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  • Bridget Hilton-Barber


Updated: Feb 17, 2023

It is testament to the tenacity of the people of Magoebaskloof and Haenertsburg village, that two years into the pandemic, this friendly tourism hub has not only survived, but reinvented itself in different and delicious ways. By Bridget Hilton-Barber.

Fear and uncertainty gripped ‘The Mountain’, as locals call this area, when the first tough lockdown was imposed just over two years ago. Except for the trading store, pretty much all the shops and restaurants in the village closed, and as travel and gatherings were banned, the wedding market came to a standstill, and all hospitality and tourism establishments across the mountain shut their doors. People scrambled to sort out day-to-day practicalities as well as the cancelled bookings, wedding refunds, stranded guests, staff welfare, salaries and of course, Covid safety protocols. Nobody really knew what the future would hold.

Survival and support

Love Limpopo, a destination marketing organisation, stepped into the breach by forming a WhatsApp tourism support group that provided advice and information about lockdown regulations and the way forward. “No-one really knew what was going on, people were frightened and confused - the tourism industry was in shambles”, says Lisa Martus of Love Limpopo, “so we created a platform where anyone in Limpopo’s tourism sector could share information and solutions”. It was an immediate and convenient way of communicating with some 250 people ranging from tour guides and game rangers to restaurant and hotel owners, travel agents, operators and guesthouses.

With government bodies, industry authorities and ordinary people in tourism feeding advice and experiences to the group, Love Limpopo was able to verify and dispense invaluable advice on the nuts and bolts of the Covid regulations and things like how to apply for UIF TERS and emergency funding, quarantining and isolation, legal issues and just plain emotional support. “Everyone played their role”, says Lisa, “we provided the platform and opportunity”. For many mountain people it was also a Wake Up Call to the powers of technology in a remote mountain area.

Supporting local

“One of the biggest lessons we learnt from the pandemic was to buy and support local”, says Denise Tooley who, along with her husband Rob, runs the legendary Mina’s Farm Venue and Zwakala River Retreat. “The artisanal farm-to-fork ethos has long been rooted in the mountain, she says, but intensified and grew in the pandemic”.

“A group of like-minded and conscious thinkers initially got together to form what we called Mountain Foodies, to find ways to sell and market the best of our produce”, says Denise.

During lockdown, this mountain literally cooked. And baked and mixed and chopped and stirred and sauced and dipped. There are now more local products than ever before.

Farmer to consumer

Some businesses went online with great results, like Fresh from the Farm who couriers farm-fresh products directly from their farm and other local producers to your door, cutting out the middleman. Their boxes offer a selection of things like avos, nuts, sauces, honey, tea, moringa and soaps. You go online, add to your cart and within a few days there’s delicious Limpopo at your front door.

“Just before lockdown we started sending our son at university in Cape Town boxes of avos, nuts and dried goods from the farm and surrounds”, says Susannah Cole-Hamilton from Boschoek Farm. “The word spread amongst his friends and colleagues that you could get affordable avos and quality products direct from Limpopo.”

“The business wasn’t triggered by the pandemic”, she says, “but it was enhanced by it. It gave us insight into a new market and new ways of selling local produce. We believe in supporting local, appreciating the less than outwardly perfect fruit and minimising packing materials.”

Delivering local

Cicadas Local was another one of the original Mountain Foodies who honed their micro-green and edible flower business under lockdown. “The high demand for these amazing little greens resulted in us designing and building a greenhouse specifically for growing micro greens throughout the year”, says Cicadas Local founder Teri Willson. They evolved into a small distribution company which sends select mountain produce to outlets in Jozi, Hoedspruit and Tzaneen.

Taking the gap

Sometimes opportunity does knock, even in a pandemic. As in the case of The Pancake House and Stella’s Farm Deli on the main R71 at the head of the village. Both businesses opened on the same day, as neighbouring traders. Pancakes, milkshakes on the one side; light meals, wine, and a fabulous deli on the other.

“We knew we wanted to expand into retail”, says Hester Human of Stella’s Farm Deli. Her husband Emmuel owns Stylkop Butchery in George’s Valley and they supply private clients and mountain establishments. “It just so happened that we found the perfect venue for our dream during lockdown. And great neighbours in The Pancake House”.

Stella’s Farm Deli is a gorgeous showcase of local mountain products like fresh fruit and veg, biltong , nuts, dried fruits, croissants, coffee, and wine, yes they have wine.

The Magoebaskloof Farmstall, halfway down the dizzying pass, has also survived lockdown and is expanding further into the forest and they too have an excellent range of local fare, like Old Packhouse Distillery gin, CBD products, crafts and clothes. Allesbeste Farmstall at the bottom of the pass also has some great Magoebaskloof produce, herbal soaps, hand creams, shampoos and health products.

Love rules

As the country wedding capital of Limpopo, Magoebaskloof’s wedding business took a massive knock under lockdown. From nearly a hundred weddings a year to almost none, so many people and services were affected from catering and flowers, to photography, décor, DJs and chair hire. Weddings are cautiously back however, although they’re much smaller and more intimate.

One most popular wedding venues, Cheerio Gardens, made a bold move last year and opened AfriCamps Magoebaskloof – a glamping (camping with glam) experience in permanent luxury tents complete with fireplaces inside the tent and hot tubs on deck overlooking Cheerio gardens.

Then the River Wellness & Spa at Zwakala River Retreat opened last year, with a series of chalets along the river, plus a health spa promising to soothe everyone’s brow. It is a partnership between Zwakala River Retreat and Graham and Michele Walker Chambers who moved to the mountain in February 2021 after a lifetime in hospitality all around the country.

“We truly believe in this area”, says Graham, “and the potential it has for growth with its magnificent scenery, superb restaurants and wedding venues”

The power of nature

Magoebaskloof’s beauty and nature, its green-thinking people and its peace and serenity has proved to be an advantage as things slowly recover. More and more people are turning to hiking , biking, swimming, Zenning and retreating. “In the past year we have witnessed an extraordinary growth in the popularity for hikes and outdoor activities,'' says Sandi-Leigh Moore of The Mountain Company, who offers hikes and trails in the area. “I’ve never met a first time guest or hiker that doesn’t fall in love with Magoebaskloof”.

A safe turnaround

Owning an off-the-grid hotel that was expecting a bright season of international arrivals and finding a whole new South African market was a huge challenge for Graceland Eco Retreat.

“We had to reschedule all our overseas bookings and tap into new sources. We had to get sanitizers, temperature guns, masks, gloves and more. We’re in a remote place but we used online messages for directions, welcomes, check-ins and check outs, as well as contactless deliveries and collections of food,” says owner Anders Ragnarsson.

As things eased, they developed innovative and Covid-safe opportunities like hiking-picnic combos for locals and visitors to get out and into nature. And the good news is that foreign visitors are slowly returning.

Getting it right

Zwakala Brewery, one of the most happening spots on the mountain, was really smacked hard by lockdown. “The lockdown not only took away our ability to sell liquor”, says Katherine Tooley. “but it went against the very ethos of our brand. Zwakala is slang for come closer and it was impossible to do that. After the first nationwide lockdown, we were optimistic and had a box of tricks ready to combat what Covid would bring. But after the fourth liquor-lockdown, it was incredibly tough to reinvent ourselves again and we had to seriously look at what the future could hold”

Fortunately, people have been able to get a bit closer once more - Zwakala is happily trading again and recently walked off with the South African National Beer Trophy for the best beer in the country (2021) with their Weekend Special.

On the whole, it’s the smaller, family-owned and run businesses in Magoebaskloof that have been able to adapt most easily and the pandemic, to date, has been a lesson in survival with an emphasis on trading locally, being flexible and resilient to whatever comes their way so that they can not only survive but thrive.

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