We arrived in the midst of a Free State squall. The drive from Durban had been unexpectedly long and to reach the cottage before the approaching rains or nightfall – whichever came first –we had played fast and loose with the road traffic regulations. We were paying for my typical laid-back approach to travel with risk, and I didn't enjoy it one bit. Flintstones Mountain Cabin is tucked away in the northeastern corner of the Free State, near to the town of Memel. It is a strange place in that Memel exists in a bit of a tourist vacuum. Despite being centrally located between two of South Africa's national roads, the N3 and the N11, accessing the town is, frankly, quite painful. The N11 through Ladysmith and Newcastle is one of the worst roads in the country. It drags motorists through the CBDs of the two populous towns, the undue stress of which takes years off one's life expectancy. By comparison, the N3 via Harrismith is a much more pleasant driving experience. But even on this route, the fun stops in the tiny hamlet of Verkykerskop where the tarmac meets a particularly rough gravel road. The result is that anyone wanting to visit Memel from the south, faces either 'bone-jarring' or 'road rage', and this has been enough to see the town's tourism languish.
Indeed, the town's access woes are quite unfortunate since Memel is at the heart of an area with astonishing natural beauty. Were it not for the travel issues, I'm confident that Memel could well compete with other Free State tourism meccas like Clarens. I happened upon the region some years back while indulging in a bit of random scenic rerouting and was so struck by the attractive countryside, that I placed it on my to-do list. This visit was by all accounts 'overdue', and it was the thought of bringing my memories to life through a handful of stellar landscape photos, that kept me mentally sound while I endured the journey and buried my foot in the floorboards.
The cabin itself is situated approximately 7km outside of Memel, perched on the flanks of a small koppie. The term cabin is a little misleading because it is a large structure, a house actually, with additional outbuildings capable of accommodating a total of 12 people. All the construction has been completed with stone and set amidst lovely green lawns. There are also massive boulders in the garden, as well a statue of a bushman and his dog, all of which contribute to my feeling that the property may have been the residence of an artist.
Inside, the cabin's floor area is divided, almost equally, between living space and an enormous veranda, the size of which I have not seen before. Raising the veranda's canvas blinds makes one feel like they are living outside; a feeling that I rather enjoy. However, the stoep stands in contrast to the rest of the house which is quite cramped and appointed with old worn furniture. When these two factors combine with the absence of electricity, the interior does start to feel a bit pokey. With that said, everything is spotlessly clean, the fridge works well, and the beds are comfortable. Honestly, people visiting Flintstone Mountain Cabin are not doing so in the pursuit of palatial living quarters, and those provided are enough not to detract from the hideaway's overall charm.
Now while we are dealing with practicalities, a small note on access. All the adverts for the Flintstone Mountain Cabin advocate that visitors use a high-clearance vehicle to reach the cottage. In fairness, this is a reasonable assertion as the final kilometre or so, from the farm's main gate to the lodgings, is along a strip track with a substantial middelmannetjie. Additionally, the 7 or 8 kilometres of gravel road used to reach the main gate is also rather rough. Nevertheless, provided that one is not driving a sports car and proceeds along the roads with caution, reaching Flintstones with a typical sedan is an achievable undertaking. We managed it.
Fortunately, once the stress of reaching the cabin has passed, the clean air and open spaces which comprise the soul of the area, washes away any lingering memory of the arduous journey. Flintstone Mountain Cabin exists to allow the urban masses a sample of the simple pleasures that constitute rural Free State life and at this task, it succeeds.
None the less, to fully immerse yourself in its spirit of the countryside it is necessary to arrive equipped for a little hiking. The views from the cottage itself are lovely, but the real beauty is to be found a small walk away in the shallow valley of the Klip River. The valley's almost complete lack of gradient has caused its resident watercourse to wander, scribbling a convoluted path on the valley floor, and resulting in the creation of numerous horseshoe tarns. Add to this an almost ceremonial line of willow trees that traces the outline of the aquifer, and one has the makings of a location bursting with photographic potential.
Were it not for my apparent lack of talent, I'm almost sure I would have come home with a Pulitzer Prize winning image, but as is often the case with areas of obvious beauty, I found it to be tough going. I encountered my biggest problem with the abundance of greenery. It is particularly challenging to create a compelling image of a bright green willow tree when it has a bright green pasture for a backdrop. As a result of this difficulty I am now of the opinion that photographers best save their energy for the autumn months, when there is likely to be a larger spectrum of colours on display.
A word of caution, however, this region of South Africa is known as the country's 'breadbasket', and the Klip River Valley takes the title seriously. Large-scale commercial agriculture is ever present in the fertile depression, and while I found all the residents to be friendly and accommodating, I suspect that they don't take too kindly to the wanderings of uninvited photography enthusiasts. It is best that visitors to the area seek permission before extending their tripods on the land of an unsuspecting farmer.
As an aside, the river is without question the region's focal point, but I suggest that the koppie behind the cottage could also be home to a few prized images. I didn't have the opportunity to explore the hill, and I didn't even see a clear path ascending its flanks, but it will be the first place that I investigate upon my return.
Neatly, it is the notion of 'returning' that finds itself at the core of my feelings towards the Flintstones Mountain Cabin. For all the difficulties getting there, and despite my lacklustre performance behind the lens, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and believed that had I given myself more than simply a weekend, that it would certainly have been a more productive venture. There is no shortage of photographic potential, and Flintstones is a superb place from which to soak it all in. I will be returning.