Get off the beaten track to add diversity to your South African experience; by visiting the unique land alleged to be the source of Tolkien's inspiration. Here’s an unusual and charming village in a less-travelled part of the country – Hogsback in the Eastern Cape Province. You won't see this mountainous little village, resembling Tolkien's fictional Middle Earth, in every photo album of holidays in South Africa. It is, however, well worth visiting and much loved by those who do make the journey here.
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- The Tolkien connection - fact or fiction?
- The Hogsback Area & the Village
- Things to do
- Annual Hogsback Events
- Eating & Drinking
- Best Places to Stay
True - JRR Tolkien was born in the Free State town of Bloemfontein in 1892. BUT, this famous fictional author went to England with his mother and brother when he was three years old, never to return to South African soil. Thus, it is highly unlikely that Hogsback in fact inspired his fantastical trilogy, or any of his other works... or is it? Some say that his family visited Hogsback in those early formative years of his life.
Surely, it is highly doubtful that such a significant and enduring impression was made on the under three year old Tolkien that it would later inspire a tale some 1200 pages long. Oh, but there is more - some claim that his nanny was from Hogsback and told him mysterious tales of her home at the foot of the Hogs mountains where the giant flying snake resides, according to Xhosa legend. Still not convinced? Well, Tolkien's son apparently visited Hogsback several times, sending home stories and drawings of the captivating knolls, streams and boughs he encountered here...
Inconclusive evidence has not however stopped the local residents from running with this tenuous connection between John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and Hogsback, with names like Camelot, Hobbiton, Rivendell, River Running, The Shire, Lothlorien, Hobbit Lane and Middle Earth popping up all over, in the street and property names of this magical town. And who can blame the locals for letting their imaginations run a little wild, when the misty forests, hills and lanes of Hogsback seem to be imbued with the same atmosphere of Tolkien's fantasy lands (see this quircky post about the Tolkien 'scandal').
If you want a healthy dose of the great outdoors, the hidden gem of Hogsback has an abundance to offer. Hogsback is a fantastic place to get inspired by nature and soak up some really magnificent scenery in peace and quiet. There’s no hurry here, so you can take a sigh out, slow down and recharge your batteries. The scenic hills are the ideal place to fan a fireside romance, with many a couple coming here to tie the knot in the characterful little chapel on the hill.
For some refreshing and invigorating adventure, take a dip in one of the clear mountain streams and go hiking or mountain biking in the indigenous Afro-montane forests, pine plantations and lofty Amatola Mountains (also spelt Amathole).
Given the variety of things to do, Hogsback has a wide appeal, attracting families, lovebirds, nature lovers, backpackers and adventure-seeking travellers.
About the Village of Hogsback
The quaint town dates back to the late 19th century when British troops established a station up here. The village has marked seasons unlike most of the lower lying cities and towns in the province, contributing to the slightly European feel its flowery gardens, old stone buildings and tree-lined lanes create. The local community is a mix of small business owners, retirees, creatives (artists, poets, musicians and photographers), young families, workers, foresters, conservationists and professionals.
Hogsback is a one-street town, where the main tarred road turns into a dusty (or muddy) one halfway through town, becoming a dirt road like all the side-roads running off it. This is a mall-free zone without traffic lights, large-scale development and congestion, bar the odd cattle traffic jam. The village may only have one petrol pump outside its sole supermarket, but the array of little eateries (some of them real gems) and handful of cosy pubs, more than make up for what it lacks in shopping amenities.
Often shrouded in thick mists, part of its charm is the fantastical feel that settles over the village when it disappears into the dense fog or under a blanket of snow. Gazing at the snowy peaks and tangled forests one can see the other-worldly charm that has given rise to local myths claiming that Hogsback inspired JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
Hogsback is named after the most famous local landmark - the Three Hogs Mountains of the Amathole range. These three mountains that create the picturesque backdrop of the town, resemble three running hogs, hence their names. The slopes and rocky ridges of these flat-topped mountains (Hog One, Two and Three) are the focus of much attention and activity - hiking, mountain biking, quad biking, rock climbing and landscape photography.
Other than being an enchanting place fit for hobbits and fairies, Hogsback is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, making it a favourite with mountain bikers, climbers and hikers.
- Trevor Webster's The Story of Hogsback takes an interesting look at the history of Hogsback, featuring over 70 photographs.
Visitors usually follow the numerous walking trails to cascading waterfalls tucked away in the indigenous forests or hike to the towering Big Tree, a giant Yellow wood over 800 years old. Looking up at this impressive big tree in the middle of the lush forests makes the mission worthwhile.
The most popular waterfalls, include Kettle Spout, Madonna & Child, Swallow’s Tail and 39 Steps in the Arboretum. Although I have visited all of these waterfalls several times, it is hard to choose a favourite, as each one has its own beauty and appeal. You can walk to the bottom of the big Madonna & Child waterfall to stand in the spray below, you can swim in the natural pools above Swallow's Tail and Kettle Spout offers panoramic views from the sheer cliff tops. The easiest walk is the short one to 39 Steps Falls in the arboretum, located within walking distance of the village centre. The short but pleasant meander follows marked paths, with names like Frog Crossing then Waterfall Way, through the gardens to Tyhume Stream.
The Arboretum is a highlight in itself – the perfect place for a gentle stroll and quiet picnic amid the mix of indigenous and naturalised trees and shrubs. Well-maintained paths lead through the leafy gardens and over small bridges to the waterfall and shaded alcoves with benches. A visit is also quite informative as many of the trees and bushes are clearly labelled with their common and Latin names. Autumn is the best time to go, because this is when the bright yellow, orange and red leaves are out in full force.
The Bluff Walk is another easy and worthwhile stroll, running along the edge of the mountainside. This walk takes under an hour and offers stunning views over Tyume Valley, especially from the viewpoint. This fairly level and wide path is a safe place to take a jog or a stiff power walk out in the open, which made it a regular haunt with me. The Edge Mountain Retreat has a great restaurant right next to the bluff, making it ideal for a pre- or post-walk coffee or a meal. You can walk the the Labyrinth at The Edge for free to experience one of the largest Labyrinths in the world and browse the Dreamery Store gift for hand-crafted crafts, clothes, jewellery and art.
Ensconce yourself in vibrant creativity at the Starways Arts Centre tucked away in the forest. Marvel at the exquisite wood-fired reduction stoneware created by master potter, Anton van der Merwe, in his open-plan studio. You will also find a treasure of an art gallery and the wonderful Rose Theatre at Starways, where a spirited community thrives. Cofounded by Anton and talented opera singer and voice lecturer, Gwyneth Lloyd, Starways hosts musical and theatrical concerts that inspire audiences and empower local performers. Gwyneth is the driven diva behind The Rose Starways and the EastCape Opera Company, playing a pivotal role in developing opera within the Eastern Cape Province.
Visit the cute chapel, St Patricks on the Hill, built in 1935 by Kenneth Hobart Houghton. The chapel consists of two inter leading stone rondavels with thatched roofs and is a good place to reflect and enjoy the silence. In June 2010 the chapel was almost entirely destroyed by a fire, but within a year the community had restored it. Then there's the lovely Fairy Realm garden, which the kids love. Follow little winding paths through the big garden to spot captivating little figurines of fairies, dragons, goblins and unicorns.
More Activities in Hogsback
Visit the award-winning Ecology Shrine to see Diana Graham’s inspiring paintings which express the origins of earth and its life forms, and their interconnectedness. These cosmic oil paintings are featured in a striking sculpture installation, perched on the hilltop overlooking the Tyume valley and distant mountains. Accomplished artist, Diana has created something really special and meaningful here, which is why I recommend visiting and have delighted in going to the eco-shrine myself.
Take a guided bird watching walk in the old indigenous forests with knowledgeable birder and avid bird photographer, Graham Russell. Listen to bird calls and spot a wide array of bird species, including the striking Knysna Lourie with bright red plumes under its wings, the long-crested eagle, crowned eagle and even the endangered Cape Parrot, among many.
Go horseback riding at Lowestoffe Country Lodge or Amathole Horse Trails at Terra-Khaya eco-farm and backpackers. As a keen horse rider I have gone riding with Lowestoffe and Amathole, and loved my experience with both. Lowestoffe takes you horse riding in 5 500 hectares of open bush in the mountains just outside of Hogsback. The wild setting of open hills and bushveld was amazing, and we saw some of the small buck found out here, including black wildebeest, deer, steenbok or blesbuck. They also offer fly fishing in the well-stocked trout dams at Lowestoffe.
My horse ride with Amathole was unforgettable, I loved the natural style of riding in particular and the special bond our guide had with the horses. We rode bareback in the plantations and verdant forests above the village - an adventure not to be missed by any horsey or nature-loving person. Next time, I will try one of their overnight horse trails!
There are plenty of mountain biking trails in this neck of the woods, suitable for all levels of fitness - Hogsback is a mountain biking Mecca (see Getaway). Set off on guided mountain biking rides with Hogsback Adventures, whether you're a super fit pro or a real beginner.
Cycle on jeep tracks and winding trails through indigenous forests and old pine plantations, stopping at waterfalls, and heading out into the open hills and Robinson Dam for a picnic. This dynamic team of clued-up and registered guides can also take you on guided hikes in the forest, sharing their extensive knowledge about all things local - fauna, flora, cultures and history. If you want more extreme adventure, then Hogsback Adventures will get your adrenalin going on a 35 m abseil dropping down the face of Madonna and Child Waterfall.
Go mountain climbing, hiking up to the summit of Gaika's Kop, the tallest peak around (1700 m) for sweeping views over the Elandsberg mountains and Seymour valley. It's a proper hike, so a relative level of fitness is recommended for the climb. On a clear day they say you can see the coast some 120 km away. I didn't glimpse the ocean in the distance either time that I climbed to the summit, but the views from the top were still worth every step.
You can also climb Hog One, Two and Three via various routes, with Hog One being the most popular. I've climbed these unique mountains, but always with a group of hikers or a trusted guide.
The weather can change suddenly in Hogsback and being up in the mountains when conditions turn unexpectedly can be dangerous, so unless you are a very experienced, don't go mountain climbing without guides and expert advice. The easiest of the mountain climbing options is Tor Doone, which can be climbed from the Arboretum in a few hours and offers rewarding 360° views over the surrounding hills and mountains.
If all of this climbing and hiking sounds like too much work then rather spoil yourself to deep reflexology treatments or rejuvenating massages.
Christmas in July is a jovial event, celebrating a northern hemisphere style White Christmas in the middle of the year. The biggest annual event often coincides with the winter snows that frequently occur here and attracts families and young folk alike.
Very few places in South Africa receive any snowfall and it is uncommon in the Eastern Cape, except for up in some of its mountains, like Hogsback Mountain. When the snow falls, visitors (especially locals from cities in the region) flock to the village to play in the snow - build snowmen, throw snowballs, make snow angels, get stuck in the snowy roads etc.
The town is bursting with activity during Christmas in July, hosting musical performances and a bustling arts and crafts market. For something peculiar try an oxwagon ride, or go with wine tasting, feasting on delicious homemade foods and baked goods, and adventure activities. The 'thing to do' is wonder around with a christmas hat on, sampling the warming gluvine. Accommodation is often filled to the max, so book in advance if you want to join the fun of celebrating a white Christmas in Africa.
The Annual Spring Garden Festival will tickle you azalea pink if you like your English gardens, complete with multi-coloured blooms that draw gardening groups from across South Africa. A small fee is charged for access to a dozen or so well-established private gardens in Hogsback. The properties on Hogsback mountain host surprising combinations of the alien and indigenous, amongst them exotic plants hailing from far flung Australia, Europe, Himalayan Mountains, China, Japan and North America. The Hogsback Garden Club even has its own website, resplendent with colourful blossoms, blooms, bushes and more flora
The blossoming pretty flowers and manicured lawns are a delight, even for non-gardening enthusiasts, especially when coupled with a civilised tea under the big old trees at one of the hotels - the tranquil Arminel Hotel being my favourite for a colonial-style high tea.
The Amatola Trail Run (the Hobbit 100) ends in Hogsback, passing through forest and river on a stretch of the renowned Amatola Hiking Trail to get there. This challenging and scenic staged trail run is done over two days, ending with a social celebration in Hogsback on the second night.
The Gallery Square in the heart of 'town' serves probably the best coffee in Hogsback, made by the serious in-house barista. There is also an art gallery at this warm and quircky cafe, featuring the artworks and photographs of locals, along with some cute crafts and hidden treasures.
The colourful and vibrant Butterfly's Bistro is set in a peaceful spot with tables and chairs out under a giant old oak tree. This creatively decorated and friendly eatery offers vegetarian specials, has a laid-back vibe and is a lovely place to listen to the endangered Cape parrots and spot Samango monkeys in the surrounding trees.
Restaurant at The Edge serves a fine cuppa and yummy cakes, as well as delicious traditional dishes (mutton shank, half-duck etc). The restaurant has a classical ecclectic feel and the outdoor area is in pretty gardens beside the open Bluff area. They also make excellent burgers and wood-fired pizzas, along with catering for the vegetarians.
Nutwoods Restaurant, my favourite dining establishment in town! This is the place to go for special occassions or some fine dining in a plush and elegant setting. The menu is creative, the service superb and each course a delightful culinary experience.
Happy Hogs is the best place to immerse yourself in the local culture of Hogsback village, getting a feel for the social scene up on the mountain. You can relax in the cosy little pub, have some good laughs in the jovial atmosphere and tuck into hearty portions of tasty pub food in the comfy restaurant.
Number one for its uniqueness and environmental ethos is undoubtedly Terra-Khaya Backpackers, which is located on an eco-farm up in the hills. Terra-Khaya offers something different and special - an experience of environmental sustainability in practice. This alternative place is simple and earthy, yet comfortable and charming, with vegetable gardens and farm animals completing the eco-friendly adventure. Terra-Khaya is completely off the grid, relying on wood-fired heating and solar power, while much of the wholesome food is prepared using fresh veggies from the garden and their own dairy products.
For the best views in Hogsback up-market Daneswold Cottage and The Edge come out tops. Daneswold is a refurbished historical cottage offering panoramic views over the village, mountains and valleys below. The Edge really is perched safely on the edge of a clifftop, overlooking a gorge of indigenous vegetation and the open valley plains beyond. At The Edge Mountain Retreat there is a range of well-appointed accommodation available, from comfortable mid-range cottages and self-catering chalets to luxurious en-suite rooms on a bed and breakfast basis.
For an upmarket English country stay in thatched chalets or well-euipped en suite rooms, the Arminel Hotel is my top recommendation. The oldest hotel in Hogsback, established in the1880’s, the Hogsback Inn has a charming old-world feel and features a cosy English tavern-style pub. Like the Arminel the hotel is located on leafy grounds and the inn caters for conferences, weddings and functions.
Hogsback makes a great add-on to Garden Route holidays or safaris in the Eastern Cape's malaria-free game reserves, with Double Drift Game Reserve lying only 50km away. Hogsback also combines well with trips to the rugged Wild Coast and Sunshine Coast of South Africa and is very popular with foreign travellers. Some longer tours from Cape Town to Kruger via Lesotho, or similar itineraries, also stop in Hogsback en route.
I may not have glimpsed imaginary creatures in Hogsback, but I fell in love with this peaceful place anyway - content with following fireflies, listening to frog choruses and looking up at countless stars in this spellbinding wonderland.
If you want to find out where to stay, where to eat, what more you can do and other stuff about Hogsback visit this info-packed website.