“There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the titihoya, one of the birds of the veld. Below you, the valley of the Umzimkulu, on its journey from the Drakensberg to the sea; and beyond and behind the river, great hill after great hill; and beyond and behind them, the mountains of Ingeli and East Griqualand.” - Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton.
This is my tale of one of the most stirring adventures I have ever had; a total soul cleansing experience after the ravages of Covid and its long-drawn-out effects.
Along with a few friends on motorcycles, and some in vehicles, (no, we did not walk this Camino), we decided to cover more ground in a shorter time by travelling the KwaZulu underbelly of remote valleys and rugged hills in search of the Trappist mission stations built some 120 odd years ago. We tackled the first “walking” long-distance pilgrimage trail in South Africa through the beautiful southern regions of KwaZulu Natal, between the Southern Drakensberg, the Midlands Mist belt, and the Eastern Cape.
Strung out across the hills and valleys between the Drakensberg and the sea, like knots on a string of Rosary beads, are twenty-two historic Trappist missions established over a century ago by extraordinary Trappist monks, led by Abbot Francis Pfanner. These Mission churches are hidden treasures and I wanted to share them with the world. Very few, if any South Africans, are even aware of these marvels.
We ventured deep into the KwaZulu Natal hinterland, in search of Abbot Pfanner’s conquests of the virgin lands and the monasteries he set up so many years ago. Following in the footsteps of his Trappist monks and the Sisters of the Precious Blood, all of whom served in these Trappist monasteries, we experienced the history of the Trappists and their missions; fascinating folklore and legends, the landscape, the fauna and flora of this amazing trail, as described by Alan Paton.
Some of these monasteries are truly magnificent while some are in the final throes of breaking up. We also visited a working mill over 100 years old, with all the water driven (now diesel) sheave wheels with their canvas belts running from level to level, crushing the wheat from whole kernels to fine flour, before finally emptying the flour into bags. Gardens that once bore magnificent vegetables and trees which had provided fruits of the farm, are now a thing of the past. Store facilities, workshops, printing and carpentry rooms and many other aspects of life, are all but operational, and still exist but are no longer in use except for the larger monasteries.
All of this, attributable to an amazing man of the time Abbot Pfanner.
During this stunning 4-day, 3-night adventure drive, we visited 10 of these 22 amazing monasteries/churches “in the middle of nowhere”. With the monasteries as the central focus of the tour, we got to drive some of the very best off the beaten track roads the Southern Berg could offer. Some of the landscapes are ancient and sacred, and while we tried to spot the shy Purple-crested Loerie (Gwalagwala) with its brilliant colours, we only saw one in a tree above us. (In Swaziland, only members of the Royal family can wear the colour purple of the Loerie, so beautiful it is.) This area is also home to the very rare Blue Swallow, Cape Parrot, and the Black Winged Plover. All of this, as we covered the back roads of the rural areas of the Lotheni, Impendle, Pholela, uMzimkhulu, and Ixopo valleys.
Anecdotes aplenty from our National Tourist guide, who put this Camino together after researching these monasteries for years. Wonderful accommodation and food at the three overnight stops, along with amazing stories of what happened those many years ago at each of the monasteries.
Along with the warmth and camaraderie of old and new friends, our safety and the joy of such a hassle-free and delightful experience, it can safely be said that this is a real must-do trip.
Lastly, It’s the unexpected sights, sounds, emotions, and feelings on a trip like this that capture one’s reason for the wanderlust. It’s the bucket list items you didn’t know you had and were able to tick off. Riding the wide open, flowing gravel highways of the Umzimkhulu valley and sleeping in a tastefully restored monastery overlooking a century-old, terraced garden …
All this and then to discover in yourself a wondrous spiritual connection in some of the country’s most incredible places of worship.
ORA ET LABORA - This phrase, pray and work, refers to the Catholic monastic practice of working and praying, generally associated with its use in the Rule of Saint Benedict. Benedict viewed prayer and work as partners and believed in combining contemplation with action.
Some of the monasteries we visited were:
Maria Ratschitz Marianhill
Mariathal St. Isidore
Marian Hilfe Emaus
Our DAY-BY-DAY itinerary.
Day 1 - We met outside Heidelberg, before heading out to Memel, a small Free State town and meeting up with other adventurers for lunch. From there we headed off to conquer the wonderful lower Drakensberg pass, before stopping for a brief visit to see a beautiful waterfall, and then off to our first monastery, arriving as the staff were practising the Jerusalema dance. Their rhythm was amazing to see, almost getting us to follow suit, what a way to experience the emotion of our first monastery. The stunning backdrop of the mountain behind the church with its noble steeple, looking over what would have been the orchards and vegetable gardens to the foothills of the Drakensberg, was truly awe-inspiring. Our first night’s accommodation outside Dundee awaited us, in preparation for this “soul food” adventure.
Day 2 - An early start, brunch at an old railway station, before heading to the grandest of the monasteries and being guided through the many aspects of monastic life and everything that keeps the wheels turning, one that Mark Twain, Ghandi and Mother Theresa have visited, before heading out to more amazing churches to end our day off spending the night in one of these missions that were originally built by the Trappist Monks in 1891. Our one, having been restored and converted into an enchanting guesthouse, in the gardens of the monastery and church. A tasting of Trappist beers awaited us, followed by a delectable 3 course dinner in the most peaceful of surroundings – more “soul food”.
Day 3 - We headed off today to conquer the Umzimkhulu Valley and its many hidden monasteries in the spectacular Umzimkulu river valley, a delicious lunch stop in quaint Creighton, before ending our monastery tour at Reichenau, with its amazing water driven mill adjacent to the church. An incredible stone church with the most amazing woodwork features gave us a view into the amazing craftsmanship of those years gone by. We ended our day, staying over in the Nottingham Road area to share a toast to the amazing Trappist monks who built these monasteries.
Day 4 - After a handsome breakfast at our incredible guesthouse, we said our goodbyes to the new friends we had made and having had the experience of a lifetime. It was also the time when we had to say farewell to old and new adventurers and head for home with our hearts and souls well and truly rejuvenated.
There’s only one trip in Southern Africa that provides all of this and more - A HISTORIC SOUTH AFRICAN TRAPPIST ADVENTURE!
The Trappist Camino Trail is presented by Big Dog’s Adventure Tours & Safaris and led by National Tourist Guide John Parkin and is one of very few tour operators with permission to access these humbling and sacred destinations.
Be one of the first to do this Camino Trail by motorcycle, vehicle, or our Camino Bus.