Three Tree Hill Lodge
One learns all the time, especially when travelling. I learned something I won’t forget at Three Tree Hill Lodge, a 24-bed luxury resort which overlooks the secluded Mfazimnyama (the dark beast in isiZulu) Valley of the Spioenkop Game Reserve, in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
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Seated in the recently completed Molly Blackburn Library, with the late human rights activist’s portrait on the wall, it seemed that the apple did not fall far from the tree in the case of her son Simon, who owns the lodge with his wife, Cheryl Blackburn, both experienced safari guides.
Simon, who recounts the terrible battle that took place on the Spioenkop (roughly translates as “spy or lookout hill”) massif across the valley, changed my perspective on history when I asked if, with the passing of time, interest in the South African colonial battlefields had waned.
“No” was Simon’s short answer, as he gathered his resonating thoughts. Simon hated history at school, and his and Cheryl’s lack of interest in history stalled their purchase of Three Tree Hill Lodge.
A Rich History
Fatherhood, and a sense of mortality, changed that. Legacy, his own and his forebears, became an interest and, listening to expert David Rattray’s recounting of the battles between British and Zulu forces at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, he fell in love with the narrative and the humanity of history.
Simon’s tour of the battlefield was an emotional experience for me and elicited simultaneous applause and tears, such were the stories of the most devastating clash for both Boers and Brits in the Second Anglo-Boer War.
Both sides incurred their highest casualties in a single day on Jan. 23, 1900. Whether it be a tour with Simon or resident historian Ron Gold, I do recommend it.
Although the wood and iron buildings are thoughtfully constructed in the style of the period, Three Tree Hill Lodge is about far more than history. It’s about relaxation, nature, family, escape.
Painted matte green, the buildings melt into the surrounding acacias and aloes, giving a sense of glorious isolation. New to me since I last visited are the family cottages with self-catering facilities. No microwave, no TV – in line with the emphasis on sustainable and responsible tourism.
Fair Trade Status
Three Tree Hill was the first KwaZulu-Natal holiday destination awarded Fair Trade status. Fair Trade practice was established to serve the interests and rights of farmers, workers and producers in South Africa, as well as to promote sustainability across the board.
Cheryl and Simon carry these practices through to every aspect, from the solar stove to the handmade toiletries in the bathrooms and other cleaning products; from staff employment (no layoffs during the Covid-19 pandemic) to involvement in community projects.
The family cottages cater to kids. Everything imaginable is available, from toys and children’s books in the rooms, to kiddies’ backpacks for hikes, to kids’ toiletries. I loved seeing children just being children, their bikes left mounted on the family cars as they used the playground, careened about the property or made fiery patterns in the air around the outside fire after dark with burnt sticks.
The property is great for mountain bikers of all levels and horse riders, too. You can take nature walks on your own or go with the experienced Blackburns on walks through the game reserve.
Nature Walks and Stunning Views
The views over the valley from the cottages are lovely, but more beautiful aspects present themselves on a guided walk, as do game, including white rhino. While the cottages face the valley and the morning sun, the afternoon vistas from the other side of the property, over Spioenkop Dam and surrounding hills toward the Drakensberg mountains, are equally compelling.
Animals on the property make the lodge so much more homey and welcoming. If you like dogs, they’ll accompany you on a walk or a ride. If you like cats, Gin and Tonic are happy to visit and Tonic has been known to enjoy a game walk or two.
There is a swimming pool and sun deck away from the main buildings, and Burchells Cottage, a superb space for a family of six, where we were ensconced, has its own lovely pool area with loungers. While there, choose to take a mid-morning bath and take your binoculars with you.
A Variety of Birds
The massive clear window looks out onto a pristine rocky hillside alive with exciting birds. Looking towards the valley, the skyline is broken by fantastic aloes, marlothii and excelsa, stretching to 13 feet high.
In winter, unless prewarned, birding becomes quite bewildering as “subspecies” emerge. Orange-headed mousebirds, weavers, starlings and sunbirds are quite a sight, after having plunged their heads into the deep, powdery orange pollen of the flowering aloes.
The bird-buzzing aloes lure in the odd raptor; sparrowhawks, goshawks and the like break the quiet, darting through on an opportunistic hunt.
Each chalet or cottage has polished cement floors, sash windows, ceiling fans and verandah, completing the historical feeling. The attention to detail and design is impeccable. The theme continues in the main building with its huge lounge and dining room and deep, wrap-around verandah.
The furnishing is an eclectic collection of solid, comfortable and tasteful pieces. Below the well-stocked library is a lovely, possibly better-stocked wine cellar.
Many of the pictures on the walls are taken from newspapers of the period, with advertisements extolling the benefits of eating Bovril – “the food of men on the front” – Keane’s mustard and adding Scrubbs cloudy ammonia to your bath. It’s quirky and fun. Even the placemats on the dinner table recall political cartoons of the time.
If you’re not self-catering, meals are taken around the long, scrubbed wood tables in the main building, encouraging conversation among guests.
Three Tree Hill is centrally situated for a host of activities the non-history buff would hope for: hot air ballooning; hiking; helicopter flips; a zipline canopy tour; excellent raptor center, and performances by the world-class Drakensberg Boys’ Choir School.
Golden Gate National Park and More
Quaint, artsy Clarens – also known for its breweries – and the aptly-named Golden Gate National Park are just a 1 ½-hour drive away, and Champagne, Cathedral Peak and Royal Natal mountain reserves are each 45 minutes away.
It’s all there to do and enjoy, but with the bonus of peace and tranquility as constant companions, broken only by bird and jackal calls and the laughter of children.
Author Bio: For the better part of a decade, Adrian Rorvik has traveled hard and fast, continuously-chasing deadlines for weekly travel features linked to prizes that he arranges as Travel and Leisure Coordinator for Independent Newspapers, South Africa. He now manages Travelogue.tv and Travelogue.africa and still gets about. Not being quite a tourist, or on holiday, affords a different perspective, as does “speed dating” with owners and staff. Like in movies, associations and relationships are accelerated and, in most cases, he gets a peek behind the scenes of the many wonder-filled places he has been.