Try the beloved country…the Lufafa Valley near Ixopo

A section of the Lufafa Valley, near Ixopo in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands. (Photograph: Penny Haw.)

LEGEND has it that on particularly misty but moonlit nights you can hear his whistle – distinctive, yet tune unknown – above the ridiculous rattle of his ancient, pale blue Toyota Stallion bakkie as he clatters down the pot-holed gravel road that traverses the Lufafa Valley in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

This, it is said, is the spirit of legendary farmer, Jack Kirk as he cheerfully charges towards the large stone house on the farm, Rivermead. Here his wife of the steel blue eyes – and attitude to match – Alice, awaits him with feigned indifference, her hand resting lightly on the silky head of a Borzois bitch that stands motionless alongside her.

Alan Paton wrote about Jack and Alice’s “green rolling hills of Lufafa” in his 1948 novel, Cry The Beloved Country. More recently, Johnny Steinberg’s book, Midlands told a disquieting tale set in the vicinity, amid the gentle hills and cloud-filled valleys that characterise this region south of the Drakensberg.

Alice’s father settled in the Lufafa Valley, just 12 kilometres from the village of Ixopo (known for its Buddhist Retreat Centre and, leading up to the 1994 elections, at the centre of several violent clashes between the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party), in the mid-1800s, using some of the 700-pound ‘fortune’ he uncovered in the diamond fields up north to purchase a tract of land. She lived in the deep valleys and on the gradual slopes of Lufafa until her death in 1988, 13 years after the demise of her husband.

In her unpublished papers, A Century Of Memories 1858 – 1959, Alice wrote, “Most of the lions had been killed or driven north some years before my people settled there. There were still leopards in the local forests, and tiger cats and wild dogs were numerous. However, a young boy told me that as he was digging for roots on a bare hillside, he was startled by a bushbuck dashing by, pursued by a lion. They had not been seen in the neighbourhood for some years, but he knew well what it was and froze to the ground in terror. Fortunately, the lion bounded past him, oblivious to his existence. As soon as the boy’s legs defrosted, he galloped off in the opposite direction”.

Although there are most certainly no lions in Lufafa today, the tormented yell and yaps of the black backed jackal and the sharp, startled nasal whistle of reedbuck still frequent the nocturnal airwaves of the valley. And the countryside – although partly forested nowadays, where Alice wrote that in the 1800s there was “not a tree to be seen” – is as splendid as ever.

In summer, the grass is thick and lavishly green, and at almost every fold of the hills, streams run prettily through fern-fringed ravines. The soil – that same earth that, as the stories goes, Jack trod barefoot in all seasons – is rich, red and impossibly sticky. Gardens, such as Alice’s two acre paradise, flourish and, on hot days, the air is thick with the peculiar combination of the smell of jasmine – trellised on fences around homesteads – and that of the potent khaki bos, which grows tall and stinky wherever the farmer’s eye overlooks.

During the summer months, the mist regularly sinks into the valley and is so substantial that hills, plantations and large glistening dams disappear before your eyes. After hot mornings, the afternoon storms often arrive quick and mad. The thunder rolls loud across the valley, underscoring its gravity with fierce cracks of lightening and bucketing rain.

In winter, the desiccated veld is burned as part of the farmers’ regeneration process. The hills go from gently waving grasslands, to sad black stubble. The mornings and nights are bracingly chilly. Frost is a regular morning visitor and there are even occurrences of snow. The days though, are magnificent with clear skies and a friendly sun. Fine wintertime dust invades every crack and cranny and the air contains whiffs of the sour maize silage that is stored in large pits in the earth.

It was into one of these pits that Jack tumbled in the mid-1960s, followed by the brilliant green John Deere tractor on which he had been perched. The machine pinned him into the ground and, when he was finally examined by a doctor on the emergency table, medical expertise declare him paralysed and destined to a wheelchair for life. Jack however, walked out of the hospital two days later and thumbed his way home to his beloved Alice.

Lufafa is dairy farming country, populated typically by gentle-eyed Jerseys and huge-boned Frieslands that amble lazily in herds from early morning milking, to daytime pasture, back to afternoon milking, and finally to their night time paddocks.

It is a place that invites long walks through the veld, along the rivers or among the trees. If you tread quietly along one of the high ridges of the valley, you might spot Jack on his horse below. You will recognise him by the extraordinarily long length of his stirrup leathers and by the particularly smooth gait of the shiny black gelding as it triples across the fields. Of course, you will also make out Jack’s bare feet.

Glance another way and you might see Alice walking alongside the river. She will be surrounded by dogs and will most likely bend occasionally to add to the large bouquet of arum lilies in her arms. If you are really lucky, you will see her lift her head and offer Jack a demure wave from afar.

If you want to “try the beloved country” of Paton, Jack and Alice, you’ll find comfortable accommodation slightly south of Ixopo at the almost 110 year old converted lodgings of the German Trappist Monks. King’s Grant guesthouse takes its name from the fact that the land on which is it located was originally granted, by the then-governor of Natal, to Dick King after his historic 600 mile horseback ride from Durban to Grahamstown in 1842.

And, for a true taste of the area, treat yourself to a large wedge of delicious cheddar from the Creighton Valley Cheese Company, which is located about 10 kilometres north west of the Lufafa Valley. It may well be made from the milk of one of the bovine ancestors of the cows that were milked by hands of Jack, which legend has it were “larger than the biggest bunch of bananas ever to be picked in the province”.

(First published in The Weekender.)

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Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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3 Responses to Try the beloved country…the Lufafa Valley near Ixopo

  1. Sally Beer says:

    Penny, I found your blog a few years ago and loved your writing. I forgot about it for a while and in a rush of nostalgia was ‘googling’ Ixopo when this post popped up and i remembered how much I had enjoyed reading your writing previously. You have certainly done ‘home’ proud, and captured it beautifully. Thank you. Sally (was Hutton)

  2. graham oghpie says:

    Thank you so much Penny for your writings.When you wrote about Jack Kirk and wife ,Alice,I was litterally in tears.I have a reason for that.I have spent all my life trying to find out what really happened,who are the generation of the Kirk familly and where are they.
    I hope you can contact me if possible and again,thank you so much.
    Graham

  3. Lee Kingma says:

    Beautiful images – I could picture the bare foot Jack on his trusty steed and Alice of the steele blue eyes in her English country garden – and smell the khaki bos……..

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