It’s been weeks since my stay at Kings Walden — in Agatha, Limpopo, above the town of Tzaneen — and I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to write about it. Perhaps it’s because this magical place is difficult to describe in words.

Famous dead tree in front of Kings Walden
The infamous dead eucalyptus tree in front of Kings Walden, accompanied by a rising full moon.

Kings Walden is a hotel, in the simplest of terms. But “hotel” or “lodge” or “guesthouse” are not sufficient descriptors. Kings Walden is three generations of a family’s history — a family’s joyous, acutely painful, sacred legend, which embodies the story of South Africa in so many ways — perched precariously at the top of a steep, misty mountain in Limpopo.

Bridget Hilton-Barber, a writer friend of mine who grew up here and now runs the hotel, wrote a book about Kings Walden called Garden of My Ancestors. The book starts with the story of Ess Tooley, Bridget’s grandmother and the late grand-dame and garden architect of Kings Walden, snaking down the matriarchal family tree to Ess’ daughter Tana and eventually to Bridget herself, who returns to Kings Walden as an adult coping with multiple losses and traumas.

Heather Mason and Bridget Hilton-Barber in the garden.
Bridget and I in the garden at Kings Walden. (Photo: Lara Luis)

Bridget gave me a copy of Garden of My Ancestors during my stay (there are a few copies available on Amazon but the best way to get one is by visiting Kings Walden yourself) and I read it front-to-back in the ensuing weeks. I relate so strongly to Bridget’s story: I see a lot of my own family story, and a lot of my own losses and triumphs, in hers. I guess that’s why we made such easy friends.

Bridget tells the tale of Kings Walden much better than I ever could — I’d love to print the whole book here in place of a blog post. But since I can’t do that I’ll just show you my photos and hope they get the message across.

Kings Walden: A Photo Essay

Lodge at Kings Walden
The main house — home to Ess, Tana, Bridget, and many others in the Tooley/Hilton-Barber clan over the past 100 years or so. There was no electricity here when Bridget was a child. Today the house comprises Kings Walden’s reception area, kitchen, lounge, and dining room.
Family photos
Family photos.
Bridget in the garden with her beloved flock of geese.
Bridget in the garden with her beloved flock of geese.
Dead tree at Kings Walden
More than 30 years ago this tree was struck by lightning and died, on a winter night when lightning strikes are exceedingly rare. It happened to be the night when Ess Tooley died. Somehow the tree is still standing and has become a totem for Kings Walden.
Lounge at Kings Walden
The beautiful hotel lounge.
Room at hotel
My room. The photos I took don’t properly convey how nice Kings Walden’s guest rooms are — they are so cozy, luxurious, and understated, with just the right amount of personal touch. You can tell Kings Walden is run by a travel writer with lots of experience staying in hotels.
Chef Lizzie Phokungwana
Chef Lizzie Phokungwana.
Fillet dinner at Kings Walden
Dinner at Kings Walden. Lizzie’s food is spectacular and the restaurant is open to non-guests.
Breakfast at Kings Walden
Breakfast.
Pond at Kings Walden
Kings Walden’s massive garden is its best feature, filled with ponds and fountains and lion statues (Tana’s favorite) — each with its own story. The garden is dotted with hidden memorials to various Kings Walden family members and friends who have died, some tragically. Exploring the garden with Bridget is a special experience.
Sunrise
Sunrise.
Adorable honking geese at sunrise.
Sphinx statue at Kings Walden
The sphinx statue. Everyone who walks by has to rub her boob for good luck.
Garden photo
This garden is pure, unadulterated magic, even in winter when very little was in bloom.

Kings Walden is very special and I can’t recommend it enough as a place to escape the madness of the city for a weekend (or at the very least for a meal and a stroll around the garden). It certainly soothed my own weary soul. Kings Walden is a short drive from Tzaneen and Magoebaskloof, which offer so many fun things to do. Read more about my experiences in this area here and here.

A room at Kings Walden costs R1400 (about $100) per night for one person or R2510 (about $170) per night for two people sharing, including breakfast. Check availability here — the rooms tend to book up fast.

Don’t forget to buy the book.

My stay at Kings Walden was complimentary. (Thanks Bridget!) Opinions expressed are mine.

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