Into the storm on a War trail

The valley was still; golden light illuminated the small Rhodes village, birds hushed their spring morning chatter and the old creaky village houses stopped to listen. In the distance, great big black clouds bulged at the seams and tumbled over grassy hills like a giant hell-bent on destruction.

In a moment, the golden light was gone and the stillness no longer. A wall of wind smashed into the protective band of pine trees, pouring through the gaps and down the street. We hurriedly packed up camp. The storm was advancing and the route we had chosen went straight into it.

Eastern Cape Highlands

After a quick mug of freshly brewed filter coffee at the Walkabout lodge, we jumped into our vehicle with renewed energy, ready for the next leg of our Eastern Cape Highlands adventure. Our plan was to drive from Rhodes to Balloch Cave campsite in the War Trail region in hope that it was open and available! We had had no luck with communication and had not been able to pre-book. But having seen the many bent and broken telephone poles along the way, it became obvious as to why! We just hoped that despite it being a long weekend, this unique single group campsite would not be occupied.

Eastern Cape Mountains

South African sheep

Eastern Cape Highlands

Cocooned in our ‘adventure tank,’ we wound our way up into the hills on a narrow muddy road. Howling wind and rain battered our vehicle and fierce displays of lightning seemed to crack and shatter the very sky. The stormy clouds and mist briefly shrouded the land, concealing a beauty we knew was there. We stopped anyway, for a photo – enchanted and intrigued – then jumped back into the vehicle as another bolt of lightning struck nearby! As we reached the top, the cloudy skies lifted and for a moment I thought I was in the Scottish Highlands; surrounded by sheep, streams and golden hills that contrasted the black sky.

Peace Corps South Africa

Eastern Cape Travel

Eastern Cape hidden valleys

“Those who contemplate the beauty of earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts…

There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” – Rachel Carson

South African Livestock farming

Despite the immense beauty of this land, I sensed a ‘sadness’ and a ‘loneliness,’ like these hills have a story to tell. All I knew at this point was that the area was called ‘war trail’ and its past was obviously steeped in conflict. I’ve since learned that for many years during the colonial beginning, the British, Boers and Xhosa people fought many battles over land and that most of the small towns in the area were used as battle posts built by the British to ward off the armies of Xhosa hiding in the Matola mountains. Perhaps the saddest story of all is that of the Xhosa people in this region. A young Xhosa girl by the name Nongqawuse believed she had seen and communicated with the spirits of her ancestors while fetching water at the Gxara River further east of the mountains. She said that if the people killed all their cattle and burned their crops, in return the spirits would sweep all the British into the sea. The Xhosa Chief Sarhili ordered the people to obey this prophecy and between 300 000 and 400 000 cattle were slaughtered and crops were burned resulting in a human-induced famine. Within 6 months, mass starvation occurred, resulting in the number of Xhosa people to drop from 105 000 to 37 200 persons.

Abandoned farm house

Balloch farm

Tree trunk

After a couple of hours of stopping and starting, we reached the turn for Balloch Farm. The little farm road, recently battered by the storm, meandered alongside a river for 5 kilometers before reaching the old farmstead in a hidden valley. We were very lucky in that there was group at the cave but they were just about to leave!

Willow tree

We unpacked, put up our tents, lit a fire and made ourselves at home in the enormous cave. We still had the entire afternoon to explore this hidden piece of paradise and the big rocky hill above us was looking like the perfect place to begin. My kids scrambled up the rock like wild little baboons’ intent on exploring every cave and crevice! We reachedExploring Balloch farm the top and looked out over the farm and across a place of such beauty, it felt like my heart was going to grow wings and fly! Just as we were living the moment of feeling on top of the world, out of nowhere, a bone-chilling bolt of lightning crashed into the hillside only a couple hundred metres from our position. Stricken with fear – although desperately attempting my best poker face for the sake of my terrified children – we took cover in a small overhanging from the unexpected storm. We waited it out while lightning struck again and the entire hill seemed to shudder as the storm spewed its fury. Minutes later, it was gone. But the clouds in the distance looked ominous and I wanted to get back to our camp as quickly as possible. I had to think of a way that would convince my kids to come out from hiding and to brave the slope before another onslaught. I told them to repeat the mantra after me, “I AM BRAVE!”  Their quivering voices started with a meek “I am brave.” We said it again and again and again. Then we started marching down the slope, shouting “I AM BRAVE, I AM BRAVE, I AM BRAVE!” I’m sure our voices must have echoed across the entire valley and the farmer would have been thinking, without a shadow of a doubt, that his guests were absolutely bonkers! But it worked! We got back quickly and safely and celebrated our safe return with Hot chocolate and marshmallows around a crackling log fire.

Top of the world

African thunderstorm

When we thought that this incredible day had given us all that it could, the wind picked up again but this time, it parted the clouds and the sun set the horizon on fire.

“Maybe happiness is this:

Not feeling that you should be elsewhere,

Doing something else,

Being someone else” – Eric Weiner

African sunset

To book the single group cave campsite on Balloch farm, the best method of communication is via email. There are 2 sites on the farm: The cave and a beautiful site next to the river. The facilities are excellent, especially in the cave. For bookings, email: frost@balloch.co.za

Directions: Balloch farm is situated 45km North of Barkly East on the Lundeans Nek road, and 60 km West of Rhodes. GPS: 30°42’43.83?S 27°41’54.49?E