are breathless by the time we get back to the top. He points out a Drakensberg Prinia and we chat for a while. If the weather is good we agree to meet up the following morning.

Hobbiton boy and family arrive panting away and father engages Graham in conversation, or rather launches into a monologue identical to the one I heard in the Information shop ‘I was a Hobbiton boy you know’ he begins. I see a cornered look appearing in Graham’s eyes but am helpless to rescue him. I wave goodbye and drive off with the voice still babbling on.

The cloud has settled firmly down, obscuring the view; a walk in the woods is the only answer. It is a long hike and I arrive back in the Arboretum where I started some two hours later thoroughly soaked with a single new species in the bag, a Star Robin.

All through the forest, even what must be a mile or two from where I started I can hear the booming bass of some loud rock music. In the Arboretum some locals are having a picnic. This turns out to be the source of the noise pollution. The car has all its doors open and the music is full on, the bass pounding everyone’s ears. Three teenagers are standing at the back doing weird dances in time to the music. One of them seems to be the centre of attention as he gyrates with his feet together and his knees opening and closing, his arms making a similar flapping movement with the elbows moving in and out and his trunk weaving from side to side. His head is looking downwards and sideways to emphasise how cool he is and that he merits watching. They have been doing this for hours judging by how long I could hear the sounds.

In this beautiful setting which was designed for peaceful strolling this seems to me pretty crass but I realise I live in a different world to these people. My suspicion is that my enjoyment of the natural beauty around me is unlikely ever to impinge on them. Similarly the endless rhythmic gyrations that they are going through and which are the height of wicked to them, will never seem anything other than a grotesque waste of time to me – not to mention the unthinking intrusion on other people’s quiet afternoon. Thank goodness I never again have to worry about being cool.

Back at the hotel Arthur and Hyacinth are chatting at the desk. They greet me and ask about my day; they are looking shiftier than usual. I go back to my room and find an envelope, hand written, addressed to me. Inside is a message from Arthur to all residents telling us that an electricity outage is due from 6 am next morning for 12 hours for planned repairs to the grid. This explains the forced cheeriness of their greeting. It is difficult to believe that this wasn’t known about when I booked less than a week ago. I decide a hot bath is the answer. I have noticed a few times earlier small black spiders on my sleeve and trousers and have brushed them away. As I lie in the bath I realise that they are ticks as I have one firmly clamped on to my chest wall. I pull it off and wash the site. Hogsback is turning into a place of fateful misfortune.

At supper in the bar the feeling of a Wild West town after the gold has run out is added to by an ancient American who appears to be a long term guest. He has long wispy white hair and pulls out a harmonica and plays some soulful melodies. Charming, but I am shocked to note that he is chain smoking too and no one seems to think it is odd or wrong. The sense of a land out of time deepens.

Next morning I am up at 5 and check the weather. The 5.30 rendezvous with Graham is conditional on good visibility. No hope; the fog is so dense I can barely see the edge of the windowsill. I do some work on the computer and at 6am on the dot the lights go out and a silence falls, broken a few minutes later by the sounds of a generator starting up. In the shower I find my tick bite site has not disappeared and I dig away at it eventually removing what are probably the remains of the insect head parts.

Breakfast is an even sparser affair than yesterday but their gas cooker means I can get a healthy fry up so I go for the full Monty.

I am in a mind to make tracks straight back to Zithulele but I decide to give the place another chance and I drive to ‘The Edge’ which is a hotel restaurant and viewpoint. The cloud lifts tantalizingly and blue sky appears and some cavernous expanses of wooded valley appear and are as quickly gone. I drive back down the road and as a final gamble turn down a road which is signed to an Azalea nursery which has been recommended. I arrive and am greeted by the inevitable enormous Baskerville hounds which bark their heads off and turn out to be completely docile. There is a nursery but I never get to it as the free entry garden is simply lovely. It is on a slope and is laid out like an ornamental English garden packed with roses and other English and native flowers and ornamental trees and water features. The owner has silenced the dogs and the peaceful beauty of this little Eden is just wonderful. The fairyland effect is added to by the bright species of birds which would never grace an English garden: exotic sunbirds, waxbills, bright yellow weavers. To add to it the mist finally lifts and I get a view across one of the vast Tolkienesque valleys where it would not be out of place to see a line of Elves on horseback padding slowly through on their way to Rivendell.

The idea that Hogsback was the inspiration for Tolkien’s Mirkwood in Lord of the Rings is debunked firmly and unequivocally in the excellent Wikipedia article. The South Africans however cling on to this myth with a touching ferocity and it is true that, had he ever seen it, it could have been. It is a strange land of very old forests, waterfalls, huge precipitous drops with sweeping views and a microclimate of persistent mist and cloud which can change in an instant to blue sky to reveal the panoramic scenery. It has, reluctant though I am to concede it, a rather mystical atmosphere.

Time is moving on and I leave the village by the southern entrance avoiding the gravel road. Looking back I can appreciate the steepness of the slopes clad with native trees, and the peaks disappearing into the cloud. Another large dog appears loping along in the grass next to me. I suddenly realise it is a baboon, one of a large troop. The eyes staring at me down the long thin snout and the flash of teeth (longer than a lion’s) are a salutary reminder that I am in a wild place.

I drive round a huge loop of road which goes West, North and then East to rejoin the road to Cathcart. It is the Amatola mountain route and the scenery is breathtaking.

The R61 is again kind and although it is a long drive I have become accustomed to sitting behind a wheel for hours by now. Above me soars a huge Cape Griffon Vulture taking advantage of the thermals of hot air rising from the valley and effortlessly drifting in wide circles, banking once sharply enough to reveal its pure white back.

I find Zithulele wet and shrouded in mist. It turns out that Saturday here was indeed a blisteringly hot and beautiful day, but Hogsback, despite its rather down at heel and forgotten feel was worth the trip.

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