Come to VAL and have a whole village to yourself!
I cycled on Smith Street into the tiny town of Val and passed under the cluster of shoes marking the centre of the town. I found a spot for my bicycle on the porch of the Moeggeploeg Bar, and went to find an ice-cold beer to reward myself. I hadn't finished rolling my first cigarette when Rita Britz, owner of the Val Hotel, walked out and overwhelmed me with warm hospitality. I was fed, given a place to sleep and entertained without end with stories of the small little village and its people.
"It's just like Spectre from the movie Big Fish!" I said to Rita later that afternoon as we were sharing laughs and drinks, pointing to the shoes dangling over the street. "How did that come about?" She answered first with her infectious laugh, and then started explaining.
"Actually my husband André and I were simply bored one night and started attempting to fling our shoes over the telephone wires, and then it kind of became a tradition: when we have a wedding here at the hotel, the bride and groom each bring a shoe with the date of their wedding written on the soles, and they add it to the growing collection!"
The settlement of Waterval was established in 1896, with its railway station one of the stops on the route from Johannesburg to Durban. Today the old station is used as overflow accommodation for the hotel, mainly for backpackers, but trains still pass through the sleepy village several times a day. The town has its own unique symphony of sounds: between the whistling trains and old classics playing over the speakers in Smith Street you really feel like you've walked onto a movie set drenched in old world charm!
The town has a rich history that started before the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902), and the museum next to the hotel is filled with wonderfully preserved memorabilia from the era - some of the items were miraculously saved from the Brits by burying it for years and unearthing it again once the war was over. Rita's family has been residents of the town and surrounding area for six generations, and she has countless interesting stories to share, such as her great-great-(great?) grandfather who served on the Boer kommando at the age of 81 during the war!
Rita and her husband André bought the local hotel at an auction in 1994, and since expanded the grounds to include the old shop in 2002. Over weekends the town is brimming with visitors passing through in cars and on motorcycles (and sometimes bicycles!). The hotel and surrounding gardens is a magical setting that is often used for weddings and other small functions.
Rita and André got married 34 years ago in the little chapel of St Francis of Assisi that was built in 1964. The building was hit by lightning and destroyed by a fire in 1970 and rebuilt with the adjacent vestry in 1971. This little sandstone chapel with thatch roof is a charming representation of traditional church architecture adapted to local building methods, and was also my accommodation for the evening!
The following morning was pension day, which means I was lucky enough to also experience market day in Val - a real South African cultural experience! I bought lunch for the road for the total of R10, and so many smiling faces bid me farewell and a blessed journey that I couldn't help but smile myself as I cycled out of the town past the brimming dam, swollen with the recent rains.
I could carry on and on with stories and quirky facts about this little hamlet, but best you go and visit and see it for yourself! It is only a short drive from Johannesburg, and a wonderful place to break away and rediscover the tranquility of country life. Visit the Val Hotel Facebook page or website for details, and please tell me in the comments below if you've ever visited this magical corner of the world!