The view towards Wakkerstroom’s famous wetlands from town
“So when are YOU moving to Wakkerstroom?”
After being asked that question for about the fifth time during our one-week vacation, we were wondering whether it was the law to ask visitors this, or if the residents of this little village on the border of Mpumalanga and northern KwaZulu Natal genuinely wanted us to emigrate here.
“Emigrate” may seem too strong a term for a mere 300km move within the same country, especially considering we have both previously done the real thing of leaving the respective land of our birth and moving to South Africa. However, the differences in lifestyle between Johannesburg and Wakkerstroom are such that one might as well be in another country altogether. Not wanting to make Jo’burg sound ALL bad (I’ve lived here for forty years and it really isn’t), the quality of life combined with the friendliness of the people and virtual non-existence of crime in this village are worth gold. Why it hasn’t exploded in size and population is a mystery to me.
Make no mistake though – it can be harsh as well, with the winters being very cold and longer than in Jo’burg. Temperatures of -10C at night are not that unusual, although between -2C and -5C are probably more normal. So everyone’s homes are equipped with built-in fireplaces and the like … can’t you imagine that familiar wood smell already? The days in winter are just as mild as in Jozi though. Blue skies, 17C, no problems there. And summers are more pleasant than the boilers Jo’burg has seen of late, up to 27C or so rather than 33/ 35/ 37 as last summer.
Mind you, we didn’t come for the weather this October. Louise and I had kindly been offered the use of a friend’s holiday home for a week, and we were going to relax, take Ziggy for walks, go bird watching (the real “biggie” of Wakkerstroom), have a meal or two at some of the village’s eateries, and just enjoy some time together after spending a lot of time apart through work. And we did all that, with a lot more walking than expected – the village’s flat open roads really encouraged that – Ziggy thought it was Christmas with two or three walks a day! The birding wasn’t quite as good as usual at this time of year due to the drought, as no rain had fallen yet and the famous wetland had very little water so few of the birds had begun breeding. We enjoyed what we saw though, with African Fish Eagles, Marsh Harrier, Cape Shoveler, as well as flocks of Widowbirds putting on a show. There was also a family of domesticated geese which roamed the streets with their four tiny goslings, with nobody bothering them. Ziggy had her usual vocal arguments with the Hadeda Ibises, and would have loved to catch a guinea fowl or two.
Where geese take their kids walking in the streets
Actually our Ziggy had a highly stimulating time of it. She was very good on her walks off-lead, hardly straying more than a few metres from us. There were so many new sights for her to look at – donkeys, goats, sheep, cattle, and tractors (definitely bark at those – they’re huge and noisy!); then there were horses, people on top of horses, horses without people trotting behind horses WITH people on top ….. And lots of dogs. In the road, on the smallholdings, barking at the gates, sometimes being a bit over-friendly (probably saying “So…. when are YOU moving to Wakkerstroom?”)
Ziggy meeting new creatures
Also, during most of the time we were there the wind was blowing, and Ziggy had either one or both ears at strange angles. All good fun for her Mums, but causing indignant looks from the lady herself who always tries to look super-cool.
Coming from the big city, it takes a bit of getting used to that everybody greets one another here. A friendly wave from every passing vehicle, a genuine smile and “hello, how are you today” from every person you meet on your wanderings epitomise the real community spirit that exists here. While the races are sadly still mostly separated by geography (the local township nearby far outsizes the rest of the village), there is not the feeling of separate-ness of people, economics or you-will-never-have-what-I-have that Johannesburg sports. It is a tiny community at best.
Which means that everybody knows everybody else’s business. Something else to get used to for anyone moving here from a larger city! Did you know that so-and-so’s son is seeing the florist’s daughter who was engaged to the butcher’s nephew in Amersfoort? The scandal! But there will be nice flowers in the NG Kerk if they get married ey, titter titter!
N.G. Church in the centre of the village
Despite the nosy neighbours this is also the type of community that pulls together in an emergency. You have to out here. The nearest larger town is Volksrust, 27km away. And while there are the most urgent emergency facilities around here, there is for example only one fire truck – and they are only allowed to help with veldfires, not house fires. So if your place is on fire you rely on your neighbours and the community at large, and all differences and gossip are put aside immediately as everyone mucks together to assist. It could be your house tomorrow.
The current drought has no doubt drawn them closer together too; if livestock suffers it’s everybody’s problem. They’re not used to worrying about water in this neck of the woods, as they are usually blessed with it. Now everyone is looking heavenward to watch for the rainclouds. No water restrictions have been implemented, but since many properties have a JoJo tank or similar it shows they are aware of how precious this resource is.
By the way, don’t try to go into any of the shops or restaurants when you’re a hurry – everybody loves to chat. Time is just not a factor here, and you will end up talking about a host of topics from (inevitably) the weather, to the surprisingly busy schedule of weekly happenings in town, the sights to see including where to find the birdlife, the frustrations of changing people’s thought patterns to living more “eco”, the history of a village that dates back to before the First South African War, recycling projects and the new sewage works upgrade, the challenges of building (and gardening) on clay ground, the lifestyle at the retirement village and frail care centre, living off-grid, and how to cope without the convenience of shopping centres.
Old steam engine and a useful oak tree for shade
One area of town that particularly caught our interest was the cemetery. Old ones like the one in Wakkerstroom are really interesting, and if places could talk this one would have some interesting tales to tell. It’s still used to this day, but there are numerous graves dating back to the latter parts of the 19th Century. As this area is part of the Battlefields Region, there is also a section dedicated to both the First and Second South African wars (Anglo Boer Wars), and even a memorial – whether just a marker or his actual gravesite is unclear – of a Victoria Cross recipient from the former conflict. Soldiers from several of the Empire’s countries are buried and remembered by their fellow troops here, and it is moving to read some of the inscriptions.
Interestingly there is a separate memorial to the Boer soldiers at the N.G. Church, as well as to the women and children who died at the British concentration camps at the time. Some memories would not do well side by side.
Remembering the war dead: British graves, and memorial plaque to Victoria Cross recipient Pvt James Osborne
British soldiers who were re-interred from their resting places at Piet Retief. – A Canadian soldier remembered.
The Boer memorial at the NG Kerk. “In memory of the suffering by Woman and Child during the Second Freedom War, 1899 – 1902”
If you want to know all about the history and everything else in and around Wakkerstroom, you need only pop into the tourism office. I think the gentleman working there could happily keep talking all day – alas, Ziggy dragged us away after an hour or so. We didn’t get time to go to the museum but will save that for the next visit, as well as the views from the surrounding hills, and the recommended drives to nearby battle sites (we were a bit handicapped by not having a high clearance vehicle). You wouldn’t think that there was so much to see and do in this little place, but between our walks, bird watching, visits to the few little shops and chatting to their owners and all the other folks in town, the week flew by. We’ll definitely be back someday soon. To enjoy the peace and quiet, the crime-free feeling, the welcoming people, the birdlife, the climate and fresh air, the history, the views, and the creativity.
So, when are YOU visiting Wakkerstroom?