Five months ago, I was running through Walkerson’s Hotel and Spa in Dullstroom. I remember that it was a typically chilly Dullstroom morning, and my first instinct had been to burrow down into my puffy duvet – but I’m so glad I didn’t. My overriding memory of that run – one of the last before lockdown – is of the complete exhilaration and liberation that comes from being right in the heart of nature. I remember running past a waterfall, and almost bumping into a deer who had delicately picked her way on to the path. I remember the dappled shadows of leaves, and air so pure I could almost taste it. I remember the cool air rushing on my face, and feeling complete and content.
Needless to say, as the months of lockdown have dragged on, I have returned to this memory so many times. It’s become a reprieve, a bit of breathing space – a reminder that on the other side of scary headlines and masks, there is room to be carefree and careless.
Dullstroom is the perfect place for this. Because it’s less than three hours from Johannesburg, it had been a favourite family getaway spot a few years ago – until I decided that it had become overrun with décor shops and restaurants striving for cutesy country chic. This is a fate that affects many South African dorps, whose quirky character – which developed precisely because of their isolation – ironically becomes caricaturized. Not that you can blame the holidaymakers who fall in love with Dullstroom because of its ethereal beauty. If fairies are real, this is surely where you’ll find them frolicking. Dullstroom’s vistas have always had more than a hint of the Highlands to me, and it’s hard to even imagine the place without hearing the crackle of the fire and tasting red wine.
Lucky for me, I decided to look past the countrified main road and concentrate instead on just how amazingly stunning the scenery around this little town is. This is the kind of beautiful you try to breathe in, so you can remember the moment forever and ever.
Walkerson’s is just the right place to experience this ‘beautiful’ at its most flamboyant and showy-off. It’s like a microcosm of Dullstroom, but without the kitsch – you’ve got fly fishing, you have a homestead that looks as if a shortbread-bearing Laird should walk in at any minute (wearing a kilt of course), and you have a setting that could happily double as the backdrop for a movie. You also have an amazing choice of accommodation – Canyon Cottage, where I stayed, is wonderfully secluded, so all you need are some books and board games, and a bunch of biscuits for those cosy duvet days Dullstroom is famous for (conveniently provided in the fully equipped kitchen, although you’d do well visit The Terrace for a light lunch, or The Flying Scotsman for a toothsomely rib-sticking meal that perfectly combines fine dining with comfort food).
You probably won’t want to leave the cottage (unless it’s to have a gander at the waterfall from the amazing vantage point of the deck) – but cheesy décor shops aside, it really is worth exploring Dullstroom, especially if you like your food. Don’t miss out on a bite at Mrs Simpsons, specialists in country cuisine (think lamb shanks, bobotie, and creamy mussel pot, as well as the must-have trout delicacies) which gives a charming nod to the inimitable vintage style of the much maligned duchess. It’s also worth popping into Milly’s for the trout pies, which are as much a part of Dullstroom as stone-clad walls, and if you’re someone who thinks that bigger is better, you’ll definitely want to visit The Clock Shop and Wild About Whiskey – both the biggest shops of their sort.
I could spend hours trying to describe my last visit to Dullstroom and that final pre-Covid hurrah, before the world seemed a little scary and petri dish-like, but nothing will capture that feeling as the green world of Walkerson’s rushed by me on my run. I can’t wait to have that feeling again.