One learns all the time, especially when travelling.
If nothing else, names of places, people and species- often forgotten or partly remembered.
I learned something I won’t forget at Three Tree Hill Lodge, which overlooks the secluded Mfazimnyama Valley of the Spioenkop Game Reserve, in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains in KwaZulu-Natal.
Seated in the recently completed Molly Blackburn library, with the late Black Sash activist’s portrait and Philosophy PhD on the wall, it seemed that the apple did not fall far from the tree in her son Simon’s case.
Owners Simon and Cheryl Blackburn are well read and podcasted and Simon, who recounts the terrible battle that took place on the Spioenkop massif across the valley, changed my perspective on history when I asked if, with the passing of time, younger generations and colonial history not flavour of the month, whether interest in the South African battlefields had waned.
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“No” was the short answer, as he gathered his resonating thoughts. Simon hated history at school- and his and Cheryl’s lack of interest in history stalled their purchase of Three Tree Hill Lodge.
A Rich History
Fatherhood- and a sense of mortality, changed that. Legacy, his own and his forebears, became an interest and, listening to expert David Rattray’s recounting of the battles between British and Zulu forces at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, he fell in love with the narrative and the humanity of history.
Simon’s tour of the battlefield was an emotional experience for me and elicited simultaneous applause and tears, such were the human stories within stories of the most devastating clash for both Boers and English in the 2nd Anglo-Boer War- both sides incurring their highest casualties in a single day on 23 January, 1900. Whether it be Simon or resident historian Ron Gold who guides you, I do recommend it.
Although the wood and iron buildings are thoughtfully constructed in the style of the period, Three Tree Hill Lodge is about far more than history. It’s about relaxation, nature, family, escape.
Painted matte green, the buildings melt into the surrounding acacias and aloes, giving a sense of glorious isolation. New to me since I last visited are the family cottages with very comprehensive self-catering facilities. No microwave, no tv- in line with the emphasis on sustainable and responsible tourism.
Fair Trade status
Three Tree Hill was the first KwaZulu-Natal holiday destination awarded Fair Trade status. Fair Trade practice was established to serve the interests and rights of farmers, workers and producers in South Africa- as well as to promote sustainability across the board- and Cheryl and Simon carry these practices through to every aspect, from the solar stove to the handmade toiletries in the bathrooms and other cleaning products; from staff employment (no lay-offs during the Covid 19 pandemic) to involvement in community projects.
Family Friendly Cottages
The family cottages don’t only accommodate kids, they are kidcentric. From toys and children’s books in the rooms to little kiddies’ backpacks for hikes and kids’ toiletries, they have your little ones covered. I loved seeing children just being children- their bikes left mounted on the family cars as they used the playground, careered about the property, or made fiery patterns in the air around the outside fire after dark with burnt sticks.
The property is great for mountain bikers of all levels. Horse riders too. You can take yourself on nature walks and Simon (the Blackburns are vastly experienced safari and mountain guides) takes guests through the game reserve.
Nature Walks and Stunning Views
The views over the valley from the cottages are lovely, but more beautiful aspects present themselves on a guided walk- as do game, including white rhino. While the cottages face the valley and the morning sun, the afternoon vistas from the other side of the property, over Spioenkop Dam and surrounding hills toward the Drakensberg mountains, are equally compelling.
There is really just so much to do and all the animals on the property make the lodge so much more homely and welcoming. If you like dogs, they’ll accompany you on a walk or a ride. If you like cats, Gin, Tonic and Squeak are happy to visit and Tonic has been known to enjoy a game walk or two.
There is a swimming pool and sun deck away from the main buildings and Burchells, where we were ensconced, has a lovely pool area with loungers.
Burchell’s is a superb, 105m2 space for a family of six and whilst there, choose to take a mid-morning bath and take your binoculars with you.
A Birder’s Paradise
The massive clear window looks out onto pristine rocky hillside alive with exciting birds. Looking towards the valley, the skyline is broken by fantastic aloes; marlothii and excelsa, stretching up to 4 meters.
In winter, unless prewarned, birding becomes quite bewildering as “subspecies” emerge. Orange-headed mousebirds, weavers, starlings, sunbirds are quite a sight, after having plunged their heads into the deep, powdery orange pollen of the flowering aloes.
The bird-buzzing aloes lure the odd raptor in; sparrowhawks, goshawks and the likes break the peace, darting through on an opportunistic hunt.
Each chalet or cottage has polished cement floors, sash windows, ceiling fans and verandah completing the historical feeling. The attention to detail and design is impeccable.
The theme continues in the main building with its huge lounge and dining room and deep, wrap-around verandah. The furnishing is an eclectic collection of solid, comfortable and tasteful pieces. Below the well-stocked library is a lovely, possibly better stocked wine cellar.
Many of the pictures on the walls are taken from newspapers of the period, with advertisements extolling the benefits of eating Bovril – “the food of men on the front” – Keane’s mustard and adding Scrubbs cloudy ammonia to your bath. It’s quirky and fun. Even the place mats on the dinner table recall political cartoons of the time.
If you’re not self- catering, meals are taken around the long, scrubbed wood tables in the main building, encouraging conversation among guests. I vividly recall lively banter between a somewhat fortified guest and a couple who did not consume dairy, gluten, processed sugars, meat, alcohol or caffeine. Not dull, but I was most impressed by the lengths taken to produce tasty treats for those guests, as well the superb repasts prepared for us less evolved scoffers.
Golden Gate National Park and Much More
Three Tree Hill is centrally situated for a host of activities the non-history buff would hope for: hot air ballooning; hiking; helicopter flips; a zipline canopy tour; excellent raptor center and the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir School, with public performances by the world class choir. Quaint, arty Clarens- also known for its breweries- and the aptly named Golden Gate National Park are just an hour-and-a-half’s drive away, and Champagne, Cathedral Peak and Royal Natal mountain reserves each 45 minutes.
It’s all there to do and enjoy, but with the overarching bonus of peace and tranquility as constant companions, broken only by bird and jackal calls and the laughter of children.
The final word: book in for at least three nights. A couple I met were staying for a week, using Three Tree Hill as a base to explore the diverse offerings within a hundred-or-so kilometre radius.