You don’t have to go very far to step back in time to a remote and rustic getaway, slap bang between the city lights of Durban and Pietermaritzburg in the beautiful Valley of a 1 000 Hills
Story Debbie Reynolds Pictures Debbie Reynolds and Gill Graaf
It’s a hidden gem called Mfula Store and it took my breath away – literally. It started with a daunting drive over a mountain pass with hairpin bends and sweeping views over the Valley of a 1 000 Hills.
After descending into the valley, the road crosses a bridge over the Umgeni River and there in front of us is a little trading store. Old folk are gathered on the stoep for a chat. A customer walks out with her purchases. Children call out to each other as they play in the late afternoon shadows.
This is definitely where we are staying, but I don’t see any rooms and, in the distance, I think I spot a rural “out house”. But then the friendly resident dogs arrive and guide us to the back of the trading store, where the old thatched-roof homestead glows in the setting sun.
Lovingly restored by its current owners, John and Gill Graaf, the 70-year-old home takes you back to a time when life was a lot less complicated. It is rustic and simple, but warm and inviting.
The front porch leads you into a central dining and lounge area, where a long table cries out for a hearty family sit-down meal. Leading off this main area is the well-equipped kitchen, complete with a massive red dresser, four bedrooms and a bathroom.
The house can comfortably sleep up to 12 people, in rooms ranging from a private double to a bunkroom. There are toilets inside and a hot shower and toilets outside.
Thankfully, for those seeking to unplug and switch off, there is no television and the cellphone signal is erratic, which means that you get to sit around a fire and talk, and have an early night to charge your batteries before waking to the sounds of nature. Then it is up to you to decide whether you want to simply curl up with a book or tackle one of the many outdoor adventures, which the area around Mfula Store has to offer.
It was, in fact, a love for canoeing and mountain biking that introduced the Graafs to this special place. Lucky enough to be hosted by the couple on my visit, John picks up the story: “Mfula Store, originally known as Umfula Store, was the first trading store in this area of the Valley of a 1 000 Hills. For the first 30 years, the owners lived in the house behind the store, as was typical of the time.”
He goes on to explain how the store flourished until the 1990s when, due to an unfortunate combination of the political situation and the remote location, the area became less populated and the store’s customers dwindled.
It was in 2008, while seconding friends on the Non-Stop Dusi Canoe Marathon, that John and Gill met the store’s owner, Christopher Gwala, who suggested they could use the store as a base for their mountain biking and paddling trips in the Valley of a 1 000 Hills.
“We got to know Mr Gwala quite well and, one day, he mentioned that he wanted to sell the store because it was no longer profitable,” says John. “I jokingly remarked that maybe he should sell it to me.”
A year later, the Graafs were in the area and enquired about Mr Gwala. “We were sad to hear that he had recently passed away. When we asked about the future of the store, we were surprised to find out that Mr Gwala had told his family the sale to us was a done deal.”
After a long process of legalities, they officially bought the property in 2010 and, soon after, began extensive renovations which took about two years to complete. Today, the store is fully operational and also provides the community with essential services, such as a mobile clinic and pension pay-outs.
The homestead is rented out on a self-catering basis, with guests also required to bring their own bedding and towels. “By special request, we can organise catering according to what groups need,” said Gill.
I can personally attest to the skills of housekeeper Happiness, who cooked us a delicious wild pig potjie. There are also braai facilities.
As far as adventure goes, guests can enjoy everything from swimming, bum-sliding and canoeing to mountain biking, hiking, trail running and fishing. Or you can just do nothing at all except soak up the absolute peace and solitude.
THINGS TO DO
Mfula Store is part of the iSithumba Tourism Route, a project of Durban Green Corridors and the Valley of a 1 000 Hills Tourism Association.
- From the iSithumba Adventure Centre, you can organise everything from mountain biking, hiking and bird watching to sharing a cold beer at the local tavern, visiting local crafters, and experiencing a traditional lunch at a local homestead.
- Experienced local guides are on hand to share the rich cultural heritage and action-packed activities of the area.
- A series of self-drive routes will take you through friendly communities, along winding mountain roads and stops with breathtaking views.
- A favourite stop is the pretty Mqeku picnic spot, where you can relax on green lawns under giant fig trees.
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