Val is the first stop in my #10SouthAfricanTowns campaign, for which I’m visiting ten small towns across South Africa in 2020.
After months of talking about it, my #10SouthAfricanTowns campaign has finally begun. I visited Val, a tiny hamlet in Mpumalanga province, on the third weekend in January.
Val, which has only 10 permanent residents, is not large enough to be considered an official town. But for the purposes of this project I’m defining my towns loosely.
I chose Val because: 1) It was recommended by a couple of my readers; 2) I was intrigued by the idea of such a tiny “town”; 3) The Val Hotel sounded like a fun, quirky place; and 4) It’s only a 90-minute drive from Joburg and I wanted to start somewhere close to home.
I spent three days in Val, which is a long visit in such a small place. I really learned a lot, about the town and also about myself. But somehow I still didn’t manage to see and do everything I wanted. I’m considering another visit to Val before the year is over.
Rita Britz, the Grand Dame of Val
I don’t think Val would still exist without Rita Britz — the town’s preservationist, historian, and fierce protector. A quarter-century ago Rita and her husband rescued the Val Hotel from destruction. And as the Val Hotel goes, so goes Val.
I interviewed Rita for over an hour and she gave me enough interesting information for an entire year’s worth of #10SouthAfricanTowns posts. I obviously can’t share it all now but here’s the short version:
Rita’s great-great-great (plus a couple more greats) grandfather was part of the Great Trek — the 19th-century migration of Boers (Afrikaners) from South Africa’s Cape Colony to the country’s interior. That great-great-great ancestor eventually settled on a farm in what would later become Val.
Val, founded in 1896, was a vibrant place in the early 20th century. There were many farms in the area and the town sits on the main railway line between Joburg and Durban. The hotel opened across the street from the train station.
There were skirmishes in Val during the Anglo-Boer War. Soldiers died there, memorials to them are scattered around the area. The famous Whisky Train Incident — in which a band of Boer soldiers blew up a train car filled with English booze and Christmas cake, and then soldiers from both sides feasted and got drunk together — happened just up the road.
Gandhi was once arrested and jailed in Val. That is a story for another post, or maybe a book.
Anyway, back to Rita. Over the course of more than 100 years and six generations, her family’s farm was subdivided repeatedly until Rita’s grandfather was left with a 95-hectare plot. Rita’s father eventually sold it.
“We had our best school holidays out here,” Rita said. “Our best childhood memories were on the farm.” She always missed it.
In 1994, when Rita and her husband Andre were living in the nearby town of Standerton, they heard the then-derelict Val Hotel was up for auction.
“And so we bought ourselves a hotel, for 18,000 rand.”
I asked Rita, a former teacher, if she had any hospitality experience before buying the hotel. “No!” she exclaimed, laughing.
“My family said, ‘You are mad…you are crazy. You’re eight kilometers from the main road. No one will come.'”
But Rita beat the odds. Twenty-five years later the hotel is cheerful and immaculately preserved, with a steady stream of wedding and event bookings. The adjoining restaurant and bar is a popular meeting place for local farmers, politicians, business people, and gangs of bikers making the breakfast run from Joburg on Sunday mornings. Rita rents the old train station, which closed in the 1970s, and turned it into a backpackers’ hostel.
I asked Rita how she succeeded and I loved her answer.
“I’m not a sophisticated person,” said Rita. “I don’t offer sophisticated food or nouvelle cuisine. We’ve kept it authentic…We can’t compete with Clarens [a popular tourist town in the Free State] or Dullstroom. We are true plattelanders, this is what we are. We don’t pretend to be anything we’re not.”
In case you’re wondering, platteland is an Afrikaans term for the countryside. A plattelander is a country person. I think I’ll be hearing these words a lot this year.
The People of Val
Officially, Val has ten residents. But on any given day there are several dozen people in Val — many of whom spend most of their time in the town despite not technically residing there. I met a lot of them.
1) The Police
The Val Hotel is on a dead-end street. At the end of that street is a police station employing about 30 officers. Most of the cases they handle are related to cattle theft.
I figured this might be my only chance to visit a South African police station as a tourist, so I moseyed over to say hello. Before I even made it inside the station I was engaged in a lively conversation with Officer Lucas Lukhele, who has been a South African policeman for 34 years.
“Were you walking in the road earlier?!” Lucas demanded incredulously.
Indeed, I had gone for a walk before breakfast and apparently caused a stir among the police driving past, who couldn’t imagine why a white woman with a camera would be walking alone down the road.
“I thought I should call the hotel to check on you,” Captain Khuselwa Matrose, boss lady of the Val Police Station, later told me. “But I figured Rita would let me know if there was a problem.”
2) The Hotel Staff
The hotel employs a delightful team of waiter-bartender-maid-cooks. The division of labor is casual; everyone seems to fill in where/when they’re needed. We were all the best of friends by the time I left.
I met a gang of bikers from Springs, another fascinating little town outside Joburg, on their Sunday breakfast run.
Debbie the Artist
Debbie Thixton is an artist from the nearby town of Greylingstad. Debbie sells hand-printed t-shirts and other fun little treasures at the Val Museum on weekends. I adored her and left town with two of her shirts.
Things I Loved in Val
1) The Trains
The train tracks are about 30 steps from the Val Hotel. I loved watching and listening to the passing trains, even at night while I was lying in bed. I loved standing on the pedestrian bridge above the tracks. I loved the tracks themselves, which provide endless interesting photo-ops.
I loved talking to the security personnel who were perpetually camped out beside the tracks, joking with each other and playing cards. I never did figure out exactly what their jobs were but they were a comforting presence.
2) The Geese
There’s a flock of geese living in Val. I loved them.
More specifically I loved the geese in combination with the trains. The geese often hung out right next to the tracks, as if they were waiting for a train themselves. Their soft honks combined with the train whistles in the most pleasing, melodic way.
3) The Church
There’s a tiny, thatch-roofed church in Val: The Church of St. Francis of Assisi. Raymond lent me the heavy set of church keys, a copy of which are kept behind the hotel bar, and after some fumbling with the ancient locks I was able to let myself in. It was magical.
There’s only one thing I didn’t love about my time in Val, and it’s a hard thing to explain. I felt an acute sense of loneliness there, different from the loneliness I’ve felt in other times and places.
This feeling had nothing to do with the people in Val, who I loved getting to know and who were all incredibly kind and welcoming. (Except for the bunch of wildly drunk farmers in the bar on Saturday night. I could have done without them but people like that are everywhere.)
The feeling had more to do with me, and how…different I felt in Val. As a single, foreign woman traveling in a place where single, foreign women perhaps don’t often travel, I felt compelled to constantly explain myself — who I was, what I was doing there, and why. The experience made me think a lot, and even question my identity a bit.
But thinking and questioning is good, even when it makes me slightly uncomfortable. I’m grateful for the process.
As mentioned previously, I’ve started a Patreon page to fund my #10SouthAfricanTowns project. If you’ve been considering signing up but haven’t done so yet, now is a good time — I’ll be putting out my second patron-only newsletter next week, as well as bonus blog post for everyone who donates $6 per month or more.
Thanks so much to everyone who has signed up, including the people listed below who signed up after my last shout-out. I’m incredibly grateful.
- Matthias Löcker
- Marion Fowler
- Robert Lankenau
- Julia Giddy
- Shahil Juggernath
Thanks to your contributions I was able to cover all of my travel expenses in Val. I’ve got a lot more expenses coming up though, and I definitely need a lot more support to cover them.
Also thanks to Rita for sponsoring my stay at the Val Hotel. I had a lovely time there and would highly recommend Val for a Joburg weekend getaway.
My next #10SouthAfricanTowns trip is coming up on 13 February. Keep an eye on my social media channels for live updates.