Apparently, at the time Voortrekkers lived in this valley more than a century ago, there were three trees atop the koppie. Now there are thousands of thorn trees covering the grassy slopes.
There were probably plenty of aloes in the grassland back then – there certainly are thousands of aloes surrounding Three Tree Hill Lodge between Ladysmith and Bergville, now. They look like cross between Aloe marlothii and Aloe ferox. I am told they are Aloe spectabilis.
Three Tree Hill Lodge is themed around the Anglo-Boer War, when one of the battles fought right here at Spioenkop. Between the bath taps in my cottage is a bottle of Scrubbs Ammonia – commonly used as a skin softener in that era. I try some, obviously. The rest of re-usable bottles that surround the bath contain fragrant and bubbly things all made by African Organics in Richmond – not all that far away. I’m impressed.
The bath has a wonderful view, as does the rest of the cottage, of Spioenkop, the Mfazimnyama valley, aloes and thorn trees. There are barbets in the branches, spider webs in the grass and blister beetles on the bushes. It is just gorgeous and very quiet.
Over a cup of tea – Ntingwe, grown in Zululand – my favourite, I read through the info booklet. Local, renewable, ethical and sustainable are important at Three Trees. As dusk falls, the solar jar on the veranda glows – just enough light to savour the early evening birdsong and call of jackals echoing across the valley. I feel like I am at home!
Meals are served at a communal table, with good conversation and as much locally sourced food as possible. Milk and eggs come from the neighbour, bread is baked daily from locally grown, stone-ground flour, cheeses are classic Midlands’ varieties. I loved the in-season peas in their pods we had for lunch one day and the beetroot and goats cheese salad the next. Dinners and breakfasts were just as simple, colourful and delicious.
Many of the greens and herbs are grown right outside. They actually do mean as local as possible. A tiny black calf is being hand reared beside the garden so that one day they will be able to make their own mozzarella too.
The vegetable garden used to be enclosed in a circle of stones, but Eland and Kudu love fresh greens too, so the new garden is well fenced while the old one contains peppers, chillies and herbs that the wildlife are not partial too.
The ‘gardens’ surrounding the lodge have a lovely natural feel, blending with the landscape. No endless shrill of gas guzzling brushcutters keeping unnecessary lawns trim, here. The wild animals wander close at night. I carry the little torch provided in my room to make sure I don’t tread on anything along the path back from supper. There are no unnecessary lights polluting the darkness here either. Wonderful.
I walk in different directions – first into the valley across streams with only a few murky puddles. Crikey, it’s the end of summer, if there is no water now, how are they going to survive winter? The dark green cabins are snug in the summer growth on the crest of the hill.
Clearly, cattle have free roaming rights here, the veld is not in great condition but I still find some flowers to photograph. This seriously spiky Berkheya really stood out.
A walk in the opposite direction over the hill offers views of the Spioenkop dam (definitely not here during the Boer War!). This dam was part of a grand water transfer scheme that never really worked – the engineers ‘got the levels wrong’ or something I heard over pre-dinner drinks (beside the fire, with homemade beetroot crisps to snack on). Fuel for my anti-dam sentiment. It is a bit bizarre too that all water to the villages around here is piped from Bergville 30kms away. More fuel for my activism – as I have come across many dam-side communities in KZN without access to water. I wonder if dam builders ever actually think beyond the thrill of design and engineering?
Besides aloes and thorn trees there are plenty of rocks here too. Vegetation is clustered in and around outcrops, presumably to escape fire. I find a few abandoned cattle kraals built from rocks hidden in the long grass.
Rhus dentata is a Berg classic (and one of my favourites) as is grey leaved Cussonia spicata. Tough ground covers like the Veld Violet (Ruellia cordata) grow beside Strigia elegans, Scabiosa columella and Felicia muricata.
The veld is echoed inside – particularly the splendid aloes – embroidered on the linen (locally made, of course) and in the artworks that hang on the walls. Everything is unpretentious but seriously stylish at the same time. A lot of love and attention to detail makes this lodge really special.
I am pleased to discover on my wanderings that Three Trees has installed water tanks and plan a whole lot more – they certainly have more sense than dam builders. They use Wonderbags for much of their food preparation and a parabolic solar cooker sits amongst the aloes waiting for the sun. I think I can believe the ‘sustainability speak’ in the booklet. I really like the fact that they are using low-tech solutions – ones that we all use (or should) – not the super-expensive ‘show off’ kind.
Many establishments claim ‘greeness’ in their advertising blurb. Often it only means they have changed the light bulbs, used dead branches as décor, and are situated in a unspoilt (until construction began) natural place. A good test is to wander around the back of the buildings to see what lurks there. I was not disappointed at Tree Trees – an array of recycling bins outside the kitchen door, chopped wood stacked in rusty aga stoves, a compost heap, eco-friendly products in the laundry (and instructions to wash windows with a vinegar solution) and my favourite of all – washing drying in the breeze. I bet there are plenty of hotels calling themselves eco that have tumble driers tucked out of sight.
Three Trees are committed to building resilience in the communities around the lodge too. All their staff members have grown up nearby, they support community permaculture gardens, install water tanks, assist local schools and crèches. In this way they ensure a better future for everyone whether the lodge is there or not.
While Three Trees may have painted the cabins dark green, this is co-incidental to their environmental ethos which is really deep green. Their gift shop sells the local products they use – tea, soap, Solar jars, Wonderbags, handmade recycled paper beads – cleverly ensuring that guests take a little bit of the Three Trees commitment to treading lightly on the planet, home with them. Plans are afoot to have their own brand of soap made using the sap of the Aloes that grow right there.
In a world filled with greenwash, Three Trees is utterly refreshing.