Val train tracks at sunset

#10SouthAfricanTowns, Part 1: Val

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 train tracks at sunset
Sunset overlooking the tracks. The building on the right, formerly the Val train station, is now part of the Val Hotel.

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.

People walking down the road
Friday morning in Val.
Goat in front of the general store
A goat in front of Val’s hardware/convenience/general store.

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.

Rita Britz in her museum
Rita in the Val museum, attached to the hotel, which she curates herself. She’s showing me a photo of Paul Kruger‘s daughter, from whom Rita is descended.

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.”

The Val Hotel
The Val Hotel as it looks today.

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.

A guest room in the Val Hotel
One of the Val Hotel’s guest rooms. Rita has a great eye for design.
Self-catering cottage converted from the old post office.
The old Val post office, which Rita also converted into accommodation. The woman in the photo is Sarah Sebiloane, Rita’s longest-serving staff member at the hotel.

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.”

Shoes thrown over the power line
Long ago, Val guests started throwing pairs of shoes over this power line to honor special events like birthdays and weddings. I’m worried the power line might someday collapse under the weight of all the shoes.
Bobotie for dinner
Dinner at the restaurant: A traditional South African casserole dish called bobotie.

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.”

Officer Lucas Lukhele
Officer Lukhele.
Captain Khuselwa Matrose
Captain Matrose, who despite being off-duty was perfectly dressed to match the station house.

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.

Male employees at the Val Hotel
The men (left to right) — Raymond, Lindo, and Charles — outside the bar’s swinging saloon doors. I conducted a long interview with Raymond, who has a fascinating life story, and will be sharing it in a separate post for my Patreon members.
Tsitsi and Sarah outside the hotel bar
Tsitsi (left) and Sarah (right), the ladies of the Val Hotel. They showed me how to make roosterkoek, my favorite South African bread, and I’ll also have more to say about that on Patreon.
Lucy modeling on the road
Lucy Mphuti, the youngest employee at the hotel, who is also an aspiring model. I had fun shooting photos of her in a bunch of different outfits, with a lot of encouragement from Sarah and Tsitsi.

The Bikers

I met a gang of bikers from Springs, another fascinating little town outside Joburg, on their Sunday breakfast run.

Left to right: Zain, Gerda, Werner, and Johan. Their gang is called the Dead Men Riding.
Dead Men Riding
Werner and Gerda are the President and First Lady of Dead Men Riding.

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.

Debbie and her t-shirts
I also love Debbie’s dress.

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.

Train passing beneath a railway bridge
A train passes beneath Val’s pedestrian bridge. I spent hours up there trying to get the perfect train photo and never succeeded.

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.

Security people next to the train tracks
The man’s name is Siphiwe. The woman didn’t want to tell me her name but asked to be photographed nonetheless.
Coin flattened by a train
Thanks to my friends Andre and Gail, who suggested I put a coin down on the track and wait for a train to run over it. I put a 20-cent piece down on Saturday evening and found this on Sunday.

2) The Geese

There’s a flock of geese living in Val. I loved them.

Flock of geese in front of the train station
My beloved geese in front of the train station after a rain storm.

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.

Inside the Church of St. Francis of Assisi
Inside the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. Rita got married here in 1982.

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.

Sunset in Val
A beautiful sunset in Val.

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.

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23 Comments

  • Reply David Bristow January 29, 2020 at 12:56 pm

    Val, who knew, and Ive been doing this thing (travel writing) for more than 30 years – although admittedly mostly to further flung places). Loved it.

    • Reply 2summers January 29, 2020 at 1:05 pm

      Sometimes the biggest travel secrets are right in your backyard 🙂 Thanks so much, David.

  • Reply dizzylexa January 29, 2020 at 1:16 pm

    I just love our Afrikaanse dialect, as there are some words translated into English that just loose something special. The bar name “Moeggeploegkroeg” is one of those, the English would be “Tired of Ploughing Bar” very apt for your comment of the farmers on the Saturday night.

    Thirty officers to ten residents, that should make Val very, very safe.

    Great blog makes me want to go there.

    • Reply 2summers January 29, 2020 at 1:23 pm

      Hahaha, yeah I asked a couple of times what the bar name meant and didn’t really get it so decided not to try to translate. And yes, I felt extremely safe there! There are no fences or burglar bars in sight.

  • Reply Margaret Urban January 29, 2020 at 4:27 pm

    Great post; quirky small places make and keep the world interesting. I can see the hotel bookings going up 🙂

  • Reply AutumnAshbough January 29, 2020 at 6:10 pm

    I’m going to have to join your Patreon if I want the bread recipe, aren’t I?

    • Reply 2summers January 29, 2020 at 6:20 pm

      I’m afraid so. Bwahahaha!

      • Reply AutumnAshbough January 29, 2020 at 8:19 pm

        How do you like your Patreon so far? I am always tempted to try and then I’m all…what if no one contributes??!

        • Reply 2summers January 29, 2020 at 8:31 pm

          Yes. That is/was a very legitimate concern. But I decided asking my readers for money was more comfortable for me than figuring out how to put ads on my site that don’t look horrible. And I’ve raised $170/per month so far…It won’t exactly pay all my bills but it’s a lot more than $0!

          • AutumnAshbough January 30, 2020 at 3:22 am

            That’s great! You post a lot of content, too!

    • Reply Tumtum January 30, 2020 at 11:30 am

      Ditto!

      • Reply 2summers January 30, 2020 at 11:35 am

        Now I’m really glad I photographed the recipe book. Something told me it would be useful later on 🙂

  • Reply Albert January 29, 2020 at 8:15 pm

    Great article! The only sacrilege is called bobotie, a “casserole” – which conjures up visions of a dish made with hamburger helper and brown onion soup powder. Lol

    • Reply 2summers January 30, 2020 at 7:56 am

      Hahahaha. But it is cooked in a casserole dish, right? I’m actually going to google this right now!

  • Reply Dominic Randazzo January 29, 2020 at 9:41 pm

    I loved everything about this post, Heather! C and I are definitely headed to Val one of these weekends.

    • Reply 2summers January 29, 2020 at 9:50 pm

      Ah, you guys will love it!

  • Reply Caitlin Jean Geel January 30, 2020 at 6:42 am

    I have been to Val before for a wedding at that little church many many years ago 🙂

    • Reply 2summers January 30, 2020 at 6:57 am

      Ah, cool! I’m sure it’s a great place for a wedding.

  • Reply Catrina January 30, 2020 at 9:36 am

    What an awesome place! Your photos are beautiful and they capture the atmosphere perfectly. I understand that strange feeling of loneliness you got and the way it made you question yourself. I think that would happen to me, too. Looking forward to your next post!

    • Reply 2summers January 30, 2020 at 9:41 am

      Thanks! Yeah, I think I’ll be experiencing those feelings a lot this year.

  • Reply Peggy Laws January 31, 2020 at 9:02 am

    Graham had a wonderful day in Val some years ago with the Military History Society, where there was a market, food stalls, re-enactment battles etc. I must find out if they still have this annual event. Nice write up Heather!

    • Reply 2summers January 31, 2020 at 9:17 am

      Yes, they do! It’s called the Boer and Brit Day and it happens in late March.

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